I wanted to return to this subject and give it some more space. For many Evangelicals this topic seems as strange and as pagan as incense, candles, and Jesus still displayed on our crosses.
The question is, are the sacraments a means of grace or merely symbolic of grace already imparted directly to man.
There are two general conclusions to this answer within Christianity.
Represented by Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian variations.
The sacraments are a holy sign and seal of the covenant of grace.
Sign: the sacrament represents something other than itself. It teaches about some truth symbolically.
Seal: the sacrament certifies by the authority f God that a person receiving it the quality signified. Only when rightly administered by the conditions demanded in God’s word does the sacrament truly certify and authenticate the promise or quality signified.
-Westminster Confession of Faith
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed God’s divine grace was made available and effective in human lives through a variety of means or “channels.” While God is free to work in many ways, the Church has been given the privilege and responsibility of being the Body of Christ that carries forth His redeeming purpose in the world.
Sacraments are effective means of God’s presence mediated through the created world.
Wesley affirmed the Anglican teaching that, “A sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace, and means whereby we receive the same.”
The ritual action of a sacrament does not merely point to Gods presence in the world, but also participates in it and becomes a vehicle for conveying that reality.
God’s presence in the sacraments is real, but must be accepted by human faith if it is to transform human lives.
The sacraments do not convey grace magically or irrevocably, but they are powerful channels through which God has chosen to make grace available to us.
Wesley saw baptism as the initiatory sacrament by which we enter into a convent with God and admitted as members of the Church.
Of the Means of Grace
(St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.)
21. Although God is present and operates everywhere throughout all creation and the whole earth is therefore full of the temporal bounties and blessings of God, Col. 1:17; Acts 17:28; 14:17, still we hold with Scripture that God offers and communicates to men the spiritual blessings purchased by Christ, namely, the forgiveness of sins and the treasures and gifts connected therewith, only through the external means of grace ordained by Him. These means of grace are the Word of the Gospel, in every form in which it is brought to man, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and of the Lord’s Supper. The Word of the gospel promises and applies the grace of God, works faith and thus regenerates man, and gives the Holy Ghost, Acts 20:24; Rom. 10:17; 1 Pet. 1:23; Gal. 3:2. Baptism, too, is applied for the remission of sins and is therefore a washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, Acts 2:38; 22:16; Titus 3:5. Likewise the object of the Lord’s Supper, that is, of the ministration of the body and blood of Christ, is none other than the communication and sealing of the forgiveness of sins, as the words declare: “Given for you,” and: “Shed for you for the remission of sins,” Luke 22:19, 20; Matt. 26:28, and “This cup is the New Testament in My blood,” 1 Cor. 11:23; Jer. 31:31-34 (“New Covenant”).
22. Since it is only through the external means ordained by Him that God has promised to communicate the grace and salvation purchased by Christ, the Christian Church must not remain at home with the means of grace entrusted to it, but go into the whole world with the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, Matt. 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15, 16. For the same reason also the churches at home should never forget that there is no other way of winning souls for the Church and keeping them with it than the faithful and diligent use of the divinely ordained means of grace. Whatever activities do not either directly apply the Word of God or subserve such application we condemn as “new methods,” unchurchly activities, which do not build, but harm the Church.
23. We reject as a dangerous error the doctrine, which disrupted the Church of the Reformation, that the grace and the Spirit of God are communicated not through the external means ordained by Him, but by an immediate operation of grace. This erroneous doctrine bases the forgiveness of sins, or justification, upon a fictitious “infused grace,” that is, upon a quality of man, and thus again establishes the work-doctrine of the papists.
Purpose of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is essentially an application of the Gospel, with all its spiritual blessings, in a sacred act. It offers, conveys, and seals to the communicant forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation; strengthens faith; promotes sanctification through strengthening of faith; increases love toward God and the neighbor; affords patience in tribulation; confirms hope of eternal life; and deepens union with Christ and His mystical body, the ch. (1 Co 10:17). It also serves a confessional purpose (Acts 2:42; 1 Co 10:20–21; 11:26). All these blessings are mediated through the Gospel-promise in the Sacrament (“Given and shed for you for the remission of sins”) and are apprehended by faith in the divine promise. The words “This do in remembrance of Me” do not mean merely that the communicant is to remember the absent Christ, who atoned for his sins; they invite the communicant to accept the forgiveness offered in the Sacrament (“Do this in remembrance of Me” means: remember Christ’s blessings and accept them by faith; cf. Ap XXIV 72). The Lord’s Supper differs from the preaching of the Gospel, which is addressed to all hearers, believers and unbelievers, and from Absolution,* which is individually addressed to believers, to the believers as a penitent group, in that the Sacrament offers forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation individually to each communicant under pledge of Christ’s body and blood, received with the bread and wine.
Luther contrasted prayer with the sacraments. He stated that the Word and the Sacraments is something God “does to us.” While prayer on the other hand is something the believer does toward God.
Represented by Baptist, Anabaptist, and Arminians
Zwingli, regarded as the founder of this view, rejected the instruments (sacraments as a means of grace) and entirely refused to accept any other means of grace other than direct unmediated communion with God.
In fact he believed the elements of water bread and wine to be created barriers between God and man. He believed the sacraments were a confession, not a confirmation of faith. Because of his views he preferred to call them ordinances, not sacraments.
This was a radical break from the long doctrine of the church on this issue.
7. Calvinism* and the means of grace. Calvinism rejects the means of grace as unnecessary; it holds that the Holy Spirit requires no escort or vehicle by which to enter human hearts. The Ref. doctrine of predestination* excludes the idea of means which impart the Spirit and His gifts to men, the Holy Spirit working effectively only on the elect. Acc. to Ref. teaching, the office of the Word is to point out the way of life without imparting that of which it conveys the idea. Ref. theol. regards Word and Sacraments as necessary because of divine institution. They are symbols of what the Holy Spirit does within as He works immediately (i. e. without means) and irresistibly. “Enthusiast” doctrine of the Anabaptists* and of the many sects since their day regarding the “inner light,” gen. identified with the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and the “2d conversion,” has its root in this specifically Ref. doctrine of the immediate working of the Holy Spirit. See also Enthusiasm.