The word "sacrament" derives from
the Latin and means, literally, "something holy." For Christians, a
sacrament is an outward sign of the presence of God, also referred to as "grace."
Christians differ, however, on the number of sacraments, their role in the life
of faith, how they are to be administered, and whether they are necessary for
Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians generally identify
seven rituals as sacraments, while most Protestants practice two.
Thus, nearly all Christians agree that there are two primary sacraments:
Reconciliation (or confession and the forgiveness of sins)
Holy Orders (or ordination)
Anointing of the Sick (or last
In addition, Catholics and Protestants tend to differ on whether the
sacraments are themselves a means of grace, or whether the faith of the individual
believer is what makes these rituals effective.
The Catholic Church
is generally thought to be "sacramental" in its emphasis upon the special
role and status of the sacraments, and the function of priests in administering
them, whereas many Protestant denominations place greater emphasis upon the direct,
personal relationship between God and the individual believer, suggesting that
faith itself is the chief requirement for salvation, rather then participation
in the rituals of the church, however important they may be.
of the main reasons for differences about the number of sacraments is that while
both Protestants and Catholics agree that all the sacraments were "instituted"
by Jesus, Protestants tend to believe that Jesus personally endorsed just baptism
(by instructing his disciples to continue the tradition of baptizing new believers)
and communion (by promising the disciples at the last supper that he would be
present with them whenever they participated in this ritual of remembrance).
It also needs to be said that there is a significant group of people within
all three of the main branches of Christianity -- Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox
-- who use the word "sacramental" in a more generic sense. There is
a widespread and growing belief that any object or event can have "sacramental"
significance when it leads to a deeper experience of the presence of God. Thus,
is this wider definition, the whole of life can become a sacrament.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.