Church Education Trust

Christian Belief

ST009/8 The sacrements.


The Sacraments.

The word "sacrament" comes from the latin "sacramentum" . The latin word originally meant the sum of money deposited by the parties to a law suit; it was usually deposited in a sacred place and the loser of the suit could not reclaim it. Later it was the usual word for a military oath of allegiance and from this came to refer to any oath or solemn obligation.

It was no doubt from this last meaning that the word was transferred to refer to what are now called "sacraments" in the Christian faith. The Greek word was "musterion", but it was not used in the
sense in which the New Testament uses the word. "Sacramentum" was the latin translation of this Greek word. It will probably be best to say something first about the meaning of a sacrament and then deal with the two sacraments recognized by the Protestant Church, i.e. Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

(a) The Meaning of a Sacrament.
(i) Definition.

The Methodist Catechism says that a sacrament signifies "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ Himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof". 

The Westminster Larger Catechism suggests that "A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in His Church, to signify a seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of His mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces, to oblige them to obedience."

Dr.Hannah says that they are "sacred appointments or ordinances, in which while we receive blessings from God, we deliberately bind ourselves to Him in covenant engagements". This definition, as will be seen, has definite affinity to the meaning; of the word "sacramentum" Given above. 

To make it as concise as possible, we may say that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

(ii) The Marks of a Sacrament.

The Greek Orthodox Church and The Roman Catholic Church both recognize seven sacraments. It is therefore necessary to state the marks which show a sacrament to be such and thus the reason why the Protestant Church only recognizes two. Dr.A.A.Hodge gives the following marks of a sacrament.....

  1. A sacrament is an ordinance immediately instituted by Christ:
  2. A sacrament always consists of two elements (a) an outward visible sign, and (b) an inward spiritual grace thereby signified:
  3. The sign in every sacrament is sacramentally united to the grace which it signifies; and out of this union the scriptural usage has arisen of ascribing to the sign whatever is true of that which the sign signifies.
  4. The sacraments were designated to represent, seal and apply the benefits of Christ and the new covenant to believers:
  5. They were designed to be pledges of our fidelity to Christ, binding us to His service, and at the same time badges of our profession, visibly marking the body of professors and distinguishing them from the world.' (Quoted from VT'iley, Christian Theology Jol.III p.156).

(iii) The Nature of a Sacrament. 

There are three main views concerning the nature of a sacrament. There is the extreme sacramentarian view which states that the performance of the sacrament itself contains and
administers the grace which the sacrament signifies. This is expressed by the latin term "ex opere operato", which means "as a result of the deed done"or "as a result of the work wrought". 

The actual performance of the rite and the actual pronouncement of the words conveys the grace to the receiver, quite independent of the faith of the communicant or, seemingly, of the one officiating. At the other extreme is the rationalistic view which sees the sacraments as nothing but symbols and that the only power lying in them is that of the moral influence upon the mind through meditation upon the actuality of which they are symbols. 

Between these two views there is a mediating one which holds that the sacraments are both signs and seals, "signs as representing in action and by symbols, the blessings of the covenant; seals, as pledges of God's fidelity in bestowing them'. To add a little to this, Watson, in his Institutes, says of the sacraments as signs that "they are visible and symbolic expositions of the benefits of redemption. 

In other words, they exhibit in the senses, under appropriate emblems, the same benefits that are exhibited in another form in the doctrine and promises of the 'word of God". Of these same sacraments as seals, he says they are pledges, they confirm the same promises which are assured to us by God's own truth and faithfulness in His Word and by His indwelling Spirit by which we are 'sealed', and have in our hearts the 'earnest' of our heavenly inheritance. 

This is done by an external and visible institution; so that God has added these ordinances to the promises of His Word, not only to bring His merciful purpose toward us in Christ to mind, but constantly to assure us that those who believe in Him shall be and are made partakers of His grace". (Vol.II pp.611,612).

(iv) The So-called Additional Sacraments. 

The Greek Orthodox and the Roman Churches have added five other sacraments. These have never been accepted by the Protestant Church. Dr.Pope says this concerning them - "It is remarkable that the Greek and Roman Communions, differing in so much besides, agree in accepting seven sacraments. 

Both base their acceptance on the authority of the Church as interpreting the will of Christ, and vindicate them as enfolding and hedging round and sanctifying the whole of life at its several stages: Baptism is the sanctification of birth, Confirmation of adult life, Penance of the life of daily sin, the Eucharist of life itself, Orders of legitimate authority, Matrimony of the Church's law of continuance and increase, and Unction of the departure hence, our Lord has chosen and hallowed two, only two; and it is vain to elevate acts which are rather benedictory or only symbolical than sacramental into sacraments proper." (Compered. Christian Theology Vol.III p.3G6).

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