What is a Sacrament?

During Lent I’ll be facilitating a series of discussions at my church on the history of Eucharistic theology. I’ll try to post notes for each week’s lesson here. Tonight we’ll be discussing the preliminary question: “What is a sacrament?”


Sacraments are sacred rites preformed by the Church as a means of grace. The word sacrament is the Latin translation (sacramentum) of the Greek word for mystery (mysterion). For instance, the Apostle Paul likes to talk about the great mystery—hidden in Christ since the foundation of the world, but now revealed to the saints—that the story of God’s dealing with Israel culminates in the inclusion of the gentiles as their fellow heirs (Rom 11; Eph 3; Col 1). Who’da thunk it? But when Paul’s words get translated in the Latin Bible (called the Vulgate), he says: “This sacramentum is that the gentiles are fellow heirs…” (Eph 3:6)—This sacrament.

So that’s the original meaning of a sacrament: it’s a mystery. But very early in the Christian tradition, the word sacrament took on a slightly more nuanced connotation. A sacrament is specifically the mystery that God can sometimes be found present and at work through ordinary, everyday, physical things. Or, to put it another way, that heaven and earth are mysteriously overlapping realities.

The Seven Sacraments (of the Roman Catholic Church)

Well the Church said we see this mysterious presence and work of God in and through the physical world in really deep and important ways through in at least these seven rites of the Church:

Baptism – This is the rite of initiation into the Christian Church, which symbolizes dying with Christ and rising again to new life in him. Roman Catholics will talk about “baptismal regeneration,” where regeneration just means re-birth. So if you ask a Roman Catholic “Are you born again?” the proper answer is “Yes, I’ve been baptized.” (This goes for Eastern Orthodox Christians as well as Lutherans too, by the way).

Penance – But being born again in baptism does not guarantee that you will be saved in the end, because sin can destroy the new life in baptism. So penance is the sacrament for dealing with sin. Nowadays you’ll sometimes hear this called the sacrament of confession, but confession is actually just one part of the sacrament of penance. It has four parts.

  1. Confession – In this first part you tell your sins to a priest. This is the outward part.
  2. Contrition – Is the inward part, where you are supposed to hate your sin.
  3. Absolution – The priest then declares, on behalf of Christ (well get back to that), that the penitent is forgiven of her sins. The declaration mimics the baptismal formula, because the purpose of penance is to restore the new life of baptism.
  4. Satisfaction – Finally, the penitent is given something to do to “make up” for the wrong doing. Don’t get this confused with “salvation by works.” Absolution is declared before the satisfaction is given. The idea is this. Imagine you own a company and one of your employees embezzles several thousand dollars from you over a number of years, and then once he found out says “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Well…okay, but isn’t there something more than needs to be done. We need to set up a kind of payment plan.

Eucharist (also called “Holy Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper”) – We won’t say too much about this one now, because this is what the entire series is going to be about. For now let’s just say that the Eucharist is the sacrament whereby the partaker is united with the resurrected, glorified flesh of Christ, because the flesh of Christ is (somehow) present in the elements.

Confirmation – Is the rite of “the laying on of hands” where by the baptized is “confirmed” in the faith, and the Holy Spirit is said to descend upon her. This goes back to some passages in the book of Acts (18:15-17; 19:6) were people are baptized but do not receive the Holy Spirit until one of the Apostles lays hands on them. The Eastern Orthodox do confirmation right after baptism. Catholics tend to wait until you grow up a bit. Interestingly, Pentecostals looks to these same texts for the doctrine of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  

Extreme Unction (sometimes called “Last Rites”) – This is a rite of anointing—initially it was for the dying—but now Catholics pretty much agree that it should be done for anyone who is sick or about to have surgery, etc.

Marriage – The sacrament by which an indissoluble bond is formed between two people, which mirrors the bond between Christ and his bride, the Church.

Holy Orders – The sacrament of the ordination of priests and bishops. Like the sacrament of baptism, Holy Orders makes a permanent mark on the soul—it makes you a different kind of person. (We’ll say more about that).

The Eastern Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church (Greek-speaking Christians from the Eastern half of the Roman Empire) more-or-less agrees with Catholics about the seven sacraments. But the Orthodox are always a little uneasy at Western attempts to classify and categorize everything. So while Catholics are eager to nail down exactly when and how the bread of the Eucharist becomes the body of Christ, for instance, the Orthodox want to say “let’s just leave a little of the mystery.” And while some Orthodox theologians will talk about “the seven sacraments,” they are all much more willing to use sacramental language to describe all kinds of ways that God is at work in the physical world.

Parts of a Sacrament

St. Augustine’s formulated the first definition of a sacrament that really caught on in Western theology: a sacrament is an outward (or physical) sign of a inner (or spiritual) grace.

The Sign: The outward sign of a sacrament is constituted of two parts.

  1. A sacramental sign always has a physical element. (water, bread and wine, the laying on of hands, etc).
  2. And there are always some words to be said. (“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” or “This is my body given for you” etc.) It is important to note that it matters who says these words. There is not a valid (at least for Roman Catholics and Easter Orthodox) unless a priest is present to speak the words of institution. If I were to preside at the Eucharist and say the words of institution I would just be saying “This is Joe’s body, broken for you”—and that’s not much use to anyone. But the priest speaks on behalf of Christ (that he does so is part of the grace of holy orders). So when a priest say “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” you are to understand this Christ himself is claiming you as his own through your baptism.

The thing signified is the grace received or symbolized in the sacrament (i.e. for baptism the thing signified is regeneration).

Faith which unites the thing signified to the sign. Faith, here, has a threefold meaning:

  1. God’s faithfulness to his promise,
  2. our trust that God will be faithful to his promise,
  3. And our faithful response to God’s promise.

Efficacious Signs

The great Medieval development on Augustine’s definition is that the sacraments are efficacious signs—they are signs that work. Think of the difference between a sign that says “railroad crossing ahead,” and the “thumbs up” sign that the Roman Emperor might give at a gladiatorial battle. The former just signifies that something is going on. The latter actually makes something happen—the Emperor puts his thumb up and somebody loses his head. Now that’s an efficacious sign. It’s not enough just to say that the sacraments signify grace, say Medieval Catholics, the sacraments confer grace. It’s through the sacraments that God bestow grace upon the faithful. Thus the sacraments come to be called the “the means of grace.” This is language that gets picked up by Luther and Calvin, and so finds a home in Protestantism as well.

You can think about the difference between Augustine’s definition and this new Medieval development by imagining the difference between the role of an umpire in a baseball game and, say, the buzzer on Jeopardy.  On Jeopardy the buzzer sounds for the person who hits the button first, and she gets to answer the question. But the buzzer doesn’t actually change anything, it just signals what is already true—that this person hit the button first, if only by a fraction of a second. That’s like Augustine’s definition: the sacraments of visible signs of a grace already present invisibly in the soul. The Medieval revision makes the sacraments more like the umpire in a baseball game. In a baseball game when, if the umpire says “You’re out!” then the runner is out—even if he made it to the plate before the ball did. See what happens? Even if the umpire is factually wrong in his judgment, what he says is true simply because he said it. The words actually make themselves true. A baseball umpire can change the fabric of reality. Medieval Catholics say the sacraments are like that. The sacraments do not only signify grace that is already present, they literally confer grace—they change the state of the person receiving them—because sacraments are promises that make themselves true. So throughout this series the standard definition I’ll use is, “sacraments are promises that give what they promise.”

Dominical Institution

What makes a sacrament a sacrament, as opposed to, let’s say, a miracle? Isn’t that the definition of a miracle—God working in and with the physical world? Well, yes, but big difference is that a miracle happens only once, whereas a sacrament is meant to be repeated. God raised Jesus’ physical body from the dead—that’s a miracle. Each week when we celebrate the Eucharist the glorified flesh of Christ is present there in the elements. That’s a miracle to be sure, but it’s a predictable, repeatable miracle—it happens every week—not many miracles like that. What makes the Eucharistic miracle predictable is the Jesus commanded his disciples (us!) to perform this sacred rite and promised that he would be there when we do. That command and promise of Christ is what we call “dominical institution”—dominical just being from the Latin word for Lord. We can expect miracles when we perform these sacred rites, because the Lord instituted them to work this way.

By the way, dominical institution is the reason that most Protestants accept only two sacraments rather than the full seven of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The Lord clearly instituted Baptism and the Eucharist, but extreme unction isn’t quite so clear. Well, there is Mark 6:13, in which, as Catholics like to point, the disciples go on Jesus’ command and “cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” But Protestants don’t buy it—sounds more like description than prescription to them.

Apostolic Succession

Another important aspect of sacramental theology is Apostolic succession, or what is sometimes called “The Power of the Keys.” In Matthew 16:19 Jesus says to the Apostle Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This power to bind and loose things on earth, and they will be bound and loosed in heaven refers primarily to the power to forgive sins—to loose the bonds of sin—for instance in the absolution part of the sacrament of penance.  When the priest says in the sacrament of penance, “I absolve you of your sins,” he literally speaks on behalf of Christ, with this power of the keys. And this power is given to the Apostle Peter who, for Roman Catholics, is always a symbol of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Peter is the first bishop of Rome, and this power Christ bestows upon him is passed down to each of his successors—through the sacrament of holy orders—so that anyone ordained in the succession of Peter possesses this power of the keys to make valid sacraments. This is why, by the way, Roman Catholics will accept Eastern Orthodox sacraments as valid but not Protestant ones, because Protestants do not have a valid succession of bishops and priests going back to the Apostle Peter.

The Priesthood of All Believers

Martin Luther basically buys this logic, except that he insists that when Christ said that to Peter he was really saying it to the whole Church. So Protestants will talk about “the priesthood of all believers.” The big difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the issue of priesthood is that if a bunch of Catholics get stranded on a desert island with no priest, they have no sacraments, because there is no one in the succession of Peter perform the rite of holy orders. If a bunch of Protestants get stranded on a desert island, we’d just elect a priest or a pastor and start celebrating Holy Communion.

Next week we’ll take a look at The Passover: Old Testament Background to the Eucharist


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