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What is a Sacrament?

Updated on September 1, 2013

A Controversial Term

The term Sacrament is a term that does not run in all Christian circles, and in fact some Christians debate whether it's even a valid term to use.  Why the confusion?  Well, for one, the term doesn't really appear in the Bible, it wasn't officially used or normalized until the 5th Century, and it is used mostly in Catholic, Episcopalian, and Eastern Orthodox Sources (although some of the protestants do use it as well).  It brings other controversies as well, such as, how many sacraments are there, who can perform the sacraments, and what is their actual effect.  Most of that will need to be dealt with in a different hub.  The purpose of this will, be like my other "Theology Made Easy" hubs--to examine the historical roots of the word in order that we may understand what a sacrament is and how it applies to our lives.

Here we go, so hang on!

History of the Word

The English word "Sacrament" is a direct translation of the Latin word "Sacramentum" which literally means "To consecrate or make holy" Furthermore, it was the early Church's transliteration of the Gk. word "Mysterion" (μυστήριον) which appears only 27 times in the New Testament (and only once in each of the synoptic Gospels) and most commonly means "Mystery, or a hidden or secret thing", but which can carry a myriad of other meanings.

Usage and Definitions

Since it is not a Biblical term, we must rely on authoritative sources to delineate the meaning of this term.

The first theologian to actually use the term "sacrament" was Augustine in the early 5th Century.  Augustine defined sacrament as "an outward and temporal [visible] sign of an inward and enduring grace".

Throughout the development of Catholic and other Church doctrine the word has been defined in other ways as well.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a Sacrament as "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us" (1131).  Episcopalians define sacrament as "outward signs of inward and spiritual grace", and the Eastern Orthodox Church as, "the material elements, signs and gestures used...material things are made into vehicles of the Spirit".

The Essence of Sacrament

Dissecting these definitions, we can arrive at a few conclusions about what a sacrament is.

Sacrament as Sign--The sacrament uses physical things, or signs, such as water, chrism oil, or bread and wine, to communicate a spiritual or transcendental truth about God (forgiveness, anointing, sacrifice).

Sacrament as Efficacious-- Sacraments have an effect, there is a purpose to doing them, and receive something from them. What is it that we receive?

Sacrament as Imparting Grace--When we partake in sacrament, we receive Grace. Which enables our salvation.

Like I said before, there are other, more debatable characteristics of sacrament, but that is for a different hub series.  Rather, I feel these three things show the indisputable essence of the term sacrament.

A Biblical Example

A very good Biblical example of the "sacramental act" is the descent of the holy spirit at Pentecost.  This is held by most Catholic theologians to be the instance of the first Confirmation.  In the same way that the Holy Spirit is imparted and received through the sacraments, so did the Holy Spirit descend upon the disciples to impart grace and empower them to live the Gospel.

A Note on Sacramentals

"Sacramentals" (holy water, sacred medals, crucifixes) are not Sacraments themselves but they can provide a means of obtaining grace outside the actual performance of the Sacrament. In other words, these objects or actions are not efficacious in and of themselves, but they can dispose the person to piety, devotion, and contrition, and through these dispositions and the prayers of the Church, can protect against evil, temptation, and can remit venial sin. In effect, sacramentals properly prepare us to receive the grace given through Sacraments. Additionally, while Sacraments cannot typically be received by non-Catholics, the Church encourages pious use of sacramentals by any Christian.

© 2010 rdlang05


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    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Thank you!

    • connorj profile image

      John Connor 5 years ago from Altamonte Springs

      Excellent work!

    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 6 years ago from Minnesota

      Thanks Steven!

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      Steven 6 years ago

      Nice article, Ryan. Clear and straightforward.

    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 7 years ago from Minnesota

      Thank you!

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      shai 7 years ago

      thank you! very helpful indeed. God bless and more power to hubpages.

    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 7 years ago from Minnesota

      Thank you! Yes, its something I realized as I was writing this, its amazing what you can learn as you write hubs! Thanks for reading!

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      prayers 7 years ago

      Good Hub! I learned a lot. I guess I never thought about the Holy Spirit descending to impart Grace. I always thought about Pentecost in terms of the Gifts of the Spirit. Thank you!