7. Five Characteristics of a Sacrament

June 2022

We call them “the means of grace.” It is how God covers us with His grace, particular and specific ways. We might think of them as channels or pipes or conduit. The means of grace are God's Word and the Sacraments. When we hear God's Word, God gives us the gift of faith by which He applies to the believer forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, and eternal life. In like manner, He uses the Sacraments to do the same. We identify the Sacraments with five characteristics: holy acts ordained by Christ using visible elements connected to the Word through which God forgives our sins and reconciles us to Himself.

We say the Sacraments are holy acts because, though they might have the appearance of ordinary activities, they are practiced within the community of the church for a higher purpose. The two Sacraments we recognize in the ordinary would be a bath and a meal. The New Testament word for the first means to wash. The event from which the second finds its meaning was a meal celebrated every year to remember how God freed His people Israel from slavery in Egypt, the Passover meal. Neither one of these acts, however, is just a bath or just a meal. Because God has attached His work to these acts, they are holy.

Of all the holy things we do, there are two which Jesus specifically told us to do. On the night when Jesus was arrested, while He was celebrating the Passover with His disciples, Jesus took the bread of the meal and a cup of wine from the meal. He gave the bread and cup to His disciples telling them their true meaning and instructed them to continue the practice in remembrance of Him (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). After the Resurrection, as Jesus was preparing His disciples for His return to heaven, He told His disciples to make more disciples. Jesus told them to go to the all the ethnic groups of people that populate the world; baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and teach them to obey all the things He had taught them (Matthew 28:17-20). Just as Jesus commanded His first disciples to do these acts, He extends that command to us today.

There are other things Jesus told us to do, things like repent and be witnesses. We don't list repentance and witnessing themselves as Sacraments, though, because they are not practiced with visible elements. We would more likely say that repentance and witnessing are part of the Word as a means of grace. The Church has also, in the past, had other acts that were called Sacraments. In our tradition however, we recognize as Sacraments only the acts that Jesus commanded (instituted by Christ) that also have visible elements. So we say there are two Sacraments. Holy Communion (also known as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist) has bread and the fruit of the vine—either grape juice or wine. The visible element in Baptism is water.

We have, then, these two holy acts which Jesus Himself instituted. The one is a meal, but a holy meal. The other is a bath, but a holy bath. The one uses bread and the fruit of the vine. The other uses water. But a meal by itself only feeds the body, and a bath by itself only washes the skin. In order for this meal and this bath to have more than external benefits, these acts must be done in and with the Word. When we commune, the Words of Institution are from Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11: this is My body given for you; this is My blood of the covenant shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. When we apply the water of baptism, we use the words of Jesus from Matthew 28: baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Without the Word, these acts are only a meal and a bath. It is their union with the Word that makes them Sacraments.

When the meal and the washing are done with the Word, God does His work. We say that a Sacrament is a holy act through which God gives spiritual gifts. We understand these gifts to be forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, and eternal life. Because we rebel and disobey, we need to be forgiven. Because our friendship with God is destroyed by our rebellion, we need to be reconciled. Because a broken friendship results in eternal separation, we need to be given the gift of eternal life. We hold, because it is taught in the Word, that God does these things, that God saves us, through the Sacraments when the sacraments are received in faith.

It is our confession that God extends His grace to us through two means: the Word and the Sacraments. The Word is of primary importance because it is in through the Word that God reveals the Sacraments to us. The two Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism are holy acts instituted by Christ using visible elements in union with the Word through which God saves us. Through these means of grace, God forgives our sins, reconciles us to Himself, and gives us eternal life.