The word sacrament historically was used for something sacred. The Latin term sacramentum was used to translate the New Testament word for mystery. In a broad sense all religious rites and ceremonies were called sacraments. In time, the term sacrament took on a more precise and narrow meaning. A sacrament became defined as a visible sign by which God offers His promise of grace in an outward form. Outward signs seal and confirm the covenant promises of God. The sacraments consist of some visible element such as water, bread, or wine; a definite activity ordained by God in association with the sign; and a redeeming benefit given to the believer.
The Roman Catholic church set the number of sacraments (in the special sense) at seven. They are Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper), Penance, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction. Historic Protestantism limited the sacraments to two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Though Protestants recognize other rites such as marriage as special ordinances, they are not recognized as attaining the level of sacraments. Sacraments are limited to: (1) those ordinances directly instituted by Christ, (2) ordinances that are by their very nature significant, (3) ordinances designed to be perpetual, and (4) ordinances designed to signify, instruct, and seal the believers who receive them in faith.
The sacraments are real means of grace that convey the promises of God. Their power does not reside in the elements themselves, but in God, whose signs they are. Nor does their power depend upon the character or the faith of those who administer them, but on the integrity of God.
The sacraments are nonverbal forms of communication. They were never intended to stand alone without reference to the Word of God. Sacraments confirm the Word of God so that the administering of the sacraments and the preaching of the Word go together.
Salvation is not through the sacraments. Salvation is by faith in Christ. Yet where faith is present the sacraments are not ignored or neglected. They are a vital part of the worship of God and the nurture of the Christian life.
Though sacraments involve the use of outward forms, they are not to be despised as empty formalism or ritualism. Though they can be corrupted into empty rituals, they are not to be rejected. They are indeed rituals, but they are God-ordained rituals and therefore to be joyfully and solemnly partaken of.
- A sacrament is a visible sign of God’s promise of grace to believers.
- The Roman Catholic church includes seven sacraments while most of Protestantism has two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
- Sacraments do not automatically convey the things they signify. The content of the sacraments is received by faith.
- Sacraments are not empty rituals, but are ordained by Christ.
- Sacraments are to be connected with the preaching of the Word.