The Efficacy of the Sacraments | William Perkins

William Perkins
Reformed Catholic, Works VII, pp. 134-138
Of the Efficacy of the Sacraments

I. Our Consent

Conclusion 1. We teach and believe that the sacraments are signs to represent Christ with His benefits unto us.
Conclusion 2. We teach further, that the sacraments are indeed instruments whereby God offers and gives the foresaid benefits unto us. Thus far we consent with the Roman Church.

II. The Difference

The difference between us [i.e. Roman Catholics and the Reformed] stands in sundry points:

1. First of all, the best learned among them teach that sacraments are physical instruments, that is, true and proper instrumental causes, having force and efficacy in them to produce and give grace. They use to express their meaning by these comparisons: “When the scrivener takes the pen into his hand and writes, the action of writing comes from the pen moved by the hand of the writer. And in cutting of wood or stone, the division comes from the saw moved by the hand of the workman. Even so the grace,” say they, “that is given by God, is conferred by the sacrament itself.” Now we for our parts hold that sacraments are not physical, but mere voluntary instruments. Voluntary, because it is the will and appointment of God to use them as certain outward means of grace. Instruments, because when we use them aright, according to the institution, God then answerably confers grace from Himself. In this respect only take we them for instruments and not otherwise.

2. The second difference is this: They teach that the very action of the minister dispensing the sacraments—as it is the work done—gives grace immediately, if the party be prepared; as the very washing or sprinkling of water in baptism and the giving of bread in the Lord’s Supper; even as the orderly moving of the pen upon the paper by the hand of the writer causes writing. We hold the contrary, namely, that no action in the dispensation of a sacrament confers grace as it is a work done, that is, by the efficacy and force of the very sacramental action itself, though ordained of God. But for two other ways: First, by the signification thereof. For God testifies unto us His will and good pleasure partly by the Word of promise and partly by the sacrament; the signs representing to the eyes that which the Word does to the ears, being also types and certain images of the very same things that are promised in the Word and no other. Yes, the elements are not general and confused, but particular signs to the several communicants and by the virtue of the institution. For when the faithful receive the signs from God by the hands of the minister, it is as much as if God Himself—with His own mouth—should speak unto them severally, and by name promise to them remission of sins. And things said to them particularly do more affect, and more take away doubting, than if they were generally spoken to a whole company. Therefore, signs of graces are, as it were, an applying and binding of the promise of salvation to every particular believer. And by this means, the oftener they are received, the more they help our infirmity and confirm our assurance of mercy.

Again, the sacrament confers grace in that the sign thereof confirms faith as a pledge, by reason it has a promise annexed to it. For when God commands us to receive the signs in faith, and withal promises to the receivers to give the thing signified, He binds Himself, as it were, in bond unto us, to stand to His own Word; even as men bind themselves in obligations, putting to their hand and seals so as they cannot go back. And when the signs are thus used as pledges, and that often, they greatly increase the grace of God as a token sent from one friend to another renews and confirms the persuasion of love. There are the two principal ways whereby the sacraments are said to confer grace, namely, in respect of their signification and as they are pledges of God’s favor unto us. And the very point here to be considered is in what order and manner they confirm. And the manner is this: The signs and visible elements affect the senses outwardly and inwardly. The senses convey their object to the mind. The mind, directed by the Holy Ghost, reasons on this manner, out of the promise annexed to the sacrament: He that uses the elements aright shall receive grace thereby. “But I use the elements aright in faith and repentance,” says the mind of the believer, “therefore shall I receive from God increase of grace.” Thus then, faith is confirmed, not by the work done, but by a kind of reasoning caused in the mind, the argument or proof whereof is borrowed from the elements, being signs and pledges of God’s mercy.

3. The third difference: The papists teach that in the sacrament—by the work done—the very grace of justification is conferred. We say no. Because a man of years must first believe and be justified before he can be a meet partaker of any sacrament. And the grace that is conferred is only the increase of our faith, hope, sanctification, etc.

Our Reasons

Reason 1. The Word preached and the sacraments differ in the manner of giving Christ and His benefits unto us because in the Word the Spirit of God teaches us by a voice conveyed to the mind by the bodily ears; but in the sacraments annexed to the Word by certain sensible and bodily signs viewed by the eye. Sacraments are nothing but visible words and promises.4 Otherwise, for the giving itself, they differ not. Christ Himself says, that in the very word “is eaten his own flesh, which he was to give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). And what can be said more of the Lord’s Supper? Augustine says that “believers are partakers of the body and blood of Christ in baptism.”5 And Jerome to Edibia, that “in baptism we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.” If thus much may be said of baptism, why may it not also be said of the Word preached? Again, Jerome upon Ecclesiastes says, “It is profitable to be filled with the body of Christ, and drink His blood, not only in mystery, but in knowledge of Holy Scripture.”6 Now upon this it follows that seeing the work done in the Word preached confers not grace, neither does the work done in the sacrament confer any grace.

Reason 2. “I baptize you with water to repentance, but he that cometh after me is stronger than I…He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (Matt. 3:11). Hence it is manifest that grace in the sacrament proceeds not from any action in the sacrament. For John, though he does not disjoin himself and his action from Christ and the action of His Spirit, yet he distinguishes them plainly in number, persons, and effect. To this purpose Paul, who had said of the Galatians that he “travailed of them” and “begat them by the gospel” (Gal. 4:19), says of himself that “he is not anything,” not only as he was a man but as he was a faithful apostle (1 Cor. 3:7)—thereby excluding the whole evangelical ministry whereof the sacrament is a part, from the least part of divine operation, or efficacy in conferring of grace.

Reason 3. The blessed angels, no, the very flesh of the Son of God, has not any quickening virtue from itself. But all this efficacy or virtue is in and from the Godhead of the Son, who by means of the flesh apprehended by faith, derives heavenly and spiritual life from Himself to the members. Now if there be no efficacy in the flesh of Christ, but by reason of the hypostatical union, how shall bodily actions about bodily elements confer grace immediately?

Reason 4. Paul, in Romans 4, stands much upon this to prove that justification by faith is not conferred by the sacraments. And from the circumstance of time he gathers that Abraham was first justified, and then afterward received circumcision, the sign and seal of this righteousness. Now we know that the general condition of all sacraments is one and the same, and that baptism succeeded circumcision. And what can be more plain than the example of Cornelius, in Acts 10, who before Peter came unto him, had the commendation of the fear of God, and was endued with the spirit of prayer? And afterward when Peter, by preaching, opened more fully the way of the Lord, he and the rest received the Holy Ghost. And after all this they were baptized. Now if they received the Holy Ghost before baptism, then they received remission of sins and were justified before baptism.

Reason 5. The judgment of the ancient church. Basil says: “If there be any grace in the water, it is not from the nature of the water, but from the presence of the Spirit.” Jerome says, “Man gives water, but God gives the Holy Ghost.” Augustine says, “Water touches the body and washes the heart,” but he shows his meaning elsewhere: “There is one water,” says he, “of the sacrament; another of the Spirit. The water of the sacrament is visible, the water of the Spirit invisible. That washes the body and signifies what is done in the soul; by this the soul is purged and healed.”

Objection 1. Remission of sins, regeneration, and salvation are ascribed to the sacrament of baptism [Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26; Gal. 3:27; Titus 3:5]. Answer. Salvation and remission of sins are ascribed to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as to the Word, which is the power of God to salvation to all that believe; and that, as they are instruments of the Holy Ghost to signify, seal, and exhibit to the believing mind the foresaid benefits. But indeed, the proper instrument whereby salvation is apprehended is faith, and sacraments are but props of faith furthering salvation two ways: first, because by their signification they help to nourish and preserve faith; second, because they seal grace and salvation to us. Yes, God gives grace and salvation when we use them well; so be it we believe the Word of promise made to the sacrament, whereof also they are seals.

And thus we keep the middle way—neither giving too much nor too little to the sacraments.


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