Sacraments sign and seal the covenant of grace, tangibly representing the promises of God and confirming our faith. They make the spiritual truths of the gospel alive to our senses, providing us as embodied creatures with helps for knowing and continuing in the Lord’s grace. We are so connected to the physical world that we often have trouble grasping unseen spiritual realities. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are God’s gifts to us to assist us in understanding and believing spiritual truths.
As helpful as the sacraments are for conveying truth about the world we cannot see with our physical senses, we must be clear that the mere actions involved in administering water, bread, and wine do not in themselves explain or depict anything. That is to say, without the Word of God, the sacraments are empty signs. We need to hear words from our Creator—the words of institution given for the sacraments and the preaching of His special revelation—so that the sacraments have something to sign and seal.
First and foremost, the sacraments are about what God does, and God works salvation in His people through the preaching and teaching of His Word. The Apostle Paul writes, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Along the same lines, the Apostle Peter asserts, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts not primarily through the sacraments but through the faithful preaching of His Word. Without the Word, the sacraments do not have anything to sign and have no promises to seal on our hearts.
God’s promises always accompany His institution of sacraments. In Genesis 17, for example, the Lord’s pledge to be God to Abraham and His descendants is given alongside the command to circumcise. Paul in today’s passage gives us the words of Christ in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. In telling us to eat of the bread and drink of the cup, Jesus affirmed His giving of His life for our salvation. Sacraments are important, even vital, for the spiritual health and nurture of God’s people, but the preaching of God’s Word has a certain priority. The Word of God gives us something for our faith to latch onto, and the sacraments confirm tangibly that which is promised in the Word, encouraging us to keep clinging to God’s promises.