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What is a Sacrament?

The Church began in the east among Greek-speaking Jews, and so the language of the ancient church was Greek. The rites of the Church, such as baptism and the Eucharist, were called mysteries of the church, and they still are in the Eastern Church. Mystery is a Greek word that was often used in philosophical and religious discussions to refer to knowledge that was once unclear, but is now revealed. The actual Greek word is μυστηριον (mysterion) in the singular, μυστηρια (mysteria) in the plural.

In worship, we still proclaim the mystery of our faith:

Christ has died
Christ has risen
Christ will come again

The ancient church called this the mystery of our faith because they believed that the Old Testament had been teaching these doctrines all along, but they were only clear in Jesus Christ:

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:13-18, NIV

As you can see in this passage, the ancient church believed that Christians are gradually being transformed into the likeness of our Lord. Part of this transformation is the way we live our lives as agents of God’s providence among the people of the world, and part of it takes place in the rites and ceremonies of the church. All of these rites and ceremonies reveal truth to us that was once obscure, so they were called μυστηρια or, as we would say, mysteries.

By the end of third century, Latin had overtaken Greek as the language of common people in the western half of the Roman Empire. Western clergy preached in Latin, western theologians wrote in Latin, and western scholars translated the Bible into Latin. Western Christians heard the sermons, read the writings, and studied the Bible in Latin. The word μυστηριον was a problem. There was no Latin word that corresponded to it. They could have transliterated the Greek word into Latin as mysterium, and they often did that, but that did not solve the problem so much as avoid it, because most Latin-speaking people still had no idea what it meant. So western Christian scholars used the word sacramentum to translate μυστηριον. These scholars included Tertullian, who was one of the earliest Latin theologians, and Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin about a hundred years later.

But where did they get this word and why did they choose it? They borrowed it from the Roman Army. A recruit for the Roman army became a soldier by undergoing a sacramentum. The sacramentum had two parts: the soldier took an oath of office, and the Army branded him behind the ear with the number of his legion. The sacramentum resulted in new responsibilities and new advantages. The soldier acquired the responsibility for conforming to military discipline and obeying military commands. He also acquired social and legal benefits, because living conditions in the Roman Army were very good and veterans received special privileges and benefits. Ancient Latin theologians seized upon sacramentum as the best Latin equivalent of the Greek word mystery when it referred to a church rite, because the church rite is simultaneously spiritual and physical, and because the person who undergoes the sacrament simultaneously receives new responsibilities and a new spiritual status before God.

So that is how the word sacrament came into Christian theology in the west. For many centuries, the secular and the theological uses of the word existed side by side. By the time of the Reformation, it was solely a Christian theological term.

Now how do we determine which rites of the church are sacraments?

The Roman Catholic Church

Many Catholics are taught that a sacrament is: “An outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” This is a phrase that goes back to St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. He lived from 354-430 and was so influential in western Christian thinking that during the Protestant Reformation, both sides appealed to him. By saying that the “outward and visible sign” (the physical act) goes hand-in-hand with the “inward and invisible grace” (the spiritual reality), we can assert, against the background of Platonic thinking, that physical acts and spiritual reality are one and the same. This is an excellent description of a sacrament, but it is a poor criterion for settling any argument about which rites of the church are sacraments and which are not. There are lots of “outward and visible signs” of “inward and invisible grace” that are not sacraments, such as for instance the benediction at the end of a service. Within the Roman Catholic Church, the debates about the sacraments continued until the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, which was held in the years 1545-1563. This council settled the matter for Catholics. Their decision seems to have been influenced by Jerome’s use of the word sacrament in the New Testament and by the symbolism of the number seven.

The Protestant Movement

However, the questions still lingered for the Protestant movement, which began before the Council of Trent. Is marriage a sacrament, as the Catholics decided? A few would say that the marriage rite is a physical act that creates a new spiritual reality. Others, such as Martin Luther—a Catholic priest at the time—argued that marriage cannot be a sacrament for the simple reason that it is not exclusive to Christians. And in fact, if you have a friend who is a Muslim, a Jew, or a Hindu, they will not ask you what marriage is, and you do not have to explain it to them in Christian terms.

So the Catholics who were about to become Protestants argued that a better criterion for a sacrament would be a church rite that the gospel writers explicitly depicted Jesus as instituting for all Christians during His earthly ministry. By this definition, they found fewer sacraments. By their reasoning, ordination would not be a sacrament, because not every Christian is called to the ordained ministry. Marriage would not be a sacrament, because it is not distinctly Christian, Jesus didn’t require it or institute it, and not all Christians are married. Anointing the sick with oil would not be a sacrament, because they didn’t see Jesus instituting it in the gospels, and because healthy Christians do not receive it.

Now what if Jesus instituted a church rite for all Christians, but the New Testament records it only in the form of an apostle’s testimony rather than in a description of Jesus actually instituting it. Is it a sacrament? Catholics would say yes, but Protestants would say no.

So what are the sacraments for Protestants? At the beginning of his book, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther argued that there were three: baptism, confession, and the Eucharist, because Jesus commanded all Christians to do these three. However, he did not feel that one necessarily had to confess to the clergy, so it might be valid without being a church rite. So perhaps for that reason, Luther settled on two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, by the time he finished writing the book. (Luther demonstrates the value of proofreading: the same book that begins by asserting that there are three sacraments ends by asserting that there are two sacraments.)

The State of the Universal Church Today

The Roman Catholic Church has the most systematic treatment of sacraments, so I am using them as a framework. They uphold the following rites of the church as sacraments:

Baptism
Baptism is the initiation rite into the Christian faith and into the Christian church. It is considered a sacrament by everyone who uses the word sacrament.
Confirmation (in the east: Chrismation)
Confirmation is historically the second half of baptism. It got separated from baptism in the west by historical developments. Today, when adults are baptized, they are confirmed in the same rite. In churches that practice infant baptism, confirmation can signify one or more of the following: admission to the Eucharist for the first time, admission into full church membership, graduation from Christian education, or prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In eastern Orthodoxy, this is called Chrismation, and even though it is considered a separate rite, it immediately follows baptism and is therefore not separated from it.

Penance (Confession)
Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Christians have a special church rite available to them where they can visit a member of the clergy to obtain an assurance that they are forgiven for the sins they truly regret. The rest of us call it pastoral counseling.
The Eucharist
Eucharist, the Greek word for thanksgiving, is the original name of this rite, which today is also called Communion or the Lord’s Supper. It was originally a weekly event. Catholics only need to take Communion once a year to be Catholics in good standing. The Protestant Reformers originally wanted to restore weekly lay participation in Communion, but because of clergy shortages during the 19th century in the United States, most Protestant denominations have fallen into monthly or quarterly Communion. The Eucharist is considered a sacrament by everyone who uses the word sacrament.
Anointing of the Sick
Anointing and prayers for the sick comes from James 5. In the Roman Catholic Church, it gradually became a death rite, but it has recently been restored to its proper use. Orthodox churches and many Protestant bodies anoint the sick for healing. Catholics, Orthodox, and many Anglicans consider it a sacrament. Most Protestants do not.
Holy Orders
Holy orders is the rite of setting people aside as clergy; in other words, ordination. All churches have a rite of this type, but not all of them consider it a sacrament.
Marriage
All churches have marriage rites, but only Catholics, some Anglicans, and some Orthodox refer to it as a sacrament.

Anglicans refer to Baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments, and sometimes refer to the other five rites in the Roman Catholic list as “rites of the church commonly called sacraments.” So for Anglicans, the word sacrament is a little fluid.

Mainline Protestants generally only call baptism and the Eucharist sacraments.

Other bodies have historically avoided the term sacrament altogether. They have referred to the rites or ordinances of the church instead. Their lists of ordinances are not set in concrete, but they generally include equivalents of all the rites above. Today the word sacrament is staging a come-back among them, because the only reason they were originally allergic to the word sacrament was because Catholics used it. Many people today don’t think that that is a valid reason to avoid using a perfectly good word, because if we avoided all the words that Catholics use, we wouldn’t be able to talk at all.

The Orthodox do not define sacraments in the way that Roman Catholics and Protestants do. They refer to the mysteries of the church, and they have not officially enumerated or defined them. They would consider all the sacraments in the Catholic list to be sacraments, but they would not necessarily consider it a complete list.

I’m grateful to Robert B. Kelly, who contributed to this article.

See also:

Ancient World Views and the Sacraments
How Many Sacraments Are There?
What about baptism “in Jesus’ Name?”