Monday, December 20, 2010

'Mere Signs'?

Our Lutheran brethren often complain that we Calvinists view the Sacraments as "mere signs". Now, I grant that there are Calvinists who are actually Zwinglians in their view of the sacraments, and see them as only memorials. But this is not the Calvinistic doctrine. The Westminster Confession describes the sacraments as "Holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace," and adds that "there is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified."

This is the way it is with signs. The illustration is a road sign warning drivers that there may be children playing in the area. As it is, on a pole beside the road, the sign is not a 'mere sign', but conveys information about a possible danger. Take the sign, old and attractive as it is, and put it in a transport museum, and you do have a mere sign - it has been taken out of its proper context and no longer signifies anything. Take an example where the sign and the thing signified are always together, the speed limit. If a man is driving along a road and sees a round sign with a red border and the number 30 in the middle, he may say "it is just a sign", but if he drives fastyer that 30mph, he has broken the law, and if there's a speed camera in the area, he is going to find out that was no mere sign! So a sign, if it is actually in use, is never a mere sign, but a sign of a present reality.
So it is with the sacraments. In the Lord's Supper God is speaking to us, and conveying Christ's blessings to believing hearts. Therefore we sing with Mr. Spurgeon, "Amidst us our Beloved stands." The elements are not memorials of an absent Christ, but signs of a present Christ, known by faith. In baptism, God speaks to the one baptised assuring that person of his interest in Christ - again, to faith. Faith receives the blessings of the sacraments, and unbelief does not.


Predestined said...

The sign on the road is still not the children, or the road for that matter.

But, I appreciate your view!

Highland Host said...

Well, exactly, the sign is neither the road nor the children - a sign is not the thing signified. It is however, if in use, intimately linked to the thing signified, so that the two are not the same, yet not divided. This is the distinction between the Roman Catholic and Reformed view - in the RC view the bread and wine are not signs, but actually BECOME the body, blood and divinity of Christ.