Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Sacraments

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Sacraments:

Q:  Why do Lutherans and Catholics have a different number of Sacraments?  Do other Christian denominations share the concept of Sacrament?

In general, there are three conclusions among Christians regarding the number of Sacraments.  Some conclude that there are seven.  Others conclude that there are two, and still others conclude that there are none.  The differences between Christians regarding the number of Sacraments are largely a result of their different definitions of what a Sacrament is. 

Roman Catholics consider the seven Sacraments to be, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Sacraments as, “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”  In addition to Roman Catholics, Episcopal and Eastern Orthodox churches generally agree with this list of seven Sacraments. 

In contrast, Lutherans consider a Sacrament to be a sacred act, instituted by God Himself, using a visible element which is combined with God’s Word to give forgiveness for sins.  Based on this definition, Lutherans usually conclude that there are two Sacraments, which are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or Eucharist).  Like Catholics, Lutherans also perform Confirmation, Marriage, and Absolution (somewhat like Penance), although they do not call them Sacraments.  Most Lutherans also ordain their pastors and some practice Anointing of the Sick, although, again, not as Sacraments.  The reason Lutherans do not consider these latter five practices to be Sacraments is because they either do not have a visible element (like water, bread, or wine), or because it is not said in the Bible that they forgive sins.  Most churches of the Calvinist (Reformed or Presbyterian) and Methodist traditions arrive at the same conclusion as Lutherans regarding the number of the Sacraments, although they do so for different reasons.

A third group of churches have significantly different beliefs regarding the Sacraments from those churches already mentioned.  The statements of belief written by most Baptists and Pentecostals, as well as many independent or nondenominational congregations, do not list any Sacraments.  They do still make use of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but they see them as symbolic acts of devotion to God which are done by Christians, rather than God’s actions to forgive sins.  As a result of this belief, they use the word Ordinance instead of Sacrament to emphasize this difference of belief.  Some of these churches may also observe the ordination of pastors and anoint the sick, but not as an ordinance or a Sacrament.

All types of Christians continue to keep Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as part of their practices, although there are significant differences about what is happening there.  All Christians still practice marriage, even though not all consider it a Sacrament.  I think it could also be said that nearly all would agree that it is good to pray for the sick (Anointing), ask God’s blessing on pastors (Ordination), teach our beliefs to young people (Confirmation), and forgive sins which are confessed (Penance or Absolution). The disagreement doesn’t seem to be whether these things should be done, but rather what is really taking place, what it should be called, and how it should be done. 

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