For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the casting down of strongholds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ; and being in readiness to avenge all disobedience, when your obedience shall be made full (II Cor. 10:3-6).

Captive Thoughts” is dedicated to bringing every thought captive to Christ through the study of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, with primary focus on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This effort is a compilation of several years of catechetical study conducted at Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Westminster, California, by its Christian Education Committee and the author of this site.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Westminster Shorter Catechism Q91

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork.” Spend a moment reflecting upon Ps. 19, and then think of all those unexplainable marvels of Divine engineering and beauty that surround us. How can these things be? An insignificant fleck of parched brown substance, so small as to be held at the end of a child’s fingertip, if given a little water, warmth, and soil, will burst forth into a beautiful, living plant that pleases the eye or satisfies hunger. Volumes upon volumes are filled with attempts to explain the mysteries of creation, from the beating wings of a humming bird to—well, there is no end to the list. We are surrounded by wonders that our best scientific minds—like children in a sandbox—can never quite explain. These are the things of God, the one who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, who alone is to be enjoyed and glorified. Oh, that we were like the little child who seems to see so clearly the wonder and glory we grownups so often fail to appreciate! And that brings us to the present catechism lesson.
So many theologians have tried to answer this question: “How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?” How does it work, we ask? But the catechism answer doesn’t really explain the how as we might desire to understand it. So often we try to dissect such teachings like a science class dissects a frog. Both procedures can be messy. In fact, in our examination of this topic, we would do better to marvel and rejoice at the gift of the sacraments, like the boy who pulls a lively little frog from his pocket, with a big grin on his face, than to cut it to pieces for analysis. God has revealed only some, not all, of the complexities of our salvation (Deut. 29:29). The writers of our confessions purposely kept things simple. Christ blesses, the Holy Spirit works, and we receive by faith. That’s what the Scriptures teach.
It has been said that we believe that we might understand. Often it is not our understanding which is the problem; it is the degree to which we believe. A desperate father, seeking the power and blessing of Jesus cried out, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). As we approach this lesson, let each of us express the wisdom of that prayer as our own, as we seek God’s blessing upon our study and worship of him.
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WSC Q91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A.   The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them[a].
[a] I Cor. 3:7; cf. I Cor. 1:12-17
Question 91 asks how the sacraments become effective means of salvation, and answers that the sacraments become effective means of salvation, not because of any special power in them or in the people who administer them, but rather by the blessing of Christ and the working of his Spirit in those who receive them by faith.
Comments and considerations:
These catechism lessons are tied to Starr Meade’s excellent family devotional book on the Shorter Catechism, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds. She begins her comments on Q91 like this:
“There are two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This question and answer explain how God uses these sacraments in our salvation. It is not ‘because of any special power’ in the sacraments themselves. Being baptized is not like waving a magic wand. Eating the Lord’s Supper does not magically make good things happen. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be received with faith.”
She goes on to point out that while some might think that those who perform the sacraments have some kind of special power that make the sacraments effective, that is not true. When the Lord’s people obey him, the Lord himself blesses them. There is no special power in any priest or pastor or elder to save people (I Cor. 3:6-7).
Why do our confessions teach only two sacraments when other traditions point to as many as seven? G.I. Williamson points to four reasons:
1.        For a sacrament to be valid, it must be commanded by Christ.
2.        It must be a sign—an outward, visible representation of an inward, invisible work of grace.
3.        It must be shown from Scripture that the ordinance is perpetual—that Christ commanded his church to perform it until his return.
4.        It must be shown that the ordinance is a seal intended to confirm and strengthen the faith of the recipients.
As outward signs of an inward work of grace and seals to confirm and strengthen the faith of the recipients, they are effectual: not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.
Again we must look at the word salvation. I fear that so often we have a truncated view of salvation—a “sweet-by-and-by, when I get to heaven, fire insurance policy” perspective. That is not the view of Scripture. Our Lord is about making disciples; salvation is about saving his people (Matt. 1:21), not only from the ultimate condemnation of sin, but from its present defilement and power (Rom. 6). We are not saved in the classic understanding of that term by being baptized or by participating in the Lord’s Table; but our deliverance from the effects of sin is our sanctification as effected by our Lord’s established means of grace. When we rejoice in Eph. 2:8-9—“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast”—there follows also the sober reality of verse 10—“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” So we must continually be confirmed and strengthened in the faith by every means available. In addition to the ministry of the Word, the sacraments have been established by our Lord as two imperative means of growth in grace and knowledge.
How is it that these simple acts and elements are such means, effectual to the strengthening of the frame and fiber of our faith? The answer: They are effectual by faith; when they are received by faith, they come with the promised blessing of Christ and working of the Holy Spirit. “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Col. 2:6). It really is by consistently availing of ourselves of all the God-ordained means of grace that we find our Christian life strengthened and enlivened. When we believe and obey the instructions of our Lord, his joy is ours, and we experience the Confident Christian Life (Neh. 8:10; cf. Is. 30:15).
Paul told the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (I Cor. 3:6-7). I really do not know how things grow (another “Lesson from the Garden”). In the summer months my fig tree is loaded with fruit; but the days wane and get shorter as fall approaches, no longer warm enough for the fruit of this Mediterranean tree to ripen. What is going on within my beloved tree as it interacts with the sun, earth, and the air around it? I know that the mystery of the tree is beyond my control; yet I also know that if I break the chain of daily gardening, as mundane, routine, and laborious as my efforts might be, my tree won’t bear healthy fruit in season, the branch will wither away, and it may even die. Yet if I care for it properly, with consistent, joyous vigor, the plant will flourish and survive the attacks of insects and storms.
The sacraments are part of our corporate worship, our regular exercise of faith: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). “Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, …not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:19-25).
Training Hearts and Teaching Minds Questions:
1.     There are two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This question and answer explain how God uses these sacraments in our salvation. It is not “because of any special power” in the sacraments themselves. Being baptized is not like waving a magic wand. Eating the Lord’s Supper does not magically make good things happen. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be received with faith. Read Acts 8:9-13, 18-23. What is the main point of this account, and what did “a certain man called Simon” fail to understand?
2.     Some might think that those who administrate, or perform the sacraments, have some kind of special power that makes the sacraments effective. But what does I Cor. 3:6-7 say on this issue?
3.     What is one of the blessings of Christ which is seen, understood, and enjoyed in the sacraments according to I Cor. 10:16 and 12:13? (1)
4.     Therefore, do all people have a right to the sacraments? Are they to be enjoyed by all without regard to their relationship to God in Christ? See Mark 16:15-16; I Cor. 11:27-29.
 (1) Unity, the things of Christ we share in common
Harmony of the Standards: WSC Q91, WLC Q161 and  WCF XXVII.III
WSC Q91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A.  The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them[a].
      [a]  1Cor. 3:7; cf. 1Cor. 1:12-17
WLC Q161. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A.  The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted[a].
      [a]  1Pet. 3:21; Acts 8:13, 23; 1Cor. 3:6-7; 12:13
THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH
CHAPTER. XXVII.
Of the Sacraments.
III. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it[g]: but upon the work of the Spirit[h], and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers[i].
[g]  Rom. 2:28-29; 1Pet. 3:21
[h] 1Cor. 12:13
[i]  Matt. 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20; Matt. 28:19-20; 1Cor. 11:26
Question(s) for further study:

The harmony here between the Catechisms and Confession is very exacting yet with some variation.  What word is used in the Larger Catechism and Confession that differs from the word “virtue” in the Shorter, and what implications might we draw from our father’s choice of that word in the deeper instructions?    

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