Berkhof on “The Necessity of the Sacraments”

It is not often thought, among Protestants, that the sacraments or ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are necessary.  This, however, is understandable, as the necessity of the sacraments is often thought of strictly in the sense or context of the means by which one is saved.  Yet, we would be wrong to think of the necessity of the sacraments in this strict manner.  With that being said, let me now quote Louis Berkhof on this very issue:

Roman Catholics hold that baptism is absolutely necessary for all unto salvation, and that the sacrament of penance is equally necessary for those who have committed mortal sins after baptism; but that confirmation, the eucharist, and extreme unction are necessary only in the sense that they have been commanded and are eminently helpful.  Protestants, on the other hand, teach that the sacraments are not absolutely necessary unto salvation, but are obligatory in view of the divine precept [Hence, Baptists typically refer to the sacraments as ordinances].  Wilful neglect of their use results in spiritual impoverishment and has a destructive tendency, just as all wilful and persistent disobedience to God has.  That they are not absolutely necessary unto salvation, follows: (1) from the free spiritual character of the gospel dispensation, in which God does not bind His grace to the use of certain external forms, John 4:21,23; Luke 18:14; (2) from the fact that Scripture mentions only faith as the instrumental condition [or cause] of salvation, John 5:24; 6:29; 3:36; Acts 16:31; (3) from the fact that the sacraments do not originate faith but presuppose it, and are administered where faith is assumed, Acts 2:41 [see also 10:42-48]; 16:14,15,30,33; 1 Cor. 11:23-32; and (4) from the fact that many were actually saved without the use of the sacraments.  Think of the believers before the time of Abraham and of the penitent thief on the cross. [Systematic Theology, (1941). 618-619.]

The only thing I would add to Berkhof’s comment, which is certainly implied within, is that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant, and therefore serves as the rite by which one enters into the communion of the Church (e.g. Acts 2:41-42).  The same is true of the Lord’s Supper, representing continual communion/fellowship with Christ and His Church (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 11:24-26).  In other words, those who profess faith in the word of Christ (the gospel), yet refuse baptism and continually neglect the Lord’s Supper, demonstrate a serious inconsistency with their profession, and are actually distancing themselves from, rather than identifying with, Christ and His Church.

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5 thoughts on “Berkhof on “The Necessity of the Sacraments”

  1. Good article Drew. I’d like your thoughts on something. I’m a former SB pastor and former PCA pastor, now an elder in the PCA. Presbyterians refer to the sacraments as a “means of grace.” I’ve had a few discussions with my Baptist brothers over this. They have mostly been unwilling to call baptism and the Lord’s supper means of grace. Thoughts?

    • Les,

      Thanks for commenting; and good question!

      I too think that most Baptists today would be reluctant to refer to baptism and the Lord’s supper as “means of grace.” Yet, I believe the Particular Baptists of the past were not afraid to use such terminology (I believe some even used the term “sacraments”). In short, I believe Reformed Baptists are more willing to refer to them as means of grace. I personally have no problem referring to them as means of grace. Now, does that necessarily mean that we would define “means of grace” in the exact same way. Not necessarily. Perhaps you could comment further on the typical understanding of “means of grace” according to the Presbyterian perspective.

      I think we do have to be cautious on how we use the phrase “means of grace” with regard to the ordinances, as it can tend to be used in the sense where grace becomes this “substance” that is channeled through them (basically what we see in Roman Catholicism, and even Lutheranism). I do believe the ordinances/sacraments are a means of grace insofar as they exist in relation to the word (i.e. the gospel), and so together the word and the sacrament, joined with faith, is used of the Lord to strengthen and edify God’s people. If, however, “means of grace” is used in the sense that, for example, baptism can/may bring about regeneration and the like, then I would disagree. Basically, I can give an “Amen!” to Berkhof’s words in the following (I find point #2 to be especially important):

      “The Word of God can exist and is also complete as a means of grace without the sacraments, but the sacraments cannot exist and are not complete without the Word. This must be maintained over against the Roman Catholics, who proceed on the assumption that the sacraments contain all that is necessary for the salvation of sinners. The sacraments are a special aid for man, since they address the eye which is more sensuous than the ear and therefore deepen the impression made. The Word and the sacraments agree in that both have God for their author and Christ as their central content, and in their appropriation by faith. At the same time they differ in some important points: (1) the Word is absolutely necessary, while the sacraments are not; (2) the Word is intended to beget and to strengthen faith, while the sacraments can only strenthen it; and (3) the Word goes out into all the world, while the sacraments are administered only to those who are in the covenant.” [Manual of Christian Doctrine, (1933). 310.]

  2. Drew, we agree. Berkhof has it just right. Presbys do not believe that there is grace inherently in the sacrament or ordinance. As one Presby wrote, “As the Holy Spirit does not dwell in the pages of a Book, and yet He warms our hearts by means of the message of that Book, so grace does not reside intrinsically in the sacraments, but comes to the believer who receives them in faith.”

    This is why Presbys will always and only (or should) administer the ordinances in the context of a worship service where God’s people are gathered and the word is proclaimed. That Presby also says,

    “He is truly though spiritually present and truly though spiritually received. Again, as the Word conveys grace by providing the occasion for the Holy Spirit to speak to the human heart, so the Lord’s Supper conveys the benefits of the death and resurrection of Christ to believers who approach the Table in faith.”

    So there is mrs than a memorial. Christ is present and feeds us, strengthens us and nourishes us.

    Thanks brother.

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