The meaning of the term.

It became increasingly evident that the religious significance of the term was too free and broad for careful Biblical precision, although the word itself is not used in the Bible. For this reason theologians early endeavored to assign definitions to the word which would reflect a more scriptural exactness. As might be expected however, such efforts brought neither agreement on the essence nor on the number of the sacraments.

In our day Van der Leeuw and Schillebeeck argue that the Christian sacraments receive their meaning from the background of a general sacramentology. Such a general sacramentology is said to be a providential precursor of the Christian sacraments, a tutor to bring us to Christ. One of the difficulties with this view is that it raises the problem of pansacramentalism with its anthropologically rather than Biblically anchored general sacramentology.

Conservatives maintain that sacraments exist because of a divine signifying. Not every sign is a sacrament, and therefore it is impossible to base the Christian sacrament on a phenomenological analysis. The sacraments of the Church are those appointed by Christ in the NT. They are signs and seals of the covenant between God and His people. They are visible and outward attestations of the covenant entered into between them. As signs they represent the blessings of the covenant of redemption; as seals they ratify and confirm its validity.

The relation between the Word and sacrament.

Priority is to be given to the Word, written and preached. The Word can exist in completeness without the sacraments but the sacraments cannot exist in any meaningful way without the Word. The interpretive Word of God is of decisive significance for the power and the understanding of these visible signs of His redemptive work.

There are certain points of agreement between the Word and sacraments. (1) Their author is the same. God has decreed that they should both be means of grace. (2) Christ is their focal point of meaning; He is their center. (3) They both must be accepted in faith. Calvin rightly stated, “They avail and profit nothing unless received in faith.” (4) Both are instruments used by the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who alone makes both real to the Christian.

There are certain points of dissimilarity between the Word and sacraments. (1) They differ in their necessity. The Word is indispensable to salvation; the sacraments are not. Some have been redeemed without the use of sacraments; e.g., believers before the time of Abraham and the penitent thief on the cross. The Christian is under a compelling moral obligation to obey His Master’s commands respecting the sacraments unless external circumstances make it impossible, but, this necessity of precept is not to be confused with a necessity of means. The sacraments are nothing less than, but nothing more than, a visible sign of the Word. Faith alone (sola fide) is the instrumental cause of salvation (John 5:24; 6:29; Acts 16:31; etc.).

(2) They differ in their application. The Word is to be preached to everyone (Matt 28:18-20); whereas, the sacraments are to be administered only to those who profess faith and, as held by a large segment of Protestants, to those within the covenant relationship, as infants in the case of baptism. The sacraments are meaningless to those who are not within the Church. In the case of the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper, Paul even indicates that professing Christians should be warned lest they partake unworthily (1 Cor 11:27-32).

(3) They differ in their object. The Word is designed to initiate and strengthen faith; whereas, in the Protestant tradition, the sacraments are understood to contribute either solely or principally to its strengthening. There is some difference between the Lutheran and Reformed perspective on this point.

(4) They differ in their medium of expression. The Word expresses itself most powerfully through the medium of sound (preaching); whereas, the sacraments do so through the medium of sight, in association with taste and touch. The sacraments are a visible Word; a sacrament is “a visible form of an invisible grace.”

The number of the sacraments.

In sharp contrast to this multiplicity of sacraments stands the Protestant doctrine with but two: (1) baptism and (2) the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). It should be noted that such diverse ceremonies as orders, matrimony and extreme unction may all be Biblical in their own way but they were clearly not directly instituted by the Lord Himself as uniquely signifying the saving work of Jesus Christ and therefore they do not qualify as sacraments. Jesus calls His death a baptism and a cup (Matt 20:22) and unlike the other observances these actions themselves directly reflect the redemptive work which Jesus Christ accomplished. By their very nature therefore, these two sacraments stand in a class by themselves and cannot simply be included with other ecclesiastical ceremonies; they are unique.

The efficacy of the sacraments.

The question as to the efficacy of the sacraments has been argued around the concept of symbolism (Reformation) versus realism (Rome). It should be clearly understood however, that symbolical does not mean without real efficacy. Symbol is not opposed to reality. The real question concerns the manner in which this reality is represented.

According to Roman Catholic theology the sacraments work ex opere operato; that is, the working is objective and does not depend in any way upon the recipient. The sacrament is an instrument of God and the cause of redemptive grace. This idea has led some to see in Roman Catholic sacramentality a certain magical quality. This ex opere operato was understood as a matter-of-fact working from above in which there was no element of human subjectivity. To view the Roman Catholic sacramental doctrine as magical would be too simplistic. In addition to her appeal to the objectivity of the sacraments Rome has maintained that a certain subjective disposition is necessary for the working of the sacraments; a disposition which simply presents no opposing obstacle. The problem then becomes one of understanding how this necessary disposition may be harmoniously connected with the ex opere operato, that absolutely objective structure of the sacrament, which works independently of the recipient.

Representative of the Reformed Protestant position on the efficacy of the sacraments is the statement of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Answer to question 91), “The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ and the working of His Spirit in them that by faith receive them.” The efficacy of the sacraments thus is not in themselves as outward acts but rather in the blessing of Christ and His Spirit conditioned upon faith in the recipient.

Reformed theology maintains that the efficacy of the sacraments is seen in three ways: (1) as representative of the benefits of the new covenant; (2) as seals of the same; and (3) as the application of the same. As seals the sacraments constitute outward signs of an already established inner spiritual relationship with Christ through faith. They are presumptive evidence for the validity of the divine redemptive covenant; that is, they are applied subsequent to the time when the individual is presumed to be regenerate. The sacraments in no way accomplish that of which they are a sign. As seals they are applied in obedience to the command of Christ, as an outward sign of the inward grace which is confidently expected in the case of infant baptism, or believed to have been actually received in the case of adults.

When the sacraments are viewed as applying grace, what is meant is that they are a means of actually bringing us grace. They do not simply portray something in order to bring to remembrance but they also do something in order to bring spiritual strength. This is not to contend for a special sacramental grace but rather for the idea that the working of the sacraments rests essentially on saving grace.

Representative of the Lutheran Protestant position on the efficacy of the sacraments is the statement of the Augsburg Confession (Art. V), “For the obtaining of this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted.” The conservative Lutheran theologian, Francis Pieper, indicates in his Christian Dogmatics (Vol. III) that the Lutheran symbols stress the fact that the sacraments and the Word of the Gospel have the same purpose; namely, that of the attestation and conferring of the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith in this forgiveness. Lutherans agree with Reformed Protestants in affirming the necessity of faith but they tend to ascribe the efficacy of the sacraments to a real objective virtue of grace resident in the elements.


G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics, The Sacraments; E. Schillebeeck, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter With God.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. The Term:

The word "sacrament" comes from the Latin sacramentum, which in the classical period of the language was used in two chief senses:

(1) as a legal term to denote the sum of money deposited by two parties to a suit which was forfeited by the loser and appropriated to sacred uses;

(2) as a military term to designate the oath of obedience taken by newly enlisted soldiers.

Whether referring to an oath of obedience or to something set apart for a sacred purpose, it is evident that sacramentum would readily lend itself to describe such ordinances as Baptism and the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper. In the Greek New Testament, however, there is no word nor even any general idea corresponding to "sacrament," nor does the earliest history of Christianity afford any trace of the application of the term to certain rites of the church. Pliny (circa 112 AD) describes the Christians of Bithynia as "binding themselves by a sacramentum to commit no kind of crime" (Epistles x.97), but scholars are now pretty generally agreed that Pliny here uses the word in its old Roman sense of an oath or solemn obligation, so that its occurrence in this passage is nothing more than an interesting coincidence.

It is in the writings of Tertullian (end of 2nd and beginning of 3rd century) that we find the first evidence of the adoption of the word as a technical term to designate Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and other rites of the Christian church. This Christian adoption of sacramentum may have been partly occasioned by the evident analogies which the word suggests with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; but what appears to have chiefly determined its history in this direction was the fact that in the Old Latin versions (as afterward in the Vulgate) it had been employed to translate the Greek musterion, "a mystery" (e.g. Eph 5:32; 1Ti 3:16; Re 1:20; 17:7)--an association of ideas which was greatly fostered in the early church by the rapidly growing tendency to an assimilation of Christian worship with the mystery-practices of the Greek-Roman world.

2. Nature and Number:

Though especially employed to denote Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the name "sacraments" was for long used so loosely and vaguely that it was applied to facts and doctrines of Christianity as well as to its symbolic rites. Augustine’s definition of a sacrament as "the visible form of an invisible grace" so far limited its application. But we see how widely even a definition like this might be stretched when we find Hugo of Victor (12th century) enumerating as many as 30 sacraments that had been recognized in the church. The Council of Trent was more exact when it declared that visible forms are sacraments only when they represent an invisible grace and become its channels, and when it sought further to delimit the sacramental area by reenacting (1547) a decision of the Council of Florence (1439), in which for the first time the authority of the church was given to a suggestion of Peter Lombard (12th century) and other schoolmen that the number of the sacraments should be fixed at seven, namely, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Matrimony--a suggestion which was supported by certain fanciful analogies designed to show that seven was a sacred number.

The divergence of the Protestant churches from this definition and scheme was based on the fact that these proceeded on no settled principles. The notion that there are seven sacraments has no New Testament authority, and must be described as purely arbitrary; while the definition of a sacrament is still so vague that anything but an arbitrary selection of particulars is impossible. It is perfectly arbitrary, for example, to place Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which were instituted by Christ as ordinances of the church, in the same category with marriage, which rests not on His appointment but on a natural relationship between the sexes that is as old as the human race. While, therefore, the Reformers retained the term "sacrament" as a convenient one to express the general idea that has to be drawn from the characteristics of the rites classed together under this name, they found the distinguishing marks of sacraments

(1) in their institution by Christ,

(2) in their being enjoined by Him upon His followers,

(3) in their being bound up with His word and revelation in such a way that they become "the expressions of divine thoughts, the visible symbols of divine acts."

And, since Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the only two rites for which such marks can be claimed, it follows that there are only two New Testament sacraments. Their unique place in the original revelation justifies us in separating them from all other rites and ceremonies that may have arisen in the history of the church, since it raises them to the dignity of forming an integral part of the historical gospel. A justification for their being classed together under a common name may be found, again, in the way in which they are associated in the New Testament (Ac 2:41,42; 1Co 10:1-4) and also in the analogy which Paul traces between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper on the one hand, and Circumcision and the Passover--the two most distinctive rites of the Old Covenant--on the other (Col 2:11; 1Co 5:7; 11:26).

3. Institution by Christ:

The assumption made above, that both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper owe their origin as sacraments of the church to their definite appointment by Christ Himself, has been strongly challenged by some modern critics.

(1) In regard to Baptism it has been argued that as Mr 16:15 f occurs in a passage (16:9-20) which textual criticism has shown to have formed no part of the original Gospel, Mt 28:19, standing by itself, is too slender a foundation to support the belief that the ordinance rests upon an injunction of Jesus, more especially as its statements are inconsistent with the results of historical criticism. These results, it is affirmed, prove that all the narratives of the Forty Days are legendary, that Mt 28:19 in particular only canonizes a later ecclesiastical situation, that its universalism is contrary to the facts of early Christian history, and its Trinitarian formula "foreign to the mouth of Jesus" (see Harnack, History of Dogma, I, 79, and the references there given). It is evident, however, that some of these objections rest upon anti-supernatural pre-suppositions that really beg the question at issue, and others on conclusions for which real premises are wanting. Over against them all we have to set the positive and weighty fact that from the earliest days of Christianity Baptism appears as the rite of initiation into the fellowship of the church (Ac 2:38,41, et passim), and that even Paul, with all his freedom of thought and spiritual interpretation of the gospel, never questioned its necessity (compare Ro 6:3 ff; 1Co 12:13; Eph 4:5). On any other supposition than that of its appointment by our Lord Himself it is difficult to conceive how within the brief space of years between the death of Jesus and the apostle’s earliest references to the subject, the ordinance should not only have originated but have established itself in so absolute a manner for Jewish and Gentile Christians alike.

(2) In the case of the Lord’s Supper the challenge of its institution by Christ rests mainly upon the fact that the saying, "This do in remembrance of me," is absent from the Mark-Matthew text, and is found only in the Supper-narratives of Paul (1Co 11:24,25) and his disciple Luke (Lu 22:19). Upon this circumstance large structures of critical hypothesis have been reared. It has been affirmed that in the upper room Jesus was only holding a farewell supper with His disciples, and that it never occurred to Him to institute a feast of commemoration. It has further been maintained that the views of Jesus regarding the speedy consummation of His kingdom make it impossible that He should have dreamed of instituting a sacrament to commemorate His death. The significance of the feast was eschatological merely; it was a pledge of a glorious future hour in the perfected kingdom of God (see Mt 26:29 and parallels). And theory has even been advanced that the institution of this sacrament as an ordinance of the church designed to commemorate Christ’s death was due to the initiative of Paul, who is supposed to have been influenced in this direction by what he had seen in Corinth and elsewhere of the mystery-practices of the Greek world.

All these hypothetical fabrics fall, of course, to the ground if the underlying assumption that Jesus never said, "This do in remembrance of me," is shown to be unwarrantable. And it is unwarrantable to assume that a saying of Jesus which is vouched for by Paul and Luke cannot be authentic because it does not occur in the corresponding narratives of Matthew and Mark. In these narratives, which are highly compressed in any case, the first two evangelists would seem to have confined themselves to setting down those sayings which formed the essential moments of the Supper and gave its symbolic contents. The command of its repetition they may have regarded as sufficiently embodied and expressed in the universal practice of the church from the earliest days. For as to that practice there is no question (Ac 2:42,46; 20:7; 1Co 10:16; 11:26), and just as little that it rested upon the belief that Christ had enjoined it. "Every assumption of its having originated in the church from the recollection of intercourse with Jesus at table, and the necessity felt for recalling His death, is precluded" (Weizsacker, Apostolic Age, II, 279). That the simple historical supper of Jesus with His disciples in the upper room was converted by Paul into an institution for the Gentile and Jewish churches alike is altogether inconceivable. The primitive church had its bitter controversies, but there is no trace of any controversy as to the origin and institutional character of the Lord’s Supper.

4. Efficacy:

In the New Testament the sacraments are presented as means of grace. Forgiveness (Ac 2:38), cleansing (Eph 5:25 f), spiritual quickening (Col 2:12) are associated with Baptism; the Lord’s Supper is declared to be a participation in the body and blood of Christ (1Co 10:16). So far all Christians are agreed; but wide divergence shows itself thereafter. According to the doctrine of the Roman church, sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato, i.e. in virtue of a power inherent in themselves as outward acts whereby they communicate saving benefits to those who receive them without opposing any obstacle. The Reformed doctrine, on the other hand, teaches that their efficacy lies not in themselves as outward acts, but in the blessing of Christ and the operation of His Spirit, and that it is conditioned by faith in the recipient. The traditional Lutheran doctrine agrees with the Reformed in affirming that faith is necessary as the condition of saving benefits in the use of the sacraments, but resembles the Roman teaching in ascribing the efficacy of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, not to the attendant working of the Holy Spirit, but to a real inherent and objective virtue resident in them--a virtue, however, which does not lie (as the Roman church says) in the mere elements and actions of the sacraments, but in the power of the divine word which they embody.

See Baptism; Lord’s SUPPER.


Candlish, The Christian Sacraments; Lambert, The Sacraments in the New Testament; Bartlet, Apostolic Age, 495 ff; Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, chapter xx.