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What Are The Sacraments?

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 salvation.

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:

While Catholics and Orthodox Christians add:
  • Reconciliation (or confession and the forgiveness of sins)
  • Confirmation
  • Marriage
  • Holy Orders (or ordination)
  • Anointing of the Sick (or last rites)
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.

One 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.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.