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Sacraments, Conveyers of Grace or Not

In Christianity, the belief in the necessity of the sacraments to attain salvation and God’s grace is called sacramentalism. A sacrament is a ritual that bestows God’s grace. The sacraments developed over hundreds of years starting with baptism and holy communion. Eventually seven sacraments were declared to include confirmation, confession, marriage, ordination, extreme unction.

The Roman Catholic Church started this belief and practices the seven mentioned above. The older mainline denominations such as Lutheranism and Episcopalianism teach baptism and holy communion are sacraments. Evangelical churches among others teach that baptism and holy communion are “ordinances,” not sacraments. Foot washing is a rite in some churches, but there is some debate as to whether is a sacrament in churches that have sacraments. Some Baptists claim it is a third ordinance.

Some Pentecostals and other fundamental teachers still use the word “sacrament”, however, they define the word as synonymous with ordinance. The original meaning, as determined by the Catholic church, is that a sacrament is “a ritual that confers divine grace.” The difference is that for the one it is the act that confers the grace of God, and for the other it is an act of obedience for baptism and a memorial for communion, but the act itself confers no grace. The difference is shown, for example, in the issue over whether one must be ritually baptized to be saved. This article deals with sacraments and sacramentalism as defined by the Roman Catholic, Anglican and other mainline traditions.

While this does not appear to be a major issue on theological battle grounds, it is one of the many doctrines people are taught one thing in one church and the opposite in another. So while this is probably one of the least egregious divisions among Churches, it is one of the many issues where someone who visits different churches will find 0, 2, 3, 7 or some other number of sacraments. It’s confusing.

Biblical Basis

Sacramentalists state the biblical basis for sacraments is in the bible. However they also acknowledge that the word sacrament is not in the Bible. Sacrament is a Latin word. The origins of our Christian Scriptures, however, are in the Greek language. Hence the word for sacrament we find in the Bible is the Greek word “mysterion”, which is tranlated into the English word “mystery.”

According to AmericanCatholic.org, “St. Paul says that it is his life’s work to announce and bring to completion this “mystery hidden from ages and from generations past” (Colossians 1:26). “To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ, and to bring to light the mystery hidden from ages past in God who created all things, so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known…” (Ephesians 3:8-10).”i The article continues to document that it is this reference to the word “mystery” that carries the roots of the sacraments, specifically that “For the first 11 centuries of Christian history the word sacrament was frequently used in this more general sense, referring to the mysterious plan of God. Little by little specific aspects of this mysterious plan—for example, eucharist, baptism, anointing of the sick—began to be singled out and called sacraments.”

Thus the doctrine of the sacraments is based on the Apostles Paul’s reference to the mystery hidden in ages past. The problem with this catholic doctrine is that Paul explains the mystery himself in Ephesians 3:1-7 and it does not refer to sacraments. It refers to the secret that the gentiles would be fellow-heirs of the promise of Christ. Look at Ephesians 3: 1-7 which is the context for the reference above.

For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel: Eph 3:1-7

The context that this catholic reference uses to cite as the source of the sacraments explains that the mystery really was that gentiles would be receivers of the promises of God. This was a big deal.

And they of the circumcision that believed were amazed, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. Act 10:45

Up until Christ Israel was God’s chosen people and the rest of us were second rate people. The record of Cornelius in Acts 10 cites that Peter had to have the concept “what God calls clean do not to call unclean” repeated to him over and over. It required the message reiterated to impress on Peter the significance of the message. So, amazingly, Peter goes to a gentile’s house and they receive the holy spirit. Then the Apostles in Jerusalem call Peter in for questioning over fraternizing with Gentiles. This is a huge deal. The inclusion of Gentiles in the promise of Christ is the mystery referred to in these verses.

There is no reference to this in the Old Testament. This was a secret.

The sacraments are not the mystery referred to in Ephesians. This means there is no biblical basis for the concept of sacraments in scripture. This means that baptism, marriage, anointing the sick, laying on of hands and other actions are in the bible, but not as the concept of sacraments. They are not acts which confer the grace of God

Additionally, claiming that the “mysterious plan” of God unfolded over the centuries means that there is additional revelation after the books of the Bible, i.e., that the meaning and ordinances of the sacraments are additional revelations that are not in the bible. If revelation ended with the apostles, how does it work that there are these additional revelations over the centuries?.

Flaws

The doctrines defining the concept of sacraments were developed over hundreds of years. Justin Martyr (110-165 AD) refers to sacraments when discussing communion and baptism in his First Apology. It wasn’t until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that the seven sacraments were recognized. It was not until the Council of Trent in 1547 that it was defined as being a matter of faith for Catholics that there are seven sacraments.

St Ambrose, for example, who lived in the fourth century, saw both baptism and foot-washing as sacraments, while St Augustine thought of the creed, the Our Father, baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments, and St Peter Damien (eleventh century) thought that the anointing of kings, the dedication of churches, funerals and the monastic habit were all sacraments. Sacraments were seen as tangible signs of something holy, and so included what we today would refer to as ‘sacramentals’ — the blessing of a house or a person, for example. It was only in the middle ages that the term ‘sacrament’ was narrowed down to the more precise meaning that is taught today.

While the actions of baptism, communion, laying on of hands and others are established in the bible, sacraments are a concept that evolved over time outside of the bible. Those that believe in Solo Scriptura ought to conclude the sacraments are not additional truths revealed to the church over time. Also, since the bible does not ascribe power to the acts of baptism and communion, then the basic definition of sacraments as used by Sacramentalists is outside the realm of the bible

To illustrate this principle of sacramentalists that the sacrament confers the power of grace on the subject we can look at baptism and communion as examples.

Citing Acts 2:38 sacramentalists claim that baptism is an act that confers the power of remission of sins.

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Likewise in Matthew 26:27-28 Sacramentalists claim the Eucharist also has this power of forgiveness,

“Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

However, as the Bible says that it is the blood of Christ that washes us of sin, then we recognize that communion is a memorial instituted for us to remember that the blood of Christ washes us from all sin. This is the message contained in the verses above. Likewise, when we accept Christ as Lord is when we are redeemed, washed by the blood of the Lord. Requiring baptism as an action to receive redemption violates the verse that says that by grace we are saved, not of works, lest any man should boast. Baptism doesn’t confer salvation as the Sacramentalists claim.

Summary

While the acts of baptism, marriage, holy comunion, annointing the sick and so forth are in the books of the bible, the concepts of them being “sacraments” are not. There is no special grace bestowed because someone gets married, for example. It would be illogical that some morally corrupt persons could get a minister to marry them and they would receive some grace. Certainly any praying, any words of wisdom, any words of blessing over these people might hopefully help in their lives to fulfill the commitment they made in their vows, but there is no intrinsic grace given just because a priest or a minister pronounces them man and wife.

So many of the concepts around this issue are confusing like whether they are sacraments or ordinances, how many sacraments there are, and how can there be additional revelations about sacraments through the ages when supposedly the bible is the complete revelation.

i. http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0893.asp

(c) copyright 2009 Mark W Smith All rights reserved.

April 28th, 2009 Posted by | Divisions, Roman Catholicism | no comments

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