Reformed theology recognises certain means of grace, ordained by Jesus for the benefit of the church. Among these are the two sacraments, namely baptism and the Lord's Supper (Westminster Larger Catechism 154, 164).
The Westminster Larger Catechism summarises the classic Reformed view thus:
What is a sacrament? A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without. (WLC 162) Since Abraham, if not earlier, the people of God have been given outward signs as a part of his covenant with them. These have signified Christ and his work as the mediator of the covenant, by shadows and types in the old covenants, and by fulfilment and revelation in the New Covenant. Reformed theology sees continuity between circumcision in the Abrahamic and, by extension, Mosaic covenants and baptism in the New; and between the Passover and the sacrificial system in the Old Covenant and the Lord's Supper in the New.
The sacraments are gifts of Christ to the Church Universal, and it is thus appropriate that the sacraments be administered in a local gathering of the Church and that those who preside over their administration be ordained in the church. As regards modes and means, Reformed churches, following the Regulative Principle of Worship, believe that the sacraments ought to be administered according to the New Testament pattern.
The sacraments are signs and seals of God's grace to the church. They provide a symbolic reminder of what Jesus has done for us and are thus visible signs of the gospel of grace. Furthermore, by receiving the sacraments, we receive no less than Christ himself, who is, as Calvin put it, "the substance of all the sacraments, since in him they have their solidity" (Institutes 4:14.16). To those who receive the sacrament faithfully, he brings life and grace, but to the wicked who receive the sacrament, he brings death and judgment.
Right use of the sacraments will also result in a deeper and stronger faith for all involved, as well as calling us once again to the lives we are to lead under the Master. Finally, as the sacraments have been given to the church, so their proper use will lead to the strengthening of the church, both locally and universally.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Mat. 28:19)
Baptism according to the New Testament pattern involves the use of water in the getting of the candidate wet. Most Christians will accept immersion as a valid mode of baptism, and many Reformed Christians also argue for sprinkling as a valid mode of baptism.
Historically, Reformed Christianity has held that "not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized." (WCF 28.4) There is also a tradition of Reformed Christianity which argues that only believers should be baptized, and that baptism ought only be by immersion.
The sacrament of baptism marks the entry of the candidate into the church of God, and does so by pointing to Christ and his work. As the candidate is joined to the water in baptism, he attests to the work of the Spirit in his union with Christ, specifically, declaring that he is united to Christ in his death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5) and also of Christ's washing away of sins by his blood (Tit. 3:4-5). The candidate's knowledge and certainty of God's gracious gifts of forgiveness, salvation and union with Christ may be said to be sealed in this manner.
The Lord's Supper
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." (Luke 22:19-20)
Jesus in his institution and Paul in his teaching make it plain that the Lord's Supper is a corporate activity given to the Church. In recognition of its corporate nature, and following Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 12, most Reformed churches will remind believers of the necessity to examine oneself before taking Communion.
Some Reformed churches practise closed communion, requiring that people wishing to participate present themselves to the leadership with certain credentials; others leave the Table open to all who wish to participate. Most Reformed churches reserve the right to suspend members from the Table, if they be living in open and persistent sin.
The elements used vary somewhat from church to church. Some Reformed churches will use bread and wine, while others, in deference to the views of teetotallers and recognising the struggles of recovered alcoholics, use bread and grape juice.
The Lord's Supper is first a commemoration and proclamation of the Lord's death. The bread represents his body, and the wine, his blood. Moreover, as we physically receive earthly bread and wine, we spiritually receive the bread of heaven, Jesus' own body and blood, which he himself tells us "is true food, and ... true drink." (John 6:55)
As we partake of the body and blood of the Lord, we do so as the body of Christ, his church. We therefore proclaim our unity in him and strengthen our bonds of love and fellowship.
Moreover, by participating in this memorial of the Lord and nourishing ourselves on him by faith, we are reminded not only that he died, but that he rose again and now reigns at the right hand of the Father, so looking to the day when he will return, and when we shall no longer perceive him dimly in the sacraments, but rather see him face to face.
The Lord's Supper
- Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin J. 1536
- The Westminster Larger Catechism, questions 161-177
- The Heidelberg Catechism, questions 68-82