The Sacraments in Reformed Worship

In the Reformed tradition, there are two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper, also known as communion. These sacraments, instituted by Christ, are a means of grace within the covenant community. They are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible and the means by which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The RCA’s Standards of Unity—historical documents that express the central beliefs of the Reformed tradition—offer theological explanation and Scriptural grounds for the two sacraments. For information about how the RCA practices the sacraments and for liturgies, please visit one of the following:

A silver communion cup and a silver water pitcher are prepared for the sacraments of communion and baptism.

How the Reformed Standards define the sacraments

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 66

Q. What are sacraments?

A. Sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and seal that promise.1

And this is God’s gospel promise: to grant us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life by grace because of Christ’s one sacrifice accomplished on the cross.2

1Gen. 17:11; Deut. 30:6; Rom. 4:11
2Matt. 26:27-28; Acts 2:38; Heb. 10:10

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 68

Q. How many sacraments did Christ institute in the New Testament?

A. Two: baptism and the holy supper.1

1Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26

What is baptism?

Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace with us and our children. Baptism is the visible word of God that we are cleansed in Christ’s blood, buried with him in death, and raised with him in new life. In the RCA, baptism is always performed in the context of a congregation of God’s people. The congregation commits itself to the spiritual nurture of the infant, child, or adult being baptized. Baptism is the mark of corporate as well as individual faith. The journey of faith that begins in individual baptism continues in the church community.

What happens during baptism?

In baptism, God promises—by grace alone—to forgive our sins, to adopt us into the body of Christ, to send the Holy Spirit daily to renew and cleanse us, and to resurrect us to eternal life.

Through baptism, Christ calls us to new obedience, to love and trust God completely, to turn away from sin and evil, and to live a new and holy life.

What the Standards say about baptism

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 69

Q. How does holy baptism remind and assure you that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross benefits you personally?

A. In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing1 and with it promised that as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, that is, all my sins.2

1Acts 2:38
2Matt. 3:11; Rom. 6:3-10; 1 Pet. 3:21

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 70

Q. What does it mean to be washed with Christ’s blood and Spirit?

A. To be washed with Christ’s blood means that God, by grace, has forgiven our sins because of Christ’s blood poured out for us in his sacrifice on the cross.1

To be washed with Christ’s Spirit means that the Holy Spirit has renewed and sanctified us to be members of Christ, so that more and more we become dead to sin and live holy and blameless lives.2

1Zech. 13:1; Eph. 1:7-8; Heb. 12:24; 1 Pet. 1:2; Rev. 1:5
2Ezek. 36:25-27; John 3:5-8; Rom. 6:4; 1 Cor. 6:11; Col. 2:11-12

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 71

Q. Where does Christ promise that we are washed with his blood and Spirit as surely as we are washed with the water of baptism?

A. In the institution of baptism, where he says:

“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.”1

“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”2

This promise is repeated when Scripture calls baptism “the water of rebirth”3 and the washing away of sins.4

1Matt. 28:19
2Mark 16:16
3Titus 3:5
4Acts 22:16

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 72

Q.Does this outward washing with water itself wash away sins?

A. No, only Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins.1

1Matt. 3:11; 1 Pet. 3:21; 1 John 1:7

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 73

Q. Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism the washing of rebirth and the washing away of sins?

A. God has good reason for these words. To begin with, God wants to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ take away our sins just as water removes dirt from the body.1

But more important, God wants to assure us, by this divine pledge and sign, that we are truly washed of our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water physically.2

11 Cor. 6:11; Rev. 1:5, 7:14
2Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 74

Q. Should infants also be baptized?

A. Yes, Infants as well as adults are included in God’s covenant and people,1 and they, no less than adults, are promised deliverance from sin through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit who produces faith.2

Therefore, by baptism, the sign of the covenant, they too should be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers.3 This was done in the Old Testament by circumcision,4 which was replaced in the New Testament by baptism.5

1Gen. 17:7; Matt. 19:14
2Isa. 44:1-3; Acts. 2:38-39, 16:31
3Acts 10:47; 1 Cor. 7:14
4Gen. 17:9-14
5Col. 2:11-13

Belgic Confession Article 34: The Sacrament of Baptism

… Therefore Christ has commanded
that all those who belong to him
be baptized with pure water
“in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.”1

In this way God signifies to us
that just as water washes away the dirt of the body
when it is poured on us
and also is seen on the bodies of those who are baptized
when it is sprinkled on them,
so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally,
in the soul,
by the Holy Spirit.

It washes and cleanses it from its sins
and transforms us from being the children of wrath
into the children of God.

1Matt. 28:19

What is communion?

Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, is Christ’s gift to the church. The Lord’s Supper is a means by which Christ continually nourishes, strengthens, and comforts us.

When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we follow what Jesus did when he broke bread and drank wine with his disciples on the night before he died. We receive gifts of bread and wine or grape juice. We give thanks to God. We break the bread and pour the wine. We share the food and drink with each other. In these simple actions believers experience a profound mystery: Christ himself is present and his life passes into us and is made ours.

What happens during communion?

Through our prayers and the sharing of bread and wine, we are joined to Christ and through Christ to each other. At the table, we remember what God has done for us. The past event of our Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension comes into the present so that its power once again touches us, changes us, and heals us. We gather at the table with joy. Our eating and drinking is a celebration of our risen Lord. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is present with us at the table and so we give joyful thanks for what God has done and is doing in our lives and in the world. We come to the table in hope. We look forward with joyful anticipation to the coming reign of God when “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10).

Reformed Christians do not believe that the bread and cup are physically transformed into Christ’s body and blood.

What the Standards say about communion

A loaf of bread and a silver goblet are prepared for the sacrament of communion.
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 75

Q. How does the holy supper remind and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his benefits? 

A. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup in remembrance of him. With this command come these promises:1

First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross.

Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.

1 Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25

Belgic Confession Article 35: The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

We believe and confess
that our Savior Jesus Christ
has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper
to nourish and sustain those
who are already regenerated and ingrafted
into his family,
which is his church …