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What is sacramentalism?

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The word sacrament comes from the Latin word sacrare, meaning “hallow” or “consecrate.” In its most literal sense, sacrament means “holy obligation.” In practice, a sacrament is an act or ritual that is believed to grant or bestow God’s grace. According to the Roman Catholic Church, “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us, the visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131).

Sacramentalism is the teaching that the sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves and necessary for salvation. The doctrine is common to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which teach that participation in the rites confers God’s grace upon the participants. The seven sacraments of Roman Catholicism are as follows:
Anointing of the sick
Holy Orders

And here are the seven sacraments of the Orthodox Church:
Anointing of the sick
Holy Orders

Is sacramentalism correct? Is salvation attained by the keeping of the sacraments? The answer is a resounding no, for, as the apostle Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9, ESV). Salvation is a gift that cannot be earned. The very meaning of grace is “undeserved favor.” To insist eternal life can be gained through ritualism frustrates the grace of God and negates Jesus’ finished work on the cross.

Let us consider these other passages:

• “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28, ESV).
• “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1, ESV).
• “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6, ESV).
• “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11, ESV).

Sacramentalism has its roots in Judaism; in ancient Israel, the rituals of circumcision, the observance of the Sabbath, and bathing for purification were common practices. The sect of the Pharisees placed great emphasis on handwashing, not so much for sanitary purposes, but as a ritual against personal defilement. The practice of ritualistic handwashing was seen as a restorative measure against defilement, but were the Pharisees truly honoring God by the keeping of their traditions? In the following passage, we see the manner in which our Lord Jesus responded to their religious customs:

“Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men’” (Mark 7:1–8, ESV).

Outwardly, the performing of elaborate rituals gave the Pharisees the appearance of piety, but Jesus, knowing the hardness of their hearts, condemned these hypocrites for “making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do” (Mark 7:13, ESV).

Sacramentalism is unbiblical, for, if the performance of rites and rituals is necessary for salvation, the gospel’s message of grace is made void and Christianity becomes just another works-based religion. As believers in Christ Jesus, we joyfully partake in the ordinances of baptism and communion, but we do so because we are saved and not in order to be saved.

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This page last updated: March 9, 2022