Defective Views of the Sacraments: Bare Memorialism

James Bannerman
The Church of Christ
pp. 528-536

Two parties holding extreme positions on either side of this question. There is one party who deny the grand and characteristic distinction between sacramental and other ordinances already enunciated, and hold that the Sacraments have no virtue except as badges of a Christian profession, and signs of spiritual truths. There is another party holding opinions on the subject admitting of various modifications, but agreeing in this, that they ascribe a high spiritual efficacy to the Sacraments apart from the faith or spiritual act of the receiver. By the first party the views of the Sacraments already stated by me are held to be erroneous in the way of attributing to them a greater virtue than actually belongs to them. By the second party these views are regarded as defective in the way of ascribing to Sacraments a less virtue than really belongs to them. Let us endeavour briefly and generally to estimate the merits and truth of the principles adopted by these two parties,—reserving until a future stage in our discussions the more particular examination of their theories, in their application to the Sacraments of the New Testament individually.

Error I. Bare Memorialism.

I. The Sacraments of the New Testament are regarded by one party as signs, and no more than signs, of spiritual things,—symbolical actions fitted to represent, and impress upon the minds of men, Gospel truths.


The Socinian party have made this doctrine peculiarly their own. According to their views, a federal transaction between the believer and Christ founded on His atonement is no part of the Gospel system at all; and hence the Sacraments of the New Testament can be no seals appointed and designed to ratify such a covenant. The Socinian doctrine concerning the nature of the Sacraments allows to them no more than a twofold object and design. They are not essentially distinct from other ordinances, as set apart by themselves to be the seals of the one great covenant between the believer and Christ, at his entrance into the Church at first, and from time to time afterwards, as occasion justifies or demands. But in the first place, they are signs in which something external and material is used to express what is spiritual and invisible,—the only virtue belonging to them being what they are naturally calculated to effect, as memorials, or illustrations, or exhibitions of the important facts and truths of the Gospel; and in the second place, the Sacraments are solemn pledges of discipleship on the part of those who receive them, discriminating them from other men, and forming a public profession of or testimony to their faith as Christians. These are the two grand objects, which, according to the Socinian view, the Sacraments were intended to serve; and such, according to their theory, is the nature of the ordinance.

Independents and Latitudinarians.

The same system in substance, making, as it does, Sacraments entirely or essentially teaching and symbolical signs, has been adopted by many who disown the tenets of Socinianism in regard to the Gospel system generally. The theory of the Sacraments now described has been and is held by not a few in the Church of England of somewhat latitudinarian views,—the representative of such, as a class, being Bishop Hoadly. It is avowed and advocated in the present day by a very large proportion of the Independent body, who count the Sacraments to be no more than symbolical institutions, and who are ably represented by Dr. Halley in his work, entitled, An Inquiry into the Nature of the Symbolic Institutions of the Christian Religion, usually called the Sacraments. The single difference between the Socinian doctrine, as maintained by Socinians in the present day, and the Independent doctrine, as maintained by Dr. Halley and others, is probably this, that Socinians limit the efficacy of the Sacraments to the natural or moral power that belongs to them as signs of Gospel truth, while Independents may admit that beyond the natural and moral power of the ordinance, as symbolical of truth, the Spirit of God makes use of them in representing truth to the mind. Let Dr. Halley speak his own views as they are generally held by English Independents:

The opinion we propose is, that the Sacraments are significant rites,—emblems of Divine truth,—sacred signs of the evangelical doctrine,—designed to illustrate, to enforce, or to commemorate the great and most important truths of the Gospel. Baptism, we believe, is the sign of purification, on being admitted into the kingdom of Christ, but neither the cause nor the seal of it; the Lord’s Supper the commemoration of the death of Christ, the symbol of its propitiatory character, but not the assurance of our personal interest in its saving benefits. The truth exhibited in the Sacraments, just as when it is propounded in words, may be the means of the communication of Divine grace; but then the evangelical doctrine and not the Sacrament, the truth and not the symbol, the spirit and not the letter, gives life and sanctity to the recipient, as it may even to a spectator.

According to this theory, it is the truth signified in the Sacrament—and not, over and above that, the Sacrament itself as a seal—that possesses any spiritual virtue; and that virtue may be, according to Socinians, the natural influence of the truth on the mind,—or, according to Independents, that natural influence, with the addition of the power communicated through the truth by the Spirit.

Statement of the Question.

Now, in reference to this view of the Sacraments, it is necessary to bear in mind that there is no dispute as to the fact that sacramental ordinances are symbolical,—signs fitted to represent and to teach Gospel truths. Further, there is no dispute as to the fact, acknowledged by some of the advocates of this theory, that in so far as they teach or convey truth to the mind, they may be made the means of the communication of Divine grace, in the same manner very much as when the truth is propounded in words. But the point in debate is, whether the Sacraments are not more than signs, and more than merely symbolical representations of truth. We hold that they are. We contend that, in addition to being signs, they are also seals,—the visible vouchers of a federal transaction between Christ and the believer who partakes of His Sacraments,—the outward pledges speaking to the eye and the senses of the completed covenant by which Christ becomes the believer’s, and the believer becomes Christ’s. And further, we contend that, as seals, they are made a means of grace more powerful and efficacious than simply as signs of truth.

The arguments urged by Dr. Halley against this additional office and virtue attributed to Sacraments as more than signs, and as the seals of a federal engagement between the worthy recipient and Christ, are the two following, as stated in his own words:

First, The ceremonial institutes of preceding dispensations, the Sacraments of the patriarchal and Jewish Church, correspond only with the view which we take of the Christian Sacraments as sacred signs of Divine truth. Second, The Sacraments considered as the causes or the means, or even the seals of converting or regenerating grace, stand opposed to the great Protestant doctrine of justification by faith without works.

We shall very briefly examine each of these two objections to the view which we have announced. And we do this all the more readily, as it will afford us the better opportunity of bringing out our own principles in contrast with those embodied in the Independent theory of the Sacraments.

Obj. 1. Old Testament Sacraments were bare memorials.

1st, Dr. Halley alleges, against the ascription to the New Testament Sacraments of the character of seals, that the ceremonial institutes of preceding dispensations, the Sacraments of the patriarchal and Jewish Church, correspond only with the views which he advocates of the Christian Sacraments as exclusively signs of Divine truth. Perhaps there never was a more unfortunate or unfounded assertion. “One passage of St. Paul,” says Dr. Halley, “will establish this proposition.” And the single passage which is to bear the weight of the whole argument is the following one from the Epistle to the Romans: “He is not a Jew which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:28-29). This is the solitary passage quoted to prove the broad and general assertion, that the Sacraments of the patriarchal and Jewish Church afford no precedent or example of Sacraments as seals, but only of Sacraments as signs. The verses quoted plainly amount to nothing more than a statement of the difference between what the apostle calls circumcision outwardly and circumcision inwardly, the external rite and the internal grace, and a declaration that a man might have the outward rite, and not the inward grace. The apostle does not say, and cannot, except by a violent misapplication of his words, be made to say, that in the case of the man who has both the outward and inward circumcision, the external rite may not be the visible seal of the spiritual grace. The very opposite of this the same apostle in the very same Epistle undeniably asserts. In language as plain as he could possibly select or employ, Paul affirms that in the case of Abraham, who had the inward grace, the outward rite of circumcision was a seal to him of that grace. “Abraham,” says the apostle, “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11).

And how is it that Dr. Halley gets rid of this express assertion of the apostle, standing as it does in explicit contradiction to his general averment that the Sacraments of the Jewish Church were signs and not seals? He admits that to Abraham personally and individually circumcision was a seal, and not merely a sign. But by a strange misapprehension of the doctrine of his opponents, he argues that it could not be a seal of faith to others of Abraham’s family or countrymen who had not his faith. “Although,” says Dr. Halley, “to him circumcision was the seal of faith, it could not have been so to his posterity.” “Was it,” he asks, “was it, in this sense, a seal of the righteousness which they had, an approval of their faith, to the men of his clan, or to Ishmael, or to the infants of his household, or to any of his posterity in subsequent ages?” The answer to such a question is abundantly obvious. If the men of Abraham’s clan had not faith, if Ishmael had not faith, circumcision could have been no seal of faith to them. The outward rite could not be a seal of the inward grace, when the latter did not exist. It could not be a seal of a spiritual covenant between them and God which had not been entered into.

I do not stop to consider the question of whether or not circumcision is to be accounted, even in such a case, the seal to such individuals of the outward blessings promised to them, as Jews, by God, as the rightful King of Israel as a nation; but, as a seal of a spiritual covenant, it of course could not be a seal at all to those who were not parties to the covenant,—while it was a seal, according to the explicit assertion of the apostle, to those who were. The very express statement of Paul cannot be evaded, but fully bears out the assertion that the Sacraments of the Jewish Church were not signs alone, but seals of a spiritual covenant to those who were really parties to the covenant. “Abraham received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had.

Obj. 2. The Reformed doctrine contradicts Justification by Faith alone.

2d, Dr. Halley alleges that the Sacraments, if they are considered as the cause or the means, or even the seals of spiritual and saving grace, would be opposed to the great Protestant doctrine of justification by faith without works. Now it is readily admitted, that if Sacraments are regarded as the causes or means of justification, they are utterly inconsistent with the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone; and in this point of view the objection is true and unanswerable when directed against some of those theories of the Sacraments which we may be called upon to consider by and by. But it is denied that the objection is true when directed against the theory of the Sacraments which maintains that they are not causes and not means of justification, but seals of it and of other blessings of the new covenant.

The Sacraments as seals, not causes of justification, cannot interfere with the doctrine of justification by faith, for this plain reason, that before the seal is added, the justification is completed. The seal implied in the Sacrament presupposes justification, and does not directly or instrumentally cause it; the seal is a voucher given to the believer that he is justified already, and not a means or a cause of procuring justification for him. Justification exists before the seal that attests it is bestowed. The believer has previously been “justified by faith without the works of the law,” ere the Sacrament of which he partakes can affix the visible seal to his justification. All this is abundantly obvious; and the objection of Independents, that the doctrine of the Sacraments as personal seals is opposed to the principle of justification by faith, is wholly without foundation.

That the Sacraments are a means of grace additional to what the believer possessed before his participation in them, it is not necessary to deny, but rather proper strongly to assert. In entering into a personal covenant with Christ through participation in the Sacraments, or in renewing that covenant from time to time, the faith of the believer is called forth and brought into exercise in the very act of participation, and by the aids to faith which the ordinance affords. And in answer to this faith so exercised and elicited, there is an increase of grace given to the worthy recipient above and beyond what he had before. The faith of the believer, called into exercise in partaking of the ordinance and by means of it, is met by the bestowment of corresponding grace. But it is never to be forgotten that the Sacraments presuppose the existence of grace, however they may give to him that already has it more abundantly. They presuppose, and beforehand require, that a man is justified by faith before they give their seal to his justification.


There is no ground, then, in Scripture, but the very opposite, for asserting that the Sacraments are no more than signs or symbolical actions, as held by Dr. Halley and those whom on this question he represents. The fundamental error involved in the views now adverted to is, the denial of Christ’s part in the federal transaction involved in a Sacrament. Independents overlook His department of the work in the engagement entered into through means of the act of receiving the Sacraments; and in the absence of the act of Christ giving Himself and all His spiritual blessings to the believer in the ordinance, the act of the recipient is not met by the grace that Christ confers, but is reduced to a mere significant dedication of himself to the Saviour unconnected with any grace at all. Take away Christ from the ordinance as present there, to covenant with the believer, actually giving Himself and His blessings spiritually through means of the outward ordinance, in answer to the faith of the believer giving himself to Christ through the same ordinance, and the Sacrament is evacuated of all spiritual grace; the act of the receiver becomes a mere expressive sign of what he is willing to do in the way of dedicating himself to Christ; but not an actual dedication, accomplished through means of a covenant then and there renewed, by which the believer becomes Christ’s, and Christ becomes the believer’s.

The principle of the Independents in regard to the Sacraments cuts the Sacrament, as it were, in twain, and puts asunder what God has joined. It leaves to the believer his part in the transaction, in so far as he employs the Sacrament as a sign of his dedication to Christ; but it takes away Christ’s part in the transaction, in so far as He meets with the believer and enters into covenant with him,—accepting the believer as His, and giving Himself to the soul in return. Severed from Christ in the ordinance, and from the covenant with His people into which Christ there enters, the act of the recipient can be no more than an expressive sign, or convenient profession of faith, unconnected with true and proper sacramental grace.


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