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The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the sacraments as "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions." The catechism included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof."
Some Protestant traditions avoid the word "sacrament". Reaction against the 19th-century Oxford Movement led Baptists to prefer instead the word "ordinance", practices ordained by Christ to be permanently observed by the church. "Sacrament" stresses mainly, but not solely, what God does, "ordinance" what the Christians do.
The Catholic Church and Oriental Orthodoxy teach that the sacraments are seven. The Eastern Orthodox Church also believes that there are seven major sacraments, but applies the corresponding Greek word, μυστήριον (mysterion) also to rites that in the Western tradition are called sacramentals and to other realities, such as the Church itself. Similarly, the Catholic Church understands the word "sacrament" as referring not only to the seven sacraments considered here, but also to Christ and the Church. Anglican teaching is that "there are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord", and that "those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel".
In the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, "the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions."
The Church teaches that the effect of the sacraments comes ex opere operato, by the very fact of being administered, regardless of the personal holiness of the minister administering it. However, as indicated in this definition of the sacraments given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a recipient's own lack of proper disposition to receive the grace conveyed can block a sacrament's effectiveness in that person. The sacraments presuppose faith and through their words and ritual elements, nourish, strengthen and give expression to faith.
Though not every individual has to receive every sacrament, the Church affirms that, for believers as a whole, the sacraments are necessary for salvation, as the modes of grace divinely instituted by Christ himself. Through each of them, Christ bestows that sacrament's particular grace, such as incorporation into Christ and the Church, forgiveness of sins, or consecration for a particular service.
The seven sacraments are also accepted by Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy, but the Eastern Orthodox tradition does not limit the number of sacraments to seven, holding that anything the Church does as Church is in some sense sacramental. However it recognizes these seven as "the major sacraments", which are completed by many other blessings and special services. Some lists of the sacraments taken from the Church Fathers include the Consecration of a Church, Monastic Tonsure, and the Burial of the Dead. More specifically, for the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christian the term sacrament is a term which seeks to classify something that may, according to Orthodox thought, be impossible to classify. The Orthodox communion's preferred term is Sacred Mystery. While the Catholic Church has attempted to dogmatically define the sacraments, and discover the precise moment when the act results in the manifestation of the grace of God, the Orthodox communion has refrained from attempting to determine absolutely the exact form, number and effect of the sacraments, accepting simply that these elements are unknowable to all except God. According to Orthodox thinking God touches mankind through material means such as water, wine, bread, oil, incense, candles, altars, icons, etc. How God does this is a mystery. On a broad level, the mysteries are an affirmation of the goodness of created matter, and are an emphatic declaration of what that matter was originally created to be.
Despite this broad view, Orthodox divines do write about there being seven "principal" mysteries. On a specific level, while not systematically limiting the mysteries to seven, the most profound Mystery is the Eucharist or Synaxis, in which the partakers, by participation in the liturgy and receiving the consecrated bread and wine (understood to have become the body and blood of Christ) directly communicate with God. Neither in the Catholic view of transubstantiation nor in that of the Orthodox is a claim made to understand how exactly this happens: the Catholic view is that "the signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ"; and the Orthodox merely state: "This appears to in the form of bread and wine, but God has told me it is His Body and Blood. I will take what He says as a 'mystery' and not attempt to rationalize it to my limited mind". The emphasis on mystery is characteristic of Orthodox theology, and is often called apophatic, meaning that any and all positive statements about God and other theological matters must be balanced by negative statements. For example, while it is correct and appropriate to say that "God exists", or even that "God is the only Being which truly exists", such statements must be understood to also convey the idea that God transcends what is usually meant by the term "to exist".
Anglican sacramental theology reflects its dual roots in the Catholic tradition and the Reformation. The Catholic heritage is perhaps most strongly asserted in the importance Anglicanism places on the sacraments as a means of grace and sanctification while the Protestant tradition has contributed a marked insistent on "lively faith" and "worthy reception". Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians participating in an Anglican/Roman Catholic Joint Preparatory Commission declared that they had "reached substantial agreement on the doctrine of the Eucharist".
Article XXV recognises only two sacraments (Baptism and the Supper of the Lord) since these are the only ones ordained by Christ in the Gospel. The article continues stating that "Those five commonly called Sacraments ... are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel ....but have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord's Supper, for they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained by God." These phrases have led to a debate as to whether the five are to be called sacraments or not. A recent author writes that the Anglican Church gives "sacramental value to the other five recognised by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches .... " but these "do not reveal those essential aspects of redemption to which Baptism and Communion point." Some Anglicans maintain that the use of "commonly" implies that the others can legitimately be called sacraments (perhaps more exactly "Sacraments of the Church" as opposed to "Sacraments of the Gospel"); others object that at the time the Articles were written "commonly" meant "inaccurately" and point out that the Prayer Book refers to the creeds "commonly called the Apostles' Creed" and the "Athanasian" where both attributions are historically incorrect.
Anglicans are also divided as to the effects of the sacraments. Some hold views similar to the Roman Catholic ex opere operato theory, that is that when the outward ceremony is duly performed the inward grace is necessarily given unless the recipient puts some obstacle in the way (non ponere obicem). Article XXVI (entitled Of the unworthiness of ministers which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament) states that the "ministration of the Word and Sacraments" is not done in the name of the minister, "neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness," since the sacraments have their effect "because of Christ's intention and promise, although they be ministered by evil men." As in Roman Catholic theology, the worthiness or unworthiness of the recipient is of great importance. Article XXV states: "And in such only as worthily receive the [sacraments], they have a wholesome effect and operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation,..." and Article XXVIII on the Lord's Supper affirms "to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ;..." In the Exhortations of the Prayer Book rite, the worthy communicant is bidden to "prepare himself by examination of conscience, repentance and amendment of life and above all to ensure that he is in love and charity with his neighbours" and those who are not "are warned to withdraw".
Lutherans hold that sacraments are sacred acts of divine institution. Whenever they are properly administered by the use of the physical component commanded by God along with the divine words of institution, God is, in a way specific to each sacrament, present with the Word and physical component. He earnestly offers to all who receive the sacrament forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation. He also works in the recipients to get them to accept these blessings and to increase the assurance of their possession.
Martin Luther defined a sacrament as an act or rite:
Actually, this definition is of recent origins. Luther himself defined a sacrament as thus:
si sacramenta vocamus ceremonias, quas Christus obseruari præcepit, et quibus addidit promissionem gratiæ.
This strict definition narrowed the number of sacraments down to three: Holy Baptism, the Eucharist, and Holy Absolution, with the other four rites eliminated for not having the ability to forgive sin, although at least one or two have the command of God. Lutherans do not dogmatically define the exact number of sacraments. In line with Luther's initial statement in his Large Catechism some Lutherans speak of only two sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist, although later in the same work he calls Confession and Absolution "the third sacrament". The definition of sacrament in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession lists Absolution as one of them. It is important to note that although Lutherans do not consider the other four rites as sacraments, they are still retained and used in the Lutheran church (with the exception of Extreme Unction although some Lutheran churches do practice it ). Luther himself around the time of his marriage and afterwards became one of the greatest champions of Marriage (Holy Matrimony), and the other two (Confirmation and Ordination) were kept in the Lutheran Church for purposes of good order. Within Lutheranism, the sacraments are a Means of Grace, and, together with the Word of God, empower the Church for mission.
John Calvin defined a sacrament as an earthly sign associated with a promise from God. He accepted only two sacraments as valid under the new covenant: baptism and the Lord's Supper. He and all Reformed theologians following him completely rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the treatment of the Supper as a sacrifice. He also could not accept the Lutheran doctrine of sacramental union in which Christ was "in, with and under" the elements.
The Westminster Confession of Faith also limits the sacraments to baptism and the Lord's Supper. Sacraments are denoted "signs and seals of the covenant of grace." Westminster speaks of "a sacramental relation, or a sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other." Baptism is for infant children of believers as well as believers, as it is for all the Reformed except Baptists and some Congregationalists. Baptism admits the baptized into the visible church, and in it all the benefits of Christ are offered to the baptized. On the Lord's supper, Westminster takes a position between Lutheran sacramental union and Zwinglian memorialism: "the Lord's supper really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance as the elements themselves are to their outward senses."
The enumeration, naming, understanding, and the adoption of the sacraments formally vary according to denomination, although the finer theological distinctions are not always understood and may not even be known to many of the faithful. Many Protestants and other post-Reformation traditions affirm Luther's definition and have only Baptism and Eucharist (or Communion or the Lord's Supper) as sacraments, while others see the ritual as merely symbolic, and still others do not have a sacramental dimension at all.
In addition to the traditional seven sacraments, other rituals have been considered sacraments by some Christian traditions. In particular, foot washing as seen in Anabaptist, Schwarzenau Brethren, German Baptist groups or True Jesus Church, and the hearing of the Gospel, as understood by a few Christian groups (such as the Polish National Catholic Church of America), have been considered sacraments by some churches.
Since some post-Reformation denominations do not regard clergy as having a classically sacerdotal or priestly function, they avoid the term "sacrament", preferring the terms "sacerdotal function", "ordinance", or "tradition". This belief invests the efficacy of the ordinance in the obedience and participation of the believer and the witness of the presiding minister and the congregation. This view stems from a highly developed concept of the priesthood of all believers. In this sense, the believer himself or herself performs the sacerdotal role.
Baptists and Pentecostals, among other Christian denominations, use the word ordinance, rather than sacrament because of certain sacerdotal ideas connected, in their view, with the word sacrament.. These churches argue that the word ordinance points to the ordaining authority of Christ which lies behind the practice.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints use the word "Sacrament" solely for the Lord's Supper, in which participants eat bread and drink wine (or water, since the late 1800s). It is similar to the Eucharist or Holy Communion in other Christian denominations. In LDS congregations, the Sacrament is normally provided every Sunday as part of the Sacrament meeting. In LDS teachings however, the word ordinance is used approximately as the word sacrament is used in Christianity in general.. In terms of Ordinances which roughly equate to Christian sacraments in terms of conferring an invisible form of grace the LDS have several which are of a saving nature and are required for "exaltation". These are: baptism, confirmation, Ordination to the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods (in the case of men), the temple Endowment, and Celestial Marriage.
There are other ordinances which are performed, but which are not required for salvation; these are "Sacrament" or the Lord's Supper, ministering to the sick, the naming and blessing of a child, dedication of a grave, patriarchal blessings, and various other blessings of comfort and counsel.
The Community of Christ holds that the sacraments express the continuing presence of Christ through the Church. They help believers establish and continually renew their relationship with God. Through them believers establish or reaffirm their covenant with God in response to God’s grace. Their denomination recognizes eight sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, The Blessing of Children, The Lord's Supper, Marriage, Administration to the sick, Ordination, and The Evangelist's blessing.
Some denominations do not have a sacramental dimension (or equivalent) at all. The Salvation Army does not practice formal sacraments for a variety of reasons, including a belief that it is better to concentrate on the reality behind the symbols; however, it does not forbid its members from receiving sacraments in other denominations.
The Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) also do not practice formal sacraments, believing that all activities should be considered holy. Rather, they are focused on an inward transformation of one's whole life. Some Quakers use the words "Baptism" and "Communion" to describe the experience of Christ's presence and his ministry in worship.