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What Does “Sacrament” Mean?

Like ancient Israel, early Christians considered worship on the Lord’s Day to be sacred—set apart from the regular, mundane activities of life, and therefore what took place in corporate worship was also sacred. This day was “the Lord’s” in a way different from all other days, and the eucharist was a table belonging to the Lord—“the Lord’s Table”—in a manner distinct from other tables.

The word that emerged to describe the sacred nature of these things was “sacrament.” This term comes from the Latin word sacramentum, which referred to an oath of allegiance, which itself came from the term sacrare, which mean “to consecrate.” Notably, this is the very idea Pliny employs to describe what Christians do when they gather, observing that they meet “to bind themselves by an oath.” This concept fittingly described both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, sacred oaths taken in entrance to and continual communion with the body of Christ.

Likely the first to use the term “sacrament” for both baptism and the Lord’s Supper was Tertullian. He suggested that in the eucharist, the bread represents (Latin, repraesentare) and is the “figuring” (Latin, figurare) Christ’s body. Later in his Latin translation of the Greek NT, Jerome would use the word sacramentum to translate the Greek word mysterion (“mystery”), early Christians considering baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be mysteries, and Augustine (354–430) would later define a sacrament as “the visible form of an invisible grace.”

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

4 Responses to What Does “Sacrament” Mean?

  1. This definition is fine as far as it goes, but doctrinally, seems quite incomplete. As I understand it, and I may be wrong here, but in some denominations (such as Lutheranism) “sacramental” refers to something that brings an extra measure of God’s grace. In other words, it is believed to be a work that earns God’s favor (against Gal. 2:16, Rom. 11:6, Titus 3:5, etc.). Thus many evangelical denominations will call baptism and the Lord’s supper “ordinances,” but will not call them “sacraments.”

  2. Hi, Greg. I certainly agree that some have pushed the term to mean something more than what Scripture intends. However, one of my main purposes in this post was to show how this was not originally the case, and that the word itself is a good word. In fact, early Baptists were quite fine using it. I do completely understand a hesitancy to use it because of common associations today.

    However, here’s one important reason I like “sacrament” rather than “ordinance,” and early Baptists provide a prime example. Early Baptists called *all* biblically prescribed elements “ordinances.” So baptism and the Lord’s Supper were certainly ordinances prescribed by God, but also preaching, prayer, singing, and giving were also ordinances. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, being as they are unique, prescribed *signs* of spiritual realities, were uniquely sacraments.

    I think we do lose a couple key principles when we give up the Word “sacrament.” First, we lose the emphasis upon regulating worship by biblical prescription, which using “ordinance” for all prescribed elements maintains. Second, we lose the special, “sign” character of baptism and the Lord’s supper when we just call them “ordinances.”

    Again, I’m perfectly fine with avoiding “sacrament” and using “ordinance” in the narrow sense to describe only the 2. But I do think we lose something, and as I’ve shown, the original use of the word “sacrament” was perfectly acceptable and helpful.

  3. The term “sacrament,” as understood by the paper-thin religious understanding of most Americans, would be not just “a means of grace,” but “a means of salvation.”
    If it is one of many other empty works of an unbeliever, it is no means of any grace. I don’t see that in your explanations anywhere

  4. Again, I agree that the term has come to mean something unbiblical in many circles. My primary point with this post was to show that the unbiblical meaning was not the original intent of the term.

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