Sacrament

SACRAMENT (săk'ra-mĕnt). Derived from the Latin sacramentum, which in classical times was used in two chief senses: As a technical legal term to denote the sum of money that the two parties to a suit deposited in a temple, of which the winner had his part returned, while the loser forfeited his to the temple treasury; as a technical military term to designate the oath of obedience of a soldier to his commander. In the Greek NT there is no word corresponding to “sacrament,” nor do we find the word used in the earliest history of Christianity to refer to certain rites of the church. Pliny the Younger (c. a.d. 112) uses the word in connection with Christianity in a famous letter in which he says that the Christians of Bithynia bound themselves “by a sacramentum to commit no kind of crime,” but it is doubtful whether he uses the word with any special Christian meaning. The word sacramentum was used with a distinctively Christian meaning for the first time in the Old Latin Bible and in Tertullian (end of the second century). In the Old Latin and in the Vulgate it was employed to translate the Greek mystērion, “mystery” (e.g., Eph.5.32; 1Tim.3.16; Rev.1.20; Rev.17.7). For a long time it was used not only to refer to religious rites but to doctrines and facts.

Because of the absence of any defined sacramental concept in the early history of the church, the number of sacraments was not regarded as fixed. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were the chief. In the twelfth century Hugo of St. Victor listed thirty sacraments that had been recognized by the church, while Gregory of Bergamo and Peter Lombard listed only seven: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony—a list adopted by Thomas Aquinas and later by the Council of Trent. The number seven was supported by many fanciful arguments that seven is a sacred number. There is no NT authority for it, and it is a purely arbitrary figure. It is hard to see on what principle baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which were instituted by Christ, can be put in the same category with marriage, which is as old as the human race.

The Reformers saw in the NT sacraments three distinguishing marks: (1) they were instituted by Christ, (2) Christ commanded that they be observed by his followers, and (3) they are visible symbols of divine acts. Since baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the only rites for which such marks can be claimed, there can be only two sacraments. There is justification for classifying them under a common name because they are associated together in the NT (Acts.2.41-Acts.2.42; 1Cor.10.1-1Cor.10.4).

Some modern critics challenge the claim that baptism and the Lord’s Supper owe their origin to Christ, but a fair reading of the NT shows that these sacramental rites were universal in the apostolic church and that the apostles observed them because they were convinced that Christ had instituted them. They taught the church to observe the things that Christ commanded (Matt.28.20). Circumstances of great solemnity surrounded the institution of the sacraments by Christ. He appointed the Lord’s Supper on the eve of his redemptive sacrifice and commanded baptism in the Great Commission at the time of his ascension.


See also Baptism; nodetitle; Mystery.

Bibliography: A. M. Stibbs, Sacrament, Sacrifice and Eucharist, 1961; Bernard Cooke, Ministry to Word and Sacrament, 1975.——SB


A religious rite variously regarded as a channel or as a sign of grace. In all its work and witness, the NT church gave a prior place to preaching (see Homiletics) through which, it recognized, Christ gave men fellowship with Himself and participation in the power of His death and resurrection. It recognized also, however, that Christ meant the Word to be accompanied in this unique ministry by baptism and the Lord's Supper, and it gave to both these ordinances also a special place in its life. It was always characteristic of God's approach to man in the OT that when He wanted to speak to men and have communion with them, He not only used words, but also gave signs along with the Word. For example, He used dreams and visions, symbolic objects and miracles, in addition to speaking. These sometimes illustrated and drew attention to what He had to say, or were sometimes simply signs that He was really present there and then in the saying of it. It was characteristic of Jesus that in His own ministry on earth He not only preached, but He added miracles and other signs to help to effect and to draw attention to what His Word proclaimed. Miraculous signs as seals of the Word continued within the early church for only a short time, and it was accepted that baptism* and the Lord's Supper* were to continue as the settled permanent signs attached to the Word.

In later days these two ordinances were called “sacraments.” This word is the Latin for the Greek mysterion, which in the NT denotes the divine plan of salvation hidden in past ages, but now brought to light in the preaching of the Word. This mystery proclaimed in the Word was fully realized in the God-man Himself, in His person and work, and is now being realized in the union of the individual to Christ by faith. The revelation of this fulfilled mystery will be consummated in the last day (cf., e.g., Eph. 3:3-6; 1 Tim. 3:16; Col. 1:27; 1 Cor. 15:51,52). In the thinking of the ancient Catholic Church there was only one sacrament or mystery-that of Christ Himself-but baptism and the Lord's Supper were called “mysteries” or “sacraments” because they enabled men to participate in this sacramental union of God and man, through the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. The sacraments were regarded as effecting within the church nothing more than the Word itself effected when it was received by faith. They too required the same faith.

It was Augustine* who first gave the general definition of “a sacrament” which later became traditional—i.e., an outward and temporal sign of an inward and enduring grace. This general definition led later to the incorporation of other sacramental ceremonies into the life of the church. A sacramental theology developed in which ultimately seven sacraments were regarded as containing and causing grace. The church came to regard itself as a sacramental institution dispensing a special grace for every important occasion in life. The sacraments were regarded as effective ex opere operato, provided the recipient placed no obstacle in the way of their reception. The Reformers used the Augustinian definition of a sacrament and restricted their number to the two for which they believed they had Christ's command and promise. They insisted that the sacraments were given to serve the Word of God and were effective only when received by faith within a personal relationship with Christ.

O.C. Quick, The Christian Sacraments (1927); J.K. Mozley, The Gospel Sacraments (1933); R.S. Wallace, Calvin's Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament (1953); B. Leeming, Principles of Sacramental Theology (1956); D.M. Baillie, The Theology of the Sacraments (1957); L. Bouyer, Word, Church and Sacraments in Protestantism and Catholicism (1961).