The word “sacrament” means “something holy”. It can be found in the old Latin Bible version that the medieval church used, as a translation of “mystery” (e.g. Eph 1:9; 1 Tim 3:16). It speaks of the holy mystery of the gospel, that we are saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. The rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper also show that mystery; and so these holy rituals became known as “sacraments”.
During the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, one of the topics of disagreement was the nature and the number of sacraments in the Christian church. Practically, the Reformers reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two; they had the whole congregation partake of the Lord’s Supper, instead of leaving it mostly to the priest; and they simplified the rituals. Theologically, these changes happened because the Reformers returned to a more Biblical view of the grace of God that is pictured in the sacraments.
In this article I will speak of the “Roman” church, but it is good to realize that this was the only church in the West during the Middle Ages. Over the centuries, this medieval church developed a twisted view of God’s grace and therefore also a serious misunderstanding of the sacraments. The Reformers wanted to correct this.
Sacraments and grace
The sacraments are a means of grace. They are a free gift of God to encourage us and bless us. Through them, the Holy Spirit strengthens the faith of believers. The Reformed church and the Roman church are agreed on this.
But in the Roman view, the sacraments give this grace in an mechanical, automatic way. As long as the person receiving them is somewhat “open” to receiving God’s grace, the sacrament will give him grace. This view is sometimes summarized by saying that the sacraments work ex opere operato, “by the work performed.”
In contrast, the Reformed emphasize that sacraments only give grace when used in faith. John Calvin wrote: “They confer nothing and avail nothing, if not received in grace … They do not of themselves bestow any grace, but they announce and manifest it … The Holy Spirit, whom the sacraments do not bring promiscuously to all, but whom the Lord specially confers on his people, brings the gifts of God along with him, makes way for the sacraments, and causes them to bear fruit.” (Calvin, Institutes IV.14.17)
In the Reformed view, the sacraments bring the same message as the preached Word, must be received with the same faith, and are then empowered by the same Holy Spirit.
The Word and the sacraments
In the Roman church, the emphasis in the worship service lies on the sacrament. The high point of the liturgy is the mass, when the priest consecrates bread and wine in a lengthy ritual. But in a Reformed church, the heart of the service is the Word, the gospel preaching, which is then illustrated in baptism and/or the Lord’s Supper. This is deliberate. It is through hearing the gospel that we get to know Jesus Christ; seeing the sacraments by itself does not tell us what we need to know. “The word is intended to engender and to strengthen faith, while the sacraments serve only to strengthen it.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 616) “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17)
The Reformers emphasized that the sacraments illustrate the Word of God. It is not enough for a priest to mutter a ritual phrase in Latin: Hoc est corpus meum. A sacrament is not made by a magical formula. Rather, the liturgist speaks the sacramental truth, to be understood by all: This is my body, which was broken for the complete forgiveness of all our sins. That is the gospel message, the reality of faith. The sacrament affirms that message for believers.
Because of this, the Reformers emphasized the preaching of the Word more, and simplified the ritual of the sacraments. This is an important difference between the Reformed churches and the Roman church. In the Roman church, the essential part of the liturgy is the mass, where the priest (on behalf of the church) hands out God’s grace to the people through the consecrated bread. This is the part you cannot miss! But in Reformed churches, it is emphasized that God gives his grace by the Holy Spirit whenever the gospel is received in faith. That gospel is clearly heard in the preaching of the Word, and also illustrated in the sacraments.
How many sacraments?
The Lord Jesus instituted two sacraments. He commanded his disciples: Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit … (Mat. 28:19) He broke bread and passed around a cup of wine, saying: Do this in remembrance of me. (Luke 22:19)
However, the Roman church has seven sacraments. Besides baptism and the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist, or mass), they are:
- confirmation (compare to making public profession of faith)
- penitence (confession of sin to a priest)
- ordination of priests
- the last rites (= extreme unction; anointing and praying with a dying person)
Reformed people do similar things, but do not call them “sacraments”. These five extra rituals were not commanded by Christ, and are not clearly a picture of his saving work.
The main criticism on the five additional sacraments of Rome is that they devalue the grace shown in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper. They suggest that the grace given by the Holy Spirit is limited. In the Roman view, the grace of baptism is not enough to cover sins later in life; it has to be replenished often, in the mass and in penitence. In contrast, Reformed churches proclaim that God’s promise of grace, which he showed in baptism, remains true throughout our lives. And while it is a blessing to use the Lord’s Supper frequently, it reminds us of the grace Jesus showed us in his once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. We need that reminder frequently; but we need no additional rituals to receive the grace God so generously gives us.