Despite the strong re-affirmation of sacramental grace in Reformed theology over the last few decades, there is a curious feature in the history of Reformed theology when it comes to the use of the expression “to confer grace.” Among the 16th- and 17th-century Reformed theologians, the sacraments are overwhelmingly affirmed as genuine instruments of the Holy Spirit, and the claim is consistently maintained that there is a real exhibition of Jesus Christ through the sacramental union, and yet the Reformed have generally not approved of saying that the sacraments “confer grace.” Why is this?
Let us first briefly look at some of the unusual occurrences in question. In the Mutual Consent of the Churches of Zurich and Geneva as to the Sacraments, chapter seventeen is titled “The Sacraments Do Not Confer Grace.” In it, John Calvin (the principal author) writes “by this doctrine is overthrown that fiction of the sophists which teaches that the sacraments confer grace on all who do not interpose the obstacle of mortal sin.” He goes on to say that the grace of God “is by no means so annexed to them that whoso receives the sign also gains possession of the thing.” The section concludes, “For the signs are administered alike to reprobate and elect, but the reality reaches the latter only.” The sacraments do not “confer grace,” because some who receive the sign do not receive the thing signified.
Peter Martyr Vermigli, writing to Bullinger, is also critical of the use of the phrase “confer grace” when speaking of the sacraments. He states, “many people, including those who were otherwise not unlearned or evil, maintained that grace is conferred, as they say, through the sacraments.” Of them he concludes, “but when it comes to their arguments, there are not which have not been refuted, and that very easily.” Here we see some true diversity in sacramental language, among those “otherwise not unlearned or evil.” Yet Vermigli and Bullinger seem to be of one mind against them.
There is no real debate that John Calvin, along with the great majority of Reformed theologians, had a high view of the sacraments as a means of grace. For his part, Calvin could say, “Ever since Christ cleansed us with the washing of his blood, and imparted this cleansing through baptism, it would be unfitting to befoul ourselves with new pollutions.” The Genevan Catechism even says:
I understand it to be a figure, but still so that the reality is annexed to it; for God does not disappoint us when he promises us his gifts. Accordingly, it is certain that both pardon of sins and newness of life are offered to us in baptism, and received by us.
This notion of offering and imparting is held together through the technical sense in which Calvin used the term “exhibit.” Elsewhere he explains, “When Paul says that we are washed by baptism, his meaning is, that God employs it for declaring to us that we are washed, and at the same time performs what it represents. If the truth – or, which is the same thing, the exhibition of the truth – were not connected with baptism, it would be improper to say that baptism is the washing of the soul.”
So there is a proper way and an improper way to understand Calvin’s use of this language. The “exhibition of the truth” is “connected with baptism,” and this is achieved through the mystical union of the Spirit and the ascent of faith. A concise summary is found in Calvin’s expression: “When we see the visible sign, we must rise aloft, and understand, that God accomplishes the thing in truth, which is signified unto us by the visible Sacrament.” The thing is accomplished “in truth,” but it is done so invisibly and by the immediate working of the Spirit as we “rise aloft.”
Calvin’s thought on this issue becomes clearer when we emphasize the role of faith as the receptive instrument. Quoting Augustine, Calvin states, “For whence comes this great power of water, that in touching the body it should cleanse the heart, unless the word makes it? Not because it is said, but because it is believed.” He also calls sacraments “pillars of our faith,” and says that God “nourishes faith spiritually through the sacraments.” The necessity of faith is again affirmed when Calvin proclaims, “What is a sacrament received apart from faith but the most certain ruin of the church?” Calvin repeatedly and clearly states that the sacraments take effect only “when we receive them in faith, seeking Christ alone and his grace in them.”
Since the sacraments require faith in order for their signification to be received, Calvin will also mention the necessity for God’s Holy Spirit to create faith in the individual. In this regard Calvin can use predestination as a guiding principle to control his sacramental thought. Again quoting Augustine, Calvin writes, “In the elect alone the sacraments effect what they represent.” This is consistent with the place of predestination within Calvin’s larger system, but it is just here where we need to take special care. Though it is true that only the faithful will receive the reality offered in the sacrament, it is not the case that Calvin believes that the faith of the receiver is the cause of the presence of the sacramental reality, nor are the sacraments bare tokens for the reprobate. This was Zwingli’s view, and it was this point which Luther especially reviled, believing that it made the truth of God’s gospel dependent on the human response.
While always confessing the truth of God’s predestination, as well as the necessity of faith for the reception of the sacraments, Calvin equally emphasizes that in every sacrament there is an exhibition of Jesus Christ and a genuine offer of Him to all. He writes, “What I have said is not to be understood as if the force and truth of the sacrament depended upon the condition or choice of him who receives it. For what God has ordained remains firm and keeps its own nature, however men may vary.” In the Genevan Catechism the question is asked “Is this grace bestowed on all indiscriminately?” The answer says, “Many precluding its entrance by their depravity, make it void to themselves. Hence the benefit extends to believers only, and yet the Sacrament loses nothing of its nature.” Calvin expresses the same notion with regard to the Lord’s Supper: “Christ offers his body and blood to all in general; but as unbelievers bar the entrance of his liberality, they do not receive what is offered.”
In summary, we see that Jesus Christ truly offers himself to all in general, and the faithless reject the offer. That the reality is not received is their fault and not that of the nature of the sacrament. The free offer of the gospel is thus carried over into the sacraments, and it is due only to ingratitude and the despising of God’s grace that the faithless person does not receive what is truly offered. Calvin writes, “We compare faith to a kind of vessel; for unless we come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek Christ’s grace, we are not capable of receiving Christ.”
Zacharias Ursinus gives an extended discussion on the sacraments in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. In it many Calvinistic key terms appear. Ursinus writes that sacraments “seal to us the promise of the gospel.” The sacraments sign and seal the covenant, and thus they “declare” God’s word. They “exhibit” Christ. He also adds that there is “a necessity that they should be perceived by the outward sense, so that the inward sense may be moved thereby; for that is no sign to anyone which he cannot see.” Ursinus can even say that God “makes us acquainted with his will, both by his word, and sacraments; but yet more especially by the latter.”
Ursinus also believes that the sacraments are instruments in which the Holy Spirit effects redemption. He says, “The Holy Ghost effectually influences our hearts by these signs and pledge of the divine favor, no less than by the word.” For Ursinus, there is a “sacramental union” in which it can be said that “the things signified are always received in connection with the signs in the lawful use of the sacraments. The signs are, therefore, not by any means empty or insignificant, notwithstanding the things are received in one way, the signs in another.” The way that the “things are received” is faith. This sacramental union is so real in fact, that of baptism Ursinus can say, “Christ baptizes us by the hand of his ministers, just as he speaks through them.”
Girolamo Zanchi served as the successor to Ursinus at the University of Heidelberg. He uses some of the same key terms as found in Vermigli, Calvin, and Ursinus, and he gives some important explanations on the sacraments. In his De Religione Christiani Fides, Zanchi denies that the sacraments are merely tokens and claims that they are “instruments by which (while the actions and benefits of Christ are represented unto us) they are called to our remembrance, his promises are sealed and our faith stirred up, the Holy ghost also doth ingraft us to Christ and doth keepe us being ingrafted and makes us daily to growe up more and more into one with him.” Zanchi also says that the sacraments must be received in faith, but he notes the serious offer to all:
And although all men come not to the receiving of the sacraments with faith and true understanding, yet as the signes are given to all that professe Christ, so also we believe that the things signified by the sacraments are seriously offred unto all by Christ; and therefore that nothing is diminished of the substance or soundness of the sacrament by the unbeleefe of them that receive the signes only, for it dependeth wholy upon the institution of Christ and the trueth of his wordes.
Here Zanchi seeks to show that the reality’s presence is objective and is “seriously offered” to all. The faithless will not receive it, but its presence and offer depend not on them but on the institution of Christ.
With such a strong affirmation of the offer of grace in the sacraments, the exhibition of the reality of the signs, and even the bestowal of grace upon worthy receivers, why should the term “confer” be problematic? To modern ears, “confer” might well seem to be a lesser term than some of the others more boldly embraced by the Reformers. This is where a knowledge of the internal relations between Reformed schools of thought is important.
Both Calvin and Vermigli oppose the idea that the sacraments confer grace, but their comments come in letters or conciliatory statements written to Zwinglians, especially to Heinrich Bullinger. This is then a part of the tricky business of navigating inter-Reformational debates. The use of “sacrament” is thus in reference to the visible sign only, and the position being refuting is an ex opere operato view in which the visible sign always bestows grace from its own working and power. These qualifications are important because many of the key terms used in discussing the sacraments have a larger context and association, bringing to mind many other distinctive notions. The concept of “conferring grace” was thought to imply a material view of grace, in which the sacraments were a spout through which some sort of substance called grace would flow. That this is the case is seen in a letter from Bullinger to Calvin, in which he refuses to use many of the Calvinistic key terms, including “offer” (exhibent) and “confer.” He explains this reluctance:
But this you ascribe to an instrument through which it is worked, some implement or flow-sluice or canal, the very sacraments, though which grace is infused into us … But we do not believe this … God alone works our salvation … God, and no created thing, confers and indeed confers through the Spirit and faith.
The verb “confer” was judged to err too much towards such a materialist concept of grace, but it is important to note that the Reformed did continue to use the verb “offer” or “exhibit” which Bullinger rejected.
The question becomes a little more complicated when we turn our attention to the Westminster Confession of Faith, written much later of course, but still a document that gives a sort of definitive consensus statement of the Reformed view. The Westminster Divines were heirs to both Zurich and Geneva in important ways, and they would have felt the burden of appeasing both. Perhaps this is why their confession gives a sort of subtle nuance to the question.
The Westminster Confession of Faith states that grace is “exhibited in or by the sacraments,” but “not conferred by any power in them.” This would seem to be following in the tradition of rejecting the expression “confer” with regard to sacramental grace. The term “exhibit” is employed, which shows the influence of Calvin over Bullinger, but just as Calvin had done, the Westminster Confession seems to downplay or reject the term “confer.”
However in the next chapter, concerning baptism, the Confession states, “by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.” Here we have the term “conferred” used in an affirmative sense. But of course there are protective qualifications as well. The Holy Ghost, not merely the sacrament, is the one conferring the grace, and He does so “to such … as that grace belongeth unto.”
Such a close reading might seem overly pedantic today. Indeed it likely goes unnoticed by most. But any familiarity with the history of theological terms in Reformed sacramental dialogue will show that such wording was fully conscious and intended to accomplish certain very specific tasks. It is one thing to say that the Holy Ghost might confer grace “by the right use of” the sacraments. It is entirely another thing to simply say that the sacraments confer grace.
This matter’s details actually serves to highlight the specific contour of the Reformed doctrine of the sacraments. While being “means” of grace, the sacraments are not actually “mediations” of grace. They are signs, seals, tokens, and even “mirrors in which we may contemplate the riches of God’s grace.” The sacraments make us “more especially” “acquainted with God’s will.” Yet they are not “canals” for grace to flow, nor do they infallibly “confer” grace upon all who participate in the external ritual.
Essentially the sacraments are a mode of the Word. They are visible or tangible forms of the same Word which is preached, and as such, they are “the word of God.” In this sense then, they are, in Luther’s words, “trysting places” for the Spirit of God to meet with His people and work in their hearts. For Calvin, the “ministers and teachers penetrate to the mind and heart.” Yet they do not do so externally or materially, but rather when “God, the author of preaching, connects his Spirit with it, and then promises a beneficial result.” This is just as true as those occasions “in which God, separating himself from external means, claims for himself alone both the commencement and the whole course of faith.” This is because even preaching is a mystical work of the Holy Spirit.
The hearing of the word is directly analogous to the receiving of the sacrament. The Spirit must work in both interactions, effectual persuading by “the illumination of the mind and renewal of the heart.” Calvin’s explanation of the way in which preaching effects salvation is nearly identical to what he says about the sacraments, “when we see the visible sign, we must rise aloft, and understand, that God accomplishes the thing in truth, which is signified unto us by the visible Sacrament.” In both instances, the true work is occurring internally and invisibly.
And so the verb “confer” really is not the most appropriate or even intelligible one when the object in question is not a commodity but rather an internal and invisible persuasive act. The mystical movement of the Spirit is not something that can simply be given, but it can be witnessed. Its promise can be held forth and offered, and when believers encounter that offer, when and where it is offered, then the grace is active and effective. This is the Reformed doctrine of the Word, and it is also the Reformed doctrine of the sacraments.
UPDATE (July 14, 2016)
While working through Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 10, this section seemed relevant to this post:
It remains that we speak of the second point — the resemblance between the ancient signs and ours. It is a well-known dogma of the schoolmen — that the Sacraments of the ancient law were emblems of grace, but ours confer it. This passage is admirably suited for refuting that error, for it shows that the reality of the Sacrament was presented to the ancient people of God no less than to us. It is therefore a base fancy of the Sorbonists, that the holy fathers under the law had the signs without the reality. I grant, indeed, that the efficacy of the signs is furnished to us at once more clearly and more abundantly from the time of Christ’s manifestation in the flesh than it was possessed by the fathers. Thus there is a difference between us and them only in degree, or, (as they commonly say,) of “more and less,” for we receive more fully what they received in a smaller measure. It is not as if they had had bare emblems, while we enjoy the reality. (Comment. 1 Cor. 10:3)
Notice that “the schoolmen” denied that the sacraments of the Old Covenant conferred grace. Here Calvin rebuts them, stating that the sacraments of the Old and New Covenants differ “only in degree.” He does not mean by this that both old and new sacraments “confer” grace, but rather that nether do in and of themselves. Instead, the sacraments present and exhibit grace. A few statements earlier, Calvin had written this:
…it is not bare emblems that are presented to us in the Sacraments, but that the thing represented is at the same time truly imparted, for God is not a deceiver to feed us with empty fancies. A sign, it is true, is a sign, and retains its essence, but, as Papists act a ridiculous part, who dream of transformations, (I know not of what sort,) so it is not for us to separate between the reality and the emblem which God has conjoined. Papists confound the reality and the sign: profane men, as, for example, Suenckfeldius, and the like, separate the signs from the realities. Let us maintain a middle course, or, in other words, let us observe the connection appointed by the Lord, but still keep them distinct, that we may not mistakingly transfer to the one what belongs to the other.
Thus again, the “conferral” occurs through the mystical union of sign and thing signified, according to the work of the Holy Spirit.
 Treatises on the Sacraments, tr. Henry Beveridge (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Heritage, 2002), 217.
 “Letter No. 72: Peter Martyr to Henry Bullinger,” in Life, Letters and Sermons, tr. John Patrick Donnelly (Kirksville, MO : Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, 2000), 124–25.
 Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.6.3.
 Treatises on the Sacraments, 87.
 Commentary on Ephesians 5:26.
 Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 1081.
 Institutes 4.14.4.
 Treatises on the Sacraments, 85.
 Institutes 4.14.15.
 Ibid. 4.14.16.
 Treatises on the Sacraments, 87.
 Ibid., 579.
 Institutes 3.11.7.
 Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism tr. G. W. Williard (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company; reproduction of 1852 ed.), 342.
 Ibid., 343.
 Ibid., 344.
 Ibid., 355.
 Ibid., 372.
 De Religione Christiani Fides14.6.
 Ibid. 14.9.
 Quoted in Bryan D. Spinks, Reformation and Modern Rituals and Theologies of Baptism (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006), 34.
 David F. Wright explains the particular significance the term exhibitio took on in Martin Bucer’s theology: “[Bucer] spoke repeatedly of the presentation (exhibitio) of the body and blood by the elements, a term which became almost an identity card of Bucer’s Eucharistic expositions. By it he intended the actual delivery of Christ to the believing communicant, and not merely the representative value of the bread and wine”; “Martin Bucer: Ecumenical Theologian” in Common Places of Martin Bucer (Sutton Courtenay Press, 1972), 35. This would continue to shape the theology of Calvin and later distinctively Calvinian thinkers.
 WCF 27.3.
 WCF 28.6.
 Institutes 4.14.5,6.
 Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 344.
 Institutes 4.1.6.
 Sermons on Deuteronomy, 1081.