Is Baptism a Sacrament?

Is Baptism a Sacrament?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, March 13, 2010 at 7:54am

QUESTION: Is baptism a sacrament?

ANSWER: The short answer is NO, because there is no such thing as a sacrament. From a Biblical perspective, the category of “sacraments” does not exist.

From an historical perspective, though, quite early in Christian history the Latin term “sacramentum” was used to translate the Biblical (Greek) word “mysterion,” or “mystery.” Since in the NT a “mysterion” refers to divine truths hidden to man, the word began to be used for sacred things in general, especially those with mysterious and profound meanings. Since the Latin word “sacramentum” usually meant “a sacred oath or pledge taken before God,” this term also was adopted as referring to sacred things as such.

From the third century onward, some Christian writers called baptism a sacrament, but they also applied it to other religious rituals such as anointing with oil and the Lord’s Supper. In the Middle Ages the number of “sacred things” regarded as sacraments varied from writer to writer. Peter Damian (died 1072) listed 12; Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) had 10; Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141) named 30 items. These “sacraments” included footwashing, the use of holy water, the ordination of priests, and the application of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Peter Lombard (d. 1164) was among the first to limit the list to the seven present Roman Catholic sacraments. The Florentine Council (1439) made this list official, and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) reaffirmed it. Thus an official and specific category of ceremonies was created.

One of the main targets of the Protestant reformers was the Catholic sacramental system; see Martin Luther’s treatise on “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (1520). The only sacraments they retained were baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which are still practiced by practically all Protestant churches today.

In light of NT teaching it is obviously right for the church to continue to practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But in my judgment the Reformers erred in retaining the very CATEGORY called “sacraments,” whether that category is seen as having seven or two members. It is an artificial, man-made category and has no Biblical foundation—even if we use the label “ordinances” instead of “sacraments.”

To assume there is such a category naturally leads to the need for a common definition or description that will apply to and be shared by all members of the category. Some (notably Zwingli) have attempted to define the category based on the ancient meaning of the Latin word “sacramentum,” namely, an oath, pledge, or covenant. There is absolutely no Biblical justification for applying the meaning of this Latin word to the Christian practices usually called “sacraments.”

Others have defined the so-called sacraments by applying the meaning of either baptism or the Lord’s Supper to both ceremonies, which has led to doctrinal disaster. Luther, who understood the true meaning of baptism in the NT, applied that strong meaning to the Supper in a sense. Zwingli, who mostly understood the true meaning of the Supper, applied that weaker meaning to baptism as well. The latter has had devastating consequences for the modern Protestant doctrine of baptism, since most Protestants follow Zwingli here.

Even in the Restoration Movement, since baptism (until recently at least) has been seen as being for the forgiveness of sins, some have tried to apply this meaning to the Lord’s Supper as well. Baptism is thus seen as the time of forgiveness for all sins up to that point, and the weekly Supper is seen as the time of week-by-week forgiveness for sins committed after baptism. Even more unfortunately, some have weakened the doctrine of baptism by assuming a parallelism between the two ceremonies and reading the meaning of the Supper into baptism.

Similarly, sometimes the assumption that baptism is one of a category of things leads to a questioning of immersion as the only valid form of baptism. I.e., if we feel free to change the details of the communion service (e.g., many cups instead of one cup, leavened bread for unleavened), why can’t we substitute sprinkling for immersion? In 1 Cor. 10:14ff. the unity of the body of Christ is symbolized by the common partaking of ONE loaf and ONE cup, but (usually for health reasons) the “one cup” is replaced by many cups, and the “one bread” is replaced by zillions of little “chiclets.” Thus, according to Henry Webb, “we have consciously altered the Biblical form and blanched away some of the Biblical symbolism of one of the sacraments. This is difficult to harmonize with our insistence of Biblical form in the case of Baptism…. I am still searching for an adequate explanation as to why Biblical symbolic meaning is so critically important in the one case and so conveniently dispensable in the other.” (Webb, “A Brief Historical Survey of Sacramental Theology,” 1975 NACC Forum)

An immediate explanation is that the comparison is faulty to begin with. The items are not parallel. Immersion vs. sprinkling has to do with the very ACTION of baptism, not its DETAILS. The ACTION of the Lord’s Supper is eating and drinking—which we do not change. We still eat and drink the elements. A change parallel to immersion-to-sprinkling would be to pour the cup out on the floor, or to burn the bread. (We DO make changes in the DETAILS of baptism already, e.g., by using indoor baptisteries.)

The main point, though, is this: why should we think it is proper to argue from Lord’s Supper practices to baptism practices in the first place, as if whatever is true of one must be true of the other? Only because of the false assumption that these belong to a common category! The fact is that baptism is a unique event with its own meaning, and the same is true of the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is baptism, and the Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is what the NT says it is, and so is the Supper. That’s all we need to know.

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