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“What is a sacrament, and how many are there?”

Written by | April, 2017
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“I’M GLAD YOU ASKED!” (TWENTY-Sixth IN A SERIES)

Pastors Answer Frequently-Asked Questions

You will not find the word sacrament in the Bible. If you were to do a quick search in a concordance, the closest match you would find is sacrifice. One can easily see that, as far as spelling is concerned, the two words are related—they both share the Latin root word sacer, which means “holy.” That’s where their similarities end, however. A sacrifice is a holy action; a sacrament is a holy mystery.

It is important to preserve the distinction between these two words because of how Scripture itself speaks about those things that it calls sacrifices and those sacred acts which we call sacraments. Sacrifices are actions that God lays upon man to do. Yet God never attaches forgiveness of sins or eternal salvation to anything we do. Sacraments do have God’s promise of forgiveness and salvation attached to them, and that is because they come from God to man.

The customary explanation which we
give to those we instruct in the basics of
Christian truth is that a sacrament meets
three qualifications:

1)  it is something instituted by Christ,

2) it contains an earthly element connected to God’s Word of promise,

3) it offers, gives, and conveys the forgiveness of sins. Since the forgiveness of sins is something that must come from God by grace, and can never be earned by anything we do, a sacrament must be something which God Himself is doing to bring to us the forgiveness of sins which Christ earned for us on the cross.

A thorough search of the Bible will reveal that there are but two such sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Of Baptism we read that, on the day of Pentecost, Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)  Because forgiveness of sins comes to us through Baptism, he also later writes in his first epistle, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21 ESV)

We find similar things said concerning the Lord’s Supper.
In instituting this holy meal, Jesus said,
“Take; eat. This is My body which is given for you. . . .  Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the new covenant shed for you for the remission of sins.” (Luke 22:19-20)  The Apostle Paul assures us, also, that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26 ESV)  To proclaim the Lord’s death is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, which is the purpose of His death.

Since, as the Scripture says, we are saved by grace and not by works, it is clear that these two sacraments are pure grace—works of undeserved love performed by God for man, rather than works of obedience by man for God. What makes them “holy mysteries” is that we would never have known this unless God Himself revealed it to us in His Word. But what a gracious and merciful God we have, that He did not keep these blessed sacraments from us, but delivered them to us, thus bestowing upon us all of the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection.

There is certainly much more that can be said about the sacraments than what can be written in this small space. If you wish to study this matter further, speak with your pastor. God has made him a steward of these sacraments (see 1 Corinthians 4:1), and it would be his pleasure to explain them to you more completely.

Frank Gantt is pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

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