Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

sacraments (Main)

Sacramental theology primer

According to traditional Christian language dating from Augustine, the sacraments are “visible words.” Or perhaps better, they are “enacted Word.” The sacraments are not merely visible; they are ritual actions. The sacrament of baptism, for example, does not consist in water, but in the action of placing water upon the body, in association with an act of speech (“I baptize you in[to] the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Hoy Spirit”). Sacraments are therefore not only seen; they are experienced as activity.

Classically, the sacraments have also been identified as “signs and seals,” drawing from Romans 4.11. Yet, this language is not wholly transparent, because both “sign” and “seal” can be understood in radically differing ways. For example, some recent theologians have compared the sacraments to stop signs. Used in this way, the sign function is wholly symbolic and nothing more.

In Scripture, however, signs are frequently associated with “wonders” and “miracles.” A “sign” is not usually a mere pointer, symbolizing something radically other from the sign; the sign is itself an “instance” or embodiment of the truth and power of God. Thus when Jesus performed “signs of the kingdom,” these acts were more than symbolic pictures pointing to something else; they were themselves embodiments of the kingdom which had come in Himself. Jesus’ healings, for example, were not only “symbols” of the kingdom; they were gifts of that kingdom.

The sacraments are reminders - signs! - that God did not create us as disembodied minds. His self-communication to us goes beyond propositional statements which we can intellectually assimilate and analyze. Redemption entails the hope of the resurrection of the body and the advent of the new heavens and new earth. Thus the ritual actions involving bread and wine and water are not merely portraits of some “spiritual” reality; they function as gifts of the coming kingdom.

The sacraments, then, are not merely “food for the mind to digest.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of infant baptism - a rite which the infant cannot intellectually appreciate, and will not literally remember. The sacraments are God’s actions toward us, by which He incorporates us and renews us in the covenantal salvation He promises His people.


Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

J. B. Adger: “Calvin Defended Against Drs. Cunningham and Hodge.” A 19th-century defense of John Calvin against Presbyterian reductions in Calvin's robust sacramental theology.

John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Ford Lewis Battles, trans.; John T. McNeill, ed. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960 [1559].) Simply put: classic argumentation regarding the sacraments.

John Calvin: Theological Treatises. Library of Christian Classics, vol. XXII. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964.) A collection of many of Calvin’s most important theological works, although some have been edited for length. Valuable and surprising in many respects. If you can find it, get it.

John Calvin: Treatises on the Sacraments.

Tim Gallant: “Word and Sacrament: Evaluating a Mantra.” There is a widespread claim that sacraments can do nothing other than what the Word does. This brief article questions what is really meant by the claim.

Mark Horne: “The Westminster Standards and Sacramental Efficacy.” Argues that the Westminster Standards do not treat the sacraments as mere symbols, but as means by which God acts in grace.

Michael Scott Horton: In the Face of God: The Dangers and Delights of Spiritual Intimacy. (Dallas: Word, 1996.) Horton argues that part of recovering the gospel of Christ’s work for us entails a renewal of full appreciation for the objective value of the sacraments, over against fixation with private, subjectivistic experience.

Michael Scott Horton: “Mysteries of God and Means of Grace.” Modern Reformation (May/June 1997).

Peter Leithart: “Conjugating the Rites: Old and New in Augustine's Theory of Signs.” Calvin Theological Journal 34 (1999): 136-147.

Peter Leithart: “Embracing Ritual: Sacraments as Rites.” Calvin Theological Journal (October 2004).

Peter Leithart: “‘Framing’ Sacramental Theology: Trinity and Symbol.” Westminster Theological Journal 62 (2000): 1-16.

Peter Leithart: “More on Signs and Symbols.” Credenda Agenda 15-3 (online).

Peter Leithart: “Old and New in Sacramental Theology New and Old.” Pro Ecclesia (forthcoming).

Peter Leithart: “Sacramental Efficacy.” Helps formulate an efficacious view of the sacraments by underscoring their ecclesiological function.

Peter Leithart: “Visible Words.” Credenda Agenda 15-4 (online).

Peter Leithart: “What is a Sacrament?”

Peter Leithart: “Why Sacraments?”

Peter Leithart: “Why Sacraments are not Means of Grace.” Credenda Agenda 15-1 (online).

Peter Leithart: “Why Sacraments are not Signs” Credenda Agenda 15-2 (online).

Ronald S. Wallace: Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.) An important study of Calvin’s writings, showing that Calvin’s robust view of Word and sacrament centers upon the theme of union with Christ. An indispensable entry into the original sources, and easy reading too!


[A sacrament is] a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward Him.

- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.14.1

For if we were incorporeal (as Chrysostom says), He would give us these very things naked and incorporeal. Now, because we have souls engrafted in bodies, He imparts spiritual things under visible ones.

- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.14.3