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The Word and Sacrament

Through God’s spoken Word given to us through Special Revelation – the Bible – He proves Himself to be One who timelessly communicates with men through language, but also through concrete signs designed to appeal to other ‘humanly’ senses so we might experience the fullness of His Word through more than that of hearing. The rainbow in the clouds, the miracles by which he spoke to Gideon and Hezekiah; the Brazen Serpent, the tree of life in the Garden of Eden and the cloudy pillar, visions and dreams, all these are signs pointing to a reality outside themselves. They don’t stand alone by themselves. They are all accompanied by the spoken Word.

 These natural signs might be called ‘extraordinary’ signs because they come from the Hand of an Extraordinary God. There are audible signs as well: earthquakes and thunder, the sound of rushing wind at Pentecost. These, too, accompany God’s revealing himself to mankind.

Even our Lord’s Day, the Sabbath, is a sign pointing to the hope of the reality of Eternal rest we have in Christ with God forever. Jesus, the Living Word, using miracles and signs spoke and gave us the sacraments as ‘sensible’ signs appointed for our use. Calvin said, “Our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodated Himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, He declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to Himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings.”

 When God speaks there is normally a sign attached to the audible word in order to enforce and supplement that Word. The Word of God is sufficient alone, but the signs are not alone sufficient. Someone recently gave me an article to read concerning ‘icons of persuasion’. In the world of advertising there is a trend to extract words from the message. The icon, the symbol, becomes the message. “By not giving us a single word to wrap our minds around, textless ads offer us very little choice but to follow our feelings.”

Icons like the Nike ‘swoosh’, the Pepsi ‘stripe’, and the Nazi ‘swastika’ are symbols that signify either achievement, refreshment, or the depravity of humanity and all without a single word spoken! These symbols without a word ‘operate at a level beneath the radar screen of rational language. Language is the mediator between our minds and the world, and is the essential thing that defines us as rational creatures” (from Re:Generation, 1997, “Swooshtika” by Read Mercer Schuchardt).
God’s Word, His revelation to us, never takes place without a word. There is never a genuine sign given without a voice which at some state in the events comes from God to man. Revelation is never a dumb event. Whenever God offered any sign to the holy Patriarchs it was inseparably attached to doctrine without which our sense would gaze bewildered upon an unmeaning object.” (Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, Wallace, p. 72).

 There is a trend today among churches, to separate the Word from the Sacrament, the revelation from the revealed – “Come and Go” communion, celebratory services, where God’s Word is never spoken, but the Sacraments are observed! “Let us therefore learn that the chief part of the sacraments consists in the Word and without it they are absolute corruptions.

Figures are illusory without an explanation. If the vision only had been offered to the eye of the prophet, and no voice of God had followed, what would have been the advantage? But when God confirmed the vision by His Word, the Prophet is enabled to say with advantage, ‘I have seen the glory of God.’ and this can be transferred to the sacraments, because if signs only are presented to our eyes, they will be, as it were, dead images. The Word of God then, throws life into the sacraments, . . . ” (Wallace).

 The Word of God is sufficient alone, but the signs are not alone sufficient. It is the Word that we preach and the Sacraments we ‘observe’. Through these sensible signs’ we come, submitting ourselves with pure hearts to seek Him in a spiritual manner, knowing that by the aid of these signs we are able to behold the glory of God which is hidden from the sight, yet through God’s provision we who are created in His image are enabled by His grace to see the face of God through the Word and the Sacraments.

Lord, teach us the nature of a sacrament as a seal and pledge of love, that Christ is faithful to make himself a present reality to his own who are guests at his table. Assure us by these sensible signs that his Word might be made good to our faith, that he by sacramental union might be given to us, that we shall have strength not to fall into sin, that his life begun in us will be perfected hereafter, that our covenant with him might be confirmed, and that he would give himself to all who take of him thankfully by faith.

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