Saturday, February 25, 2006

1: What Does it Mean to be a Sacrament?

I think it would be appropriate to discuss the sacraments by first defining what they are. Various Christian groups interpret the sacraments differently thereby opening the door for much confusion if we were not to make clear definitions beforehand. Theopedia defines a sacrament as "a rite or ceremony instituted by Jesus, and observed by the church as a means of or visible sign of grace." The reader should understand that what I consider to be important about this definition is that a sacrament by definition communicates grace (I vehemently oppose the idea that the sacraments are merely ordinances). While the finer points of this definition can be debated and discussed, essentially this series will be operating from the theological conviction that a sacrament communicates grace. This is the orthodox position of the Church and to reduce the sacraments to ordinances is not something I'm willing to entertain.

Protestants accept two sacraments while the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church hold to seven. For the purpose of this series, the focus will be upon the two sacraments which almost all of Christians accept: baptism and the eucharist (debate over whether Protestants should accept more than the traditional two will have to wait for another day).

As it pertains to baptism and the eucharist, there are four views which predominate (thanks to Dr. Chris Bounds for the work which follows is his categorization).


Roman Catholic: "By either awakening or strengthening of faith, baptism effects regeneration." This occurs with the workings of the sacrament itself. Faith does not have to be present. The work is solely God's work in the person. Infants and adults are baptized.

Lutheran: In order for baptism to be effectual, saving faith must be exercised by the one baptized. Salvation is imparted potentially to infants, actually in adults. This position differs from the Catholic view only with respect to faith.
Infants and adults are baptized.

Reformed: Baptism is an act of faith by which we are brought into the covenant and hence experiences its benefits. Grace is imparted, but the type of grace is a mystery.
Infants and adults are baptized.

Memorial: It is simply a testimony - a profession of faith that a believer makes. The rites shows the community that the individual is now identified with Christ. There is no objective effect upon the person. Only believing adults and/or children are baptized.

The Eucharist

Roman Catholic: Through consecration of the bread and the wine, the bread changes into Christ's body and the wine changes into Christ's blood. Christ is truly and substantially present in the elements themselves. This is called transubstantiation. Communion is spiritual food for the soul and strengthens the participant.

Lutheran: The elements do not change into the presence of Christ, but he is actually present in, with, and under the elements. This is called consubstantiation. The recepient has the forgiveness of sins and the confirmation of his faith. Participation must include faith or the sacrament conveys no benefit.

Reformed: Christ is not literally present in the elements. He is spiritually present in the partaking of the elements. This is a commemoration of Christ's death that bestows grace to seal partakers in the love of Christ. The meal gives spiritual nourishment and brings a person closer to the presence of Christ.

Memorial: Christ is not present in the elements either literally or spiritually. It is a commemoration of Christ's death that reminds the partaker of the benefits of redemption and salvation brought about in Christ's death.

There certainly are various views which fall amongst these but this gives a good range for us to begin to articulate these concepts. I find it important to note that the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed view of each of these sacraments falls within orthodoxy. The memorial view does not. Considering the prevalence of the memorial view in the praxy of many evangelical churches, I find this an important point to accentuate.

Do you agree that a sacrament communicates grace? Why or why not?
Where do you fall in the spectrums delineated above?
Why is your sacramental understanding even important?


Kevin K. Wright said...


You might want to add under the Reformed view that Calvin thought that when we take the Eucharist, we are transported to heaven by faith where we feed on Christ. This is how people grow closer to Christ and receive grace.

Good summaries. Looking forward to what's next.

Nathan said...

once you've got all the sacraments "figured out" (right!), ask yourself, why isn't Foot Washing a sacrament?

"So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." --Jesus

Jason said...

Great post...I am interested in Kevin's addition to Calvin's thoughts on communion as well. It would be great to see how these views directly affect the consistency of practice in each viewpoint.

I would also like to add that I do not think that foot washing should be a sacrament. While Christ tells us to follow His example, this act in itself does not communicate grace, in my opinion. We have to be careful about just what is considered a sacrament before throwing anything and everything that Jesus did into the sacrament category.

Ben Robinson said...


I would love to hear your thoughts on the arguments for/against foot washing as a sacrament. Great to have you as part of this discussion.