A gracEmail subscriber asks the meaning of the term “sacrament” and whether the notion is consistent with the New Testament and the gospel.
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A “sacrament” is a physical act involving physical elements through which God regularly bestows spiritual grace. Protestants generally recognize two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Roman Catholics include five more: confirmation, matrimony, holy orders, penance and healing anointing. In classic Christian theology, a sacrament must have been instituted by Jesus himself and commanded by him to be perpetuated. The Bible does not use the word “sacrament,” but it does speak “sacramentally” from time to time — promising us that God will encounter the believer who meets him in the water of baptism, the bread and wine of the communion meal or the oil of healing prayer.
It is important to distinguish between “evangelical” and “sacerdotal” sacramentalism. “Evangelical” sacramentalism says that faith must be present to receive divine grace, and that without faith neither words, deeds nor physical elements automatically convey grace. This is the original Protestant understanding, which I believe is thoroughly biblical. “Sacerdotal” sacramentalism says that God always bestows grace whenever the “right” person (a priest ordained by a bishop who traces his own ordination back to the Apostles) says the “right” words with the “right” actions — whether or not faith is present in the recipient. This is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, although it is not the view of every Roman Catholic person.
On this subject, I suspect that many evangelicals have thrown out the baby with the bath. Fearing that justification by grace through faith is somehow in jeopardy, they deny that God does anything through such physical acts and elements as baptism in water, eating Communion bread and wine, and anointing with oil. Such fear is unbiblical and unnecessary. The same God who clothed himself with humanity in Jesus Christ — who cried real tears and finally died on a wooden cross — is still pleased to encounter flesh-and-blood earthlings who reach out to him in faith through physical elements which Christ has commanded.
So long as we remember that God is not limited to the sacraments and that they are instruments of human faith as well as of divine grace, we may see them as meeting-places with our Savior, always trusting him and not them while by faith we receive the blessing that Jesus has promised to bestow.