A sacrament is a Christian religious rite recognized as having particular significance and importance to their faith.
The English word “sacrament” is derived from the Ecclesiastical Latin “sacrāmentum”, meaning “sacred” and “holy” – from Latin root word “sacrō”, to “hallow “or “consecrate”. In ancient Rome, the term meant a soldier’s oath of allegiance, which was also a sacred rite.
The Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (Holy Communion), Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders.
However, Protestant Reformers of the 16th Century argued that Jesus ordained only two Christian sacraments, or, “ordinances”:
- The Lord’s Supper (or, Holy Communion) in Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:17-20 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
- Water Baptism, in Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16.
We will discuss these two in detail in this article.
What makes these “ordinances” is that they are religious ceremonies “ordained” by Jesus Himself, which illustrate or are reminders of His redemptive work on the cross, that is, His death, burial and resurrection.
I. The question of “Foot washing”
1. Is “Foot washing” an ordinance?
Washing of the feet, is a religious rite observed by several Christian denominations, particularly on Maundy Thursday (also called “Holy Thursday”) during the Easter season. Although not considered a “sacrament” by the Catholic Church, its Bishops and Arch-Bishops celebrate this practice among themselves every Holy Thursday during the season of Lent.
Many Protestant groups throughout Church history have also practiced “Foot washing” as a Church “ordinance” (particularly in the Southern United States), including Congregationalists, Holiness, Adventists, Anabaptists, Baptists, and Pentecostals.
John 13:1–17 mentions Jesus performing this act. Specifically, in verses 13:14–17:
“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
2. It is the opinion of the author of this article that “Foot washing” is not an “ordinance”, but an “example”, for the following reasons:
- According to historical Protestant Reformers and theologians, an “ordinance” is a religious rite “ordained” by Jesus Himself, which illustrates and reminds us of His redemptive work on the cross – that is, His death, burial and resurrection. Foot washing does not meet this qualification.
- An ordinance is a “command” from the Lord Jesus to be carried out by the Church. In reference to Baptism, Jesus said, “Go ye”; in reference to Holy Communion, He said, “This do”.
- But in reference to Foot washing in John 13:14-17, Jesus said, you “ought” to wash one another’s feet; I have given you an “example” that you “should” do as I have done to you. These are not commands; neither does the act of Foot washing in any way illustrate the atonement of Christ on the cross for sin.
- Studied in its historical and cultural context, the “example” of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples in John 13:1-17, suggests His desire that all Christians should “serve” one another in different ways, and not just by making a religious ritual out of “Foot washing”.
I personally practice the rite of Foot washing on Holy Thursday, not because I believe it is an “ordinance”, but because I find it spiritually edifying, as well as an exercise in “humility”. It is a humbling experience to kneel and wash another Christian’s feet… it is very hard to have a proud attitude while doing so.
II. ‘Believer’s’ Baptism
1. A short history on Christian baptism:
Christian baptism originated from the example of John the Baptist. Many of the first disciples of Jesus were originally disciples of John the Baptist (See John 1:35-41). John’s baptism evolved from the ceremonial washings of Judaism, the religion of the Jews.
Both Catholic and Protestant scholars generally agree that the early Church baptized by “immersion”, but sometimes used other forms of baptism, depending on the circumstances and availability of water.
There are three “modes” of water baptism used in Christian churches today: “immersion” (wherein the believer is completely submerged), “affusion” (that is, pouring), and “aspersion” (sprinkling).
Christians are divided on the question of which mode or modes are proper forms of baptism. Some Christians think that immersion is the only valid mode, while other Christians consider all three modes to be acceptable.
Some of the main points to consider are the following:
- The word baptizo in Greek, translated “baptize” in the New Testaments, meant to “dip” or “immerse.”
- Baptism is specifically stated in the New Testament to represent the Christian’s spiritual union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:3-7), which is remarkably and dramatically pictured in “immersion”.
- Whenever the act of baptism is described in the New Testament, the one who is baptized actually goes “into” the water.
These points suggest that “immersion” was the norm, at least in the first century.
2. Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize those who believe in Him:
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.” – Matthew 28:18-20
“And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.’” – Mark 16:15-16
These verses are commonly called “The Great Commission”.
The “formula” for baptism, as given by Jesus, is “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. (In Latin it is, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti”. For about a millennium, Latin was the official language of the Western Church.)
3. Jesus Himself was baptized as an adult:
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.” – Matthew 3:13-16
Please note that Jesus emphasized the importance of baptism saying, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” If Jesus submitted to being baptized, we should too.
(See also, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22 and John 1:29-34 – Jesus’ baptism as recorded in the other Gospels.)
4. In Romans 6:3-4, the Apostle Paul teaches that baptism illustrates the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:3-4
This “illustration” suggests “immersion” (submersion of the whole body beneath the surface of the water) as being the correct mode of baptism rather than other modes, such as “pouring” or “sprinkling”. It would be hard to illustrate Christ’s death, burial and resurrection using any other mode of baptism.
5. The example of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:35-38 teaches us that “believing” the Gospel is a requirement or prerequisite to being baptized:
“Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.” – Acts 8:35-38
This is one of the strongest arguments against “infant baptism” – a baby cannot “believe” the Gospel. In the Bible, infants were “dedicated” to the Lord. Even Jesus was dedicated to the Lord (see Luke 2:22). But there is no record in the Old or New Testaments of an infant being baptized.
6. Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38-39 adds the word “repent” to “believe”:
“Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.’” – Acts 2:38-39
The English “Repent” is from the Greek word “metanoeo” which means to “reconsider” or “have a change of mind” which leads to a change of heart. It is from the root word “metamorphoo” meaning to “change” or “transform”. It is often used synonymously with “believe” and does not in any way imply doing works of “penance”.
7. The thief on the cross. An excuse a lot of Christians make for not being baptized:
“Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’” – Luke 23:42-43
While hanging on the cross, Jesus pardoned the thief who was crucified with him. And that forgiveness was granted without baptism. Surely this is a clear example of salvation by grace through faith alone.
Yes, baptism does not save you, but it was commanded by Jesus “to fulfill all righteousness”. It is one of the first steps a new believer can take in obeying God.
Today, the “altar call” or “sinner’s prayer” is sometimes thought of as a possible substitute for baptism. However, the “altar call” is nowhere to be found in Scripture, it was the invention of 19th century revival preachers.
The point is: the thief on the cross had an “excuse” not to be baptized – you don’t!
III. The Lord’s Supper
1. A short history of The Lord’s Supper.
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper at the “Passover Feast” immediately before His crucifixion.
Passover commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, as recorded in the book of Exodus. The Jews celebrated their Passover Feast in remembrance of God’s deliverance from the angel of death during the time of Moses. During Passover, Jews take part in a meal which incorporates the retelling of the story of Exodus.
The Passover meal consists of highly “symbolic” elements: a roasted lamb’s shank bone, bitter green herbs, the top of a horseradish, a mixture of fruit and ground nuts soaked in wine, an egg, unleavened bread or cracker, and kosher red wine.
Jesus took the last two, the bread and the wine, and instituted the New Covenant in His body and blood, broken for our sins.
“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’” – Matthew 26:26-28
“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And He said to them, ‘This is My blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many.’” – Mark 14:22-24
“Then He said to them, ‘With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the New Covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.’” – Luke 22:15-20
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the New Covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” – 1 Corinthians 11:23-29
2. Who can partake of The Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion)?
Only “believers” in Jesus Christ should take part in the Lord’s Supper.
The apostle Paul’s narrative of the events surrounding the “Last supper” in chapter eleven of his first epistle to the Corinthian church is probably the greatest doctrinal exposition ever written on the subject of the Holy Communion.
In 1 Corinthians 11:29, Paul writes, “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
How does one partake of Communion in an “unworthy manner”? It is commonly taught that this must mean harboring un-confessed sin in our heart. But Paul clearly states that the “unworthy manner” is unbelief, “not discerning the Lord’s body” (i.e. not recognizing that the elements of bread and grape wine represent the body and blood of Jesus).
3. Four interpretations of The Lord’s Supper.
Within Christendom, there are four different views or interpretations of The Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion). They are:
Transubstantiation – This is the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox view. In the daily sacrifice of the Mass, the bread and wine are mystically changed into the body and blood of Christ. Though they look, taste, and feel like bread and wine, they are indeed the very body and blood of Christ. In their view, Christ is continually sacrificed in the Mass.
Consubstantiation – Protestant Reformer Martin Luther held this view, as well as the Lutheran church. In his arguments with other theologians, Luther would continuously chant, “Hoc est Corpus Meum ! ‘This is My Body!’” According to this view, the bread and wine do not change, but through the liturgy and the Holy Spirit they become vehicles to communicate to believers the presence of Christ. Christ is “in, with and around” the Communion elements. The elements are “sanctified” symbols reminding us of the body and blood of Christ.
Memorial View – This was the view of Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss church.The Lord’s Supper is a memorial feast which simply reminds us of the gospel – Christ’s atonement for sin on the cross. The elements are symbolic of His body and blood. Most churches from an Anabaptist tradition hold this view.
Reformed View – The view of John Calvin, and most Presbyterian, Reformed, and Anglican churches. The Lord Jesus Christ is really and spiritually present at the Lord’s Supper, yet not in the elements. The elements are symbolic of His body and blood.
[The author of this article holds the consubstantiation view of The Lord’s Supper.]