Beliefs about the Sacraments
What is a sacrament?
The word sacrament is based on the Latin word sacramentum, which means "something sacred." In the early church sacramentum came to stand for many things sacred, including rites that had a hidden meaning. During the Reformation, using Scripture as a guide, the reformers limited the number of sacraments to two: baptism and the Lord's Supper. 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.
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 unto death, that we might rise with him and walk in newness of life. In the Reformed Church, 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, the church;
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 forsake the evil of the world;
and to live a new and holy life.
How does the Reformed Church practice baptism?
The Reformed Church baptizes infants as well as older children and adults. Recognizing the symbolic cleansing and refreshing characteristics of water, the RCA affirms sprinkling, immersion, and pouring as methods of baptism.
What is communion?
Communion, also known as the Lord's Supper or Eucharist, is Christ's gift to the church. On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and shared it with his disciples. "This is my body that is for you," he said. "Do this in remembrance of me." He also took a cup of wine and said, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me."
Following Jesus' example and instruction, when the church celebrates the Lord's Supper we receive gifts of bread and wine; 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. As baptism is the sign and seal of our ingrafting into Christ, so the Lord's Supper is a means by which Christ continually nourishes, strengthens and comforts us.
Related: Remembering the Lord's Supper [Faithward blog]
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).
How does the Reformed Church practice communion?
Within the RCA, there is great diversity in the practice of communion. Some churches serve communion once a month, some do more or less frequently. The practice of the early church and the teaching of the Reformers of the 16th century was to celebrate the Lord's Supper weekly. The Book of Church Order calls for communion to be celebrated at least once every three months, if possible. Some churches use a common cup for the wine or juice, and some use individual cups. Some churches practice intinction (dipping the bread in the wine), and some serve the elements separately. Sometimes people are served in the pew. At other times they may be invited to come forward to the table. These practical decisions are largely left to the leaders of the congregation.
Who may participate in communion?
Christ is the host and invites us to his table. All who have been baptized into Christ are welcome to participate in the Lord's Supper, although local boards of elders have been given the responsibility to decide at what age and under what circumstances young children may be served.