In a recent interview about a book I wrote, the interviewer asked me for a definition of sacramentalism. This is because in the book I use this term to describe a system, usually found in the hierarchical churches, that treats grace in a particular way. That way is to affirm that grace flows to the believer through the rites and rituals defined by the Church. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, it goes a bit beyond this to say that continual participation in the sacraments is necessary for the salvation of the individual. “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation” (italics original). Some sacraments, such as baptism or marriage are one-time events. Others, such as the Eucharist and confession, are repeatable, and indeed must be repeated.
In sacramentalism, it is not just a question of the importance of things such as baptism or the Eucharist. This isn’t unique, for within Protestant churches and evangelicalism, the two ordinances are important. Rather, it is a narrowing of the “means of delivery” of grace that characterizes sacramentalism far more than other traditions. This is where the doctrine of ecclesiology enters into the picture. Only an ordained priest can validly confect the eucharist, and only a priest can confer absolution on a sinner in the sacrament of confession. This narrowing happens within the context of the church as an institution, an organization, rather than an organism—the body of Christ.
The hazards of sacramentalism are two-fold. Firstly, it removes the justification for practice from the New Testament record and instead switches it to the Church, its history and traditions. One can see this with the office of a priest (not found in the NT) and in the other sacraments that have accrued through the centuries. The ground and foundation is no longer in revelation, but in history and experience. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi may aplty summarize this. As the church worships (or prays) so she believes. By placing the practices of the church as the driver of doctrine, we reverse the biblical mandate that the New Testament documents must tell us how to worship and practice. Ideally, how we worship should align with what we read in Scripture. But this does not always happen and when there is drift, we must correct practice with Scripture, not creatively fit Scripture to our practice.
Secondly, it can divert us away from the biblical connections with grace. Believers may rightfully claim forgiveness as ours based on the shed blood of the Lord Jesus and that being right with God (that is, being justified) is the present possession of every believer, not a future hope that we might attain. In other words, it does not rely on the continual infusion of grace over time through our participation in the sacraments. No clergy may rightfully confer on us what Scripture announces and proclaims to us as already ours.
We receive grace in time of need because we have an Advocate at God’s right hand who intercedes for us, the glorified Lord Jesus, not because we seek assistance from the saints or Mary. These associational links are important, and we see an example in the history of Israel. The bronze serpent was made by God’s ordination, but it later became snare to Israel, and Hezekiah destroyed it. Why? they got the associational link wrong as to where healing originated, it diverted their affections, “And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” (2 Kings 18:4)
Fed up with vapid forms of worship and church gatherings that can trivialize aspects of the faith, some gravitate to what they think is more reverent. Reverence is indeed good, but we must find it without resorting to what is unscriptural or diverting. Gregg Allison notes, “even if, for the sake of argument, these dogmas do not contradict Scripture, they go beyond it, thus contradicting its sufficiency.” He was not speaking of sacraments in particular, but his observation holds true for them. Are the ways Scripture gives us to find peace and communion with God sufficient, or must we look to tradition and history for these? Must the Church as an organization, a hierarchy, be in the middle between God’s grace and the believer, or do we find these truths in the affirmations of the New Testament? If we have, as Peter says, been given all things pertaining to life and godliness, let us use those things and seek no others.
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1129.
 Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. (Wheaton, Crossway, 2014), 196-197.
4 thoughts on “What is Sacramentalism?”
What do you think about bowing to icons and kissing them. Another thing is the constant reverencing of various Saints at every service. I’m having a hard time believing this is the correct thing to do in God’s eyes. It seems to me that protestants show more of the correct way to worship Gos. I’m also concerned about having small pieces of a saints body placed into a section of the cloth that covers the bread and wine or juice. Again this seems to me that it’s removing your eyes and thoughts from Jesus and putting your attention on a person instead of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
Jean – Thanks for the question. There is no biblical foundation for icons, and the danger of the practice leading to idolatry is worth considering. Indeed, the 2nd commandment prohibition on making images warns us away from this. Veneration of saint’s relics also has the risk of diverting our attention away from the Lord Jesus Himself. We find no pattern of this in the New Testament, which is our standard for faith and practice.
It seems that you are inferring that God gives his grace to all, whether they choose to receive it or not.
In no way does the Catholic Church deny or restrict the flow of God’s grace; rather we choose to make it as available as possible. Since the New Testament is simply a fulfillment of the Old Testament, the Church is the fulfillment of Judaism. Jesus sacrificing himself, first offering His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins at the Last Supper – then allowing Himself to be handed to the Romans, spat upon and nailed to the Cross, the tree of death – was the fulfillment of every sacrifice that God demanded for the sins of men. Neither human nor animal blood suffice, only God could suffice to satisfy the debt caused by sin.
Baptism – all original sin is washed away. One is “born again” in Christ. Commanded by Jesus for the Apostles in Matthew 28:19 – Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.
Confirmation – one receives the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Fulfillment of Baptism, one confirms their baptismal promises and receives the graces to live their life as a Catholic. As Jesus sent the Holy Spirit upon the Twelve Apostles, so He sends the Holy Spirit upon the Confirmee. (Acts 2:1-4).
The Eucharist – The Eucharist is confected during the Mass – formally known as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is the re-presentation – the “making present” of the Last Supper, as Jesus said to the twelve – “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:18-20). It is the fulfillment of the Sacrifice of the Jews, and all who wished to atone for their sins took part of the sacrifice.
Marriage – one man and one woman are joined together, in union, with God as their witness. They agree to marry, to be married until death do them part, to be open to children – and to do all they do together for the glory of God. It is one of the first commandments God gives – even before the fall of Adam and Eve. A man “leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh” (Gn 2:23). The man joyfully recognizes the woman as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gn 2:23). God blesses the man and woman and commands them to “be fertile and multiply” (Gn 1:28). Jesus echoes these teachings from Genesis when he stated: “…from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘[f ]or this reason a man shall leave … and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19: 4,5).
Holy Orders/Priesthood: When a man receives the ability and responsibility to dispense almost all other sacraments, to dedicate himself to a life of service to God. While it is irregular for priests to be married, it is allowed and is simply enforced as a discipline so one has fewer distractions in their life of service. The first priests were the twelve Apostles, and each and every Catholic & Orthodox priest today can trace their ordination back, through their bishop, to the bishop before him, and so on and so on until one of the twelve Apostles. The Apostles were ordained by Christ to make present the sacrifice made at the Last Supper when He said, “As often as you shall do this, you shall do so in remembrance of me.” After the Resurrection, the two Apostles recognized Jesus at Emmaus – when He blessed and broke bread. Jesus also appeared at the Sea of Tiberias and broke bread with Peter and John, and five other disciples (John 21).
Confession: Even before His death on the Cross, Jesus said to Peter “You are Peter (rock), and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16: 18-19.) Notice that this is specifically said in front of the Twelve and not to the general population.
Anointing of the sick: Comes from James 5:14-16: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. “
John – Thanks for your comments. I am not saying God gives grace who choose to receive it or not. Rather, I am saying the claim that God’s grace must come through the appointed means—the means defined by the RC Church—is not demonstrable by the New Testament. The Catechism states that “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation” (CCC 1129) Such a move puts the church in between the believer and God, where she is the arbiter of grace. This makes the Church the conduit of salvation, but the New Testament present the church as the result of salvation. We do not receive salvation through the church. Rather, by trusting in the Lord Jesus only, we are redeemed and made members of the Church.
The proof-texts for considering the various sacraments to be as the Catholic Church teaches is not without problems. It’s too long to answer every claim, but if you are interested, I would recommend Gregg Allison’s book Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. Allison lived and worked in Italy for several years, and has a deep understanding of RC theology. His book is in no way anti-catholic or a screed against the Church. Rather, he carefully looks at the evidence, finds areas of commonality, and points out where the RCC is not aligned with the New Testament.