What Is A Sacrament?

William Attersoll
Badges of Christianity
Book 1, ch. 2, pp. 13-26.

In every treatise and discourse, it is necessary first to know whether a thing be, before we consider what it is. We have heard before, that there are Sacraments and ever have been in the Church of God. Now then let us consider what they are, that first the matter handled, may be defined. For in vain we shall reason and speak of the Sacraments, unless we understand what a Sacrament is. But before we set down any description of it, it shall not be amiss to speak some what of the word. The name in so many letters and syllables, is not indeed in the Scripture, no more than the words Trinity, catholic, consubstantial, and such like, which being generally received are not to be rejected, seeing the doctrine contained under them agreeth with the Scripture, and nothing by them is added to the Scripture. Now as the fathers of the Greek Church called these holy rites by name of Mysteries, because the substance of them was only known to the members of the Church, and hidden from others: so the ancient teachers of the Latin Church, called them Sacraments, in respect of the affinity and nearness between them and a Sacrament.

A Sacrament, properly, is the Soldier’s oath: Metaphorically, the Church’s band binding them to God.

For a Sacrament properly is that solemn oath in war, by which soldiers, bound themselves to their chief captain. Such a regard had the old Romans in the discipline of their wars, that it was not lawful for any to kill an enemy, or enter into the battle to fight, unless he were sworn a soldier. So when we are partakers of these holy signs which God hath appointed in his Church, by which he bestoweth upon us spiritual gifts, we do bind our selves to him, we profess openly his true religion, we vow to fight under his banner against our enemies: so that they are testimonies and tokens of the covenant between God and us, that he is our God, and we bind our selves to be his people, to serve him and no other god. So circumcision was a seal of God’s promise to Abraham, and a seal of Abraham’s faith and obedience toward God. By them man is bound to God, and God vouchsafeth to bind himself to man. Wherefore, the word Sacrament, being translated from the camp to the Church, from the soldier to a Christian, from a civil use to an holy, let us see in this sense and signification what it is.

A Sacrament Considered Two Ways: Generally & Properly.

Now, the word being borrowed from war, is taken two ways: first in a general signification, and may comprehend all manner of signs, whether natural, or miraculous, or voluntary, which God commanded men to use, to assure them of the undoubted truth of his promise: as when he gave to Adam in the Garden, the tree of life to be a pledge of his immortality, the rainbow to Noah and his posterity; sometimes he gave them miraculous signs, as light in a smoking furnace to Abraham; the fleece wet, the earth being dry, and the earth wet, the fleece being dry, to Gideon: to promise and perform victory to Gideon. In this large acceptation of the word, we do not entreat of the Sacraments: we speak properly of those which God hath left to be ordinary in his Church, to be seals of our communion with Christ, and of the righteousness which is by faith.

What a Sacrament is.

A Sacrament thus considered is a visible sign and seal ordained of God, whereby Christ and all his saving graces by certain outward rites are signified, exhibited, and sealed up unto us. In this description, we are to consider these three things. First the whole kind or general: secondly, the cause or author thereof, and lastly the use of this doctrine delivered.

I. The General Doctrine.

Touching the first, whereas it is said that a Sacrament is a visible sign and seal, this is proved and confirmed in sundry places of the Scripture as Gen. 17 speaking of circumcision, (he saith) “It shall be a sign, of the covenant between me and thee.” And Rom. 4, speaking of Abraham (he saith) “he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness of faith.” Indeed a sign and a seal differ one from another, as the general from the especial: for every seal is a sign, but every sign is not a seal. A seal certifieth, assureth, and confirmeth a thing: a sign only sheweth it: but a Sacrament doth both. It is a sign to signify and represent: a seal to ratify and assure: an instrument to confer and convey Christ with all his benefits to them that truly believe in him: a pledge unto us of God’s promises: a visible word, and as a notable glass wherein we may behold assured testimonies of God’s eternal favour, and of the riches of his grace which he bestoweth upon us.

This teacheth us to acknowledge, there is more in the Sacraments than is seen with the eyes, or felt with the hands: and therefore we must not conceive unreverently of them, nor come negligently unto them, making them mere carnal and outward things: but we must think reverently, speak soberly, receive humbly and penitently these holy mysteries. Again, hereby we are brought to believe the promises of God: for if the Sacraments be not only signs of his favour but seals of our faith, can we doubt of his mercy and good meaning toward us, having left such pawns and pledges thereof with us, that we might have assured comfort and comfortable assurance of salvation and eternal life. Is it not among men matter of assurance, and a note of true dealing, to have a pledge left with us? But behold God hath left unto us two pawns of his promises, as it were an earnest-penny that our faith should not waver. If then his alone word be all sufficient, having a noble addition of the Sacraments, as of his seals, let us believe his promises, and in all tentations rest upon them with all confidence and consolation.

II. Sacraments were Instituted of God Alone.

Secondly, it is said a Sacrament is a divine ordinance. Not any Angel or Archangel, not any Prince or Prelate, but only God himself is the author and ordainer of all holy signs and Sacraments. This appeareth by many witnesses out of the word of God, “I have set my bow in the cloud, and is shall be for a sign of the covenant between me and the earth: and when I shall cover the earth with a cloud, and the bow shall be seen in the cloud, then will I remember my covenant which is between me and you.” Where we see, that when God determined to be merciful unto the world, and never to drown the same with water again as he had drowned it, he gave them a sign of his promise, to wit, “His bow in the clouds.” When God would witness and stablish to Abraham and his seed after him the promise of his mercy, he ordained a Sacrament to confirm the same, Gen. 17, “This is my covenant which ye shall keep between me and you, let every man child among you be circumcised.” And the Apostle saith, “I have received of the Lord that which I have delivered unto you.” And Christ himself instituted Baptism, and sent forth his disciples to preach the Gospel. All these testimonies as a cloud of witnesses do confirm us in this truth, that none hath power and authority in the Church to institute a Sacrament, but God only. And the reasons are apparent:

First, the Sacraments belong to the service and worship of God: now it resteth not in man to appoint and prescribe a service of God, but to retain and embrace that which is taught by him, “For in vain they worship him, teaching for doctrines men’s precepts.” Again; the Sacramental signs have God’s promises annexed unto them, confirming us in the same, which they could not do, but by the blessing and benefit of him that promiseth: so that God only is able to bestow grace, and he alone can appoint true signs of grace. For as he only hath authority to seal the charter and pardon, in whose jurisdiction it is to grant it: so likewise God giveth the pledges and tokens of his grace which sheddeth the graces of the Spirit into our hearts. Wherefore, the reverent Sacraments of the Church, none can institute by his authority, but only God: and hence it is, that the signs have the names of the things signified. None but Christ himself could say of the bread, “This is my body;” none but he could say of the cup, “This cup is the new testament in my blood;” none but he, breathing on his Apostles, could say, “Receive the Holy Ghost;” none but he could make the water in Baptism to be the laver of regeneration.

Let us see what good and profitable uses arise from this doctrine.

Use 1. Sacramental efficacy does not depend upon the piety or intention of the minister.

First, if the Sacraments be the ordinances of God, then they depend not on the worthiness or unworthiness, fitness or unfitness, vices or virtues of the minister: but all the efficacy and force hangeth on the holy institution of Christ Jesus. The minister’s impiety and wickedness maketh not a nullity of the Sacrament, neither hindereth the fruit of the worthy receiver, no more than the piety and godliness of a faithful minister can profit an unworthy receiver. Indeed, the Church must endeavour, that they be clean which bear the bessels of the Lord (Isa. 52:11), and that the ministers thereof may be holy and unblamable, according to the Apostle’s rule (1 Tim. 3:2), but we must not measure the profit of the receiver, by the person of the minister. If a thief do steal a sack of corn, we see if he sow it, it groweth up and bringeth forth increase, because the fault resteth not in the seed which is good, but in the sower which is evil: so doth the Sacrament profit the faithful, howsoever he be unfaithful that doth administer it. We see if the seedman have foul, filthy, and unclean hands that soweth, yet if the seed be clean, sweet, and fair, it prospereth: so the holy things of God cannot be defiled by the corrupt and sinful life of the minister, who delivereth nothing of his own, but dispenseth the ordinances of God.

Evil Ministers may deliver the good things of God.

Thus we see, that whether the minister be good or evil, godly or without godliness, an heretic or a catholic, an idolater or a true worshipper of God, the effect is all one, the worthiness of the Sacrament dependeth not on man, but proceedeth from God, and therefore all such as contemn the Sacraments of God for the sacrilege of man, shall bear their condemnation whosoever they are. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were exceeding sinners against the Lord (1 Sam. 2:22-23), yet because the people of Israel abhorred the sacrifices of God, and trode his worship under their feet, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the whole land, and he denounced sore judgements against them (1 Sam. 6:11). So then, the offence of the Priest, was no defense of the people: but as the Priests gave the offence, and the people took it, so God bound them together in the same judgement. So we must know, God will not bear the contempt of his ordinances under any pretense whatsoever of the ministers wickedness and unworthiness, if his hand be corrupt, let thy heart be uncorrupt; though his sins be his own, yet the Sacraments be God’s; he may minister comfort to thee, though he bring none to himself.

As the workmen that built the Ark prepared a means to save others but were drowned themselves, or as the bells though they move not themselves yet serve to bring others to the exercises of religion, or as the Scribes that pointed the way to the Wisemen, but themselves vouchsafed not to step out of doors to enquire after Christ. The ears of corn do carry the corn with the chaff to be purged and cleansed in the barn, and though the chaff be unprofitable, yet it profiteth the corn, as the lantern holdeth the candle to give light unto others that are the passengers. As gold is gold, of whomsoever it is given and received, so the Sacrament is truly a Sacrament, whether it be given of a good or evil minister—so it is with the Word of God. This appeareth by the words of Christ our Saviour, “The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do: but after their works do not, for they say and do not” (Mat. 23:2-3). Albeit then, the Scripture condemneth such as give offences, yet such as take offence are not thereby justified; let us magnify the ordinances of God, and then we may expect a blessing at his hands. This is that which the Apostle teacheth, “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase: So then, neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Wherefore, the people of God, notwithstanding the wickedness and unworthiness of the ministers, may safely and with a good conscience use their ministry, both hearing the Word from their mouths, and receiving the Sacraments at their hands. And both of them are effectual and available unto salvation, neither do they defile themselves by their corruption.

Objection and Answer.

The Donatists in former times, and the Anabaptists in our days, teach that such scandalous ministers as give offence can profit us nothing at all, nor further our salvation, nor do us any good, and that being defiled themselves by their sins, they defile also the Sacraments. Hereunto they bring the saying in the law of Moses, “Whatsoever the unclean person toucheth, shall be unclean: and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even” (Num. 19:22). Likewise they allege the words of Haggai the Prophet, “If a man bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? The Priests answered and said, No. Then said Haggai, If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, shall it be unclean? The Priests answered, It shall be unclean: So is this people, and so is this Nation before me, saith the LORD, and so is every work of their hands, and that which they offer there is unclean.” (Hag. 2:12-14). Therefore whensoever the ministers are polluted with vices, they do pollute and profane whatsoever they handle.

I answer, these words are corrupted and depraved by these heretics. The Prophet saith not by way of application, so do you pollute the Sacraments and sacrifices of the people, but the drift of the place is to shew unto us that our works are polluted and abominable in the sight of almighty God, and utterly rejected of him, except they proceed from the fountain of a pure heart and faith unfeigned. So that albeit they be in their nature never so good, yet if we be unclean and impure, we make them all impure to ourselves. I say, to ourselves but not to others. For why should they bear the blame of our impurity? Or why should they be punished for our iniquity? The Apostle speaking of the Lords Supper saith, “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Lords body” (1 Cor. 11:29), he cannot eat and drink judgment to other men, but he may to himself. Likewise, the same Apostle writing to Titus saith, “Unto the pure all things are pure, but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving, is nothing pure: but even their mind and conscience is defiled” (Tit. 1:15). No man can defile the Sacraments to others, but only to himself, forasmuch as they take their nature and borrow their force from God, not from men. And therefore are not to be esteemed by the vice or virtue of the Minister, but by the power and virtue of God.

If a Prince should send us a pardon by his letters, patens, and deliver them into the hand of a wicked man, as God sent Judas the son of perdition to the Children of Israel, to preach unto them that the Kingdom of God was at hand: would we refuse the pardon because of the wickedness of the messenger? Or may we think it to be less forcible and available, because he is an ungodly person? Woe then unto those that bring in again the damnable doctrine and practice of the Donatists, long since buried and shaken in pieces, who make a schism in the church, and depart out of the church for the faults and offences of the ministers. Because we are not baptized into the names of the ministers, neither are made partakers of the supper of the ministers, but we are baptized in the name of God, and we are made partakers of the Supper of the Lord. They are therefore their own enemies, that look too much upon the messenger, and too little upon him that sendeth him unto us.

Use 2. No one may add or remove a Sacrament.

Secondly, is God the true and only author and appointer of Sacraments? Then none must add unto, or take from the Sacraments instituted by him in the Church, no more than unto the Word itself. “Ye shall put nothing to the word which I command you, neither shall ye take ought there from, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you” (Deut. 4:2). And Rev. 22:18-19, “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall diminish of the words of the book of this prophesy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life.” If the Sacraments were the inventions of men, they might also fitly receive the additions and subtractions, the changes and the alterations of men, but seeing they are the ordinances of God, we must be content to have them ordered by God. All ceremonies therefore and rites invented by men, as parts of God’s worship, are so many abominations and innovations of his service. As God only can graciously promise, so he can only effectually perform what he hath promised. Wherefore, we must condemn those as guilty of rebellion against God, that boldly break out either to devise new Sacraments, or to add and detract from them that God hath ordained. We are commanded to rest in those that he hath appointed to the Church in his word: for as well we may devise a new word, as deliver a new Sacrament. As well we may coin a new article of faith, as bring in a new confirmation of faith.

Use 3. Neglect of the Sacraments is a grievous sin.

Thirdly, we learn hereby, that they which condemn the Sacraments, and will not suffer them to be of any force with themselves: and making small account of them do esteem them as trifles, or otherwise abuse them contrary to the institution, will, and commandment of Christ: all these do grievously sin, not against man, but against the author of them, that is God who hath ordained them, and greatly endanger their own salvation, as 1 Cor 11:29, “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh his own judgement, because he discerneth not the Lord’s body.” If a man contemn or any way contumeliously abuse the seal of a Prince, he is punished: and therefore such as scorn and make a mock of the Sacraments, which are the seals of God, cannot go scot-free, but shall be indicted of high treason against his majesty.

III. The Purpose of the Sacraments.

The last point to be considered in the description of a Sacrament is the end of them, where it is added, whereby Christ and all his saving graces by certain outward rites are signified, exhibited, and sealed up to us. This is proved directly, “the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). So Peter speaketh of the other Sacrament, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). And Paul saith in another place, “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Our souls are washed in the blood of Christ: his death, his resurrection, his sanctification, his wisdom, his righteousness, his redemption is made ours, all his benefits are ours, as Christ is ours.

Let us make use of this point, and apply it to ourselves.

Use 1. The Sacraments are not bare and naked signs.

First, is Christ the sum and substance of all Sacraments? Then the Church of Rome is here condemned, that say we make the Sacraments bare and naked signs. God forbid that we should say so, or make them to be so: they are the sure seals of God’s promises, heavenly tokens, spiritual signs, and authentic pledges of the grace, and righteousness of Christ given and imputed unto us. The Sacraments and sacrifices of the Old Testament were not bare signs. Circumcision was not a bare sign, “This is not circumcision which is outward in the flesh but the circumcision of the heart” (Rom. 2:28-29). And “in Christ ye are circumcised with circumcision made without hands, by putting off the sinful body of the flesh, through the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11-12). Even so Baptism is no bare sign, it were great blasphemy so to speak: it were very great iniquity so to think. The grace of God doth work with his Sacraments, and therefore the signs are never received in vain of the faithful and worthy receiver. The water washeth not from sin, the bread and wine feed not to eternal life, but it is the precious blood of Christ that doth cleanse us from all sin, and purchaseth for us all grace, which is the life and the truth of the outward signs.

Use 2. Christ is offered to all, but received only by the faithful.

Again, is Christ Jesus offered by God the Father in the right use of the Sacraments? Then God doth not deceive or delude those that come unto them. If any that come to the Sacraments, depart without grace, without Christ, without fruit, the cause is in themselves, the fault is not in God, for  he offereth Christ to all, even to the unfaithful, but they have not hands to receive him. If a Prince should offer a rich present, and he, to whom it is offered, have no hand to receive it, he goeth away empty. When the sun giveth light upon the earth, if men shut their eyes and be willfully blind, they receive no profit by it. When God offereth himself and his graces to us by his Word and Gospel, if we stop our ears and harden our hearts, it turneth to be the savour of death to death: so is it in the Sacraments. When we come to them, God doth not feed our eyes with naked, vain, and idle shews, but joineth the truth with the outward token, and giveth the grace signified with the sign. If we bring the hand of faith with us, which openeth the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven for us, Christ is both offered and given to us. But howsoever the sign be always inseparably joined with the grace, that is signified, in respect of God: yet hence it followeth not that both of them are of all received. For the outward sign is offered to the hand, to the senses, and instruments of the body, which because all bring with them, all are partakers of the outward parts. But Christ, who is signified by the sign, is offered to the soul and faith of the receiver (2 Thes. 3:2), which because many want, they lose the fruit of their work, and the benefit of their labour.

Use 3. Ungodly partakers do not defile the Sacraments for the godly.

Thirdly, if the right receivers, receive Christ, and with him all saving graces needful to eternal life: then the presence of ungodly men, that come to the same Sacrament with us and meet us at the same table, cannot hinder and hurt us in our worthy receiving. The unbelievers and unrepentant persons come indeed into the assembly of the faithful, to hear the word of God read, preached, and expounded, and as they come without faith, so they depart without fruit: yet their company defileth not the saving hearer. So is it in the Sacraments I confess it were to be wished, that the Church were pure without spot, and perfect without blemish, and they even cut off that trouble the same (Gal. 5:12), yet sometimes it wanteth that good and godly severity which is required, to separate such as may infect with the leaven of their life and doctrine (Rev. 2:14 & 20).

Again, as the faith of the wise and worthy receiver, cannot sanctify the conscience of the hypocrite and offensive: so the infidelity or iniquity of another, shall not bar the faithful soul from fruitful receiving to his salvation, according to that saying, “The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezek. 18:20). Every one is to prove and examine himself, not to enter into the consciences and conversations of other men: we shall give an account to our own ways and works, not of the deformities of others which we cannot reform and redress.

Private men are not to meddle with the censures of the church.

Furthermore, as in an army every man hath his standing, so in the Church every man hath his calling: it is not in the power of private persons, but of the Governors of the Church to draw out the censures of the Church against notorious offenders, and therefore in their slacking and negligence, the people must tolerate that which they cannot amend, or make a separation or rent in the Church, as the manner of some is, disturbing the peace and quietness thereof.

Use 4. The Sacraments must be reverently esteemed.

Fourthly, if Christ be offered, given, and sealed up to us in the Sacraments: then the Sacraments must be holden of us in great price and estimation, for their profits sake, not lightly to be regarded, but reverently to be esteemed. They that respect Christ in whom the treasures of all graces are laid up, must regard the Sacraments of Christ: and such as reject them, reject Christ with all his benefits, which who so doth, sinneth against his own soul.

Use 5. The Sacraments are signs, not causes, of grace.

Lastly, if they be signs and seals of grace offered: then the Sacraments make not a Christian, no more than the seal giveth the purchase or possession. The faithful and the children of the faithful are true Christians, differing from Pagans and Heathen before they be baptized. And whosoever is not a Christian before he receive baptism, baptism can make him none, which is only the seal of the graces of God and his privileges before received. The Word of God and the Sacraments of God are both of one nature, but the Word is not able to confer grace, but only to declare and publish what God will confer, in as much as to some it is the savor of death to death (2 Cor. 2:16). Therefore also the Sacraments of themselves do not confer and bestow grace, having it tied unto them, or shut up in them. For if the Sacraments did actually and effectually give grace, by inherent power and virtue in themselves: it would follow from hence, that every person baptized is certainly saved and hath his sins remitted, or else that his sins remitted may return and remain and be again imputed. But when God graciously pardoneth sin, he remembereth it no more (Ezek. 18:22). Again we see Abraham was not justified by his circumcision, he was justified by his faith, for “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6), and afterward he received circumcision, to be the sign and seal of his justification (Rom. 4:10-11).

Notwithstanding, the Sacraments may be said to confer the grace of regeneration and remission of sins, as they are instruments used of God, and as they are pledges and tokens to us. They are means to offer and exhibit to the believer, Christ with all his benefits, whereby the conscience is assured of comfort and salvation, as the Prince’s letters are said to save the life of a malefactor, whereas they only signify to him and others, that it is the Prince’s pleasure to shew favour. Again, they may not unfitly be said to give us grace, because the sign exhibiteth the thing signified—the outward washing of the body is a pledge and token of the grace of God so that whosoever useth the sign aright, shall receive forgiveness and life everlasting.


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