Chapter 7: Sacraments and Salvation
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 ;
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
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 ).
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 ). 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
7.4 Salvation is by grace through faith, not by
works (Eph 2:8,9). Sacraments are of works, not of
The works here refer to the works of the law
(Gal ; 3:2; Rom ). Such works do not come from
faith but from a desire to obtain righteousness without the saving works of
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
7.5 “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 ).
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
Repentance is also not mentioned; is repentance,
then, not necessary for salvation? It sure is! (Mt 3:2; Acts ; ;
; 2Cor ) 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
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”
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 ;
; ). 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 -49). Those who only confess the Lord’s
name without doing the will of God are not true disciples (Jn
) and cannot enter the
kingdom of heaven (Mt -23).
If belief means intellectual agreement without
obedience, even Satan would be a believer (Jas ). Faith without obedience is false faith; it cannot
save (Jas ).
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
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 ).
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 ). 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-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
Before Christ came, the chosen people were under
the old covenant. But the sacraments are signs of the new covenant (see Mt
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
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
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
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.