Sacraments in Sacred Scripture

Author: Colin B. Donovan, STL
Sacraments in Scripture 

Sacrament. From the Latin sacramentum, a word which denoted the oath of loyalty sworn by soldiers to their earthly lord, the emperor. It was applied by Tertullian around 200 AD to the Christian mysteries, by which man adhered to God. It thus acquired, as a technical term, the same implication as the Greek word mysterion, mystery, which is used to this day for the sacraments in Eastern Christianity.

Many times in Scripture God's action, presence, or the working out of His plan in history is said to be a mystery. The "mystery" is known to Him alone and those to whom He reveals it (Eph. 1:9, 3:3, 3:9). Only by faith in Divine Revelation can the spiritual truth behind actions and events be discerned. The Incarnation is such a mystery, since only by faith do we believe that the man Jesus Christ whom we see, read about, or have preached to us, is God. Further, Jesus is a mystery concealing not just His divinity but His Father. As he told Philip, "whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Thus, we can say that Christ is a sacrament of His Father. The Church is a mystery, since it is the mystical Christ, Head and members. Vatican II speaks of the Church as the sacrament of Christ. Finally, the seven sacraments are mysteries which unfold in our souls and in our lives the working of Christ and His grace.

In each of the sacraments we can see that there is an outward sign of the mystery taking place, a sign in matter/deed and in word (Eph. 5:26), and that the sign bears a relationship to the spiritual grace or reality conferred by the Holy Spirit's action. In Baptism, for example, the individual is baptized in water, since water cleans, effecting an interior cleansing and renewal by God's gift of Himself (John 3:5, Acts 2:38). It also symbolizes dying and rising with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4), especially when performed by immersion. While the action of baptism is performed the word which Christ commanded is spoken (Mt. 28:19), completing the sign. Catholic teaching speaks of these two elements of the sign as matter (water) and form ("I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit").

Finally, one needs to remember that the New Testament is not a how-to manual of the sacraments and liturgy. Scripture witnesses to them, the early Christians didn't need more. Baptism is the most frequently spoken of, because it was a necessary part of  evangelization. Once people were baptized the Church's pastors (bishops, priests and deacons) who received their instructions from the apostles, carried out the sacraments as they had been taught (2 Thes. 2:15). This is what is meant by Tradition, the communication of the apostolic teaching in the preaching, teaching and ritual practices of those who were appointed to lead the Church after the apostles.

Baptism.  Scripture shows that John's baptism was a symbol of repentance, but not a sacrament. It did not confer grace. In the Acts it is clear that those who received Christian baptism also received the Holy Spirit, had their sins forgiven and became members of Christ, and thus of the Church. It is the foundational sacrament, the only one Philip thought necessary to confer on the Ethiopian eunuch. Matthew 3:16; Matthew 28:19; Mark 1:8; Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 1:4-5; Acts 2:38; Acts 8:16; Acts 8:36-38; Acts 11:16; Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33; Acts 18:8; Acts 19:3-6; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 5:25-26; Col. 2:12; 1 Peter 3:20-21, and many others.

 Confirmation. Completes Baptism by a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit and enables the Christian for mission. This was seen at Pentecost with respect to the apostles. In the early Church it was often accompanied by charismatic signs, though these are not intrinsic to the sacrament. Conferred by the laying on of hands. In Acts 19:3-6, especially, it is clear that John's baptism, Christian baptism and Confirmation are all distinct realities. Also, in Hebrews 6:2 baptizing and laying on of hands are distinguished. Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 39:29; Joel 2:28; John 14:16; Acts 2:4; Acts 8:14-17; Acts 19:3-6; Hebrews 6:2. 

  Eucharist. The Eucharist is visibly bread and wine but is in reality the Body and Blood of Christ. No mere symbols can effect eternal life. And abuse of no mere symbol can be worthy of damnation. In the early centuries the name of the Mass was the breaking of the bread. Yet, when word got out of what the Eucharist really was the Romans accused Christians of sacrificing babies and cannibalism, because they heard they ate human flesh. Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 24:35; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:24-27;

Penance. Christ gave authority, the keys, to the apostles to forgive sin, to decide between absolving or retaining guilt. This requires "confession" of sins for this judgment not to be arbitrary, hence the popular name of the sacrament. This authority was passed on to bishops, and from them to priests, with ordination. Matthew 16:19; John 20:21-23; Rev. 1:18.

Anointing of the Sick. Anointing prepares the person for death, and only incidentally may produce physical healing. The salvation and resurrection spoken of in James are in the first place spiritual. James  5:14-15.

Holy Orders. The threefold division of sacred ministers (bishops, priests and deacons) prefigured in the Old Law (high priest, priests, Levites) is clearly revealed in Scripture. Yet, most so-called "bible-believing" Protestant churches do not have them. Acts 6:3-6; Acts 13:2-3; 1 Tim. 3:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-9; 1 Tim. 4:14; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Tim. 5:17-19; 1 Tim. 5:22.

Matrimony. Marriage is, as St. Paul states, a mystery (mysterion).  The Latin word used to translate mysterion is "sacramentum". The sacraments are mysteries (as Eastern Christians still call them), for  one thing is visible and something else is known by faith. By faith, matrimony is a sign of Christ and the Church, as well as a special calling. Mt. 19:10-11; Eph. 5:31-32.