What Are the Sacraments?
The sacraments are three New Testament institutions begun by Jesus Christ: baptism, footwashing, and Holy Communion. These divine institutions make use of physical elements or actions—such as water, immersion, washing, bread, juice, eating, and drinking—to effect salvation of the soul. The early church father Tertullian was the first to employ the word sacramentum, the Latin version of the New Testament term "mystery" (see Eph 5:32; 1 Tim 3:16; Rev 1:20). This term may have been chosen to indicate the "mysterious" spiritual effect of these divine institutions.
Sacraments and Grace
Sacraments mark the entrance to the way of salvation, regeneration, a covenantal relationship with God, and the kingdom of God. The importance of the sacraments cannot be overemphasized. In modern Christendom, the holy sacraments have been reduced to a level of "spiritualism," in which their actual effects are removed and Christ's commands become mere symbols. However, the Bible is most definite in regarding the sacraments as necessary for salvation.
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Cor 5:17-18). We are united with Christ in the sacraments so that we may be in Christ, as only when we are in Christ can we receive the newness of spiritual life. Intellectual acceptance of Jesus Christ does not make us "in Christ"; it is only the starting point of faith. We must also step into a personal relationship with Christ through the sacraments. During baptism, our sins are cleansed and our spiritual life begins. By accepting footwashing, we have part with Christ. Through the Holy Communion, we partake of the life of Jesus Christ.
The sacraments are fundamental to our covenantal relationship with God. Without them, all subsequent works of faith amount to nothing. Unless a person is baptized in Christ, he still stands condemned because he remains in sin. Unless his feet are washed, he still has no part with Christ. Unless he partakes of the Lord's body and blood, he does not have life in him. A person may feel that the good works he performs will assure that he is an elect of God, but these good works are no different from the works of the law, because he has not received the righteousness of Christ. However, if we have faith in Christ by accepting the sacraments, the fruits of righteousness in our renewed life are pleasing to God.
Most Christian churches would not go so far as to forbid the performance of the sacraments, since the New Testament places clear emphasis on them. In fact, many churches stress the importance of the sacraments, but they reduce them to symbolic acts. According to this view, the saving effect of Christ takes place at the moment of belief and confession; baptism, footwashing, and Holy Communion are subsequent expressions of faith. They are illustrations to show that we have faith in Christ, but they do not constitute faith itself. They are also thought to carry didactic values, teaching Christians to live a new life, serve with humility, and remember the Lord's death.
The sacraments certainly serve a signifying and didactic function: they signify the inner workings of God and teach us about Christian living. But sacraments are not simply psychological reminders of our conversion at some point in the past. Rather, the sacraments have a spiritual and saving effect. In baptism, the effect is the remission of sins and regeneration (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Titus 3:5; Col 2:11-12; Rom 6;1-6). In footwashing, the effect is having a part with the Lord (Jn 13:8). And in the Holy Communion, the effect is having the life of Christ (1Cor 10:16; Jn 6:53-56). Because of these saving effects, sacraments are an integral part of God's saving grace.
Sacraments and Faith
The sacraments are a real test of faith. The spiritual effects that take place during sacraments are beyond our rational comprehension. For example, how could the cleansing of sin occur during immersion in water? Why do we need to immerse ourselves in water when so many churches say that to be forgiven we just need to believe in God's power?
Those who do not see a logical connection between the physical and the spiritual realms reject the sacraments as merely symbolic, thereby rejecting the word of God. But if Christ has commanded us to be baptized in order to be saved, shouldn't faith mean accepting Christ's word and being baptized for salvation? Our inability to rationalize the effects of the sacraments requires faith to fill in the gaps in logic. Faith in Christ entails faith in the necessity of sacraments.
But does the practice of sacraments belong to the work of the law? The Scriptures emphasize salvation apart from works: "he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:5). Wouldn't sacraments be "righteous things we had done"? If so, then how could they save us?
First of all, we need to ask, "whose righteous deeds"? We should have no problem accepting that Christ's righteous deeds do save us. In that sense, sacraments would not be our righteous deeds, but Christ's. Second, the physical actions that we go through in the sacraments, such as being immersed in water, or letting our feet be washed, or accepting the bread and juice, could hardly qualify as righteous deeds by us. These actions have no ethical value by God's moral standards; we simply do them in obedience to God's command.
But isn't acting out of obedience considered human deeds of righteousness? When an act of obedience is done without faith in the saving work of Christ, it becomes our own efforts. In the sacraments, however, the act does not claim any merit; rather, we direct our faith to Christ and His saving effect through the sacraments. They are acknowledgments of our unworthiness and of the power of Christ. It is the divine act in the use of physical elements or actions, not the elements or the actions themselves, that effects salvation. The actions we perform, if done without faith in Christ's saving work, cannot save at all, just as faith that is not oriented to Christ cannot save. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ ultimately determines whether the participant may receive God's grace through the sacraments.