7.1 What are sacraments?
• “Sacraments”1 is a term that refers to three New Testament institutions: baptism, footwashing, and Holy Communion. These three sacraments are instituted by the Lord Jesus and commanded to his followers (Mk 16:16; Jn 13:1-17; Mt 26-29).
• The sacraments all involve the use of physical elements or actions. According to the Lord’s promise, the sacraments have the effect of salvation. In baptism, the effect of remission of sins takes place when the believer is immersed in water in the name of Jesus Christ. In footwashing, the believer has a part with the Lord by accepting the washing of feet in water. In Holy Communion, the believer partakes of the eternal life of Jesus Christ. The sacraments signify the believer’s covenantal relationship with the Lord and mark the beginning of regeneration.
7.2 Sacraments are only symbols that signify what Christ has done for us. They are not necessary.
• If the Lord has commanded us to administer and receive the sacraments, how can they be unnecessary? The Lord’s command alone makes them necessary. Every believer ought to receive the sacraments in obedience to Christ.
• Sacraments signify our salvation, but they are not mere symbols without effect. God’s word tells us that Christ’s salvation is made effective on the believer through the sacraments. Although we cannot rationalize how God brings us spiritual saving effect through material things or physical actions, with faith in God’s promise we trust that we can receive this effect when we accept the sacraments.
7.3 We are saved the moment we believe and confess Christ (Rom 10:9-10; Eph 1:13). Sacraments are only symbolic of the salvation we have already received. They do not have any saving effect.
• In Romans 10:9-10, Paul is not saying that intellectual acceptance or open confession is the totality of faith and anything else would be deeds subsequent to faith. Nor is he concerned with the exact moment of justification. If he were, he would have said something like “when you agree that God raised Jesus from the dead and confess Jesus as Lord, you are justified and saved.” In that case, the sacraments would be acts subsequent to justification. But is Paul referring to the time of justification? Notice that the sentence consists of two parts, namely belief unto justification, and confession unto salvation. As we know, confession doesn’t usually occur at the same moment in time as belief (in the sense of conceptual agreement). So does it mean that salvation is a separate event in time from justification? Where would repentance come in, then? Is repentance an act subsequent to justification?
• In Ephesians 1:13, Paul’s message to the church may seem to suggest that a person is already in Christ the moment he intellectually agrees with the gospel. “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph 1:13). It would be a mistake to interpret “heard” or “believed” as only intellectual agreement that occurred at a specific point in time. The hearing and believing must include accepting Christ, confessing of sin, repentance, receiving the sacraments, and entrusting one’s whole life to the gospel, all of which make up “the word of truth.” If Paul’s words referred to a moment in time, then he would be literally saying that a believer is included in Christ the second he hears a Christian message for the first time in his life (in this case, even before intellectual agreement). His confession of sin and repentance have no effect. They are only symbolic of the salvation he has received. Such interpretation is not only out of context, but also without Biblical support.
• Sacraments are not just symbols. God works through them to bring us salvation when we receive them with faith.
• The saving effects of the sacraments are clearly stated by the Lord himself. We cannot reduce them to mere symbols or even deny their necessity just because we do not understand how God’s saving effect can take place through some outward actions. If a person believes that God raised Christ from the dead but does not believe that he can receive a new life through baptism, he doesn’t qualify as a true believer. If a person confesses that Jesus is Lord but rejects footwashing, he would be like those who call “Lord, Lord” but do not do what he says (see Luke 6:46). True belief in the heart would encompass acceptance of the sacraments, and that is the belief that justifies. True confession would encompass receiving the sacraments in the name of the Lord Jesus, and that is the confession that saves.
7.4 Salvation is by grace through faith, not by works (Eph 2:8,9). Sacraments are of works, not of faith.
• The works here refer to the works of the law (Gal 2:16; 3:2; Rom 9:32). Such works do not come from faith but from a desire to obtain righteousness without the saving works of Jesus Christ.
• It would be a mistake to say that anything involving physical action is a “work.” If that is the case, confession with our mouth would be a “work.”
• Sacraments are commanded by the Lord Jesus himself. Denying the Lord’s commands is not faith at all.
• In receiving the sacraments, it is not the physical action on the part of the believer that saves. It is the mercy of God and the saving work of Christ that brings us the effect.
• Faith is not just intellectual agreement. Faith without action is not true faith. Such false faith cannot save (Jas 2:14; Mt 7:21-23).
7.5 “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us…” (Tit 3:5). Sacraments are righteous deeds, and therefore cannot save us.
• Sacraments are not “works of righteousness we have done.” Receiving the sacraments involves confessing our sins and having faith in the saving work of Christ. Sacraments do not establish our own righteousness. They are effective not because of our actions but because of God’s mercy and Christ’s salvation.
• The same verse reads, “…He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Tit 3:5). The washing of regeneration, which refers to the sacrament of baptism, is a necessary part of God’s saving act. How can we say that sacraments have no saving effect? (see also 1Pet 3:21). Sacraments do not belong to the category of “works of righteousness we have done.” They are the mercy of God.
7.6 Romans 10:9 reads, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Baptism, footwashing, and Holy Communion are not mentioned and are as such not necessary for salvation.
• Repentance is also not mentioned; is repentance, then, not necessary for salvation? It sure is! (Mt 3:2; Acts 3:19; 2:38; 11:18; 2Cor 7:10) So we cannot deny the effect and necessity of sacraments based on this verse. We must bring this verse into harmony with other verses in the Bible to understand all the necessary steps to salvation.
• Here Paul is emphasizing justification and salvation through faith as opposed to seeking to establish one’s own righteousness without Christ (see 10:3). The argument in verses 9 & 10 is drawn from verse 8, which quotes Deut 30:14 (note the repeated use of the words “mouth” and “heart”).
• The word is in our mouth and in our heart so we may obey it (Deut 30:11-18). Paul cited this passage to show that Christ is the Word become flesh, whom we should confess and believe. This confession and belief is realized in the obedience to Christ—the Word. His argument here was to show that observance apart from Christ cannot attain to righteousness. He was not at all saying that confession and belief in Christ removed the need for sacraments. In fact, true confession of and belief in Christ would involve obedience to the Lord’s command to receive the sacraments.
7.7 Whoever believes in the Lord Jesus has eternal life (Jn 3:36; 5:24; 6:47). A person is guaranteed of salvation upon belief. Sacraments are not necessary for salvation.
• Believing in the Lord Jesus includes believing and carrying out his command (Lk 6:46-49). Those who only confess the Lord’s name without doing the will of God are not true disciples (Jn 8:31) and cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 7:21-23).
• If belief means intellectual agreement without obedience, even Satan would be a believer (Jas 2:19). Faith without obedience is false faith; it cannot save (Jas 2:14).
7.8 A person’s good works show that he is already saved. If sacraments are required for salvation, then how do you explain the good works of Christians who have never received the sacraments?
• A person could perform good works without faith in Jesus Christ. So good works cannot be a sign of a person’s salvation.
• Cornelius’s good works were not enough. He still needed to hear the gospel, repent and be baptized to receive eternal life (Acts 10:1-47; 11:18).
• The sacraments are fundamental to our covenantal relationship with God. Without them, all subsequent works of faith would amount to nothing. Unless a person is baptized into Christ, he still stands condemned because he is still in sin. Unless his feet are washed by Christ, he still has no part with Christ. Unless he partakes of the Lord’s body and blood, he does not have life in him. The good works that he performs may seem to assure him that he is an elect of God, but these good works would not be much different from the works of the law because he has not received the righteousness of Christ.
7.9 In Romans 4:10-12, Paul stresses that Abraham was justified before circumcision, not after. Circumcision was only a sign of the righteousness he had already received by faith. Likewise, sacraments are only signs which have no effect.
• In terms of necessity, this passage cannot be used to argue that sacraments are not necessary. Sacraments are necessary for us because they are commanded by the Lord himself, just as circumcision was necessary for Abraham because it was commanded by God. Had Abraham denied the necessity of circumcision with the rationale that it was only a sign, would he still be a man of faith?
• In terms of saving effects, we cannot confuse circumcision with the sacraments. Circumcision is a covenant of flesh for Abraham and his earthly descendants (Gen 17:13). It is done by the hands of men and is a work of the law as such. Because no divine action is involved, its only function was to signify God’s promise and justification of Abraham. More importantly, it was a foreshadow of the saving work of Christ to effect justification for all men, whether Jews or Gentiles. “What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made” (Gal 3:19). So the law, including circumcision, could only signify the reality, which is Christ. In the sacraments, on the contrary, there is divine action, mediated by Christ himself. Baptism, for instance, is a circumcision done by Christ, not by men’s hands (Col 2:11-12). Sacraments are on a totally different level from circumcision because they are divine actions rather than just symbolic signs.
7.10 The people in the Old Testament were saved without the sacraments.
• God did not command the sacraments in the Old Testament.
• Before Christ came, the chosen people were under the old covenant. But the sacraments are signs of the new covenant (see Mt 26:28).
7.11 What about those believers who never had a chance in their lifetime to receive the sacraments?
• Whether God chooses to save them has no relevance to the necessity of sacraments. These people belong to a different category from those who do have the chance to accept the sacraments. If a person has the chance to believe in Christ and obey his words but refuses to, he still stands condemned (Jn 3:18-21; Mt 7:21-23).
7.12 In Lk 7:37-50, the Lord saved the sinful woman by her faith. She did not accept the sacraments.
• The sacraments had not been instituted then.
7.13 In Lk 23:39-43, the Lord promised the repentant criminal salvation. The criminal was saved without accepting the sacraments.
• We should not make an exception the rule. Besides, the exception was made because the circumstance did not allow the criminal the chance to accept the sacraments.
• God, not sacraments, is our savior. God could choose to save someone who does not have a chance to receive the sacraments. But there is a big difference between not being able to receive the sacraments and refusing to receive them. If the criminal lived today and refused the sacraments, he still would not have been saved.
7.14 Since believers in the Old Testament as well as some in the New Testament (such as the repentant criminal on the cross) were saved without the sacraments, sacraments are not absolutely necessary, and if they are not absolutely necessary, they are not required for salvation.
• The command to receive the sacraments for salvation is by the Lord. His word makes them a requirement.
• The rationale “if it’s not required for them, it’s not required for us” is misleading. It mistakenly puts us in the same category as believers who either lived before the command was given or who could not perform the command. The sacraments may not have been required for them, but they are required for us, who have received the command and are able to carry them out. The salvation of these believers in the past does not free us from our responsibility now. Each person will be judged based on what he has been given (cf Mt 11:20-24; Lk 12:47-48).
7.15 Sacraments take away the glory and power of Christ’s saving work on the cross.
• Sacraments would be meaningless without the cross of Christ. In fact, Christ manifests his salvation on the cross and the power of God through the sacraments. For example, baptism is effective because of the death and resurrection of Christ. Through baptism, our old self is crucified with Christ (Rom 6:3-10).
• Sacraments cannot be detached from the cross. The effect of salvation on the cross takes place in the believer through the sacraments.
- In both Catholic and Reform theology, the word “sacrament” refers to the Christian rites, such as baptism and the Lord’s supper. Tertullian was the first to employ the word sacramentum, the Latin version of the New Testament term “mystery” (see Eph 5:32; 1Tim 3:16; Rev 1:20). The use of this word to refer to the New Testament divine institutions may be due to the spiritual effect, which we cannot rationalize.