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.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1129.
 Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. (Wheaton, Crossway, 2014), 196-197.