What Are Sacraments?
Q. My Catholic friend came to church with me last week and called some things in our service "sacraments." I hadn't heard that word before and wasn't sure what he was talking about. What are sacraments? Do Protestants even have them?
A. A sacrament is a religious rite or act seen as way of receiving God's grace. The early church believed preaching was the main way of sharing of God's plan of salvation with others. So, in that sense, preaching is the earliest "sacrament." As the Roman Catholic Church developed, seven sacraments were gradually accepted: baptism, confession, Eucharist (the Lord's Supper), confirmation, marriage, holy orders and extreme unction (last rites). All of these acts were thought to contain and cause grace. According to this idea, you actually receive God's grace from God—through the priest—taking communion, being baptized or through one of the other five sacraments. This means that grace is viewed as a tangible substance dispensed or withheld by the church through these events.
Protestants believe God dispenses grace in countless ways, primarily through Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and through our acceptance of Christ's sacrificial love. To Protestants, God's grace is not something tangible transferred directly from priest to people, through seven sacraments. Instead, God's grace is seen to be a lot more accessible and less controllable by man than in the traditional Catholic view.
Instead of sacraments, Protestants believe in two "ordinances"—baptism and the Lord's Supper. These are outward signs of an inward reality. Most Protestants believe the waters of baptism and Communion's bread and cup don't transmit or cause grace. But by participating, believers show that God has already showered grace on their hearts.
So, here's the bottom line: A sacrament is seen as a means of actually receiving grace by participating. An ordinance is a celebration of what God has already done and our response of faithful obedience to him.
Marshall, a former pastor, is editor of Leadership, a magazine for pastors.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Ignite Your Faith magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Ignite Your Faith.