What Are the Sacraments?
Within the history of the Church, various mysteries and practices in Scripture have become considered what we call “sacraments.” Different traditions have claimed that different types of mysteries are sacraments, as put forth in Scripture—the Catholics advocating for seven, the Protestants, two. Catholics say that Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist (Communion), Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick are all sacraments, while the Protestants uphold that the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) and Baptism are the only sacraments. Why is this, and what is a sacrament anyway?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines a “sacrament” as follows:
A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.
In other words, sacraments are signs which minister to human senses, were instituted by Christ, and represent and seal the covenant of Christ for believers and apply that Covenant and His grace to His people.
Unlike the common caricature of the Reformed view, the sacraments are not “merely signs,” they are signs that do what they say. By this I mean that they don’t just point us to truths of Christ, which they certainly do. The sacraments also seal these realities to the believer in Christ by the Holy Spirit. By this seal, the grace of God, in the administering of the sacraments, is applied to the believer, not by the sign itself but by the Holy Spirit.
John discusses this when he talks about “walking in the light” in his first epistle:
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin”
-1 John 1:7
In considering what it looks like to walk in the light of Christ, John reminds us that it is the blood of Christ that washes us. Nothing else is capable of cleansing us fully. The water of baptism does not cleanse us, but it is a means by which we experience the washing of our souls by the blood of Christ.
So why do the Protestants say there are only two sacraments?
Catholics and Protestants disagree on how many sacraments there are. Both agree that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs that deliver the grace of God to believers. However, Catholics believe that Holy Orders, Confirmation, Reconciliation, and the Anointing of the Sick are also sacraments of Christ.
While Protestants might advocate performing these practices, they don’t consider these five mysteries sacraments. Both Catholics and Protestants would agree that sacraments are biblical signs that deliver the grace of God to believers. However, Protestants say something slightly different. Protestants, particularly those in the Reformed camp, say that the sacraments are biblical signs that deliver the grace of God to believers, and that they are signs implemented by Christ as signs that deliver His grace to His people. The significance here is that Christ specifically performs these sacraments instructing His people to replicate these liturgies as a way to receive his grace.
Christ implements the Lord’s supper in the gospels. Here is the institution of the Lord’s supper in Luke (see also Matt. 26:26-29):
And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Likewise, it is Christ who implements the sacrament of baptism by telling us to perform this sacrament:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Even if these other mysteries that the Catholics claim as sacraments can be ways to receive His grace, Christ did not instruct us to practice them as signs to receive His grace. This is why you see people entering ministry in Protestant churches even though they don’t believe Holy Orders is a sacrament of Christ. This is why you see Protestants practice confession, even though they don’t consider Reconciliation a sacrament of Christ. The only mysterious signs that Christ tells us to implement as signs that allow us to receive His grace are the sacraments of communion and baptism.
How and why are these sacraments administered in different ways in different Protestant churches?
Not only do Catholics and Protestants disagree on the sacraments, but so do different Protestant denominations. They disagree mainly on how to administer these sacraments. We see that that these different opinions stem from different assumptions about the nature of these sacraments.
Many Christians disagree on whether to sprinkle water on the head or submerge the believer in water in administering baptism. Submersion advocates bring to discussion that Jesus himself was baptized in the Jordan. Sprinkling advocates bring up passages such as Hebrews 9:15-21 and 1 Peter 1:1-3, making a connection of the waters of baptism and the blood of Christ with the blood of sacrificial animals in the Old Testament, which was sprinkled on the altar.
Either way, the sacrament is not about itself. The sacrament is a sign that points to and enacts a reality that is beyond itself. I’m not entirely sure how helpful it is to argue emphatically about submersion and sprinkling, even if I attend and support a church that does it one of those ways and not the other.
Churches also disagree on when baptism should be administered in a believers’ life. Some say that baptism should only be administered when the individual confesses their faith in Christ, and others say that individuals can and should be baptized prior to professed faith, as long as their family members are believers who can care for them.
I think this also is a deeper issue than when should baptism happen, but what baptism actually is. While both sides would agree that the sacraments are about us receiving the grace of God, the profession baptism advocates emphasize that baptism is a time for the individual to testify to the work of God in their lives. The other side, those who advocate for infant’s baptism, would say that baptism is about receiving the grace of God, saying that there is nowhere in Scripture where it says that someone who is baptized must believe first (see Acts 2:37-41; 1 Cor. 7:12-16).
Now for the Lord’s Supper, there are similar disagreements. Some say that pre-believing children can receive communion, whereas others would argue that the Lord’s Supper, while being a way to receive the grace of God, requires the ability to test one’s own heart prior to partaking in the sacrament:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
-1 Corinthians 11:27-29
So, the Word of God tells us that communion requires a conscious, faithful posture before partaking, whereas that is not the case with baptism. Like with baptism, this isn’t the only issue at hand with the Lord’s Supper. There are also different positions on what happens during communion.
Some believe that the bread and the wine literally turn into the bread and blood of Christ during the institution of the Eucharist. This view has historically been called transubstantiation, and the Catholic tradition is its proponent. They claim that the bread and wine of communion, when consecrated by a priest, turn into the literal flesh and blood of Christ. But what do Protestants believe?
Some Protestants believe that the bread and wine are merely a memorial of the death of Christ. This view mainly exists within some protestant denominations like Baptist and non-denominational churches.
Yet others believe that the physical elements remain unchanged but that Jesus Himself is present in the institution of communion—in the Lord’s supper we share a mystical communion with Him. This meal is one of the means through which God communicates His grace to His people. It is not just a memorial, even if the bread and wine don’t change into flesh and blood. Christ is present even if his literal body is not physically present. This final view seems most convincing to me as I searched Scripture.
Why do the sacraments matter?
Simply put, the sacraments are a means of God’s grace. They show Christians the grace of God. However, they don’t merely show God’s people His grace, they seal and apply that grace to believers. These sacraments are a means of God’s grace, as well as opportunities for God’s people to participate in the reality of His presence and love.