What are the Sacraments?

by | Nov 16, 2020 | 02 Library, What is

What are the Sacraments? What’s the difference between the Protestant view of Sacraments and the Roman Catholic view? 

Disclaimer: I am not an expert.  I investigated this question as background for a passage I’m studying.The notes below are simply the result of my research.


According to AmericanCatholic.org: “The Latin word sacramentum means “a sign of the sacred.” The seven sacraments are ceremonies that point to what is sacred, significant and important for Christians. They are special occasions for experiencing God’s saving presence.”

While most Protestants recognize only 2 sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), Rome has 7 sacraments which correspond to the 4 seasons of life plus 3 special graces.

  1. Baptism (in infancy)
  2. Confirmation (reaching adulthood)
  3. Marriage  (adulthood)
  4. Extreme unction/Last Rites/Anointing the Sick (end of life)
  5. Holy orders/Ordination (for priests to be ordained to the clergy)
  6. Penance/Reconciliation (for sins after baptism)
  7. Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper (for all believers)

The last two (Penance and the Eucharist) are the most divisive in separating Protestants & Catholics.

The Roman Catholic view and the Protestant view of Sacraments differ in

  • number
  • nature
  • efficacy
  • mode of operation

“Mode of operation” is the most significant difference.  According to Rome, the Sacraments operate ex opere operato or by ‘the working of the works.’  They believe performing the sacrament has an effect. Sacraments convey the grace which they are intended to convey by the gift of God

For Roman Catholics, the sacraments are more than symbolic; the sacraments actually confer grace upon the recipient.


Baptism, according to Rome, confers ex opere operato -“the grace of regeneration” – or being born of the Spirit.  Baptism removes the guilt of original sin and the punishment that we owe because of sin. Essentially baptism moves the person into a state of justification, making baptism the instrumental cause of justification.

By contrast, in Protestant theology the necessary prerequisite for justification is faith, not baptism.  In other words, the instrumental cause of justification is faith and faith alone (and that faith is a gift of God.)

However, Rome does not believe that baptism sanctifies perfectly, rather it leaves a person with concupiescence – with an inclination towards sin but in itself is not sin.  If I’m understanding correctly, Roman Catholics believe that the “inclination toward sin” is not same as sin itself, where as Reformed theology would hold that an inclination toward sin is sin.


Roman Catholics hold that Confirmation is not a new infusion of grace but an increase of grace unto maturity.  I don’t believe they would describe it as a second baptism, but rather a “deepening of the baptismal gifts” that strengthens and matures the grace previously given in baptism.  Think of it as a booster shot.  It is a separate right, but presupposes baptism.


In Roman Catholicism, the marriage sacrament is an “infusion” of grace to strengthen the union of the two people.  During the ceremony grace is given to accomplish a real mystical union.

By infuse, Catholics mean the righteousness of Christ is put into the believer so it is substantially present within the person. (By contrast, Protestants talk about imputation. The merits of Christ are credit to the believer while our sins are credited to Christ on cross.)

Holy Orders

Holy Orders is the ceremony that men go through to become priests. Catholics believe holy orders gives an infusion of grace and two kinds special powers to the ordained:

  1. absolution – this is “the formal remission of sin imparted by a priest, as in the sacrament of penance.”
  2. consecration – this is the supernatural ability to perform the Lord’s supper and literally turn the bread and wine into body and blood of Christ.

Extreme Unction

Originally, extreme unction was a healing rite, not a last rite.  The priest anoints a seriously ill person with oil and prays for them as preparation for heaven. When combined with confession and the Eucharist, it called “Last Rites,” which was traditionally reserved for those near death.


Penance is the really divisive issue between Protestants and Catholics because it strikes at the heart of the gospel: how a person is justified and redeemed. 

Penance is an action designed to show sorrow and repentance of sin. Penance as a sacrament was instituted by Rome for people who committed mortal sins. Catholics believe committing mortal sins destroys the grace of justification, but a person who has “shipwrecked” their soul can be restored by walking the “2nd plank of justification” or penance.

The sacrament of penance has 3 parts to its matter and 1 part to its form.  The form is sacerdotal absolution: a priest says “I absolve you.”  Roman Catholics point out that the priest is not claiming that he has the authority to absolve anybody but that he speaks in the name of or under the authority of Jesus Christ.

The divisive issue is on the matter which has 3 dimensions:

  • contrition – turning away from sin; repentance & brokenness of heart at offending God
  • confession – actual confession & naming sin as sin
  • satisfaction – a work necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice;

For sacrament to be complete, the repentant must do a work of satisfaction (e.g. giving alms). Without that work (or merit), the penitent sinner is not justified.

One of the sparks that ignited the reformation was the “Indulgence controversy. When the Roman Church set about building St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Pope authorized the sale of indulgences in connection with the sacrament of penance. 

What is an indulgence? An indulgence reduces the amount of time one spends in purgatory. Buying an indulgence assured the buyer of complete forgiveness of sins, participation in the grace of God, and freedom from purgatory.

To be fair, the Pope insisted that indulgences were not be sold like raffle tickets, but a man named Tetzel in Germany sold indulgences without penance which provoked an investigation into the whole system.

From whence come the merits given in indulgences?

Here’s the logic: To gain heaven, a person must have sufficient merit.  Without sufficient merit, the person goes to purgatory to be made righteous enough to get into heaven.  Medieval theologians worked out how many days/hours/years an individual could expect to spend in purgatory and assigned a monetary value to the necessary indulgence.  An indulgence could shorten this purging time.

From whence does the Pope draw merit to give to those who are deficient? 

“From the works of supererogation of the saints which are deposited in the treasury of merit.”  The treasury of merit is filled by the excess merit of the great saints of this world (for example, a martyr’s death or a sacrificial life or any action above and beyond the call of duty). Since these people were so meritorious that they had more merit than they needed to get into heaven, the excess accrued in the treasury for the rest of us who are deficient to buy.

This is where the reformers shudder.

Protestants believe in a type of “treasury of merit”, but Jesus Christ is the only who ever “contributed” to it. Jesus is the only one righteous and his righteousness is given to believers free of charge by grace.

More: The Indulgences Controversy

Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist) is the miracle of the mass defined as transubstantiation. They distinguish between the”substance” (the essence of a thing) and the “accidents” (the outward external appearance). Before the prayer of consecration, the bread and wine are present in both substance & accidents.  At the prayer of consecration, the substance is transformed into blood and body of Christ, but the accidents of bread and wine remain.  Outwardly they look the same, but the essence is now different.  It looks like bread, taste likes bread but it is not bread.  The substance (essence) has changed.

The Eucharist celebration is described as a sacrifice.  During the mass, Christ is sacrificed again and again. 

Protestants object, If that’s really the body of Jesus Christ and the priest breaks it, are we not repeatedly breaking the body of Christ again? Yet Scripture tells us he was sacrificed once for all.

Rome replies, no, because this is not a bloody sacrifice.

But Reformers answer, repeating Christ’s sacrifice demeans it.  His sacrifice has been done once for all, unlike the Old Covenant that had to be repeated.


Photo by Xavier Coiffic on Unsplash