A sacrament is a Christian rite recognized as of particular importance and significance. There are various views on the existence and meaning of such rites. Many Christians consider the sacraments to be a visible symbol of the reality of God, as well as a means by which God enacts his grace. Many denominations, including the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Reformed, hold to the definition of sacrament formulated by Augustine of Hippo: an outward sign of an inward grace that has been instituted by Jesus Christ. Sacraments signify God’s grace in a way that is outwardly observable to the participant.
The Catholic Church and the Old Catholic Church recognise seven sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation (Penance or Confession), Eucharist (or Holy Communion), Confirmation, Marriage (Matrimony), Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction). The Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church also believe that there are seven major sacraments, but apply the corresponding Greekword, μυστήριον (mysterion) also to rites that in the Western tradition are called sacramentals and to other realities, such as the Church itself. Many Protestant denominations, such as those within the Reformed tradition, identify two sacraments instituted by Christ, the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) and Baptism. The Lutheran sacraments include these two, often adding Confession (and Absolution) as a third sacrament. Anglican and Methodist teaching is that “there are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord,” and that “those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel.”
Some traditions do not observe any of the rites, or hold that they are simply reminders or commendable practices that do not impart actual grace—not sacraments but “ordinances” pertaining to certain aspects of the Christian faith.
The English word “sacrament” is derived indirectly from the Ecclesiastical Latin sacrāmentum, from Latin sacrō (“hallow, consecrate”), from sacer (“sacred, holy”). This in turn is derived from the Greek New Testament word “mysterion”. In Ancient Rome, the term meant a soldier’s oath of allegiance. Tertullian, a 3rd-century Christian writer, suggested that just as the soldier’s oath was a sign of the beginning of a new life, so too was initiation into the Christian community through baptism and Eucharist.
CANON I.- If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ, our Lord; or that they are more, or less, than seven, to wit, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony; or even that any one of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament; let him be anathema.
CANON IV.- If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification; -though all (the sacraments) are not necessary for every individual; let him be anathema.
- The Catholic Church indicates that the sacraments are necessary for salvation, though not every sacrament is necessary for every individual. The Church applies this teaching even to the sacrament of baptism, the gateway to the other sacraments. It states that “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.” But it adds: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments,” and accordingly, “since Christ died for the salvation of all, those can be saved without Baptism who die for the faith (Baptism of blood). Catechumens and all those who, even without knowing Christ and the Church, still (under the impulse of grace) sincerely seek God and strive to do his will can also be saved without Baptism (Baptism of desire). The Church in her liturgy entrusts children who die without Baptism to the mercy of God.”
In the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, “the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”
The Church teaches that the effect of the sacraments comes ex opere operato, by the very fact of being administered, regardless of the personal holiness of the minister administering it. However, as indicated in this definition of the sacraments given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a recipient’s own lack of proper disposition to receive the grace conveyed can block a sacrament’s effectiveness in that person. The sacraments presuppose faith and through their words and ritual elements, nourish, strengthen and give expression to faith.
Though not every individual has to receive every sacrament, the Church affirms that, for believers as a whole, the sacraments are necessary for salvation, as the modes of grace divinely instituted by Christhimself. Through each of them, Christ bestows that sacrament’s particular grace, such as incorporation into Christ and the Church, forgiveness of sins, or consecration for a particular service.
Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy
The seven sacraments are also accepted by Oriental Orthodoxy, including the Coptic Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Armenian Orthodox Church.
Anglicanism and Methodism
Anglican and Methodist sacramental theology reflects its dual roots in the Catholic tradition and the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic heritage is perhaps most strongly asserted in the importance Anglicanism and Methodism places on the sacraments as a means of grace and sanctification, while the Reformed tradition has contributed a marked insistence on “lively faith” and “worthy reception”. Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians participating in an Anglican/Roman Catholic Joint Preparatory Commission declared that they had “reached substantial agreement on the doctrine of the Eucharist”. Similarly, Methodist/Roman Catholic Dialogue has affirmed that “Methodists and Catholics affirm the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This reality does not depend on the experience of the communicant, although it is only by faith that we become aware of Christ’s presence.” The Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council jointly understand the word “sacrament” as referring not only to the sacraments considered here, but also to Christ and the Church.
Article XXV of the Thirty-Nine Articles in Anglicanism and Article XVI of the Articles of Religion in Methodism recognises only two sacraments (Baptism and the Supper of the Lord) since these are the only ones ordained by Christ in the Gospel. The article continues stating that “Those five commonly called Sacraments … are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel … but have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained by God.” These phrases have led to a debate as to whether the five are to be called sacraments or not. A recent author writes that the Anglican Church gives “sacramental value to the other five recognised by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches” but these “do not reveal those essential aspects of redemption to which Baptism and Communion point”. Some Anglicans maintain that the use of “commonly” implies that the others can legitimately be called sacraments (perhaps more exactly “Sacraments of the Church” as opposed to “Sacraments of the Gospel”); others object that at the time the Articles were written “commonly” meant “inaccurately” and point out that the Prayer Book refers to the creeds “commonly called the Apostles’ Creed” and the “Athanasian” where both attributions are historically incorrect.
Anglicans are also divided as to the effects of the sacraments. Some hold views similar to the Roman Catholic ex opere operato theory, that is that when the outward ceremony is duly performed the inward grace is necessarily given unless the recipient puts some obstacle in the way (non ponere obicem). Article XXVI (entitled Of the unworthiness of ministers which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament) states that the “ministration of the Word and Sacraments” is not done in the name of the minister, “neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness,” since the sacraments have their effect “because of Christ’s intention and promise, although they be ministered by evil men”. As in Roman Catholic theology, the worthiness or unworthiness of the recipient is of great importance. Article XXV in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Anglicanism and Article XVI in the Articles of Religion in Methodism states: “And in such only as worthily receive the [sacraments], they have a wholesome effect and operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation,” and Article XXVIII in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles (Article XVIII in Methodism’s Articles of Religion) on the Lord’s Supper affirms “to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ”. In the Exhortations of the Prayer Book rite, the worthy communicant is bidden to “prepare himself by examination of conscience, repentance and amendment of life and above all to ensure that he is in love and charity with his neighbours” and those who are not “are warned to withdraw”.
This particular question was fiercely debated in the 19th century arguments over Baptismal Regeneration.
Lutherans hold that sacraments are sacred acts of divine institution. Whenever they are properly administered by the use of the physical component commanded by God along with the divine words of institution, God is, in a way specific to each sacrament, present with the Word and physical component. He earnestly offers to all who receive the sacrament forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation. He also works in the recipients to get them to accept these blessings and to increase the assurance of their possession.
Melanchthon’s Apology of the Augsburg Confession defines sacraments, according to the German text, as “outward signs and ceremonies that have God’s command and have an attached divine promise of graces”. His Latin text was shorter: “rites that have the command of God, and to which is added a promise of grace”. This strict definition narrowed the number of sacraments down to three: Holy Baptism, the Eucharist, and Holy Absolution, with the other four rites eliminated for not having the ability to forgive sin, although at least one or two have the command of God. Lutherans do not dogmatically define the exact number of sacraments. In line with Luther’s initial statement in his Large Catechism some Lutherans speak of only two sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist, although later in the same work he calls Confession and Absolution “the third sacrament”. The definition of sacrament in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession lists Absolution as one of them. It is important to note that although Lutherans do not consider the other four rites as sacraments, they are still retained and used in the Lutheran church (with the exception of Extreme Unction although some Lutheran churches do practice it ). Luther himself around the time of his marriage and afterwards became one of the greatest champions of Marriage (Holy Matrimony), and the other two (Confirmation and Ordination) were kept in the Lutheran Church for purposes of good order. Within Lutheranism, the sacraments are a Means of Grace, and, together with the Word of God, empower the Church for mission.
The Westminster Confession of Faith also limits the sacraments to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Sacraments are denoted “signs and seals of the covenant of grace”. Westminster speaks of “a sacramental relation, or a sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other”. Baptism is for infant children of believers as well as believers, as it is for all the Reformed except Baptists and some Congregationalists. Baptism admits the baptized into the visible church, and in it all the benefits of Christ are offered to the baptized. On the Lord’s supper, Westminster takes a position between Lutheran sacramental union and Zwinglian memorialism: “the Lord’s supper really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.”
Members of the Latter Day Saint movement often use the word “ordinance” in the place of the word “sacrament”, but the actual theology is sacramental in nature. Latter-Day Saint ordinances are understood as conferring an invisible form of grace of a saving nature and are required for salvation and exaltation. Latter-Day Saints often use the word “sacrament” to refer specifically to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, also known as the Lord’s Supper, in which participants eat bread and drink wine (or water, since the late 1800s) as tokens of the flesh and blood of Christ . In Latter Day Saint congregations, the sacrament is normally provided every Sunday as part of the sacrament meeting and, like other Latter-Day Saint ordinances such as baptism and confirmation, is considered an essential and sacred rite. Latter-Day Saint ordinances which are considered “saving” include Baptism, Confirmation, Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist), Ordination (for males), Initiatory (called Chrismation in other Christian Traditions) and Endowment, and Marriage .
In the Community of Christ, eight sacraments are recognized, including “baptism, confirmation, blessing of children, the Lord’s Supper, ordination, marriage, the Evangelist Blessing, and administration to the sick”.
In addition to the traditional seven sacraments, other rituals have been considered sacraments by some Christian traditions. In particular, foot washing as seen in Anabaptist, Schwarzenau Brethren, German Baptist groups or True Jesus Church, and the hearing of the Gospel, as understood by a few Christian groups (such as the Polish National Catholic Church of America), have been considered sacraments by some churches. The Assyrian Church of the East holds the Holy Leaven and the sign of the cross as sacraments.
Since some post-Reformation denominations do not regard clergy as having a classically sacerdotal or priestly function, they avoid the term “sacrament”, preferring the terms “sacerdotal function”, “ordinance”, or “tradition”. This belief invests the efficacy of the ordinance in the obedience and participation of the believer and the witness of the presiding minister and the congregation. This view stems from a highly developed concept of the priesthood of all believers. In this sense, the believer himself or herself performs the sacerdotal role.
Baptists and Pentecostals, among other Christian denominations, use the word ordinance, rather than sacrament because of certain sacerdotal ideas connected, in their view, with the word sacrament. These churches argue that the word ordinance points to the ordaining authority of Christ which lies behind the practice.
Some denominations do not have a sacramental dimension (or equivalent) at all. The Salvation Army does not practice formal sacraments for a variety of reasons, including a belief that it is better to concentrate on the reality behind the symbols; however, it does not forbid its members from receiving sacraments in other denominations.
The Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) also do not practice formal sacraments, believing that all activities should be considered holy. Rather, they are focused on an inward transformation of one’s whole life. Some Quakers use the words “Baptism” and “Communion” to describe the experience of Christ’s presence and his ministry in worship.
The Clancularii were an Anabaptist group in the 16th century who reasoned that because religion was seated in the heart, there was no need of any outward expression through the sacraments.
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