What is a sacrament and how many are there?
This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
When a person has been released from prison or rescued from some dire condition, the first thing they need is to receive a nice warm bath and a meal. These are universal symbols of grace and hospitality. To receive someone into your home and offer them a bath and a meal is one of the surest signs of full acceptance and a real relationship. This is, essentially, what God does with us after we are rescued from the bondage of sin, brought out of our imprisonment to Satan and into a new life in Christ.
Our first act is to receive baptism which is the Christian way of giving a new believer a “spiritual bath.” This act simultaneously symbolizes both our cleansing from sin as well as a tangible reenactment of a death and resurrection. As we symbolically reenact Christ’s own death and resurrection, we “die” to our sins and are raised to new life with Christ.
Likewise, Communion or the Lord’s Supper is the place where we sit down at a table in the presence of Jesus Christ who serves as host, and we enjoy a meal together. In the early church the Lord’s Supper was not merely the tiny tokens of bread and wine that we have today. Rather, it was a full meal, known as the love feast, which culminated in the symbolic eating of his body and drinking of his blood as a way of declaring that we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Today, communion has been separated from the larger meal so we may not fully recognize it as a “meal” with Jesus Christ, who spiritually stands at the head of the table as the host.
Jesus instituted these two ongoing practices in the church as a way of marking out the new life in Jesus Christ: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These two practices are normally known as sacraments. Some Christian traditions do not like the word “sacrament,” but prefer the word “ordinance.” A sacrament has been defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” This means that it is an act of grace whereby God is truly present at the waters of baptism and at the table, and he acts in the lives of those who come to the waters of baptism and to the Lord’s Supper. An ordinance, in contrast, emphasizes the action of the church in remembering. An ordinance is more of a regular reminder of what Christ did long ago, rather than an action of his real presence right now in the life of the believer.
You will likely recall the phrase from Jesus at the Last Supper, “This is my body; do this in remembrance of me.” Some traditions emphasize the first part of the phrase, “this is my body,” and call attention to the divine presence. Others draw attention to the second part of the phrase, “do this in remembrance of me,” and focus upon looking back and remembering. Since all Christians believe in the general presence of God with all believers, those who emphasize the special presence of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper often use the expression “real presence.”
Two of the most common expressions for this sacred meal are “Communion” and “Lord’s Supper,” both of which are found in the writings of the apostle Paul to refer to this sacrament. In 1 Corinthians 10:16, he refers to our sharing in the body and blood of Christ. The word for sharing is literally “communion in the blood of Christ” and “communion in the body of Christ.” The second term, “Lord’s Supper,” is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:20 to describe the sacrament. A third term which is sometimes used for the meal is “Eucharist.” This is a word which simply means “thanksgiving.” In 1 Corinthians 11:24, the apostle Paul records that just prior to Jesus breaking the bread and giving the cup, he “gave thanks.” Over time the church developed more formal, liturgical prayers which “gave thanks” prior to the breaking of the bread and the giving of the cup, known as the Great Thanksgiving. This was for the purpose of keeping the meal sacred, which is the larger context of why an extended discussion on the sacrament appears in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. A new believer should recognize that all three terms, Communion, Lord’s Supper, and Eucharist, are interchangeable terms for the same sacrament, and I would recommend that all three terms be embraced.
As for the terms “sacrament” and “ordinance,” I think it is entirely appropriate to use the word “sacrament” and to understand both baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ongoing means of grace in our lives. They are expressions of God’s hospitality whereby we are renewed in our fellowship with him, experience his presence, receive his word of forgiveness and grace, and are empowered to go out into the world as his ambassadors.
1 Corinthians 10:16
1 Corinthians 11:23–29