My son Danny and I had a brief conversation about the sacraments and the covenant. I wish I had a recorder. When we were finished I typed in a rough outline of what was said. Here it is as best as I can remember with some minor insertions to preserve continuity.
Danny: How many sacraments are there?
Me: Well, it depends what you mean by “sacrament.” The word literally means “mystery” and there can be many mysteries. But the Roman Catholic church says there’s seven special mysteries they call sacraments. We say there’s two but we mean something more specific by the word sacrament.
But you tell me, what’s a sacrament?
Danny: It’s a mystery
Me: But what is it?
Danny: I don’t know?
Me: It’s a means of grace. Do you know what grace is?
Danny: It’s God’s liking someone.
Me: Right. It’s God’s favor. Grace is favor. So saying the sacraments are a “means of grace” is like saying they’re a means by which God shows us His favor. And can you earn God’s favor?
Me: The Roman Catholic church believes that when Christ died, he filled up this big reservoir of merit. According to them, when he shows us His favor, He gives us some merit from the reservoir, but then we need to add our own merit to that. They believe there are some people who obey so well that they merit more than they need to have to get to heaven so that extra merit goes back into the reservoir to be used by more people. … Do you know what ‘merit’ is?
Danny: It’s following what God wants you to do.
Me: Well, it’s the “earning.” When you “merit” something, someone “owes” you like wages that should be paid. … Let me ask you this: since God created Adam, was Adam obligated to obey God?
Me: Then, if Adam HAD obeyed God perfectly, would God have owed Adam eternal life? Would Adam have *merited* eternal life?
Me: Would God have *owed* Adam eternal life like a boss owes wages to someone that does work for him?
Danny: Well … yes.
Me: Why? God made Adam so Adam is bound to obey God. But does God OWE Adam anything?
Danny: No, I guess not.
Me: So God would have been within His rights to condemn Adam to hell, even after perfect obedience, if He wanted to. Not that He would, but He wouldn’t violate any rule if He “made Adam for common use,” would He? Doesn’t the potter have the right to do as He pleases with the clay?
Danny: Yes. I guess so. So I guess God wouldn’t have owed Adam anything, even if he obeyed perfectly.
Me: So Adam can’t merit God’s favor. Now, what’s a covenant?
Danny: An agreement that can’t be broken?
Me: Well, not exactly. A covenant is a solemn oath, made by two parties, with promises (and therefore obligations), with blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Blessings for keeping the promises or fulfilling the obligations and curses for failing.
Now, what if God created Adam, and entered into a covenant with him? What if God, in a covenant, promised Adam eternal life if He obeyed Him perfectly, but cursed him with death if he disobeyed?
Now if Adam obeyed perfectly would God have been obligated to reward him with eternal life?
Danny: Because He promised.
Me: So it has nothing to do with Adam *earning* it. God is obligated by His own promise in the covenant, not by Adam’s obedience.
Me: So did God have to make the promise to Adam?
Me: So when God made the promise he was showing ‘favor’ to Adam. He promised Adam eternal life because He wanted to, not because He owed him anything, and not because of anything Adam did or could do?
Me: Well, that’s God’s grace. Do you see how God’s grace is bound in the covenant and ‘merit’ cannot have anything to do with it?
Me: So the sacraments are a signs of the covenant we have with God. In them His favor, or grace, is shown to us because in them His promises are reiterated. They are like an official *seal* on a letter than contains the covenant promises. That’s what Jesus meant when He said “This is my blood in the new covenant, which is shed for the forgiveness of sin … Do this as a memorial.”
We talked more about baptism and being in the covenant community. About “common grace” and how it applies to unbelievers in the covenant. And the covenant curses. And then about the development of doctrine (Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda) and the unfolding or the history of the rediscovery of the covenant. But I guess I’ll save that for another time