Four Elements of A Sacrament/Ordinance

Although James Montgomery Boice was a Presbyterian minister, there is yet much that we Baptists and our Presbyterian brothers have in common.  Far too often we tend to speak only of the differences that exist between us (e.g. the recipients of baptism; church polity).  In this post we will see Boice’s explanation of the four elements of a sacrament/ordinance.[1]  I believe Baptists may whole-heartedly give an “Amen!” to Boice’s understanding of these elements.[2]

Four Elements of a Sacrament
In what way do the Scriptures represent the sacraments of the church as being different from other practices, such as the reading of Scripture or prayers, which are not sacramental?  What constitutes a sacrament?  There are four elements.

1. The sacraments are divine ordinances instituted by Christ himself….  The sacraments are mandatory.  The Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed.  Baptism was instituted shortly before his ascension into heaven.

2. The sacraments are ordinances in which material elements are used as visible signs of God’s blessing.  In baptism the sign is water.  In the Lord’s Supper two signs are used: bread, which signified the broken body of the Lord Jesus Christ, and wine, which signified his shed blood.

This feature is important in understanding the nature of a sacrament.  It sets baptism and the Lord’s Supper off from other proper but nonsacramental things, which do not use a material element as a sign.  The material element distinguishes the sacrament from the reality that it signifies.  A sign is a visible object that points to a reality different from and more significant than itself….  The sacrament of baptism points to our identification with Christ by faith.  The Lord’s Supper points to the reality of our communion with him.  In the case of the sacraments, the sign is secondary, outward and visible.  The reality is primary, inward and invisible.

An important consequence of this is that neither baptism nor the Lord’s Supper make or keep one a Christian.  That is, we do not become a Christian by being baptized, nor do we remain a Christian by ‘taking communion’ periodically.  Those signs merely point to something that has taken place or is taking place internally and invisibly.

Again, a sign frequently indicates ownership, and the sacraments do that too, particularly baptism.  Baptism indicates to the world and to ourselves that we are not our own but that we have been bought with a price and are now identified with Jesus….

3. The sacraments are means of grace to the one who rightly partakes of them.  In saying this we must be careful to point out that we are not therefore assigning some magical property to baptism or the observance of the Lord’s Supper, as if grace, like medicine, is automatically dispensed along with the material elements.  That error, in regard both to the sacraments and grace, led to the abuse of the sacraments in the early Roman Catholic Church and then later in some of the groups that emerged from the Reformation.  In each case the sacrament rather than faith became the means of salvation.  The custom arose even of delaying baptism (in particular) until the last possible moment before death, in order that the greatest number of sins might be washed away by it.

To say that the sacraments are not magical or mechanical, however, does not mean that they do not have value.  God has chosen to use them to encourage and strengthen faith in believers.  Thus, they presuppose the acknowledgment of God’s grace by the one who partakes of them, but they also strengthen faith by reminding the believer of what they signify and of the faithfulness of the One who has given them….

4. The sacraments are seals, certifications or confirmations to us of the grace they signify.  In our day the use of seals is infrequent, but the examples we have suggest the idea.  The seal of the United States of America appears on a passport, for example.  It is stamped into the paper so that the document cannot be altered, thus validating the passport and showing that the one possessing it is a United States citizen.  Other documents are validated by a notary public.  The notary’s seal is confirmation of the oath taken.  The sacraments are God’s seal on the attestation that we are his children and are in fellowship with him.


[1] Baptists typically refer to baptism and the Lord’s supper as ordinances, whereas Presbyterians typically refer to them as sacraments.  It is well known, however, that our Baptist forefathers did at times refer to them as sacraments, as well as ordinances.  While some Baptists may not like the term sacrament because of its intended meaning and use by Roman Catholics, I personally see no error in the use of the term.  The term sacrament emphasizes the sacred and mysterious (spiritual nature) aspects of baptism and the Lord’s supper, whereas ordinance emphasizes the institution of baptism and the Lord’s supper by Jesus Christ.

[2] The following is taken from Boice’s, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive & Readable Theology (IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 595-597.  The emphases are his.

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