Tangible Words of God


The blesséd and holy Ordinances or Sacraments of the New Covenant, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are themselves ritualized Words of God that declare the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Firstly, the Sacraments are actually words. In Sacred Scripture and throughout church history, they are referred to as signs, symbols, and seals. They are marks or emblems imbued with meaning and which convey that meaning due to ritual social context.

Secondly, the Sacraments are God’s Words. The reason they are called “Ordinances” is that they are ordained by God. Christ himself commanded the doing of these things. They are done on God’s authority, and as such, neglecting them is a grievous error.

Baptism should not be reduced in our minds to stagnant water, nor the Lord’s Supper reduced to unattended bread and wine. The ordinances are ritual activities. Baptism is water poured. The Supper is bread eaten and wine imbibed. More so, water poured in silence is just a rinse; bread and wine consumed in silence is just a snack. There are commands from Christ given to “be baptized” and to “take and eat” and to “take and drink” and to “do this as my memorial”. There are words of institution given by Christ that instill meaning in the rites, meaning from God and not from man. “In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” “This is my body which is given for you.” “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are impregnated with the meaning that God has given; they contain the good seed of the Word of God. This is how they are able to declare the Gospel. In ritual social context, they command us to believe in Christ.

The Sacraments have been called “visible words” in the Reformed tradition, because they are seen or observed as visible elements and ritual actions. I concur, yet in some ways, I’d reserve the language of “visible words” to describe the Scriptures as written text alongside “spoken words” or “audible words” as the Scriptures read and preached. In that case, the Sacraments can be called “tangible words” of God to emphasizing how tactile or “hands-on” they are.

One may object that these ordinances are the actions of men. So what? Scripture is the Word of God, and yet it was written down by men, it is preached by men, and it is to be believed on God’s authority. Human mediation does not discount the divine origin or character of the thing. The Bible is written down, copied, collated, distributed, and proclaimed by men, and it is nevertheless the very Word of God in its substance and authority rather than the mere word of man. The Holy Sacraments are to believed as God’s Words as surely as the Holy Scriptures are to be believed as God’s Word.