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The Signs and Seals of the Covenant

The matter of the signs and seals of the covenant has become a subject of many arguments and divisions in the church. This is unfortunate, for the signs and seals of the covenant are given as vehicles of covenant celebration.

The covenant is a treaty, a contract, a carefully formulated legal arrangement respecting the union and fellowship between God and man. It is the nature of the covenant to have a definite form. This form includes signs and seals. Signs and seals appear in both the Old and New Testaments.

For instance, the rainbow was the sign of the Noahic covenant. Circumcision was the sign or seal of the Abrahamic covenant. In Acts 7:8 the covenant with Abraham is referred to as "the covenant of circumcision." This is an interesting expression, because it shows us that the sign or seal, by way of metonymy, may be spoken of as the covenant itself. The Sabbath was the sign of both the Adamic and Israelitic covenants (Gen. 2:1-3; Ex. 31:16,17). So also, by way of metonymy, the Sabbath is spoken of as if it were the covenant itself (see Isa. 56:4, 5). This relationship between the sign and the thing signified is a very important matter in understanding the Bible's covenantal way of speaking (e.g., the words of institution of the Supper, "This is My body," must be understood as reflecting this covenantal way of speaking).

The following statement from the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament is not only true in identifying the signs and seals that appear in the Old Testament, but it is also true in expressing the facts in a covenantal way:

The Sabbath, the rainbow, and circumcision are, in fact, the three great covenants established by God at the three critical stages of the history of mankind, the creation (Gen. 1:1, 2, 3; Ex. 31:16f.), the establishment of mankind after the flood (Gen. 9:1-17), and the birth of the Hebrew nation (Gen. 17). —eds. Botterweck & Ringgren (Eerdmans), Vol.2, p.264,

Three Signs and Seals in the New Testament

In the New Testament we find that the believer has a covenantal relation with the Triune God. It is therefore suggested that there are also three signs and seals attached to the new covenant.

Not all are agreed in identifying these signs and seals. Some have proposed that they are (1) the regenerating gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13), (2) baptism and (3) the Supper. Others point out that the purely inward, invisible work of the Holy Spirit (apart from baptism) does not qualify as a sign or seal, since a sign or seal, by very nature and meaning, must be some visible token of the covenant.

The Puritans, who made the study of the covenant a point of great attention in their theology, proposed that the third sign and seal was what they fondly called "the Christian Sabbath." They pointed out that the Sabbath was inseparably related to the covenant and its renewal (i.e., the new covenant prophecy in Isaiah 56:2-6 and 58:12,13). It was due to this Puritan idea that Sabbatarianism became a marked feature in the tradition of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. The Reformed South African scholar, Francis Nigel Lee, seeks to perpetuate this Puritan concept in his published doctoral thesis, The Covenantal Sabbath (London: The Lord's Day Alliance Society, 1966). The Puritan view is also reflected by some of the Westminster men like the late John Murray.

Then there are others who have agreed with the Puritans about the link between the Sabbath and God's grand covenant renewal which was fulfilled in the Christ event, but they disagree as to the form of the Christian Sabbath. These maintain that because it is the one sign and seal which belongs to the actual words of God's eternal covenant (Ex. 34:27-29; Deut. 4:13) and because, like the institution of marriage itself, it reaches back to man's sinless state in Eden, it must remain the unchanged seventh day of the Decalogue. According to their view, this seventh-day Sabbath is also identified with the apocalyptic "seal of God" because, it is pointed out, the Revelator is using Old Testament (Jewish) symbolism (see Rev. 7:1-4) as well as language which is covenantal (see Rev. 11:19; 15:5).

If there is not room for argument enough, consider also how different sections of the church have practiced the rite of baptism or celebrated the holy Supper. There have been times when controversy over these signs and seals has become so inflamed that people have actually lost their lives at the hands of other Christians. Those who wanted to practice baptism by immersion so irritated the Reformers that the Reformers felt justified in fighting them with violent forms of persecution. Zwingle and his friends punished them, as they thought proper, by protracted "immersion" in the nearest river. If death by drowning was not shocking enough, think how Cranmer and Ridley consented to give a young Welsh lassie over to the stake because she was simply a "Baptist." The Lutherans were certainly not outdone in their zeal to preserve the purity of the faith. A Lutheran pastor who was careless enough to fumble the element of the Supper got his fingers cut off by way of punishment. And Melanchthon's son-in-law was put in prison for ten years because he leaned to Calvin's view of the Supper.

Of course, today we are sophisticated, so we do not treat fellow Christians in such a barbaric way when they disagree with the faith we ardently espouse. Besides, the law of the land prevents Christians from practicing these uncharitable acts toward each other. If our religious persuasions are strong enough, we simply bring all sorts of ecclesiastical and social pressure on our friends to make them see and practice "the light." And if they do not conform, we ostracize them as if they were dangerous lepers. This can hurt as much as drowning or burning. But this form of torture has one advantage — the process is more prolonged.1

Unless we are prepared to overlook a very important area of covenantal theology, we cannot push the signs and seals of the covenant under the rug in the interest of keeping everybody happy. But some of the problems will be solved if we deal with the principles behind the signs and seals before we try to settle questions about the correct form.

The Relation Between Form and Spirit

In order for anything to qualify as a sign and seal of the covenant, it must have a form. Something which is completely spiritual and invisible does not qualify as a sign. A sign has to be related to some visible token.

This brings us to the whole question of the relation between form and spirit We will make two propositions about this relationship.

1. Our first proposition is that spirit needs form.

God is spirit. His love is spiritual. But this love has been given form. First, it was given form in the creation of man and a material world. The things which God made were an expression of His infinite love. Second, God's love was given form in the incarnation. His love became flesh-and-blood reality in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The human mind is spirit. But God created man in such a way that the human mind would find expression in a material body. The body is the only medium through which the human spirit finds expression. No brains, no thought!

Form is important — at least it was in the truly Hebraic and biblical view of man. The Greeks depreciated form (matter, body). They said that the body is a prison from which the soul awaits release to the immaterial world of pure idea. But the Bible teaches that the body is a temple which God made and which Christ died to redeem. The Old Testament taught the Hebrews to respect even the form of human existence, for the whole man was made in God's image.

Human existence must have a form. Spirit not only affects form, but form affects spirit. If a person lives in an untidy and disordered environment, it will affect the spirit. A sagging posture tends to a sagging spirit. Let women take on male forms of dress and actions, and this will modify the feminine spirit. The reverse process is true with males.

Human love needs form. It cannot exist without expression. Marriage is a holy and spiritual union, but it has a form. Also, the legal contract (covenant) on which it is founded cannot be dismissed as a scrap of paper without prostituting a fundamental principle of life.

Faith is spirit. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit and cannot be seen. Yet faith needs form. It is given form in Christian baptism.2 Faith is also given form in a life of good works. This is what James 2 is all about. Faith cannot live without expression. Without works faith is dead.

Human thought (spirit) needs form. That form is language. Helen Keller's mind was locked in isolation and could not develop until her teacher taught her a language. As soon as her mind was given a vehicle of expression, it blossomed out remarkably.

The church, as the invisible and mystical body of Christ, needs form. There has to be a visible church — a visible community — a ministry, an order and discipline. The visible aspect of the church cannot be ignored. There must be church order, the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments. Spirit needs form.

Understanding the essential relation between spirit and form throws light on some vital problems in church history. To start with, it helps us to understand what Paul was up against in the problems which developed at Corinth. A Greek influence became plainly visible in this believing community. The Greeks depreciated matter. In Greek philosophy the essence of salvation was a flight away from the material world. The church at Corinth experienced the development of an exaggerated spirituality which depreciated form. The human body was depreciated in the interest of super-piety. It was even said that if one were truly spiritual, he could not sin even if he committed fornication ("Every sin that a man doeth is without the body," 1 Cor. 6:18). Some were behaving scandalously at the Supper. Others thought that spiritual ecstasy gave them liberty to ignore the orderly conduct of church meetings. The resurrection of the body at the last day was repudiated in the interest of a present pneumatic experience.

In his letters to the Corinthian church Paul countered this false spirituality by dealing with such questions as the preaching of the gospel, the body as God's temple, marriage, the celebration of the Supper, the orderly conduct of church gatherings, and the resurrection of the body. Paul showed that even redeemed life will have form.

The early apologists of the Christian church had to counter the Gnostic (Greek) influence by contending for three fundamental things — the creation of a material world by the Father of Jesus Christ, the flesh-and-blood reality of the incarnation, and the resurrection of the body. The Gnostics denied that the material world could be a work worthy of God. They said that God, being pure spirit, could not have become real flesh and blood in the incarnation. And they repudiated the idea of the resurrection of the body. They were anxious to get rid of the body, not to have it resurrected; so they showed their contempt for it either by neglecting it or by indulging in flagrant bodily sins which were regarded as no sins at all. It was against these heresies that the Apostles' Creed boldly confesses: ". . . God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. . . . Jesus Christ. . . born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate. . . . the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting."

This tendency to depreciate form reappeared among the Enthusiasts at the time of the Reformation. The relation between form and spirit throws a lot of light on Luther's conflict over the whole question of the Supper. The catch cry of the Enthusiasts was, "The Spirit, the Spirit!" They said that the preaching of the Word in the fashion of the Reformers was a dead letter. They despised the study of languages. In the matter of the Holy Spirit's reception they advocated immediacy — the idea that the Spirit is imparted directly to man apart from the means of grace in the preaching of the Word and the sacraments (i.e., mediate grace). Some advocated an exaggerated spirituality that would do away with the magistrate, the state, the visible church, all church forms, the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and even the institution of marriage itself. This movement — which is often called the radical Reformation — was so broad that it had both its saints and fanatics. Not all were wild-eyed enthusiasts, as the Reformers sometimes depicted them. Yet the element which depreciated form was in the movement, and Luther would have none of it. He opposed it with great vehemence. His great stubbornness on the issue of the Supper was a sort of expression of his determination not to tolerate the least approach to the spirit of Enthusiasm.

There are, of course, two sides from which to fall off the path of truth. On one side there are the "spiritualists," who feel that they can dispense with such "carnal" things as mere water, bread and wine, or church forms and organization of any sort. They do not realize that spirit needs form and cannot continue without it. On the other side there is the ditch of "formalism." Here form is confounded with spirit or even becomes a substitute for spirit.

In the true relation between form and spirit there is union without fusion; there are both harmony and distinction. For instance, the Bible has a form which is distinctly human. The modes of expression, grammar and historical situations are all human. Yet the spirit of the Bible is divine. While the divine spirit of the Bible comes clothed in the human form of the Bible, there must be no transference of attributes from one to the other.

Faith is spirit. Good works are the form in which faith is expressed. While there is union here, there must not be fusion. We attribute the instrumental means of our justification before God to the faith and not to works.

2. Our second proposition is that spirit comes in form.

God came to us clothed in human form. The spirit of man comes clothed in a human body. The Holy Spirit comes to us "riding in the carriage of God's Word" (Luther). The Spirit does not come outside and apart from this form. It is a very dangerous thing to look for the Holy Spirit apart from hearing the Word of God (Gal. 3: 1-5). We cannot honor the Spirit while we despise the channel through which He comes to us. God proposes to send His Spirit to men by "the foolishness of preaching." This is why we can say that the preaching of the Word is the means of grace. If we despise and reject the form through which God has chosen to send His Spirit, we reject the Spirit Himself.

We need to look at the signs and seals of the covenant (gospel) in this light too. They are forms which God has ordained to be associated with His covenant of grace. Not only does the gospel (spirit) need these signs and seals (form), but we must conclude that the Spirit of the gospel comes to men in these signs and seals. This does not mean that there is any saving efficacy in the form (e.g., water or bread), for we must not transfer to form that which can only belong to spirit. Neither should we confound spirit and form. But we can say that God's form is not empty when it is accepted in faith. Just as Christ is truly present wherever the Word of His gospel is preached, so He is truly present in the signs and seals which He gives.

This means that the signs and seals of the covenant cannot just be a memorial of Christ's atonement. The Christ who died is a risen Saviour. The preaching of His gospel and its celebration through signs and seals point to His death. But because the Spirit of the resurrected Christ comes in and with these forms, Jesus is more to the believer than a dim historical figure. He is both the transcendent Christ and the immanent Christ.

Yet we must repeat, we dare not confuse form with spirit any more than we would divorce them. The sign or seal of the covenant may be called what it signifies only by way of metonymy. For example, the Bible refers to both circumcision and the Sabbath as the covenant (Acts 7:8; Isa. 56:4, 6), not because either sign is in itself the covenant, but because it is the sign of the covenant. The much-debated words of Jesus, "This is My body," must also be understood as covenantal language. This is plain from Jesus' other words on the same occasion, "This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matt. 26:26-28). The Supper is a sign and seal of the covenant, and therefore it is quite proper to call the bread and the wine the body and blood of Christ in a covenantal mode of expression.  

Is Salvation Possible Without the Signs and Seals?

We have to acknowledge that people can be saved apart from the signs and seals of God's covenant. If this were not so, it would be impossible that both Lutherans and Reformed, Sabbatarians and non-Sabbatarians could be saved. There was a time when Christians were of such strong persuasion about these signs and seals that they were adamant that dissenters would of necessity be damned. First the Lutherans were damned by the Catholics for rejecting the Roman sacraments. Then the Lutherans damned the Calvinists for dissenting from Luther's view of the Supper. And the Calvinists hurled their own anathemas against their own dissenters. Fortunately, time itself made it transparently clear that God had saints in all these segments of the church. Each party will now generally acknowledge that salvation is still possible while a different form is practiced.

There are still some hard-liners in captivity! Some insist that all who are not baptized by immersion according to their particular teaching cannot be saved. There have been Sabbatarians who have wanted to brand non-Sabbatarians with "the mark of the beast." But they certainly have not outdone the non-Sabbatarian Fundamentalists who affirm that any Sabbatarian is "fallen from grace" and cannot possibly be saved.

We need to acknowledge that salvation is by grace alone. This means that the Lord is in the business of saving sinners. Just as no one is without sin, so no one is without error. If error damns us, then we must all be damned. Of course, if one's particular error is an expression of his hostility to grace, then he is rejecting salvation; but we must remember that we are not the judge of human hearts. There will be many great saints in heaven who held queer ideas on earth. We never deny salvation by grace so much as when we deny grace to those we judge as being in error.

Having acknowledged that salvation is possible without the signs and seals of God's covenant, we must also say that faith is maimed wherever there is neglect or improper use of God's seals and signs. They are God's gifts to strengthen faith. They are the Lord's tokens and pledges of His covenant promise. Of course faith is maimed without them or by their improper use!

There is something even much worse. If one deliberately rejects God's sign or seal, knowing what it stands for, then he does reject the covenant itself. This is why back in Old Testament times God told Abraham that whoever refused to be circumcised would be "cut off" for despising God's covenant (Gen. 17:14). To neglect God's signs and seals through ignorance may be one thing, but to reject them in the light of what they stand for is sinning against grace with a high hand. Yet we must leave judgment with God at this point.

The Essential Qualifications of a New Covenant Sign and Seal

1. In order for a thing to qualify as a sign and seal of the covenant, it must have a form. It must be a visible token or pledge of God's promise.

2. A sign and seal must be God's gift. It is not something we give to God, but it must be something which God gives to us. It is His pledge to us. Therefore whoever accepts God's sign and seal accepts God's pledge of the thing signified. As long as he holds onto God's pledge, he holds onto God's covenant. It is in this sense that baptism is said to save us (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism is not something we do and give to God. It is something which is given and is done to us. It is not a sign and seal of our dedication but of the Lord's death. Neither is it a sacrament of the authority of the church. If the church thinks up a way to honor Christ, it cannot make that into a sign or a seal.

3. Christ as Mediator must both give and keep the sign and seal. The new covenant is primarily between God and Jesus Christ. It is made with the believer only in a secondary sense — i.e., as he is joined or incorporated into Christ. As Mediator, therefore, Christ must both give and submit to a sign and seal in order to make it valid for us. For example, He is both the Baptizer and the Baptized. A thing cannot be a new covenant sign or seal if Christ as God did not give it. Neither can it be God's sign or seal if Christ as man did not also accept it from God and give God thanks for it. Furthermore, we could not keep it in a way acceptable to God if Jesus perfect keeping of it were not imputed to us.

4. Since this new covenant (diatheke) is not only a treaty and compact but also a will and testament, the signs and seals must be attached and all in place prior to the death of the Testator (Heb. 9:15-17). No new feature can be added to this will and testament after the death of Jesus Christ. Nothing which came in after Calvary can qualify as a sign or seal of this covenant. Thus baptism and the Supper had to be instituted before Christ's death.

5. A sign and seal must be plainly commanded by the great Suzerain. No seal or sign is merely suggested or implied. God's command to observe it must be as plain and as open as the visible form of the sign and seal itself. We dare not originate our own signs and seals as if any features of the covenant could originate with man's initiative. Everything about the covenant is unilateral in origin. We dare not accept anything as a sign and seal which does not rest on the explicit command of God. We must have God's own pledge of covenant union with Himself. Faith cannot rest on man's theological supposition. But where there is a clear word of the Lord, faith can accept the sign and seal, saying, "I accept this as God's pledge of salvation."

The Spirit in the Signs and Seals

The spirit in the signs and seals of God's covenant is the spirit of celebration. No one can truly celebrate unless he believes what God has done for him in Jesus Christ. The signs and seals are for believers. God visited this planet in the flesh-and-blood reality of Jesus of Nazareth. He redeemed the race and made all things new by the representative work of this second Adam. When Christ died on the cross, crying, "It is finished," the great work of atonement was completed. Every condition of the covenant was fulfilled, and every barrier between God and sinful men was removed. God' work in Christ was as complete as His work at the first creation (Gen. 1:31; 2:1-3).

Adam could contribute nothing to God's finished work of creation, and man today can contribute nothing to salvation. Both creation and redemption are covenantal. They are unilateral in origin and execution. In His covenant with Jesus Christ, God has furnished all things needful for our present and eternal welfare. The gospel invitation is like an invitation to a feast which has already been prepared and lavished with all good things. ". . . all things are ready: come unto the marriage" (Mall. 22:4). The sinner is called to believe and celebrate what God has done.

When God finished His first creation, "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:7). That was a great covenant celebration indeed.

In the gospel God wants us to know that, in spite of sin, we can still celebrate, for God has dealt with sin in Jesus Christ and made all things new (2 Cor. 5:17). "There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God" (Heb. 4:9). Since justification by faith means that we are accepted as if we had never sinned, the justified may still celebrate as if sin had never entered to disrupt that original celebration. The new Israel still need to remember what has happened and what has been given to them. They need time to celebrate.

This is not celebration for the mere sake of celebration. Covenant celebration is celebration with content. The people of God are not called to celebrate their "new life in the Spirit" or their victorious experience. (That would be celebrating their celebration.) If one were invited to honor a great citizen in an after-dinner speech, he would not want to spend the time talking about himself. That would be completely out of taste with the occasion. The signs and seals of the covenant are given to celebrate the death of Jesus Christ — His finished work.

We might even inquire at this point why baptism and the Supper are signs and seals which celebrate Christ's death rather than His resurrection. The resurrection gives birth to faith and hope, for without the empty tomb we could not believe that Christ's finished work on the cross was acceptable to the Father on our behalf. By the resurrection God shows us that our sins have indeed been put away by Christ's death. Therefore we have great joy and peace in believing. But we do not celebrate our joy and believing. The resurrection enables us to celebrate with all heaven in Christ's act of self-giving.

And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth. And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; sang with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. —Rev. 5:9-12.

Apart from the gospel the signs and seals of the covenant are mere form. Church history demonstrates that apart from the gospel they become signs and seals of our own legalism. Instead of expanding the spirit of the church to invite all men to share in covenant celebration, they nourish a cultic rather than a universal spirit. Most obnoxious of all, they are used in a cultic way as if they were badges and signs of our own cultic piety.

How can men celebrate if they do not believe the gospel? We are not called to preach about signs and seals as if they were the gospel, but we are commanded to believe and preach the gospel, which alone can invest the signs and seals with any meaning. When men hear and understand the gospel as God intends they should, they will not only accept the correct forms, but they will embrace them in the true spirit of gospel celebration.




1 Some ultradispensationalists and others do not have any sacraments at all in their religious community. They feel that visible things like being washed with water and eating bread and wine do not reflect mature spirituality, which, they say, does not need to depend on such "carnal" things. The Salvation Army is not founded on any dispensational loyalty, but it has no sacraments. (Booth did not want to perpetuate the habit of alcoholics by giving them wine at the Supper.) At least those who take the "no sacraments" line have gotten rid of the problem of deciding what the correct form is in the signs and seals of the covenant!
2 This is why faith and baptism can be used interchangeably in the New Testament. Faith saves; baptism saves. Faith cleanses; baptism cleanses. Faith unites and incorporates the sinner into Christ and His mystical body; baptism unites and incorporates the sinner into Christ and His mystical body. Of course, faith itself does not save, but these things are attributed to faith because it is affixed to Christ. Since baptism is the form of faith, we can attribute to baptism what belongs to faith. This is a covenantal way of thinking. when this biblical mode of expression is ignored, people either look upon baptism as a useless form or as a thing with magical powers.