God’s sheep are safest when living in clearly fenced enclosures. There, they learn where food is given to them and where their shepherd enters and exits. Good fences keep out predators, deter thieves, and prevent the sheep themselves from wandering away. Within the Christian tradition, the areas of consensus across the ages are our clear theological fences, showing us where we are spiritually safest, turning away threats, and keeping us where we get the best care. We should have confidence about areas where the Christian tradition has shown strong consensus, knowing that God providentially maintained those fences for our good. On the other hand, controversy may reveal which issues are not central to our faith or suggest areas where some have departed from safe pastures. In other words, controversy may take place inside our theological enclosure about where the feeding trough is best placed, or it may represent breaks in the fence that need to be repaired. We should be reluctant to depart from consensus and measure carefully what it means to heed controversy.
One way that historical theology helps the church today is by showing consensus and controversy on a given topic as Christians developed our doctrine over time. Those doctrines that have shown consistent continuity and consensus over the centuries provide a baseline for theology and practice for us today. For example, the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology have retained the same ecumenical guardrails and developed in the same traditional directions—with deviations noted and rejected—from the ancient church to the modern period. On the other hand, some issues have sparked serious controversy at various times and places.
This essay explores how the sacraments were taught in seventeenth-century England, discovering areas of consensus and controversy among early modern Protestants. Our focus is specifically on comparing Protestant positions about the sacraments’ nature as visible signs of invisible grace. This comparison helps us not only to understand these issues better but to know how best to position ourselves in relation to this consensus and its controversies. As we see the stable theological fences that God has maintained in his church’s doctrine, we learn better where our safest pastures are to graze.
Sacraments As Visible Signs of Invisible Grace:
The Consensus from Augustine to the Reformers
Although this essay aims its exploration at varying sacramental positions taught in seventeenth-century England, those views make the most sense when set against the background of the wider Christian tradition. This section looks at the theological fences of consensus that the church built from the ancient period until the Reformation’s earlier phases concerning the sacrament’s nature.
In the church’s early centuries, Augustine (354–430) articulated an influential theory of signs and what they signified: “For a sign is a thing which, over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes some thing else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself.” Augustine’s theory that words are signs referring to realities signified by those signs means, for example, that the word pizza signifies a pie composed of bread, sauce, cheese, and toppings, so that this word causes us to engage the idea of a delicious entrée. Augustine’s paradigm for using this distinction for theology is Scripture, since God inspired human words that cause our participation in the divine realities of which they speak. With Scripture, God gives us these written signs to draw us into the divine realities they signify. The written accounts of God’s redemptive history pull us into his ongoing narrative of saving his people in Christ. Like the word pizza forces us to reckon with the reality of whether we crave cheesy goodness, Scripture’s words bring us to encounter God as Maker and Redeemer through the story of Christ.
In Augustinian thought, signs then play a key role in bringing us into contact with the realities they signify. Drawing lines to the Christian life, Augustine argued that catechesis means explaining how “the signs of divine realities are visible but the invisible realities themselves are granted in them.” Although Scripture’s written words occur within the visible realm of nature, God has given them as signs of our participation in supernatural realities of a relationship with him. Like a beach patrol posts a sign to mark a nest of turtle eggs that are hidden to our eyes, so God provides the words of Scripture to tell us about the realities of the God we cannot investigate directly with our senses.
Augustine’s use of the distinction between signs and things signified extends beyond words to the sacraments. Sacraments are signs through which God accomplishes, or seals, the realities signified in them. While bread and wine make up the Lord’s Supper, these creaturely instances of nourishment, when set apart by word and prayer, point beyond themselves to signify our participation in Christ’s body, blood, and all his benefits. Augustine’s categories became standard fare for subsequent Western theological discussion of the sacraments.
In the medieval period, the church continued to build this theological fence of consensus. Two major theological training manuals exemplify the medieval use of Augustine’s understanding of signs applied to the sacraments. Peter Lombard (1100–1160) flaunted his Augustinian pedigree in his magnum opus, The Sentences, by beginning it, “All teaching concerns things or signs.” Lombard then taught that a sacrament is “a sign of the grace of God and the form of invisible grace.” Later, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) taught similarly that “a sacrament is a sign of some sacred thing pertaining to man.” The Augustinian position on sacraments as outwardly exhibited signs of inwardly sealed grace became Western Christianity’s default.
During the Reformation era, the mainstream Reformers preserved this Augustinian paradigm for the sacraments, despite various disagreements about its implications for doctrine and practice, highlighting how they sought church reform rather than overhaul. Among the Lutherans, the Augsburg Confession (1530) article XIII affirms that sacraments “were ordained . . . that they should be signs and testimonies of the will of God towards us,” entailing that “men must use Sacraments so as to join faith with them, which believes the promises that are offered and declared unto us by the Sacraments.” On the Reformed side, John Calvin (1509–1564), explicitly appealing to Augustine, argued that a sacrament “is an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith,” or more simply, “a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward him.” The Augustinian heritage of visible signs of invisible grace continued into the Reformation period among Protestants across various confessional boundaries.
Holy Signes and Seales: Continuity with the Augustinian
Consensus across the Protestant Spectrum in England
Although the preceding historical sketch of how the church built theological fences of consensus relating Augustine’s paradigm of signs to the sacraments may be minimal, it’s enough to give us context for the state of sacramental consensus and controversy as we turn to the teaching of a representative sample of English Protestant theologians. We will focus our exploration on their published catechisms because those works were primarily intended for the instruction and edification of church members. Since the intricacies of doctrinal debate are not always carried into the pulpit or hashed out before the watching church, this approach helps us avoid getting lost in the details of academic debates and instead stress what these theologians wanted every Christian to understand. In other words, catechisms contain the kind of teaching that truly helps us see what fences were meant to guard the sheep most securely.
The reforming tradition in England included theologians with a variety of approaches to continuing that reform, primarily known as conformists and nonconformists. Conformists accepted the established church’s officially adopted traditions and ceremonies as matters “indifferent,” meaning that the Bible does not explicitly forbid or endorse them. Nonconformists resisted many of or all of these extrabiblical practices as unbiblical, often causing controversy as they pushed against the church’s canon law. Knowing that there were these principled differences about reform helps us understand which controversies took place inside the sheepfold and which represent breaks in the fence.
Let’s start with theologians who occupied the center of the spectrum of conformity and nonconformity. Cornelius Burges (1589–1665), who served as the second prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, produced a small catechism to prepare his congregation for communicant membership. He began his catechism:
What is a sacrament in generall? It is an holy Ordinance of God, wherein he doth by outward visible signes represent and exhibite some spirituall grace annexed by vertue of his institution, to confirme the hearts of his children touching their interest in Christ, and to bind them unto himselfe in sincere and stedfast obedience.
God commissioned visible signs to serve as sacraments and “annexed” spiritual grace to them so that his word connects the divine reality to the sacramental sign. Sounding a lot like Burges, James Ussher (1581–1656), the archbishop over the Church of Ireland, wrote: “A Sacrament is a visible signe, ordained by God to be a seale for confirmation of the promises of the Gospell unto the due receivers thereof.” On the one hand, Burges was a moderate voice within one strand of nonconformity. On the other hand, Ussher represented the conformist tradition: unapologetically Reformed, while observing many of the prescriptions in the Book of Common Prayer and defending episcopacy. Although Burgess and Ussher were hardly hand-in-hand on church matters, they were in closer agreement in their sacramental theology.
This consensus seems to hold even when we extend beyond these moderates to explore further left and right along the spectrum of conformity. John Owen (1616–1683) is well known for his articulation of issues like the extent of Christ’s satisfaction, but he is often overlooked for how emphatically nonconformist he was. Still, he also cast the sacraments in Augustinian terms, asking, “What are the Sacraments, or seales of the new Covenant?,” and answering, “Visible seales of God’s spirituall promises, made unto us in the blood of Jesus Christ.” He expanded this point, explaining that these seals were “instituted of Christ to bee visible seales and pledges, whereby God in him confirmeth the promises of the Covenant to all beleevers, restipulating of them, growth in Faith and obedience, Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 4:11; 1 Cor. 10:2–4; 11:26–29.” Owen’s uncompromising nonconformity nonetheless still left plenty of room for the usual Augustinian understanding of the sacraments.
Meanwhile, on the spectrum’s other end, Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) was thoroughly conformist, siding with Archbishop William Laud during the controversies in the 1630s leading to the Westminster Assembly. Taylor defended the church calendar, was imprisoned during Oliver Cromwell’s interregnum, and rose to prominence as bishop of Down and Connor as well as vice-chancellor of Trinity College Dublin after the Restoration. Still, Taylor wrote in his catechism that a sacrament is “an outward Ceremony ordained by Christ, to be a sign and means of conveying his grace to us.” The Augustinian center held among those who disagreed thoroughly about other issues of churchmanship.
Picking up Taylor’s explanation of a sacrament as a ceremony, the emphasis on the sacraments as ceremonies is a good indicator of how far toward the conformist side someone was. Henry Hammond (1605–1660), another thoroughgoing conformist even though he attended the Westminster Assembly, likewise favored ceremonial language in his catechism: “A sacrament in this place signifies a holy Rite, a sacred Ceremony used in the service of God.” The connection to his conformism becomes clearer in his explanation concerning ceremonies:
Some ordained by Christ, some by the Apostles, some by the following Church of several ages, and now accordingly used among Christians, in obedience to Christ and the Apostles in what they ordained, and in imitation of the laudable Canons or practice of the primitive or ancient Church.
Even with this distinct aspect to the conformist view of sacraments, Hammond still held the usual Augustinian points argued by other Reformed theologians:
The word Sacrament is set to signifie an outward visible sign, i.e. not onely a holy rite or ceremony, as before I told you, but that a significative, not empty, rite, a ceremony set to import and denote something visibly and discernably, and that something, an inward spiritual grace given unto us, i.e. some special favour and gift of God bestowed upon us.
So, even when theologians from opposite positions along the Protestant spectrum in England’s established church set forth their unique emphases, their catechisms nonetheless displayed wide consensus on the sacraments as visible signs by which God works invisible grace.
Sacraments As Means of Grace: A Development
of the Augustinian Tradition
The English Reformed catechetical tradition that is most familiar to us today—the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms—draws on the language of visible signs and invisible grace (WLC 163; WSC 92). Nonetheless, the primary vocabulary that frames the issue of signs and what they signify is different: the sacraments are means of grace, specifically in the covenant of grace. Vitally, this difference is not a theological departure from the Augustinian consensus but a development within it, growing out of the Reformed emphasis on the covenantal character of God’s dealings with his people. The Reformed tradition’s developing emphasis on word and sacraments as means of grace aimed, in part, to explain how the sacraments were signs of invisible grace as God appointed them in his covenant to signify, seal, and confirm the benefits of this covenant. In other words, the Reformed combined Augustine’s theology of signs with their paradigm of means of grace to reinforce traditional theological boundaries—akin to putting lights on the fences to help guide the sheep more clearly.
An interesting example of this development is John Ball (1585–1640), who belonged to the nonconformist tradition and was famous for his catechetical works. In a one-page catechism for preparing young people to receive the Lord’s Supper, after summarizing the gospel, Ball contended that salvation is confirmed to us “by God’s Word and Sacraments.” Two questions later, he asked, “What is a Sacrament?,” answering, “A Seale of the Covenant of Grace, or an outward and visible signe of an inward and spirituall Grace.” Here, like the Westminster Larger Catechism, Ball freely combined the Augustinian paradigm for the sacraments’ nature with a Reformed commitment to the sacraments as joined to God’s word as his covenantally ordained means of grace for his people. Because Ball’s catechism was so brief, his inclusion of any explanation of the sacraments’ nature and function shows how important these categories were in developing Reformed theology. Further, it exemplifies what Reformed theologians thought that everyday Christians, including younger disciples preparing to receive the Lord’s Supper for the first time, ought to understand and believe.
The Westminster Assembly codified this combination more famously in their catechisms. Concerning the sacraments generally, the Shorter Catechism states, “The outward and ordinary means, whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of Redemption, are his Ordinances, especially the Word, Sacraments and Prayer; all which are made effectual to the Elect, for Salvation.” In order to get ahead of potential objections to ceremonialism, they also included the question and answer:
Q. How doe the Sacraments become effectuall means of Salvation?
A. The Sacraments become effectuall means of Salvation, not from any vertue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but onely by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit, in them that by faith receive them.
Then, like Ball, they rounded out their description of the sacraments as means of grace by appealing to the standard Augustinian categories: “A sacrament is an holy Ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible Signes, Christ and the benefits of the New Covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to Beleevers.” In its preferred covenantal language of means of grace, the Westminster Assembly (which included theologians at all points along the spectrum of conformity and nonconformity) upheld and developed the Augustinian consensus. As means of grace, the sacraments are visible signs belonging to the covenant of grace, which seal to Christ’s people his invisible grace by the power of the Spirit through faith.
Signs but Not Seals? The Controversial Trajectory
of English Baptist Catechisms
Catechisms belonging to the Particular Baptist tradition in England are a notable exception to the general rule of broad Augustinian consensus in sacramental language and theology. Arguably, while not all Baptist catechisms departed from the theological content of the consensus about sacramental efficacy, major examples of the catechetical tradition departed from at least the linguistic categories of the Christian tradition. The widely used work by William Collins (d. 1702), commonly called “the Baptist Catechism” since the Baptist assembly in 1693 requested its composition, is modeled straightforwardly on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, following the same order and often repeating its exact phrasing. Collins even included Westminster’s vocabulary for the sacraments as means of grace:
The outward and ordinary Means, whereby Christ communicateth to us the Benefits of Redemption, are his Ordinances, especially the Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer; all which Means are made effectual to the Elect for Salvation.
He also repeated the Shorter Catechism’s explanation of how the sacraments become “effectual Means of Salvation.” Still, despite following the Shorter Catechism’s paradigm for the sacraments’ efficacy as means of grace and even its exact order of questions, Collins omitted its question explaining what a sacrament is, so excluding the language of sign and seal.
While English Baptists like Collins continued to draw on much of the theological heritage of the consensus, some of their works show clear evidence of severing the traditional Augustinian connection between signs (or means) and the grace that is not only signified but sealed through them. Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) wrote his catechism as a dialogue between a father and son, whose discussion moves from the signs of true faith to the means of God’s grace. The son answers his father’s question about the means that God uses to work regeneration:
The outward and more ordinary means whereby God doth this, is by preaching the Gospel. . . . The inward and more special means, is by the Powerful Working and Operation of the Holy Ghost, by which the Word Preached becomes effectual; for without this, the Word doth Profit none to Salvation, Ps. 19:7; 1 Thess. 1:6; 1 Cor. 3:7. 
Keach’s discussion is notable not for what he says about the efficacy of the Spirit-empowered word (a conviction shared by all), but for what he doesn’t say about the sacraments’ efficacy. He uses the received language of signs and means, but only for the word and Spirit, never addressing the sacraments as visible signs or means sealing invisible realities. He did refer to baptism and the Supper as a preaching of the gospel “to the Sense of Seeing” whereas the word addresses the ears, but there is no sense in which the sacraments are instrumental in conveying divine grace in any other way than by offering opportunities for instruction. This implicit decoupling of the sacraments from instrumentality—as signs of the grace they signify but do not seal—would become obvious in the 1677 London Baptist Confession of Faith (28.1–2, 29.1), which rejected the language of seals as applied to the sacraments. Augustinianism may have been slightly more apparent in the Baptist descriptions of the Lord’s Supper, but their confession’s signatories overtly stated their purpose to demur from the Reformed in regard to the sacrament of baptism. The mainstream of English Protestant theologians could agree with Keach and the London Baptist Confession so far as they go; they would go significantly further.
This guided tour through early modern Protestant catechisms reveals significant consensus among theologians, even from differing camps across the spectrum of those pursuing reform, concerning the sacraments as visible signs of invisible grace. The continuity from the ancient to the early modern period makes an important point: The mainstream Christian tradition has agreed that the sacraments are not bare signs but signs that God uses to draw us into the spiritual realities they signify; God has imbued the sacraments with a certain instrumentality, a certain kind of significatory and sealing efficacy.
This historical tour shows us a theological fence of consensus marking safe pasture concerning the sacraments. On the one hand, we should not overplay the sacraments’ efficacy by undermining their nature as signs. We cannot collapse invisible grace entirely into the sign, as happened in certain cases in the medieval period and remains so in Roman Catholic theology. The sacraments as signs are not themselves the invisible grace they signify. On the other hand, we should not reduce the sacraments’ efficacy so that they no longer play an instrumental role in drawing us into the realities that God appointed them to signify. The notable exception of some Baptist catechisms manifests a tendency to diminish the sacraments’ role—even when described as means of grace—limiting their efficacy to teaching. In other words, the sacraments’ role in sealing and granting spiritual participation in the signified divine reality was removed, so that they signify only by granting remembrance, insight, or confirmation, and not also, more profoundly, by sealing an invisible grace. The wider tradition, however, shows that we all find a safer pasture in the theological paradigm wherein the sacraments are visible signs through which God indeed seals his invisible grace by faith.
Both across the centuries and across the majority of the specific Protestant spectrum in England highlighted here, theologians not only maintained this consensus language but also found it a necessary part of catechizing their church members, even the very young. Though we still struggle with controversy over this issue, we can also learn more deeply to recognize and cherish the consensus. Let us celebrate with the Christian tradition how God has wisely ordained to work his unseen spiritual blessings through tangible, physical means, mysteriously signifying and sealing to us his divine favor through his word joined with simple water, bread, and wine. God has worked through his church to build theological fences around his sheep, and we should be excited for and confident in the safety they provide.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church (OPC), online faculty in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).
2. Augustine, On Catechizing the Uninstructed, 50.26, in Jacques Paul Migne, ed., Patrologia Cursus Completus: Series Latina, 221 vols. (Paris, 1844–64), 40:344 (signacula quidem rerum divinarum esse visibilia, sed res ipsas invisibiles in eis honorari).
3. Peter Lombard, The Sentences: Book 1: The Mystery of the Trinity, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2007), 1.1.1.
4. Peter Lombard, The Sentences: Book 4: On the Doctrine of Signs, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2010), 1.4.2.
5. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols. (New York: Benziger Bros., 1948; repr., Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 3.60.2.
6. Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1877), 2:15.
7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4.14.1.
8. Harrison Perkins, Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 13–16.
9. Cornelius Burges, A Most Compendious Direction to All that desire to be meete partakers of the Lords Supper (London, 1622).
10. James Ussher, The Principles of Christian Religion with A briefe Method of the Doctrine thereof (London, 1653), 38–39.
11. Crawford Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
12. John Owen, The Principles of the Doctrine of Christ Unfolded in Two Short Catechisms (London, 1645), 6.
13. Owen, Principles, 54.
14. Jeremy Taylor, A Short Catechism for the Institution of Young Persons in the Christian Religion (London, 1652), 18.
15. Henry Hammond, A Practical Catechism, 7th ed. (London, 1662), 362.
16. Hammond, Practical Catechism, 362.
17. Hammond, Practical Catechism, 363.
18. John Ball, A Short Catechism to Prepare Ignorant Young People for the Sacrament (Oxford, 1657), 1.
19. The Humble Advice of the Assemblie of Divines [. . .] concerning A Shorter Catechism (London, 1647), 14.
20. Shorter Catechism, 15.
21. Shorter Catechism, 15.
22. James T. Dennison, Jr., ed., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2008–14), 4:572.
23. William Collins, A Brief Instruction in the Principles of Christian Religion (London, 1695), 18.
24. Collins, Brief Instruction, 19.
25. Collins, Brief Instruction, 19.
26. Benjamin Keach, Instructions for Children, 9th ed. (London, 1710), 97–98.
27. Keach, Instructions, 98.
28. Keach, Instructions, 101.
29. Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 4:566.
30. Dennison, Ending Statement, Reformed Confessions, 4:570.