Sacramentalism is the belief that God works through physical means and objects to impart grace to His people. The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin word sacramentum, meaning “a sacred thing.” In Christianity, sacraments are rituals or ceremonies that are vehicles of God’s grace and blessing. The Bible establishes two sacraments instituted by Christ: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, over the centuries different Christian traditions have recognized additional sacraments beyond these two.
The Catholic and Orthodox churches recognize seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony. The Anglican and Lutheran traditions recognize baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments, but also hold confirmation, penance, ordination and matrimony as “sacramental rites.” Other Protestant groups like Presbyterians and Methodists recognize only baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments formally instituted by Christ, but may consider other rites like marriage as having a sacramental nature. Groups like Baptists and Pentecostals recognize only believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper as biblical sacraments.
Sacramental theology focuses on how God uses physical objects and actions to convey spiritual blessings. Those who hold a sacramental view of the Christian faith believe God works through the sacraments to impart His grace and bring people into closer communion with Him. The Catholic catechism states: “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”
Let’s take a closer look at some key biblical teachings concerning sacramentalism:
1. Baptism as a sacrament
The New Testament presents baptism instituted by Jesus as a sacrament through which God grants regeneration, forgiveness of sins, and incorporation into the body of Christ. Jesus Himself underwent water baptism to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). After His resurrection, Jesus commissioned His followers to baptize disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Peter proclaimed baptism as the means of receiving forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Paul taught that through baptism believers are united with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). Peter wrote that baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21). From Scripture, we can see baptism as an efficacious sign and seal of God’s grace at work in those who believe.
2. The Lord’s Supper as a sacrament
In the Last Supper before His death, Jesus instituted the rite of consuming bread and wine as a memorial of His broken body and shed blood. Jesus said the bread is His body given for us and the wine is His blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:26-28). Paul taught that partaking of the bread and cup allows believers to commune with Christ and proclaim His death until He returns (1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:23-26). The Lord’s Supper serves as a tangible means through which God nourishes His people’s faith and forgives their sins as they memorialize Christ’s sacrificial death.
3. Sacramental objects convey spiritual realities
Sacramental theology sees physical objects like water, bread and wine as outward and visible means through which inward and spiritual grace is given. The water of baptism conveys cleansing from sin. The bread and wine of the Eucharist impart spiritual nourishment from Christ. Physical rituals serve as vehicles of unseen blessings from God. The sacraments use natural elements to direct the believer’s faith toward divine promises and spiritual transactions with God through Christ.
This sacramental view can be seen in biblical passages like 1 Peter 3:21, where Peter writes “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The water itself does not magically cleanse people of sin, but rather directs faith toward the work of Christ which alone saves. The physical act invokes a spiritual reality.
4. God works through human actions and rituals
Those who hold a sacramental theology believe that God works through physical means He has instituted. Sacraments involve human action and participation, but their power comes from God. For example, in baptism a minister may pour or immerse water over the believer, but it is truly God at work behind the actions. The human act of baptism is the visible means God uses to impart His promised blessings by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine (or juice) have no intrinsic power in themselves. Their power comes from Christ, as they direct the believer’s faith to Christ’s sacrifice. So sacraments involve both God’s action and human participation in God’s appointed way.
5. Signs and seals of God’s promises
The Reformed tradition has emphasized that the sacraments serve as “signs and seals” of God’s promises in Christ. They visibly represent the promises, while also guaranteeing or ratifying those promises. For example, the Lord’s Supper points to the promise of forgiveness of sins through Christ’s blood, while also sealing that the believer is indeed partaking of Christ and His forgiveness.
Similarly, baptism signifies the believer’s union with Christ, while also sealing that the person is marked as belonging to Christ through adopting and regenerating grace. As signs, the sacraments visibly represent God’s promised blessings. As seals, they guarantee for believers that those blessings are genuinely given and received through participating by faith.
6. Means of grace
Many traditions refer to the sacraments as “means of grace.” God has sovereignly chosen to use them as channels through which His blessing and favor flows to those who receive them by faith. However, the sacraments are not automatic dispensers of grace. God remains sovereign in when, how and to whom His grace comes through the sacraments. But they remain His appointed means through which believers may continually find the sustenance of His grace for their pilgrimage.
This view of sacraments can be seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states that the sacraments “become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves…but only by the working of the Holy Ghost and the blessing of Christ.” The sacraments have no power in themselves, but God uses them as instruments of His spiritual grace.
7. Communal rituals
Sacraments represent the communal nature of God’s grace. Baptism initiates believers into the visible church and marks their entrance into the new covenant community. The Lord’s Supper nourishes and sustains the spiritual life of believers as they come together at the Communion table.
The sacraments also remind believers of their union with Christ. They are tied to the body and blood of Jesus. As they visibly enact their faith in community, believers testify to God’s work in their midst and in their corporate life together.
8. Points of contention
There are differences among Christians when it comes to sacramental theology. Roman Catholics take a very robust sacramental view, emphasizing the tangible conveyance of grace through sacramental rites overseen by priests. Most Protestants affirm God’s work through the sacraments, but deny that the sacraments automatically or magically confer grace regardless of the recipient’s faith. They emphasize the importance of faith in receiving God’s grace through the sacraments.
Some Protestant groups like Quakers and Salvation Army do not observe sacramental rites at all. Groups like Baptists limit sacraments to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, while those like Anglicans and Methodists recognize more as sacramental rites, if not fully instituted biblical sacraments on par with baptism and Communion.
Differences also exist around baptismal regeneration, the Eucharist as sacrifice, and Christ’s bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper. But overall, sacramental theology remains an important area of insight into how God ministers His heavenly grace through earthly means.
9. Summary principles
In summary, some key principles of sacramental theology include:
- God works through physical means like baptism and the Lord’s Supper
- These sacraments are tangible vehicles of God’s grace and blessing
- They use natural elements to direct faith toward spiritual realities
- Sacraments involve both God’s action and human participation
- They are signs pointing to God’s promises and seals guaranteeing their fulfillment
- Sacraments are means of grace instituted by God
- They remind us of the communal nature of God’s grace in Christ
While differences exist on the number of sacraments and their exact nature, sacramental theology provides an important framework for understanding how God ministers His undeserved favor to His people through tangible words and actions.