What is a Sacrament?

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When I first started studying Lutheran theology I had barely heard the word “sacrament” in my life. It’s not a term that comes up in american culture or Protestantism in general very frequently. It certainly wasn’t a point of discussion in Adventism.  While I have covered the sacraments in my entry on Justification, with this post I want to dig a bit further back into the Bible and cover the old testament too.

This post will be building on concepts and Biblical teachings that I have presented in the past. For the sake of space I will not be repeating myself, so if you are just as unfamiliar with the term as I was then I recommend reading the following posts first.  Also, I will be linking to them in places that I think might be relevant to the reader.

Where does the word Sacrament come from?

 

The word Sacrament actually has it’s root in the Latin Biblical texts. Anytime the word we would use for “mystery” in the Bible would come up Jerome translated it as “sacramentum” in the Vulgate.

 

“32 sacramentum hoc magnum est ego autem dico in Christo et in ecclesia 33 verumtamen et vos singuli unusquisque suam uxorem sicut se ipsum diligat uxor autem ut timeat virum” Ephesians 5:32-33 Latin Vulgate

“32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.” Ephesians 5:32:33 KJV

 

My point is the Church got the word from reading the Bible, it’s not just made up out of thin air. Just like some Christians like to use the word “rapture” instead of “harpazo” many today like to use the word “sacrament”.  That said, even though it does technically appear in the Bible the word sacrament is used more as a theological term than anything else.  Like saying “Trinity” or “Original Sin“.  Such terms refer to broad themes and teachings in scripture.

 

What does Sacrament mean then?

 

The best definition of the word is one that is based on scripture. Whether you are hot or cold to the use of the word, there are times in scripture when God uses a physical thing to deliver heavenly blessings to his people. If you are more comfortable with another word than sacrament then go for it, I’m gonna stick with it though.

 

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. ‘ Numbers 21:8-9 KJV

 

Above we see an example of an old covenant sacrament. Notice that Moses is commanded to hold up a brass snake for everyone to look at. When they look upon the physical object in front of them they receive a blessing from heaven.

 

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This is one of my favorite examples of an old testament sacrament because Jesus even uses it to point straight to the cross, which we receive in the Eucharist. There’s more though.

 

“And he shall do with the bullock as he did with the bullock for a sin offering, so shall he do with this: and the priest shall make an atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them.” Leviticus 4:20 KJV

 

“And the bullock for the sin offering, and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall one carry forth without the camp; and they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh, and their dung. … For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” Leviticus 16:27,30 KJV

 

“And one kid of the goats, to make an atonement for you.” Numbers 28:30 KJV

 

Read above, the goat isn’t a symbolic goat. Neither is the bullock, they are real physical earthly ordinary things. The atonement the people were receiving though was also real but from heaven. In this God used a physical thing to deliver something heavenly to his people. Hebrews even clarifies that the sacrifices themselves have no power.

 

“For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” Hebrews 10:4 KJV

 

I don’t think that Moses was wrong in Leviticus when he said the Israelite’s received forgiveness from the blood of bulls and goats.  Instead, I would argue that it is what God delivered to his people in with and under the sacrifice that forgave their sins. Just as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in with and under the sacrament from 2000 years ago, so to did the old covenant Jews receive the body and blood of Christ in with and under the sacrifice of bulls and goats.

I simply agree with the likes of Martin Luther and St. Augustine in how a sacrament is to be understood.

 

Accedat verbum ad sacramentum ad elementum et fit sacramentum” which means that ‘when the Word is added to the element or the natural substance, it becomes a sacrament,’ that is, a holy, divine thing and sign.” Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, Fourth Part: Baptism, sections 17-18, in The Book of Concord

“Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Why does He not say, You are clean through the baptism wherewith you have been washed, but through the word which I have spoken unto you, save only that in the water also it is the word that cleanses? Take away the word, and the water is neither more nor less than water. The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word. For He had said also to the same effect, when washing the disciples’ feet, He that is washed needs not, save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit. And whence has water so great an efficacy, as in touching the body to cleanse the soul, save by the operation of the word; and that not because it is uttered, but because it is believed? For even in the word itself the passing sound is one thing, the abiding efficacy another. This is the word of faith which we preach, says the apostle, that if you shall confess with your mouth that Jesus is the Lord, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. For with the heart man believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. Romans 10:10 Accordingly, we read in the Acts of the Apostles, Purifying their hearts by faith; Acts 15:9 and, says the blessed Peter in his epistle, Even as baptism does also now save us, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience. This is the word of faith which we preach, whereby baptism, doubtless, is also consecrated, in order to its possession of the power to cleanse. For Christ, who is the vine with us, and the husbandman with the Father, loved the Church, and gave Himself for it. And then read the apostle, and see what he adds: That He might sanctify it, cleansing it with the washing of water by the word. Ephesians 5:25-26 The cleansing, therefore, would on no account be attributed to the fleeting and perishable element, were it not for that which is added, by the word. This word of faith possesses such virtue in the Church of God, that through the medium of him who in faith presents, and blesses, and sprinkles it, He cleanses even the tiny infant, although itself unable as yet with the heart to believe unto righteousness, and to make confession with the mouth unto salvation. All this is done by means of the word, whereof the Lord says, Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.” – St. Augustine, Tractate 80 (John 15:1-3)

 

To sum it up, God has chosen to convey his grace to us by means, a concept I have broken down in my post on Justification , grace, and faith.  Some of those means of grace that he uses are conveyed by physical elements.  In the Lord’s Supper we receive faith, the forgiveness of sins in his body and blood, delivered in with and under the elements of bread and wine.  In Baptism we receive faith, the forgiveness of sins delivered in the water combined with the word.

 

 

Just Baptism and Communion? What about the other five sacraments?

 

The Roman Catholic Church (and others) teach a total of seven (7) sacraments.  They are listed below:

Baptism.

Eucharist.

Confirmation.

Reconciliation.

Anointing of the sick.

Marriage.

Holy orders.

Lutherans would agree that the first two on that list are sacraments.  Confirmation is practiced and is certainly a good thing.  Even evangelical churches do it (technically) they are just usually less organized about it.  Yes, through the preaching of the word (if it is done) confirmation does give faith by means, but there is no physical element that conveys it.  Same applies for most of the others to be honest.  I do want to address anointing of the sick and marriage though.

 

“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” James 5:14-15 KJV

“Of this unction as a sacrament we find no word in Scriptures. The anointing of which James speaks in this passage, cp. Mark 6, 13, was an extraordinary means used in the early Church for the miraculous healing of bodily ailments. This anointing was not done in preparing the sick person for a blessed death, but for the purpose of healing; the forgiveness of sins is not ascribed to the oil, but to the prayer of faith.” Kretzmann Commentaries

 

On the face of it we do see how this could be seen as a sacrament.  You have a physical element, and you have a blessing of heaven.  But you don’t have God giving that blessing via the element.  Notice in this case there is a prayer of faith.  I think it could be read as a sacrament if there were other scripture tying receiving faith to the anointing of oil.  But we don’t have that in this case, since the scripture is silent there, we should be as well.

What about marriage though?  The theology nerds reading my blog probably noticed that to justify the biblical origin of the word “sacrament” I used a verse in which Paul refers to marriage as a great “sacramentum”.  Which is of course why I clarified that I am using it like I do words like “Trinity”.  It’s a theological term.

 

“32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.” Ephesians 5:32:33 KJV

 

Why is marriage not a sacrament?  Simply because there is no physical element to it.  One could call it a sacramental union, that’s fine.  But biblically speaking the word sacrament wouldn’t be the best one when employed with the definition I am using.

To be fair I don’t think a Roman Catholic would argue that all 7 of the sacraments they teach entail a physical element.  They would likely just say that they define the word sacrament differently than we do.  Which is common, most denominations tend to define it a bit differently.

All seven of those things, in one manner or another, are certainly things that the christian church does.  And people do receive faith one way or another as they are done.  So really the difference does come down to the underlying theology.  For example, Lutheran ministers will still perform marriages and anoint the sick.  They just won’t refer to the act as a sacrament when they do it or theologically classify it that way.

 

Conclusion

 

Why does God use physical elements to give faith to people?  In my opinion, I believe it is for our assurance.  God is perfectly capable of giving us faith by the preaching of his word (Rom 10:17).  There is however a subjectivity in our mind of interpreting and remembering such events that is just going to be there.

Did I really hear the preacher? 

Did I really mean what I felt? 

Was my decision for Jesus decisive enough?

What if I was distracted?

Of course we shouldn’t worry about such things, but I think God knows we will because of the weaknesses of the flesh.  So, I would argue he has given us the sacraments in part to mitigate doubt or insecurity.  I know I was baptized, I remember how the water felt, there were witnesses.  They even gave me a piece of paper to prove it.  That’s my opinion, take is as you will.

Even if that’s not the true reason the why is less important than the what.  The “what” is that God has promised to deliver faith to us by means.  So logically we should go wherever that is.  See you at church next Sunday.

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About ACTheologian

I am a layman who blogs my Biblical studies. Enjoy, please read with an open Bible and do double check with your pastor.
This entry was posted in Armchair Lounge, Soteriology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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