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Signs and Seals of Jesus Christ

A sermon on Belgic Confession Article 33 / Genesis 9.8-17


by Tim Gallant

Beloved family of Jesus Christ,

We celebrated the Lord's Supper this morning, and now, quite appropriately, we have reached the discussion in the Belgic Confession that deals with the sacraments. This evening, we will speak very generally regarding the sacraments, and then, Lord willing, we will move on in the next two or three weeks and deal more specifically with baptism and the Lord's Supper separately.

We confess that the sacraments are signs and seals of Christ to us. This evening we will consider three things about these signs and seals, and these three are so closely intertwined that I hope I can say this without too much repetition. First, the purpose intended by the sacraments; second, the power operative in the sacraments; and third, the person presented by the sacraments.

1. The sacraments are signs and seals of Christ to us. Consider first the purpose intended by the sacraments. Let's look again at that first long sentence in Article 33:

We believe that our gracious God, taking account of our weakness and infirmities, has ordained the sacraments for us, thereby to seal unto us His promises, and to be pledges of the good will and grace of God towards us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith; which He has joined to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses both that which He declares to us by His Word and that which He works inwardly in our hearts, thereby confirming in us the salvation which He imparts to us.

Our confession is saying that God makes Himself known in the sacraments, and they serve as pledges of His promises, His grace, and good will toward us, and that thereby they feed our faith.

We have some strong hints of these ideas in our passage in front of us. Most people don't call the rainbow a sacrament, and yet the language used here in Genesis 9 is very, very close to the language employed in Genesis 17 in connection with circumcision. The difference, of course, is that this "sacrament" is given at a time when all the ungodly have just been wiped out, and so it is a universal sign, not one that separates one group of people from all the rest.

So what is the situation here? The original creation has been "destroyed" by water. All human beings except eight have died. A great catastrophe; in comparison, Katrina was a summer breeze. The whole world underwater.

Think about being in that situation. The world takes on a whole new light, doesn't it? This had never happened before, and now the human race - what is left of it - is confronted with the power of God - the destructive power of God - in a way that it has never been confronted before. Talk about a reason to be nervous about the world you live in!

And what does God do? He says, "I'm not going to do this again." And He makes this a matter of covenant fidelity. Notice verse 11: "Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth."

"Never again," God says. But how can Noah and his family be so sure?

And it is in this context that God appoints a sign to pledge His good will and to evoke faith from human beings. He immediately says in verse 12, "This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations." It is the same language God uses in chapter 17, in connection with circumcision. The point of it is that God has made a kind and merciful promise, and He seals that promise with a sign that is public and unquestionable.

Even on a natural level, I think that we can all relate to the comfort of being told something publicly in a formal setting. It's one thing for the young man to tell the young lady privately - at a movie, say - that he loves her and always will. But it's quite another for him to get up in front of a gathering of people, place a ring on her finger, and solemnly swear to do so. Even in our culture, where so many vows are now broken, there is a great deal of significance in that.

But how much more for Noah, when God says: "Look, I'm committing Myself to you, to the creation. And here's how serious I am: I am pointing this bow in the sky, pointing it back at myself." It's like He's saying, "If I don't follow through, then may I be struck by an arrow from this bow."

That is a powerful assurance. You know that God is as good as His Word, and here He confirms it with this powerful sign, and it assures Noah's faith.

And the sacraments serve that way for us, as well. God encourages our faith through them. He says: "I know you have a hard time believing My promise at times, so I am making that promise visible, tangible, even. Believe Me."

2. The sacraments are signs and seals of Christ to us. Let's see, secondly, the power operative in the sacraments. Yes, power. It is not too strong a word, even though nowadays visible things are often despised. Notice the last two sentences of that first paragraph - about the last half of the paragraph:

For they - that is, the sacraments - are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means whereof God works in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the signs are not empty or meaningless, so as to deceive us. For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them, without whom they would be of no moment.

We are today very suspicious, very afraid of magic. And that is good. The sacraments are not magical. But there is a deep confusion; there is this thought that if we say that the sacraments can accomplish anything, then that must be a magical view somehow.

The early Reformers did not think that way at all, and neither does Scripture. Next week, Lord willing, we will be looking at baptism more closely, and we will see some of the very strong statements which the Bible uses to tell us what happens in baptism. Yes: something happens.

Now, we need to understand that power is not the same as magic. We need to understand that things happen all the time, yes, even with a ritual, and no magic is involved. I already mentioned one of these cases earlier. A young man and a young woman stand in front of a bunch of people, they exchange rings, exchange vows, and something happens. Think about it: it's just a ritual, isn't it? But 10 o'clock these are two single people, and at 10.30, or whatever, they are a married couple. Well? Was it magic? Not at all. This is just how marriage occurs. The ritual does not create love, but it is the way that the marriage takes place. Something happens.

That is what is insisted upon here. The confession says that the sacraments are "means" - or, in other words, instruments, whereby "God works in us by the power of the Holy Spirit." That is one reason why the sacraments have power: the power is not in the water of baptism, the power does not rest in some magical change in the elements of the Lord's Supper; rather, there is power because God Himself is working by His Spirit. That's what Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 12.12-13:

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free - and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

In other words, baptism, as much as it looks simply like a little thing we do, is in fact the work of the Spirit. We are not to look at the minister and think this is something the minister is doing. No, the Spirit is the author of the Church; the Spirit is the one who brings us to the baptismal font; and the Spirit is the one who seals us in baptism.

The confession goes on to say, "Therefore the signs are not empty or meaningless" - therefore, that is, since the Spirit is at work. But then a second reason why they are not empty or meaningless immediately follows: "For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them, without whom they would be of no moment."

We are already leaning very heavily now toward our final point, when we talk about the person presented by the sacraments, but at this point I want to focus for one more moment on why the sacraments can be described as "accomplishing something." It is because they do not point back to themselves.

I have heard people say: "Oh, you must not focus on baptism; you must focus on Jesus." And of course, that is true - if indeed baptism is something that is set over against Jesus. But that is not the way the Bible normally approaches things, is it? Think of Galatians 3.27, a verse I have mentioned on several occasions. Paul writes, "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Paul is encouraging the Galatians of what they already have, based upon the fact that they have been baptized into Christ. Now, isn't it rather silly to pit baptism against Christ?

If we were foolish enough to say that baptism is this magical act, and the water does some strange things once it splashes on your head, well, we would be justly charged with obscuring Christ. But of course, we do not do that, because the Bible does not do that. We keep pointing back to baptism, not because it is magical. We don't think that the ritual is turned in upon itself. If it were, it would indeed be "empty and meaningless," to borrow the language of Article 33. But no, we keep pointing back to baptism, because baptism points us back to Christ, and that is its power.

3. So now that we have already begun to speak of what the sacraments point to, we must move on to our final point. The sacraments are signs and seals of Christ to us. Consider, finally, the person presented in the sacraments. Here is that last sentence in the first paragraph once more: "For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them, without whom they would be of no moment."

The sacraments present Christ to us. This is true, even of the old covenant sacraments, as we may have noticed last week, when we were looking at 1 Corinthians 5. In 1 Corinthians 5.7[b], Paul says, "For indeed Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us." That of course is a reference to Jesus' death on the cross. Paul is saying that is the fulfillment of the rite of Passover that the people of God had been observing for some 1400 years. And if Christ can be called "our Passover," that certainly means that He was the "true object" presented by it. Passover looked beyond itself, beyond the lamb that had been slaughtered and offered up, and pointed all the way forward to Jesus Christ.

And if that is so with regard to an old covenant rite like Passover, which was engaged in long before Jesus was revealed, how much more is it the case with the sacraments of the new covenant, baptism and the Lord's Supper! These are not just nice religious things that we do; they present Christ to us. When we partook of the Lord's Supper this morning, there in that meal, Jesus was showing Himself to us and offering Himself to us.

This is so important, because I think we very easily fall into the trap of looking at the sacraments primarily as things that we do. They become a sort of "work." Baptism is where I commit myself. The Lord's Supper is where I get myself into a certain mental, emotional, and spiritual state. And I am not denying that there is commitment involved in baptism. But it is God's act which binds that commitment to us; He binds us to Himself, not the other way around, just as He binds Himself to us.

That is why Paul can speak of baptism in Galatians 3 the way he does, in the passage I mentioned earlier. Remember that the context is these Judaizers who are trying to get the Gentiles to become circumcised and observe the law of Moses. And Paul says, "No, you've been baptized." Well, he isn't pitting one human work over against another, you know. He is pitting Jesus over against every alternative, even if that alternative is the God-given law of Moses. That is the point of issue. Christ or the law. And it is in that context that he says: "All you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ."

It's about Jesus. If we don't get anything else in our heads about the sacraments, please, brothers and sisters, let us get this: It's about Jesus. It's about Jesus promising Himself to you, giving Himself to you, swearing to you that He is everything you need.

That is why I lay such stress upon the sacraments. Not because I think they are magical. Not because I am a "closet Romanist," as some people get charged with as soon as they say anything emphatic about baptism or the Lord's Supper.

But because I want to exalt Jesus, and I want us to recognize Him where He promises to show Himself. I want to tell you that you don't need to look here, you don't need to run there, you don't need another program, you don't need a dramatic "second blessing." You need to look to your baptism and see that Jesus gave Himself to you there, and He is all you need. Believe His promises that He has sealed to you in your baptism; believe His promises that He sealed to you this morning in the Lord's Supper. It's all about Jesus, and that's all you need.

Amen.

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