This article first appeared in the Oct 1, 1983 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.60, #1)
Ques. 66 What are the sacraments?
Ans. The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, viz., that He grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.
Ques, 67 Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation?
Ans. Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross.
Ques. 68 How many sacraments has Christ instituted in the new covenant, or testament?
Ans. Two, namely, holy baptism, and the holy supper.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 25
Our fathers teach us some very important lessons concerning the sacraments in this Lord's Day. We need these lessons for our own instruction, and also to appreciate the more fully this means of grace, which God in His mercy administers to us.
We are reminded that sacraments are signs and seals. This truth belongs to our Reformed heritage. Even more than that, the sacraments are holy signs and seals, for they are ordained by God and appointed by Him to be administered by Christ to His church.
Our Catechism points out that these sacraments are an added benefit, which our God, knowing our weaknesses and frailties, has added to the preaching of the Word. They do not stand alone, independent from the Word. But they supplement the preaching of the Word, so that while the Word addresses us through our hearing, the sacraments speak to us as visible signs. Thus we have an audiovisual revelation of the promise of the gospel in both the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacrament.
The fathers especially emphasize the fact that these sacraments direct our faith to the one perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation. If we were not impressed by this in the answer in Question 66, we are reminded of it again in Question 67. And if this still has not made the proper impression upon us, it is repeated in the answer to Question 67. Three times, therefore, lest there should be any misunderstanding about that, reference is made to the one, only sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the only and complete ground of our salvation. I like that. The fact that we are baptized gives no reason that we should be assured of our salvation. The fact that we are confessing members of the church who partake of the Lord's Supper is no basis for any assurance of being saved. Our assurance rests solely and completely in the atoning death of Christ on the cross. All other ground is sinking sand!
Sacraments, therefore, are holy, visible signs and seals instituted by God to be administered by His church along with the preaching of the Word as an added testimony of the promise of the gospel that rests on the only sacrifice of Christ on the cross for all our sins.
Sacraments are holy signs and seals.
They are signs. Every creature is a sign, since all things happen in parables (Mark 4:11) Christ can say, I am the true Bread, the true Water of life, the true Vine, the great Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There are special signs in creation, such as paradise with its tree of life and streams of water, the deluge, the stars of the heavens, the sand on the seashore, the crossing of the Red Sea, the types and shadows of the old dispensation. There are the signs of the Lion, the Lamb, and of Christ's second coming. Our own lives are dependent upon signs. Think of highway signs, danger signs, or of the nod or shake of the head, the frown, the smile, the handshake. There are even signs that appeal to our other senses, such as, odors, tastes, brail for the blind. But the sacraments are special signs which have their own peculiar significance because they are ordained of God for that very purpose.
Sacraments are also seals. Seals also make up a part of our daily lives. Business firms seal their products to distinguish them from imitations. The government places its seal on birth certificates, marriage certificates and all other official documents. We have seals that are also signs. A one hundred dollar bill is actually only a piece of paper, yet it represents and assures us of the full value of one hundred dollars in cash. In distinction from these sacraments are very special signs and seals.
They are holy signs and seals. This means that God has ordained and appointed them to accompany the preaching of the Word as an added means whereby God strengthens our faith. Sacraments were never intended to be, nor must we regard them as, the chief means of grace. The preaching of the Word is and will always remain the chief means whereby God bestows His grace on us; the sacraments supplement the Word. The Word serves both to work and to strengthen our faith, while the sacraments serve only to strengthen it. Therefore the Word is preached every Lord's Day, but the fathers have deemed it wise to limit the celebration of the Lord's Supper to special times. Yet that does not detract from the importance of, or from our need for, the sacraments. These signs are holy. They are set apart by God, given to us to serve their own divine purpose. Therefore the emphasis must always fall on the administration of the Lord's Supper, instead of on the celebration. It is true that from our point of view we celebrate the sacraments. Yet from God's point of view they are administered. The heading above both the Baptism Form and the Communion Form speaks of the administration of the sacrament, reminding us that Christ administers Baptism and the holy Supper through His ambassadors. This is so completely lost from sight in our day, that the sacraments have become a form of entertainment for children and for adults. The Lord's Supper is degraded to a blasphemous form of fellowship. Let us never forget that the sacraments proclaim to us the Name of Jehovah, His mighty works and marvelous grace as our covenant God Who keeps covenant forever.
Signs and seals of the gospel promise.
Our fathers say that the sacraments "more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel." The emphasis is on the promise. There is a general proclamation of God's particular promise in the preaching of the gospel. God declares to all who hear that He promises His people, the elect, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. This same general proclamation of the particular promise comes to all who are baptized and to all who celebrate or witness the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
This promise is based solely on the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The sacraments are visible signs of that sacrifice. The water in baptism speaks of the cleansing power of Jesus' blood. The broken bread and the poured out wine signify the crucifixion of our Savior and His complete self-surrender unto death as the atonement for our sins. The sprinkling of the water at baptism points to the sprinkling of the blood that covers us with the righteousness of Christ. We are under the blood (Exodus 12:13). In the broader sense, since the word for baptism means "to dip in," this reminds us, that God takes us out of the world, causes us to die unto sin in Christ's death, to be buried with Him in baptism, and to arise in newness of life within God's covenant as new creatures in Christ (Romans 6:4). Therefore baptism is called the "washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5). The table of communion, the serving of the bread and the wine (which is official ministry of the elders as ambassadors of Jesus Christ), the eating and the drinking, all speak of the feasting at God's table, being fed by Christ Himself, in intimate communion of life with God and with the saints, and thus eating and drinking Christ's flesh and blood, becoming partakers of Christ as flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone, united to Him as members of His body.
Thereby we receive two chief benefits from the sacraments, namely, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through faith in Christ Jesus. Faith is that living bond that unites us to Him, the bond through which we receive Christ and all His benefits. Baptism is the sign of the laying of that bond in regeneration, thus of our entering into God's covenant. The Lord's Supper speaks of the exercise of that faith as living in covenant fellowship with God, feasting on His bounties, and experiencing a foretaste of the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.
This is sealed to our hearts by the Holy Spirit who uses these means to strengthen our faith. Our fathers say, "We are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith, and by faith only." Those for whom Christ did not die cannot possibly be given this assurance. Those who are not united to Christ by the bond of living faith can never claim this assurance. Since election and reprobation run through the line of the generations of believers, it is not all Israel that is called Israel. There are those within the sphere of the covenant who receive the sign, even though they are not covenant seed. They are baptized and instructed in God's Word, so that they know the truth of Christ's atoning death, yet they despise that sacrifice, and therefore receive greater condemnation. They may even partake of the holy Supper of our Lord in unbelief, and thereby eat and drink condemnation unto themselves, declaring themselves unworthy of salvation. Even as the preaching of the Word is a savor of death unto death to those who reject it, so also the general sign of the particular promise condemns the wicked in their unbelief.
On the other hand, even as the preaching of the Word is a savor of life unto life to those who believe, so also the sacraments are the power of God through Christ, who administers the sacrament. The fathers declare, that "the Holy Ghost assures us in the sacraments that the whole of our salvation depends on the one sacrifice of Christ which He offered on the cross." Christ through the minister lays the sign of baptism on the forehead of the infant. The Holy Spirit seals this sign to the heart of the elect child, who is regenerated, converted, and brought to conscious faith by the same Spirit. This conscious faith becomes evident in a child often early in life in simple, child-like confidence in God and His Christ. Later, in the Lord's Supper, this faith is confirmed and strengthened by partaking of the signs of Christ's broken body and shed blood as a complete atonement for our sins, so that as surely as we eat of the bread and drink of the wine we are partakers of Christ and of all His benefits. Therefore in the measure that we partake of these sacraments in faith, in that measure we are also blessed.
Thus thanks be to God, who knows our weaknesses and our frailties and has added the blessings of the signs and seals of the sacraments to the power of the Word. Yea, thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift, Jesus Christ!
Rev. Cornelius Hanko was born to Herman and Jennie (nee Burmania) Hanko on May 19, 1907 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He received his heartfelt desire when the Lord in His mercy took him to glory on Monday, March 14, in the year of our Lord 2005.
Rev. Hanko was baptized in the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. During the common grace controversy in the 1920s the Hanko family followed Rev. Herman Hoeksema and the majority of the consistory of Eastern Avenue in their polemic against common grace and their advocacy of one, sovereign grace of God for the elect in Christ Jesus. The Hankos thus became charter members of the First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan when the Eastern Avenue Protesting Christian Reformed Church, her pastor and consistory, were cast out of the CRC in 1926. Rev. Hanko, therefore, was the last of the PRC clergy (and perhaps of the entire membership of the PRC) to have had direct, personal contact with the events of 1924–1926 that led to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Already in his teenage years Rev. Hanko had his eye on the ministry. His first inclination was to be a missionary. That never happened, because the Lord called him to the pastoral ministry for his entire career. Rev. Hanko began his studies for the ministry under Revs. H. Danhof, H. Hoeksema, and G. M. Ophoff. He graduated from the seminary in 1929 with five other men (four of whom left the PRC in the split of 1953 and one of whom left the PRC in the early 1960s. All five of these eventually became ministers in the CRC).
After graduation from the seminary Rev. Hanko and his bride Jennie (nee Griffioen) made their way to Hull, Iowa PRC, in which church Rev. Hanko was ordained a minister of the Word and Sacraments in the PRC. God blessed Rev. and Mrs. Hanko with four children, all of whom are members of the PRC: Rev. Herman C. (married to Wilma Knoper), Professor Emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary; Fred (married to Ruth Miersma), who gave his working life to the Protestant Reformed Christian Schools (Adams Street in Grand Rapids, where he was my ninth grade teacher, Northwest Iowa in Doon, where he taught with my wife, and Hope, Walker, Michigan); Elaine, widow of Richard Bos; and Alice, who cared for her father in his later years.
In addition to the Hull PRC, Rev. and Mrs. Hanko served in the following Protestant Reformed Churches: Oaklawn, Illinois (1935); Manhattan, Montana (1945); First, Grand Rapids, Michigan (1948); Hope, Redlands, California (1964); and Hudsonville, Michigan (1971). After becoming emeritus in 1977, Rev. Hanko remained active for a number of years, preaching and teaching in the churches and preaching two services per Sunday in Florida during the winter seasons.
His years in First Church were difficult ones for Rev. Hanko because of the controversy that resulted in the split in First and in the denomination in June of 1953. The controversy involved the doctrine of the covenant. The majority of the congregation of First and of the members and clergy of the denomination embraced the covenant view of Dr. Klaas Schilder (conceiving of the essence of the covenant as consisting of a conditional promise made by God to every baptized child). These left our churches. During these years, while never compromising the truth of an unconditional covenant of grace and friendship established unilaterally by God with His elect in Christ Jesus, Rev. Hanko never lost a certain healthy balance in his preaching and teaching in First Church. He simply did his work by the grace of God, preaching, teaching, and caring for the flock of God as best he was able.
During his years in First Church, which numbered more than five hundred families before the split in 1953 and ca. 200 families after the split, Rev. Hanko had my father as one of his co-laborers in the consistory. They became good friends. The Hankos and the Deckers regularly visited together. It was through this contact that I got to know Rev. Hanko on a personal basis. It was during Rev. Hanko’s years as pastor of First that I was a student at Calvin College, then located on Franklin Street in Grand Rapids just a short block away from the parsonage occupied by the Hankos. Not infrequently, I would walk from class at Calvin to the parsonage with my questions. Rev. Hanko patiently answered these questions from Scripture and the confessions and would then offer prayer. Rev. Hanko was used by God, together with my parents to keep me in the PRC as a member and later as one of the churches’ pastors. I also had the blessed privilege after October 1, 1965, the date of my ordination as pastor of the Doon, Iowa congregation, to labor for a few years with Rev. Hanko as a colleague. We younger pastors in Classis West leaned heavily on our older, experienced, and competent colleague, learning much from his godly example.
During his pastorate in Hudsonville, Michigan the Lord delivered his beloved Jennie from her suffering into glory. I remember sitting with Rev. Hanko in the ICU waiting-room at the hospital, when he remarked, “Part of me is dying in there.” Now Rev. Hanko, having died in the Lord, enjoys God’s fellowship in Jesus in glory as well.
We thank God for giving our churches this gifted and faithful servant and for using him for the edification of the churches for the years of his lengthy ministry among our Protestant Reformed Churches. That in the years to come these churches may follow the example of our beloved brother, Cornelius Hanko, and “…earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints…” is our fervent prayer (Jude : 3b).
Soli Deo Gloria! (Written by Rev.Gise Van Baren)