On being Protestant and thinking about the Sacraments (Part 1)

A Note from the Editor: This is the first in a three-part series on the Sacraments from a distinctly Protestant perspective. Today we’ll cover communion, tomorrow we’ll cover baptism, and Friday we’ll cover the possibility of the Church itself functioning as a Sacrament.

Recently I’ve had a few conversations about the Protestant sacraments, particularly why it’s important to celebrate them. On the one hand, we acknowledge that we partake in the sacraments because Jesus told us to. However, it is also commonly acknowledged that in many people’s understanding, the sacraments seem to do little for the Christian. Catholics and Lutherans seem to offer a more robust approach to the sacraments, but we disagree on transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Protestants are left with the definition that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are merely symbolic and we are supposed to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice when we partake in them. I did some research and realized that there is a lot of thought behind the sacraments that Protestant Christianity doesn’t necessarily focus on. In a three part series, I want to offer some posts working through my own thoughts on the issue. My aim in this and two subsequent posts is to think through a definition of the sacraments, then Baptism and Communion as sacraments, and finally, how participation in the Church body is sacramental, if it is not properly a sacrament itself.

As a place to begin, some definitions are necessary. The sacraments are a visible sign of an inward grace, instituted by Jesus Christ to symbolize or confer grace, and sacraments are participated in communally by Christians as a confirmation of their covenant relationship with the Godhead.

Crucial to a robust understanding of the sacraments is an examination of the words “sign” and “symbol.” A sign is “a superficial or natural reality but with a deeper and supernatural significance, accessible only by faith.”1 In the course of the service of communion, we receive a representation of the sacrificed body of Christ (given by God) to ourselves, and we (in faith) internalize and receive it by eating. Thus, the sacraments are a sign insofar as they are a thing we do outwardly to signify an inward spiritual reality, i.e., a grace that is given by God and received by us.

The term symbol has been somewhat more controversial, because it seems to imply that something is less than real. While there is a fair amount of overlap between signs and symbols, the distinction for symbol is primarily a result of the incarnation. When Christ entered into the world, he united the human and the divine, and this is an important element that the word symbol captures. Thus, baptism is not just a cleansing of the body (as it essentially was in Judaism), but in a real sense it represents the cleansing of the soul from sin through “death, burial and resurrection to new life.” Jesus’ incarnation and participation in baptism intermingles the elements of baptism with the grace imparted by God to believers. To conclude, the initial definition’s use of both sign and symbol is appropriate, because both aspects are very present in the definition. While not all signs may be a symbol, all symbols are signs, and this seems to fit both definitions squarely.

Understanding the phrase “confer grace” is another important component of properly grasping the sacraments. It’s my understanding that “conferral of grace” is the presentation of Christ which fulfills the attesting work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. This affirms the faith of believers and gives strength and mercy to their souls. While the sacraments do not give salvation, there is an understanding in the church that grace is somehow imparted through participation in the sacraments. John Calvin had this to say on the subject: “When we see the visible sign, we must rise aloft, and understand, that God accomplishes the thing in truth, which is signified unto us by the visible sacrament.”2 Thus, the action of the sacrament points us to the work done by God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and to recognize the grace that is imparted. I think it is fair to say that the sacraments, as a vehicle of recognition, impart grace, because the recognition and acceptance of grace is the manner by which the sacraments deeply affect the life of the believer.

There have been periods of time in the church when the sacraments were thought to confer grace regardless of the reception by the human participants. However, theological thought has since revised itself in most branches of the church, and now most churches believe that they confer grace only when the participant receives them in faith. Now, does the eating of bread and wine or the dunking of a person in water itself confer grace? No. But we believe that God is actually using the sacrament as a means of grace to the believer.

The manner of God’s use of sacrament in this manner is debated, but some scholars helpfully argue that when Christ became human, he redeemed everything associated with humanity: souls, bodies, and actions. The idea of the first two entities receiving redemption is one that most are comfortable with, so I will not address them. The main thrust of these scholars’ thought concerning actions is that because Christ did things while on the earth, when He died on the Cross, the specific actions that He participated in had the ability to confer grace. This brings up the potential for objection that all of daily life therefore has the ability to confer grace, as they are actions that Christ did. Perhaps, and I will address this later. The immediate answer, though, seems to be that Christ instituted the sacraments as specific actions that He participated in and then instituted for the Church to follow. However, explicitly stated in the definition is the phrase “instituted by Jesus Christ” and thus, most of daily life is eliminated.

One of the last elements of the definition also adeptly addresses the concern over the inclusion of the majority of Christian life: the participation in the sacraments as confirmation of their covenant with God through Christ. Regular affirmation of our covenant with God is necessary, because if there is anything that humanity is famous for, it is its corporate ability to forget. Israel’s inconsistent history with God is the most obvious example of this, and I think we can all probably add commentary from our own lives. Since we are a forgetful people, we need to be reminded of and reaffirm our covenant with God. By participating in a ceremony that regularly helps us recognize the grace given to us, we reaffirm the covenant that we participate in. While we may live our lives in such a way that reflects our covenant relationship with God, daily life is hardly a reaffirmation of our covenant relationship with him.

The final element of the definition that has not been addressed is the communal practice of the sacraments. It is important to note how believers participate in the sacraments. It is the person receiving the sign who is considered a participant in a sacrament, not the one administering the sacrament. I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that you can only receive communion or baptism from someone else, you cannot administer it to yourself. The aspect of reception is critical to understanding the sacraments: it suggests that we can do nothing to earn our salvation, it’s all grace, all received, all finished. Even in their administration, they remind us of and reinforce the conferral of grace.

In sum, the sacraments are both sign and symbol, received from a fellow believer, that confer grace in the life of the believer, confirming their covenant relationship with God and participating in the actions of Christ that bring about his redeeming grace. In my next post I consider this definition in relation to the Protestant sacraments of baptism and communion, how it helps correct my own misconceptions, and how this fuller definition of the sacraments really impacts one’s understanding of these two practices.


1Fahey, Michael A. Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology: Sacraments. (Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2007),  271.

2Calvin, John. Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth. 1987), 1081.

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Stephanie Wilkerson

Stephanie holds a BA from Biola University in Biblical and Theological Studies and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. She presently works for a film production company in Irvine as Project Coordinator and is enjoying getting to apply her love of writing to an more practical arena than academia. Stephanie has the distinction of being one of the few Vegan, country-music-hating Wyomingites in the world and has a deep love for the beauty of the mountains, though she now lives among the sprawling urban masses of LA County. During her infrequent bouts of free time, Stephanie enjoys reading (particularly classics and theology), learning German and Adobe Suite, and tormenting her roommates and their boyfriends.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Excellent summary. Very helpful.

  • David Hoffman

    Interesting and though-provoking article overall. This is mostly just Church History OCD, but it’s worth noting that Calvin did believe that Christ’s spiritual presence was directly present in the eucharist, though it could only be received by faith, so his view didn’t seem to be exactly the same as the view you seem to be expressing here. If I’m interpreting you correctly, that is.

    From his institutes,

    “This, of course, I grant and say that the power of the mystery remains intact, no matter how much wicked men try to their utmost to nullify it. Yet it is one thing to be offered, another to be receive. Christ proffers this spritual food and gives this spiritual drink to all. Some feed upon them eagerly, others haughtily refuse them. Will the latters’ rejection of the cause the food and drink to lose their nature?…God’s will is that his truthfulness be acknowledged not in the reception itself, but in the constancy of his goodness, in that he is ready to give to the unworthy than to God’s elect believers. At the same time, it is true, however, that, just as rain falling upon a hard rock flows off because no entrance opens into the stone, the wicked by their harness so repel God’s grace that it does not reach them.”- Institutes, Book IV, Ch XVII

    So, for him, it isn’t as though the eucharist isn’t just something that guides us to grace by bringing us to remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, but something that does actually contain his spritual presence.

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  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    Huh. You know what? I was going to disagree with you, but then I re-read what Ms. Wilkerson said and I have to agree. I hadn’t realized that the grace imparted was merely the recognition and acceptance of the larger grace of God.

    However much I disagreed with Calvin on other points, I always really appreciated his stance on the Eucharist. I’m not sure what to do with Ms. Wilkerson’s approach.

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  • wwe

    Unfortunately, there seem to be too many Protestants who just don’t “get it” in regards to the sacraments, including this kook: