My early Christian experience was largely in church traditions that were about as far from any form of sacramentalism that one could get. Our family attended churches within the Evangelical and Charismatic movements, none of which ever used the word “sacrament.” Rather, the churches had two ordinances: Baptism and Communion. I was simply unaware that there was such a thing as “sacramental” theology.
Later, I came to be pretty opposed to sacramentalism because (1) that is what good Protestants do (or so I thought) and (2) the forms of sacramentalism that I encountered seemed to have a very disconnected understanding of how faith relates to the sacraments. Suffice to say I was pretty turned off to what I saw, though it was very little and not something I critically engaged.
I was able to coast through my undergraduate degree in theology with never having to consider anything related to sacramentalism, as it was assumed that theology of that sort was reserved for Catholics and questionable Anglicans (or so I thought). However, during my MDiv I began to explore the sacramental approach because of the Reformed tradition’s theology of the Eucharist, yet I still was fairly uncertain of what that even was! Fast forward to 2012 and I began to develop an appreciation for and desire to explore sacramentalism as it relates to the Vineyard tradition, especially its ecclesiology.
All this is to say that I have gone from having zero awareness of sacraments or sacramentalism to being opposed to sacramentalism to now advocating a sacramental understanding and approach to my theology. Becoming sacramental was simply the only way I could be honest with what I understood about pneumatology, spiritual formation, and Christian spirituality in general, not to mention my ecclesiological convictions. Therefore, in this post, I intend to lay out some of the reasons why I envision a sacramental theology as a helpful approach to ecclesiology, especially for those of the “charismatic” variety, and will do my best to explain my terms, concepts and reasoning.
What is a Sacrament?
Augustine’s definition for a sacrament could hardly be improved upon. He stated that sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Others have boiled this down to suggest that sacraments are “a means of grace.”
While I’m less inclined to form sharp distinctions between the various ways in which God expresses his grace, I find the Heidelberg Catechism helpful when it states that “the sacraments are … appointed of God … that He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel” (Q. 66).
It is unfortunate that much of the debate about sacramentalism and sacrament revolves around whether or not there is anything “real” or “true” about God’s presence being conveyed in, through, or with the sacraments. I find this unhelpful because too many assumptions and too little interaction or understanding often takes place between the different approaches to the subject. Furthermore, I’m convinced that a large portion of the church embraced a Greek dualistic metaphysical approach to what’s “real” (physical) and what’s not (spiritual). This, as Alexander Schmemann writes, “had truly disastrous consequences” because it raised “theological doubt about the “reality” of symbol, i. e., its ability to contain and to communicate reality” (For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy).
To simplify my point I’ll simply suggest that the moment when the sacraments became less “reality” because “symbols and signs” are considered purely reminders is the very moment to which the Church swings to the opposite extreme. Therefore I find myself standing in-between two extremes. One extreme downplays the “reality” of the sacramental symbol and the other has an “over-realized” approach that goes beyond the reality of that which is being pointed too. I believe that in the radical middle the center can hold.
Therefore, in my understanding, a sacrament is a means by which people can remember, experience and/or encounter, and be sealed by the very transformative power of God’s grace.
What Does it Mean to be “Sacramental”?
The type of sacramental theology that I hold to takes serious the importance of a well informed christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and understanding how liturgy and doxology are related to one’s experience of grace via the Spirit’s presence and empowerment. These are so deeply connected that I find it difficult, if not altogether impossible, to separate. If the Church is the worshipping community, which it is, than the Church must embrace its sacramental identity. Hans Boersma powerfully articulates this when he writes:
“The church is a body primarily because the church is connected to the sacramental, Eucharistic body of Christ. It is Christ’s body in the Eucharist—mentioned in 10:16—that leads to the reality of Christ’s body in the church—mentioned in 10:17.” (Eucharistic Participation:The Reconfiguration of Time and Space).
Boersma’s influence upon my sacramental shaping is tremendous, as should be evidenced in the title of this post. He, and a few others, have challenged me to understand that sacramental awareness seeks to unite theology and praxis as the playground in which we participate in heavenly reality (cf. Boersma’s Heavenly Participation). As we pray that the kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven, we need to understand that in some way, this occurs through the symbols and signs of the kingdom. We experience the “now and not yet” of that very kingdom when, for example, we receive the Eucharist.
That being said, within Catholic theology, the sacraments are “the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his body” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). The concept of sacramental is a bit different:
“The term sacramental refers to sacred signs of grace obtained through the prayers of the church. Although similar to sacraments, sacramentals are not gifts of grace in the same manner of sacraments. A sacramental act would include the prayer of blessing over a meal, an object, or a person. In sacraments, God’s grace is mediated through the waters of baptism, or through the bread and cup of the Eucharist. In sacramentals, God’s grace is mediated, not through association with the blessed object, but through the prayers of blessing and intercession of God’s people.” (Daniel Tomberlin, Pentecostal Sacraments)
The way that I’m using the word “sacramental” is a bit different than the standard way in which Roman Catholics use it, though there is some overlap. My use would connect with Calvin, Barth, Moltmann, and a host of Pentecostal/Charismatic scholars… which brings me to my next point.
Sacramental Theology is Rooted in Pneumatology
My good friend Rob McAlpine has written his thoughts concerning sacramentalism: “Holy Spirit as Sacrament.” There is much that I find helpful, especially his emphasis on the outpouring and indwelling presence of the Spirit as “the Sacrament of the Christian life.” Jürgen Moltmann understands “the sending of the Spirit as the sacrament of the kingdom.” In fact, he notes that “churches with a plurality of sacraments must be asked about the unified ground to which these sacraments are related, and why these acts in particular are called sacraments, and others are not.” What does Moltmann suggest? He states:
“The heading de mediis salutis covers the proclamation of the word, baptism and the Lord’s supper. Then follows, under the heading de sacramentis in genere, the exposition of a concept of the sacraments which is particularly designed to take in baptism and the Lord’s supper. Proclamation, baptism and the Lord’s supper are ‘means of salvation’, but only baptism and the Lord’s supper count as ‘sacraments’. That is to say, the proclamation of the Word can take place without baptism and the Lord’s supper; but the latter cannot take place without the proclamation of the Word. But this raises the question of what binds the ‘means of salvation’ together and what differentiates them from one another. Finally, the question of the number of the sacraments was substantiated in early Protestant orthodoxy through a ‘founder’ christology. What can be traced back to an express ordinance of Christ and is bound up with his especial promise counts as a sacrament. If we are not content with this information, then here too we must enquire into the inner connection between christology and the doctrine of the means of salvation and the ‘sacraments’, baptism and the Lord’s supper.” (The Church in the Power of the Spirit, emphasis mine).
Sacraments are means of grace because of and due to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit employs signs and symbols to both point toward and enact the grace being conferred. What binds the sacraments to the one experiencing God’s grace and the actual means is the Holy Spirit. Pneumatology is at the very heart of this experiential aspect of a salvific renewal, if you will. It’s not that people are “getting saved” (i.e., being Justified) by the sacramental experience due to some magical mystery of consecration; rather, the salvific renewal is to be the ongoing relational nature of life in the Spirit that is experienced via faith. Consider how the Westminster Confessional draws attention to the role of faith in this sacramental experience, specifically in the Eucharist:
“Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, (1 Cor. 11:28) do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.7, emphasis mine).
How are these “worthy receivers” to experience this grace? The Westminster rightly states “inwardly by faith.”
Furthermore, it should be noted that this pneumatological understanding of sacramentalism is simply the outworking of what Gordon D. Fee describes when he writes that “the church, corporately and individually, is the place of God’s own personal presence, by the Spirit” (God’s Empowering Presence). The Spirit is the agent of encounter. If the Holy Spirit is God’s active presence, which I think is clear via a biblical-theological reading of Scripture, then we should embrace David G. Benner’s proposal regarding presence and sacrament:
“Presence is the way you open yourself to the possibility of transformation. Dramatic experiences can change the circumstances of your life but do not alter consciousness and identity unless you engage that experience with deep presence and welcome the encounter that it offers.” (Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life)
This raises some issues with the other half of Rob’s statement regarding a sacrament. In addition to his assertion that “the Holy Spirit is the Sacrament of the Christian life,” which I agree with, he writes that “and any additional rituals — mediated by people — detract from the sufficiency of the Spirit.” Well yes… and no. This certainly could be true but I’d want to nuance it a bit.
First, one would need to clarify what is meant by “ritual.” Are we to assume that all “rituals” are in and of themselves negative? This is a common Protestant assumption, of course, but it certainly isn’t true if we take the actual definition of “ritual,” which is quite different than ritualism, mind you.
Second, how the Spirit mediates raises questions. In some sense, the charismata are mediated via human beings who are willing to lay hands upon people to pray for healing or to speak prophetic words. The fact that the spiritual gifts “are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11) does not mean that because he uses the Church to mediate spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit is detracted from. It certainly can and has happened that way, but it doesn’t demand it (for a great summary of how the Spirit can be detracted from, see Rob McAlpine’s Post-Charismatic 2.0).
Third, and this is really related to these first two issues, a pneumatological ecclesiology or an ecclesiological pneumatology (take your pick) is going to avoid dividing the work of the Spirit from the ontology of the Church. Might an ecclesiology that is both rooted in christology and pneumatology help us avoid the two extremes of either ritualism and making the mistake of overlooking the work of the Spirit through a sacramental approach?
I think so… and I appreciate that Rob is careful to note that “there are many nuances within the sacramentalist school of thought.” My intention here is not to start a polemical case against Rob’s article because I think his starting point is extremely important; I just want to build on it. For me, any and all sacramental reflection that I have is indeed an outworking of my pneumatology. I’m convinced that we who align ourselves with the (p)entecostal or (c)harismatic movements needs to thicken our sacramental understanding. As Ruth Haley Barton writes:
“We are in need of a sacramental approach to life, in which the body is understood to be sacred because it is the place where God’s Spirit has chosen to dwell. Given this, all aspects of life in the body have the potential to become places where we meet and know God in unique ways.” (Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation).
The intersection of sacramentalism with pneumatology and charismatic spirituality should not be overlooked. Quoting Frank Macchia, Peter D. Neumann makes this clear when he writes:
“Without this charismatic element, sacramental ecclesiologies can become “Spiritless, overly institutional, abstract and monolithic,” and preaching “overly cerebral and abstract.” Christ is not fully experienced through church office, sacraments or preaching apart from the Spirit’s charismatic work in bringing gifts to and through all believers (laity). It is through the operation of the charismata , as concrete and diverse forms of grace, that the church becomes a “graced community .” (Pentecostal Experience: An Ecumenical Encounter, 184)
All this is to say that, “Yes, the Holy Spirit is the sacrament of the Christian life and the Spirit works through mediated means to provide sacramental encounters that offer experiences of grace to those who draw near in faith.”
Word and Sacrament: United
One of the problems that we face when we talk about sacraments within Protestantism, especially with those of the evangelical variety, is the relationship between Word and Sacrament. Often these two are pitted against each other and we are forced to pick one over the other. Many make that very mistake, often elevating Scripture over and above the Sacraments in order to hold to a high view of Scripture via Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura. And while I share a high view of Scripture, choosing one over the other is similar to pitting Scripture against Jesus. Let’s not make that mistake!
Mark my words: it is a mistake to suggest that Word and Sacrament are in opposition or that Word and Sacrament are not powerfully connected. As far as I’m concerned, this division actually reveals an anemic pneumatology. The Spirit works through both Scripture and sacrament! We need a little more Donald Bloesch, who in A Theology of Word & Spirit: Authority & Method in Theology, rightly seeks to maintain the inter-connected relationship between faith and ritual and Word and Spirit. Bloesch powerfully proclaims:
“We must remember that our Reformed fathers also referred to the visible Word, the Word demonstrated in the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yet they were adamant that the sacraments are ineffectual apart from the Word, written and proclaimed, and must therefore always be subordinated to the Word. The sacraments in and of themselves have no saving efficacy. They do not contain the sacred but instead witness to the sacred, which is invisible and wholly spiritual. In the sacrament we experience the breaking into our time and space of a higher reality that is inaccessible to sigh and unalienable to reason. There is never an identity between the real presence of Christ and the elements of bread and wine, but the latter can be instruments by which we are grasped by the divine presence. They are not humanly contrived means by which we visually mount up to God but earthly signs by which God descends into our midst and speaks audibly to our hearts.”
I might suggest that in addition to God descending into our midst via the Spirit’s presence, sacramental experiences raise our hearts to heaven. After all, God’s grace has made us alive and he has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).
When I think of Word and Sacrament, I essentially think of Word and Spirit. In my opinion, those who elevate one over the other really miss it.
How Many Sacraments are There?
The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments: Water baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing the sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. However, Moltmann observes that “the Eastern church has not fixed the number of these sacraments or sacred rites, though concentrating on the church’s worship, the sacred liturgy, which stands at the centre of its life” (The Church in the Power of the Spirit). If one asks how many sacraments there are, I wonder if this is to fundamentally misunderstand what sacramentalism is. I’m not sure (yet), but it’s something I’m starting to spend time reflecting on.
Allow me to explain.
If we understand the sacraments through a ritualistic or magical framework that insists upon a “clergy controlled” economy (i.e., church leaders convey grace through their fancy words and hand movements), we see the power or authority resting upon specific people (i.e., church leaders). If we understand sacraments through a pneumatological/ecclesiological lens, we avoid those pitfalls and see the power and authority located via the presence of the Holy Spirit and given through and among the Church. This makes a huge difference.
Let’s take it a step further. If we understand sacramentalism as connected to the concept of experience and presence, might there be many “sacramental” moments in the course of the Christian’s life? In addition to baptism and Eucharist, might marriage actually be a means of experiencing God’s grace? If, as Michael Bird states in Evangelical Theology, “the sacraments are sacred events, richly laden with symbolic meanings, but they are effective symbols that impart grace to the recipients,” might there be many sacred events in the life of Jesus’ followers who have been filled with God’s active presence via the Spirit? Might the sacramental life be wider and deeper than we think? If, as Sergius Bulgakov states, the sacraments serve as the “regular channel of communication with God,” might we also envision the reading of Scripture as a sacramental experience where the Spirit illuminates to the community of God’s people his self-revelation?
Might we also, in addition to viewing the Holy Spirit as the sacrament of the Christian life, envision the Church as God’s sacrament to the world? If a sacrament is a means of grace, and the Church has been sent to the world to communicate by proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel of the kingdom, might God’s people be viewed collectively as a sacrament?
I certainly think so. And since I’m writing my dissertation on this subject, I’ll hopefully wrestle with these questions in more depth…
Sacramental Pause, Concerns, and Abuses
The authors of Total Church share a concern when they write, “sacramentalism claims we encounter God through the symbols and rituals of the church.” They go on to suggest that “we know the power of God through the message of the cross” and set up an argument based on what appears to be an assumption that one cannot hold a sacramental understanding as well as a commitment to the message of the cross (i.e., gospel).
And there is certainly good reason to pause before jumping into the world of sacramentalism because, quite frankly, there is much to be concerned about and the ritualism that abuses the concept of “signs and symbols” that communicate (and mediate) God’s grace is to be rejected. But I do not agree with the assumption that the message of the cross isn’t communicated via the sacraments! After all, when we celebrate the Eucharist, are we not remembering the broken Body and shed Blood of Christ from the cross? One can embrace the sacramental life and still state that “Christ’s death on the cross is not a peripheral issue or a secondary theme; it is the central, indeed crucial doctrine of the faith” (The Cross and Salvation). As Bird again states, “the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper serve as “virtual realities” of the gospel, which draw the believing community into the story of redemption and into Christ’s presence through the Spirit.” The sacraments and the gospel are not in opposition to each other!
While I’m not one to demand that people use the word “sacrament” or “sacramentalism,” I am suggesting that these concepts be taken seriously. Before you dismiss “sacramentalism” because of the abuses you may or may not have seen, I hope you come to understand that what I’m arguing for has a deep and rich history within the Great Tradition, including advocates from a variety of Protestant (e)vangelical and (c)harismatic scholars. This is not a Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox or Anglican or Evangelical or Pentecostal perspective. This is an integrated constructive theology of sacramentalism that is rooted in my pneumatological ecclesiology.
Excursus: Ordinances vs. Sacraments
As everyone acknowledges, the definition of the word “sacrament” depends upon which tradition one comes from or which theologian you are reading. The term is derived from the Latin sacramentum, or “oath of allegiance,” and originally referred especially to the oath taken by men entering the Roman army. It’s been suggested that the first Christian to use the term was Tertullian (ca. 160 – ca. 220 A.D.) in reference to baptism.
In order to distinguish itself from the Catholic Church’s understanding of a sacrament, some Protestants have opted to use the word “ordinance” to describe baptism and the Lord’s Supper because both were “ordained” by Christ in the Gospels. A.H. Strong explicitly defined an “ordinance” as “those outward rites which Christ has appointed to be administered in his church as visible signs of the saving truth of the gospel” and that “an ordinance is a symbolic rite which sets forth the central truths of the Christian faith, and which is of universal and perpetual obligation.”
However, many other Protestants refer to the Lord’s Supper as a “sacrament” while maintaining sharp distinctions from the sacramentalism of the Catholic Church. James Montgomery Boice, a Protestant theologian, defined the sacraments as “divine ordinances instituted by Christ… in which material elements are used as visible signs of God’s blessing… are means of grace… by reminding the believer of what they signify… [and] are seals, certifications or confirmations of the grace they signify.” Wayne Grudem, in his popular Systematic Theology, defines the word “sacrament” as “a ceremony or rite that the church observes as a sign of God’s grace and as one means by which those who are already justified receive God’s continuing grace in their lives.” Culver notes that while not every evangelical Protestant theologian may agree with the particular form or meaning of the church’s sacraments, few would disagree that a sacrament is: (1) a sensible physical action or use of materials; (2) performed with formal spiritual intent; (3) commanded clearly and personally by Christ while on earth in His flesh; (4) of universal and perpetual obligation in the church; (5) each of these qualifications must be plainly derived from plain statements in the New Testament and no other precedent or authority; (6) the new Testament must define their purposes and meanings. Furthermore, numerous Protestants use these words interchangeably.
For those interested in how sacraments are understood in the (p)entecostal world may find the fact that “early Pentecostals often used the terms “ordinance” and “sacrament” as synonyms” and that “recently, some Pentecostal theologians have begun using the term “sacramental ordinances” to emphasize the charismatic nature of these rites in worship.”
 Cf. James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 502.
 Cf. On Idolatry, 6, 19; see also On Baptism, 5, and The Prescription Against Heretics, 40.
 Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1907), 930.
 James M. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 495-97, as quoted by Culver, Systematic Theology, 977.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1253.
 Culver, 977. Culver spends several pages unpacking each of these ideas and provides a fuller defense for such a definition.
 The word “sacrament” is used by Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed, and some Baptists, and none of these groups endorse Roman Catholic sacramentalism.
 Daniel Tomberlin, Pentecostal Sacraments, 81. Tomberlin lays out a good survey from within the Pentecostal tradition(s) regarding the subject, though there have been further developments since the book was published in 2010.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.