Sign, Thing Signified, and Sacramental Relationship

One of the main difficulties in understanding the sacraments is understanding the relationship among these three elements of the sacraments. We’ll take baptism here for an example. The sign is the water, whether sprinkled, poured, or immersed (I believe that the amount of water used is ultimately immaterial). The thing signified is the cleansing blood of Christ. One important thing that is usually missed here is that the sacrament includes the thing signified. This gets at a huge problem in the church today. The church tends to refer to the sacrament as including only the sign. Therefore, when we use the term “baptism,” we usually mean just the sign, just the rite. However, this is not the only way to understand the sacrament. WLC 163 explicitly says that the “inward and spiritual grace thereby signified” is also part of the sacrament. This shouldn’t make us nervous in the least, because the real question is where the efficacy of baptism lies.

The power of baptism cannot lie in the sign. This is proven absolutely, 100% conclusively by Romans 4:11, which states explicitly that Abraham already had the thing signified long before he ever had the sign applied to him. Circumcision is described as a sign and seal. This refutes directly those who believe that the “seal” language implies conferral. For here in Romans 4:11 is a seal that most definitely could not confer something already possessed.

The thing signified obviously has saving power. The blood of Christ has an objectively saving power. But how does it get applied to us? The answer is in the sacramental union of sign and thing signified. Another way of describing this sacramental union is “Spirit-given faith.” This is how we avoid the problem that the Lutherans constantly have of ascribing saving power to baptism, and yet also saying “sola fide.” If it is Spirit-given faith that connects sign to thing signified, then that is faith alone that saves. Faith also connects the sign and the thing signified so that the whole sacrament is now present.

Note here that it is quite possible to possess the sign without the thing signified (as in the reprobate). It is also quite possible to possess the thing signified without the sign (as in Abraham before he was circumcised). The only way one can possess the whole sacrament is for the Holy Spirit to give us faith. I believe that it is only as we understand baptism this way that we can avoid the problem associated with too high a view of the sign (and the time-point of its administration), on the one hand; and a devaluing of the sacrament on the other, making the sacrament into a bare sign.

This fits in, I believe, with the Reformed emphasis of the sign as a confirmatory sign. When they use this language, they are talking about the sign by itself. But when they use language reacting against the Anabaptists (usually rejecting the position of a naked and bare sign), they are talking about the sign and the thing signified together. This is the normal way we use sacramental language, and we have to be careful to delineate whether we mean the sign considered just as a sign, or whether we are referring to the whole sacrament, including Spirit-given faith. I am convinced that massive amounts of miscommunication and confusion could be avoided if we are careful at just this point.

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32 Comments

  1. Kenneth Kang-Hui said,

    August 5, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Lane,

    Thanks for the helpful post. I’ve thinking quite a bit lately about the function of the sacraments and their significance for both believers and non-believers. I’ve been reflecting on the signatory function of the sacraments, as you have done in this post, but also the judicatory function of the sacraments. Specifically that they can be a word of God’s judgement for the believers who takes the sacraments unworthily and for the non-believers who observes the sacraments.

    Would appreciate your thought on this and any corrections that I may need to make in my thoughts.

    Ken

  2. greenbaggins said,

    August 5, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Kenneth, I absolutely agree. To my mind, the best treatment of the judicatory theme of the sacraments is in John Fesko’s recent treatment Water, Word, and Spirit. When you look at the typology, especially of Noah’s flood, which Peter explicitly ties to baptism, you can definitely see a judgment theme present there. 1 Corinthians 11 does the same for the Lord’s Supper (not to mention the typology of the Passover vis-a-vis the Egyptians!).

  3. Kenneth Kang-Hui said,

    August 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Lane,

    Thanks for the reply and recommendation. I have Fesko’s book but have not gotten around to reading it yet.

    I wish churches would study more on the signatory and judicatory aspects of the sacraments, especially churches that want to limit the use of the sacraments in public worship because they are “meaningless” for non-Christian.

    Ken

  4. todd said,

    August 5, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    “I wish churches would study more on the signatory and judicatory aspects of the sacraments, especially churches that want to limit the use of the sacraments in public worship because they are “meaningless” for non-Christian.”

    Kenneth, that is an interesting comment. What do you mean “limit the use”

    thanks

  5. Frank Davies said,

    August 5, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    The Spirit works “in them” (water, Bread, Wine) to make them effectual for those that receive them by faith.

    Oh, and:

    http://www.dougwils.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6133:Exhibited-and-Conferred-Is-Not-the-Same-As-Exhibited-and-Exhibited-Again&catid=46:auburn-avenue-stuff

  6. Truth Unites... and Divides said,

    August 5, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    GreenBaggins: “Another way of describing this sacramental union is “Spirit-given faith.” This is how we avoid the problem that the Lutherans constantly have of ascribing saving power to baptism, and yet also saying “sola fide.” If it is Spirit-given faith that connects sign to thing signified, then that is faith alone that saves.”

    This is very helpful.

  7. Matt Holst said,

    August 6, 2011 at 6:58 am

    Very very helpful Lane. Thanks for your work in this area. In terms of the duplex loquendi of your last paragraph, not nearly enough attention is given to the context by “objectivists” at this point. Strange because the point is not exactly undocumented in historical theology.
    Blessings.

  8. Logan Almy said,

    August 6, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Lane, I think this is a good analysis. I want to draw out your thoughts on this in relationship to infant baptism. What are the implications of understanding baptism as a “confirmatory sign” for infant baptism? Does this imply that we should assume (or expect) with a judgment of charity that the infant children of believers are Christians or at least will become Christians in God’s own appointed time? Does this view of baptism as confirmatory sign, coupled with the doctrine of infant baptism, require a form of “presumptive regeneration”? Or should we assume that the infant children of believers are unregenerate until they prove themselves to be Christians by profession of faith and godly living? Or is there some combination? I have notice a great deal of variety in Reformed circles on these issues. What are your thoughts?

  9. greenbaggins said,

    August 6, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Great question, Logan. As you indicated, there are a variety of views on this in the Reformed world. On the one hand, I do not think that a person has to have the thing signified already before one has confirmation of the *promise* of God. That would be Baptistic thinking. So, an infant receiving the sign could have the thing signified later on in life. On the other hand, I don’t believe that this means we should treat our children like pagans. They are set apart from the world. I believe that an infant can be regenerated from the womb, but there are too many warnings in Scripture about presumption for me to be comfortable with simply assuming this to be the case. God doesn’t have grandchildren. I prefer the position of believing what our children say. If they say they believe in Jesus, I take them at their word, rather than teaching them to doubt. This is important because, if they were in fact regenerated from the womb, it would be a serious mistake to encourage them to doubt it all the time. On the other hand, it is proper to look for fruit in their lives, and if we don’t see it, that would draw their profession of faith into doubt. We would then need to teach them what being a Christian is all about. I am exceedingly uncomfortable telling them that they are Christians on the basis of their baptism. I want to point them to the thing signified, not to the sign.

  10. Reed Here said,

    August 6, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Lane: building off your response to Logan, is it reasonable to postulate a third category for covenant children? I.e., we limit ourselves to are they presumed regenerate or presumed unregenerate? What a third choice, say under-covenant-promise?

    Such a category removes the subjective element of the other two, and replaces it with an objectivity that is squarely rooted in Scriptural proposition. It is a “Goldilocks” solution: it neither says to little nor too much, but is just right.

  11. August 6, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    “The blood of Christ has an objectively saving power.” Better: “The death of Christ has an objectively saving power.” The reason I say this is because there are actually some super-fundamentalist types out there who believe that Christ’s literal blood (that liquid stuff) is what saves people. Also, see the late Alan Stibbs’s classic essay from 1948, “The Meaning of the Word ‘Blood’ in Scripture” in the volume “Such a Great Salvation: The Collected Essays of Alan Stibbs,” edited by Andrew Atherstone (Fearn: Mentor, 2008), pp. 157-184.

  12. Reed Here said,

    August 6, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    Richard: good catch. I’ve heard this one myself. (Seem to remember John MacArthur taking heat in the past from some former fundamentalist supporters when he made this same correction.)

  13. Roger du Barry said,

    August 7, 2011 at 1:27 am

    The answer is in the sacramental union of sign and thing signified. Another way of describing this sacramental union is “Spirit-given faith.”

    This is doctrinally and grammatically incorrect. Faith is needed for the efficacy of the sacrament, of course, but it is not the sacramental union.

    Perhaps you meant to say that faith effects the union between the sign and the thing signified.

    The sacramental union itself is the union between sign and reality, the thing signified. IOW the the thing signified is present and effective to those receiving the sign rightly.

  14. Reed Here said,

    August 7, 2011 at 7:01 am

    Roger: what does the Spirit give via the union?

  15. michael said,

    August 8, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Roger,

    This is doctrinally and grammatically incorrect. Faith is needed for the efficacy of the sacrament, of course, but it is not the sacramental union.

    That is a good point.

    In light of it, I would ask for your comments on these verses:

    Eph 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
    Eph 1:4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love
    Eph 1:5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,
    Eph 1:6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

    Eph 1:13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,
    Eph 1:14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

    I would like it to be clear that at my Church we practice infant baptism. The infant does nothing about being baptized. Whether or not God has given the infant “the gift of Faith” to believe the point Lane makes is not, for me, at least, a consideration.

    Why?

    Well, I will explain succinctly after I give citation to a couple more verses I would like you to consider in your comments?

    Hebrews 2:1…Heb 2:4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

    Heb 3:7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice,

    Whose “Faith” is in play at an infant’s baptism? Surely not the infant’s? Even as a child or young adult or the adult who responds to the Gospel and wants Peace with God through it it surely isn’t our faith at work by His, yes?

    It is the gift of Faith by the Will of the Holy Spirit, isn’t it, at work in those parents or parent and the Minister administering the sacrament and the witnesses to the event at one’s baptism? This would be true for all the sacraments, wouldn’t it?

    What seems to be the important thing here with the infant baptized is the “upbringing” of that infant after being baptized, isn’t it? That is why I acknowledged that your point as cited in my comments first is relevant and important.

    I have seen many souls baptized who were reasoning, thinking beings, children and adults. We always allowed for a testimony by the participant being baptized. But not so with the infant one month or six months old. We take no thought about the “gift” of Faith the Holy Spirit gives that infant or will give that infant. Rather, with the infant, what seems to apply best is what the writer of the book of Hebrews wrote as cited by me above that the Holy Spirit according to His Will distributes the gift of Faith electing and calling and making that one a True Believer; and as the Apostle Paul wrote as cited by me above from Ephesians 1:14 … until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. There is then this sobriety in baptism, whether an infant or otherwise that the end of the matter is the salvation of the soul.

    So, I agree what Lane wrote above: “… On the one hand, I do not think that a person has to have the thing signified already before one has confirmation of the *promise* of God. That would be Baptistic thinking. So, an infant receiving the sign could have the thing signified later on in life. …”

    Anyway, there you go. Would you comment on the various verses cited in light of your comment I highlighted above and mine?

  16. Roger du Barry said,

    August 9, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Reed, the Spirit gives the thing signified to the believing recipient. He also gives assurance that the thing signified is indeed given.

  17. Reed Here said,

    August 9, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Roger: so what is signified?

  18. Roger du Barry said,

    August 9, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Hello Michael. Those whom God predestines he effectually calls through the Spirit and the Gospel, by faith, as we agree. The God ordained way that people receive the benefits of Christ is the Gospel, which comes to us in two ways, namely, word and sacrament. The sacrament is a sensory version of the Gospel.

    Therefore God preveniently prepares a man for salvation, and then He effectually applies it to him, by faith, through the word and sacrament. As Peter teaches, those who are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ receive both the forgiveness/release of their sins, as well as the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    This entire promise of forgiveness and the Spirit in baptism is for us AND for our children, AND for those who are far off.

    I personally believe that children can and do receive the reality with the sign, albeit not infallibly. Many come to faith later in life, according to God’s timing, and it is then that the sacrament is completed for them.

  19. Roger du Barry said,

    August 9, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    :) Reed, in baptism the forgiveness of sins is signified by the washing of water, as well as the outpouring of the Spirit.

    In the Supper it is the body and the blood of Christ, which is truly received in a spiritual manner as we feed on him in our hearts.

    Have I walked into your trap? :)

  20. Reed Here said,

    August 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Aw, shucks (the sound of snapping jaws of the empty trap).

    No, seriously, is not faith and repentence inherently signified?

  21. Roger du Barry said,

    August 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Well, quote me a passage from a Confession that says that.

  22. Reed Here said,

    August 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Roger: it is simply a factor of the ordo salutis. Can you name one redemptive benefit in which faith/repentence do not inhere?

    I think you’re drawing too fine a distinction.

  23. michael said,

    August 9, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Roger, thanks for your kind reply.

    So that I am clear; you wrote: “….Therefore God preveniently prepares a man for salvation, and then He effectually applies it to him, by faith, through the word and sacrament.”

    You agree then and have no problem with infant baptisms or the administration by parents to their child 2 years old the sacrament of His Body and Blood, Holy Communion?

  24. Roger du Barry said,

    August 10, 2011 at 12:58 am

    Reed, a sacrament, or a hearing of the word, in which faith and repentance are absent, is of no benefit. However, it is a jump from there to saying that the sacrament signifies them.

  25. Roger du Barry said,

    August 10, 2011 at 1:05 am

    Michael, I have no problem with infant baptism. Indeed, refusing it to a Christian child is a great sin, and contrary to the plain teaching of scripture. I do not go along with the baptistic arguments that there are no examples in scripture, and that it is entirely deduced.

    Giving the sacrament of the Body and Blood to a very small child is problematic. My normal practice is to wait until they are able to recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

  26. Richard said,

    August 10, 2011 at 5:18 am

    I have been collating quotes from Calvin and Luther on Baptism for a short paper on the issue; the following are incredibly insightful IMO:

    Calvin
    This comes from his commentary on Titus 3:5

    God does not sport with us by unmeaning figures, but inwardly accomplishes by his power what he exhibits by the outward sign; and therefore, baptism is fitly and truly said to be “the washing of regeneration.” The efficacy and use of the sacraments will be properly understood by him who shall connect the sign and the thing signified, in such a manner as not to make the sign unmeaning and inefficacious, and who nevertheless shall not, for the sake of adorning the sign, take away from the Holy Spirit what belongs to him. Although by baptism wicked men are neither washed nor renewed, yet it retains that power, so far as relates to God, because, although they reject the grace of God, still it is offered to them. But here Paul addresses believers, in whom baptism is always efficacious, and in whom, therefore, it is properly connected with its truth and efficacy. But by this mode of expression we are reminded that, if we do not wish to annihilate holy baptism, we must prove its efficacy by “newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)

    This is from his commentary on Galatians 3:27

    Though wicked men may derive no advantage from the sacraments, they still retain undiminished their nature and force. The sacraments present, both to good and to bad men, the grace of God. No falsehood attaches to the promises which they exhibit of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Believers receive what is offered; and if wicked men, by rejecting it, render the offer unprofitable to themselves, their conduct cannot destroy the faithfulness of God, or the true meaning of the sacrament. With strict propriety, then, does Paul, in addressing believers, say, that when they were baptized, they “put on Christ;” just as, in the Epistle to the Romans, he says, “that we have been planted together into his death, so as to be also partakers of his resurrection.” (Romans 6:5) In this way, the symbol and the Divine operation are kept distinct, and yet the meaning of the sacraments is manifest; so that they cannot be regarded as empty and trivial exhibitions; and we are reminded with what base ingratitude they are chargeable, who, by abusing the precious ordinances of God, not only render them unprofitable to themselves, but turn them to their own destruction!

  27. Reed Here said,

    August 10, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Roger: if you mean faith must be present to receive the things signified, agreed. Does not the sacrament then increase faith, grow faith, strengthen faith, and in this way give more faith?

    I think this is a hairsplitting you’re doing here brother, That’s all.

  28. Roger du Barry said,

    August 10, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Does not the sacrament then increase faith, grow faith, strengthen faith, and in this way give more faith?

    Indeed.

    Brother, I do not have the energy to split hairs. Neither would I treat holy matters in that manner.

    BTW I am away to France for two weeks.

  29. Reed Here said,

    August 10, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Good talking Roger, Praying for you and your country.

  30. andrew said,

    August 11, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Re 8&9

    I would probably describe myself as believing and practicing ‘presumptive regeneration’, but I would agree with all that Lane describes in his post.

    One quibble, though. Lane writes:

    “I am exceedingly uncomfortable telling them that they are Christians on the basis of their baptism. I want to point them to the thing signified, not to the sign”.

    I don’t think any presumptive-type would suggest we do so. While baptism/covenant membership/church membership may be the reason we treat our children as Christians (e.g. worship and pray together), it shouldn’t be the grounds of their assurance – they must trust in Christ.

    Of course, some would argue that one is ‘externally’ a Christian by baptism, or that baptism has a role in assurance, but that applies as much to the adult convert as the child, and is not a necessary part of presumptive regeneration.

  31. David Gadbois said,

    August 11, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I unapproved AJ’s comment because it is off-topic. This thread is not the place to argue for Rome’s defective view of the sacraments based on a supposed “oral tradition”. This thread is about the sacraments as taught in Scripture and expounded in the Reformed confessions.

  32. Eric said,

    August 18, 2011 at 11:52 am

    As an outsider (now a Lutheran) I cannot help but notice the tendency in Reformed theology to read baptism into texts that deal explicitly with circumcision. I understand that, up to a point, but isn’t that something we need to be pretty careful with? Despite the analogy between the two, they are not the same thing; and what the text says about one, it isn’t necessarily saying about the other.

    In Romans 4:11 Paul is not talking about baptism. In fact, the subject in context is not even circumcision per se. Paul is talking about justification and whether the “blessing” of the righteousness that comes by faith belongs to the Jews only or to the Gentiles also — “Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” (v.9). Paul wants his readers to know that justification by faith depends in no way on the status of the foreskin. So he goes to Abraham as the prime example, and asks whether he was justified before or after circumcision (v. 10). Well, he was justified before circumcision. And “the purpose [of this chronological order] was to make [Abraham] the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well…” (v. 11).

    It seems we are already looking beyond Paul’s point when we use this verse to prove that the chronological order of events has some bearing on the efficacy of circumcision. I don’t know of any place where God said that circumcision saves people (except, perhaps, indirectly by making them members of the visible community of faith), so it isn’t that big a deal one way or another to prove that circumcision didn’t save Abraham. But we are already looking beyond Paul’s point when we go that far, and to stretch it one step further and apply what the text says about circumcision to baptism seems like a bit of an overreach to me.


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