Note: The following was constructed from an 8-part series in our 2022 newsletter.

Catholicism's Seven Sacraments

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) affirmed: "If anyone says that the sacraments... are not necessary for salvation... and that without the desire of them men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification... let him be anathema."

In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church stated that the seven sacraments are necessary for salvation—and anyone who disagrees is damned. This is a strong and bold claim, and stood for centuries. To be fair, since Vatican II (1962-1965) Rome has allowed the possibility of salvation in non-Catholic groups. Nevertheless, in order to have the full truth one must join the Mother Church. The Council’s proclamation was a response to the challenge of Protestantism, which gained traction in 1517 with Luther’s bold actions. The wording of the proclamation clearly refers to Luther’s justification by “faith alone."

In this article (based on a series of eight 2022 newsletter articles) we will investigate each of the sacraments, asking the questions, “What is biblical?” and “What is manmade tradition?” This study is not intended to be heavy or academic, but biblical and practical. Following are the seven sacraments. (This isn’t the official order, only the order in which we will examine them.)

  • Mass
  • Baptism
  • Penance
  • Confirmation
  • Orders
  • Matrimony
  • Unction

The sevenfold system didn’t fully appear until the twelfth century, and wasn't permanently adopted until the fifteenth, when it was acknowledged by the Council of Florence (1439). The question naturally arises, then: If these seven sacraments were considered essential for salvation, was the Roman Church somehow in darkness during the first millennium of its existence?

[1] “Mass” is the celebration of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). While all sacraments are thought to impart grace, mass is felt to be the most important. The term most likely comes from the Latin missa, from “Ite [dis]missa est.” This translates roughly to “Go, you are dismissed”—words the priest would say to congregants after mass.

Mass   Baptism   Penance   Confirmation   Orders   Matrimony   Unction

Transubstantiation?
Every mass features a miracle. Transubstantiation, the change of bread and wine to flesh and blood, was affirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The priest blesses the bread and wine, and by the power of the Holy Spirit they are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. While their outward appearance (Latin species) is still that of ordinary bread, their inwardessence (Latin substantia) miraculously changes. This may strike disinterested parties as "hocus pocus"—a phrase probably derived from the Latin Mass. (Hoc est corpus meum = This is my body.)

I believe the Catholic interpretation entails a failure to discern figurative language. The Lord often spoke figuratively when instructing his followers (John 16:25; 8:12; 10:9; etc). Then what is the meaning of verses like John 6:53? (Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.) There are many passages in the Bible about drinking, eating, and tasting the spiritual life, like Psalm 34:8 and 63:1. We taste and see that the Lord is good not only through the Lord’s Supper, but also by living out his commands, sharing his love with others, trusting in God’s wisdom and guidance, and much more.

Presence?
If Catholicism is right, and the eucharistic elements become our Lord’s body and blood, then isn't there a contradiction? Referring to the bread, Jesus said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). But was he not in a body when he spoke these words? If Christ was already physically present, how could the bread be his body? For in that case, he would be incarnating in two places at once. And for us today, who live after the time of Jesus' earthly ministry, his divine nature is omnipresent (Matt 18:20; 28:20), but his body is in heaven (Acts 7:56). The incarnation (John 1:14) was a unique event. The Lord will indeed return to this earth bodily—at his second coming (Acts 1:11)—but not in the eucharist.

Sacrifice?
Traditionally Catholics have construed the eucharist as a re-presentation of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. It is a “true and proper sacrifice,” and “This sacrifice is truly propitiatory” (Council of Trent). Yet this seems to directly contradict Heb 10:1218. Jesus Christ is our great high priest. There is no special order of priests on earth to offer literal sacrifices—apart from the fact that, under him, all Christians, spiritually speaking, are priests (1 Pet 2:5; Rev 1:6, 5:10, 20:6).

Feast?
Under the Old Covenant, there were frequent reminders of sin (Heb 10:3). But this is not an authentic characteristic of the New Covenant. We have nothing to earn, nothing to sacrifice, nothing to prove. Living by faith, we are in a right relationship with the Father. Unless I am totally mistaken, the Lord's Supper is a feast at a table, not a sacrifice on an altar.

Please CLICK HERE for further considerations.

Attending mass is so important that failure to do so (apart from exceptional circumstances) is a mortal sin! (This makes me think about church attendance in our day, especially when many don't participate so much as "watch" the service. But I digress...) Let’s now move on to the second of the seven sacraments. The Roman position on baptism is biblical, apart from a few points to be addressed later.

[2] Mass   Baptism   Penance   Confirmation   Orders   Matrimony   Unction

I was christened as a three-week-old. Naturally, I have no recollection of the event, although I've seen photographs. Shortly after I became a Christian, at age 18, I came across a pamphlet from that day. The promises read by my godfather (speaking on my behalf) nearly took my breath away! Once I was older, according to the literature, my Christian commitment was to be total. I was to resist the world and the evil one, loving God and living for him. I'd never been challenged to follow such a high calling—at least not in my first 18 years. (Not even when the bishop confirmed me, at age 13.) Perhaps your experience has been similar: you grew up around church, without a serious decision for Christ until many years later. What I'm about to say I know flies in the face of 1500 years of tradition, and I'm disagreeing with over a billion Catholics worldwide. I will do my best to write clearly and not misrepresent those views I am critiquing. The Roman sacramental position is certainly correct in that:

  • It connects baptism with salvation. Interestingly, the only group in the time of the early Christians who taught salvation by faith alone (through mental assent), apart from baptism, were the Gnostics.
  • Baptism is the entry rite into Christ's church. We aren't members of the church unless we've been baptized.
  • The efficacy of baptism doesn't depend on the spiritual state of the one performing the baptism.
  • Baptism is a prerequisite for communion. In Catholic, Anglican, and other groups practicing infant baptism, the eucharist is permitted to those christened only once the member has been confirmed (sacrament 4).

We know what the apostolic church taught because we have the New Testament, 1000s of pages of reflection and correspondence from the first few centuries, plus the early creeds. If you're unfamiliar with the best-known and most influential 4th century creed, please click HERE. (I heartily agree with every point in this statement. Notice what is affirmed about baptism.) Surprising to many evangelicals, virtually every Christian church practiced baptism for the forgiveness of sins until after the Reformation (1500s).

Although Catholics rightly hold a high view of baptism, there are several aspects of their doctrine that should be questioned:

  • Baptism is immersion, not sprinkling or pouring. As Latin became the primary language of the Western Church, replacing Greek, the Greek word for immerse was simplytransliterated into Latin (not translated). The new term baptizare could now be given whatever meaning tradition assigned it. (Not surprisingly, the Greek Orthodox still baptize—immerse—babies.) The Roman church concedes, in its Catechism, that it continued to immerse for its first 1000 years. Sprinkling was not officially sanctioned until 1311.
  • Baptism does not remit Original Sin. The doctrine of Original Sin, devised by Augustine (354-430), served as a rationale for baptizing babies, as infant baptism was becoming common in the 5th century. The eminent theologian taught that any baby dying without baptism would be punished eternally in hell. (The N.T. has no clear instance of a baby being baptized.) The dubious doctrine of Original Sin then drove the practice of infant baptism.
  • Baptism must be accompanied by faith and repentance (Acts 2:38; Col 2:12). Those who haven't yet made a conscious decision to turn to Christ in faith and repentance are simply not ready for baptism. Why rush the ceremony, instead of waiting for people to make their own decision?

To sum up, the assessment of sacramental baptismal theology addressed in this article may be stated concisely: Right principle (forgiveness), wrong application (repentance absent). 

[3]
We have examined the sacraments of mass and baptism. We now turn our attention to a third sacrament, penance.

Mass   Baptism  Penance   Confirmation   Orders   Matrimony   Unction

Although the word penance appears nowhere in the original (Hebrew or Greek) Bible, in older Catholic translations it appeared as a (mis)translation of repentance (metánoia) in Luke 13:3, Acts 2:38, and other texts. Most modern Catholic Bible versions do not use the word penance.

Venial sin
The Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins is integral to the doctrine of penance. According to the Roman Catholic Dogmatic Theology for the Laity, "We commit a venial sin (one which can be forgiven outside of confession) whenever we transgress a commandment of God either in a matter which is not too serious, or without full knowledge, or without full consent of the will... For example, deliberate distraction at prayer, petty thievery, idleness, white lies, lack of love and generosity in small things etc."

What are we to make of this? Certainly some sins are more serious than others, and they differ in impact. This is an important point, often missed by conservative Christians. Yet with some sins on the “less serious” list, it may seem to many that "venial" sins are trivial—not especially important to renounce. After all, the dictionary defines venial as "excusable, trifling, minor; not seriously wrong." But isn't all sin serious (dangerous)?

Mortal sin
About mortal sins, on the other hand, Dogmatic Theology states: "We commit mortal sin when we transgress a commandment of God in a serious matter, with full knowledge and free consent of the will…” Examples include “unbelief, hatred of our neighbor, adultery, serious theft, murder, etc.” While one who dies without confessing venial sins can still be saved (the penalty for such sin will be exacted in purgatory), those dying in a state of mortal sin—without confession and absolution from a priest—will face hell. So the dogma goes...

Penalty
When one has committed a mortal sin, one confesses to a priest, who then prescribes the appropriate penance: fasting, prayers (typically Our Fathers or Hail Marys), good deeds, or some combination thereof. While penance isn't required in the case of venial sins, the church still encourages confession. Certainly many Catholics who confess to a priest and do the prescribed penance are perfectly sincere in believing this is God's will. The question is whether this is what Jesus and his apostles taught.

Analysis

  • The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Whether “big” sins or “little," all sins are mortal—leading eventually to death (James 1:15). Even though some sins are more serious than others, the Bible doesn't clearly categorize them as mortal or venial. Sins that lead to death, if my understanding is correct, are those from which one refuses to repent 1 John 5:16—notice the similar thought in Jer 11:14; 14:11. Thus the venial / mortal distinction seems arbitrary.
  • Merely whispering one's failings to a priest and repeating rote prayers (Matt 6:7) seldom brings about a change of lifestyle in accordance with the way of Christ. Honesty and openness are great qualities, and the practice of confession is something non-Catholics can learn from. But the practice of penance is nowhere to be found in the New Testament.
  • Further, there are no priests in the New Testament, nor is there a confessional. For an explanation of John 20:23, click here.
  • Confession in the New Testament is directly to God—we askh im for forgiveness, not a priest (1 John 1:9Mark 2:7,10). We may also confess to one another—not for forgiveness, but for mutual support (James 5:16). Interestingly, for many centuries confession in church wasn't done privately (as in a confessional box), but before the congregation. But as church discipline broke down, public confession morphed into a private interaction.
  • The notion that we must somehow make satisfaction for our sins wasn't the teaching of Jesus or his apostles. The blood of Christ is sufficient. We are created to do works (Eph 2:8-10), but we are not saved by works.
  • Further, if our hearts are improperly disposed (without faith and intent to repent), it doesn't matter how many good deeds we do. Yet if we're walking in the light (walking as Jesus did), his blood continues to cleanse us of our sins (1 John 1:7; 2:6).
  • Academic note: When I read Luther’s New Testament, I found Tut Buße und lasse sich ein jeglicher taufen auf den Namen Jesu Christi zur Vergebung der Sünden, so werdet ihr empfangen die Gabe des Heiligen Geistes (Acts 2:38). I have come to realize that what Luther meant by Buße is probably not penance in the Roman Catholic sense. I have probably been misrepresenting him on this point. For more, click here.

Similar terms
Finally, it may be helpful to distinguish three words similar in sound and form though different in meaning:

  • Penitence: deep sorrow for wrongdoing (Psalm 32; 38; 51; Luke 18:9-14; etc). This is biblical.
  • Penance: religious actions prescribed by a priest for release from the penalty of mortal sin. This lacks biblical support.
  • Repentance: the decision to submit to the Lordship of Jesus, turningfrom sin to This is part of conversion, and precedes baptism (Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38).

The bottom line: Repentance—not penance—is the biblical prerequisite for forgiveness (Prov 28:13).

[4] The sacraments of mass, baptism, and penance are closely dependent on the doctrine of priesthood. Of course the Lord's Supper, baptism, and repenting from sin are essential elements of the faith. Yet in the New Testament, all Christians are "priests" (1 Pet 2:4-9; Rev 1:6; 5:10). Any Christian can celebrate communion, perform a baptism, or hear a confession. No clergy, no laity; we all have equally direct access to God through the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:16).

Our salvation and priesthood and spiritual life begin the moment we cross from darkness into light (Col 1:11-14). At that time—when we become Christians in baptism—we already have everything we need for life and godliness (Eph 1:3; 2 Pet 1:3). As I understand the New Testament, no further ceremonies are required.

Mass   Baptism   Penance   Confirmation   Orders   Matrimony   Unction

Confirmation is a clerical ceremony. When I was confirmed, a bishop laid hands on me. All who were confirmed that day had gone through many months of catechism (instruction). We were required to learn the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. Although it would still be five years before I was ready to follow Christ, seeds were being planted.

"Along with baptism and the Eucharist, confirmation is a sacrament of initiation—in this case, initiation into the life of adult Christian witness. The deepened presence of the Spirit, who comes to us in this sacrament, is meant to sustain us in a lifetime of witness to Christ and service to others" (Essential Catholic Handbook). That sounds good. I desire a deeper sense of God's presence. I want to live as a better ambassador for him—most likely you do, too. And the Holy Spirit is indeed connected with witness (Acts 1:8; 2 Tim 1:7). Yet...

  • Catholic confirmation is seen as the complement of the sacrament of baptism. That makes sense, and yet baptism would hardly be defective (requiring a complement) when there is faith and repentance.
  • The reception of the Spirit is said to come by the laying on of hands. And yet it is far from clear that passages like Acts 8:14-17 refer 19:6 to conversion / the reception of the indwelling Spirit. Rather, they seem to involve some external and miraculous manifestation of the Spirit (enough to impress Simon the Sorcerer).
  • Would not such a laying on of hands, if this is what Heb 6:2 and other passages refer to, more likely take place at baptism(conversion)—instead of years later?
  • Baptism in Jesus' name is all that is required for one to receive the Spirit (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:43). The Samaritans (Acts 8) already had the indwelling Spirit, before the arrival of the apostles. The manifestation was not for their sake, but to make a point for Jewish observers. It signified that the Samaritans—just like the Jews (Acts 2) and the Gentiles (Acts 10)—were welcome in God's kingdom.

Although Catholics rightly emphasize the importance of spiritual strengthening (confirmation) through God's Spirit, the biblical basis for the practice of confirmation is tenuous.

[5] We’ve discussed four of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Now we turn our attention to orders.

Mass   Baptism   Penance   Confirmation   Orders   Matrimony   Unction

The sacrament of orders entails the transfer of spiritual power, as deacons, priests, and bishops are ordained. Other positions are not strictly speaking orders, but offices in which one might serve, like cardinal or pope. The process is similar to what we see in Deut 34:9, when Moses lays hand on Joshua, or in 2 Tim 1:6, where we learn of Paul's laying hands on Timothy.

It is believed that in the sacrament of orders a permanent, indelible mark is placed on the individual. Regardless of his behavior or condition subsequently, the man will always remain a priest, or deacon, or bishop. Bishops have authority to offer all seven sacraments; priests, all but confirmation and orders; and deacons only baptism and matrimony.

When I was appointed / recognized as an evangelist (1985) and later as a teacher (1994), the public recognitions doubtless affected my perspective, relationships with others, and more. Yet while the memories of service in these areas are (I trust) permanent, I doubt there is an indelible mark. If an evangelist who has served for 20 years no longer serves in this capacity (e.g., planting churches, interfacing with the public, spreading the gospel), then is he still an evangelist? If one no longer teaches, is he (or she) still a teacher? Which verses speak of a mystical transformation as asserted in Catholicism?

Christian priesthood pertains to all believers (1 Pet 2:4-9). Unlike the Old Testament, where the nation was collectively a priesthood (Exod 19:6) and there was a separate order of priests (from the tribe of Levi), in the New Testament there is no separate order. Rather, this innovation evolved. If I may simplify, this is what we see in the course of church history:

  • 1st century: elders lead churches, servants/deacons interface with the poor
  • 2nd century: head elders (bishops) over elders, deacons assist
  • 3rd century: bishops and elders called "priests," deacons assist priests, bishops oversee more and more territory
  • 4th century: accelerated hierarchy and distance between clergy & laity, church polity adapted to dioceses (administrative districts) of Roman Empire
  • 5th century and beyond: an ever-stronger papacy

Although Catholics are right to take spiritual leadership seriously, and correct in their observation that service in leadership can undamentally change those whom God has called, the New Testament (in my view) does not yield enough information to establish the doctrine of orders.

[6]
We’ve examined all but two of the traditional Christian sacraments. We now turn our attention to matrimony.

Mass   Baptism   Penance   Confirmation   Orders  Matrimony  Unction

Marriage preceded Christianity. It was not created by the church; couples had been living as man and wife for millennia before the time of Christ. The Catholic church did not bring matrimony unequivocally within the circle of its sacraments until around the year 1200. Perhaps it took so long because of an overemphasis on celibacy, a legitimate life path urged by both Jesus and Paul—but only for those so gifted (Matt 19:12; 1 Cor 7:1-7). (To be fair, a sacramental understanding of marriage had already been developing since at least the early medieval period.)

The Roman Church holds that once a man has become a priest, he will always be a priest (the sacrament of Orders). A fundamental change has taken place; he is indelibly marked. He cannot "sin" his way out of his priestly status. Similarly, the church teaches that marriage brings about an immutable change in status: the couple are permanently connected. Unless a spouse dies, or the marriage is "annulled", as though there had never been an actual state of matrimony—a legal fiction?—there can be no second marriage.

Sure, all marriages are ideally for good. But the church misunderstood Jesus' words"For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt 19:5-6). Many churches teach that the marriage bond is indissoluble. But that's not what Jesus said. "Let no one separate" doesn't mean the marital bond cannot be broken, only that it shouldn't (ideally). Thus, logically and grammatically, this commonly cited passage does not prove that marriage always lasts until the death of a spouse. (For more on this crucial topic, please click here.)

Apart from the matter of this (important) critique, theologians are surely on the right track to detect parallels between holy matrimony and Christ's relationship with his church (Eph 5:22-33; Rev 19:7; 21:2). If by "sacramental" we mean that a marriage can be hallowed by God, mirrors the relationship of Christ with his bride, is to be lived for his glory, and is intended to be permanent, then there's nothing to disagree with.

[7] Let’s wrap up our study of the seven sacraments, turning our attention to anointing the sick. Back when I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, this sacrament was called Extreme Unction. That is, unction (oiling) for those near death (in extremis). It has since been renamed. This sacrament is believed to remove any infirmity that would be a hindrance as one transitions to the next world.

Mass   Baptism   Penance   Confirmation   Orders   Matrimony   Unction

Some readers will have noticed that we didn't consider the sacraments in the usual order (in Catholic teaching). We also didn't categorize them, though they're often grouped this way:

  • Sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, communion
  • Sacraments of healing: penance, anointing of the sick
  • Sacraments of service: orders and matrimony

The principal scripture on which this sacrament is based is James 5:16. As we examine Catholic claims, it helps to read in context, so let's back up a few verses.

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (James 5:13-16).

  • The issues referred to in the text don't necessarily have to do with death. Trouble, joy, sickness, and sin are experienced by all people, throughout their lives. This fact seems to be recognized in the renaming of the sacrament (in 1972, just after my brother's and my catechism).
  • The sickness in view is serious enough that the person is confined to bed. ("Praying over" and "raise them up" suggest this, although other interpretations are also possible.)
  • Health has both physical and spiritual components. Sin and guilt easily affect physical health. (Of course, many medical conditions have nothing to do with sin (John 9:1-3).
  • Presumably, if a church has no elders, anyone who is righteous and prayerful can offer the prayer for healing. Older leaders are assumed to be close to the Lord—hence, asking them to pray amidst a critical situation should be effective. At any rate, there is certainly no biblical evidence that the anointing of the sick can only be performed by a priest.
  • In ancient times, anointing with oil was part of daily grooming (Matt 6:17—like body lotions and skin creams today), so there are two sensible interpretations of James 5:16. (1) The anointing could be a sacred act like chrism—as when O.T. priests or kings were anointed. Or (2) it could be a sign of confidence that the brother or sister currently laid low will soon rise and return to normal life. I lean towards the second possibility, since the common verb aleiphein is used, instead of the more ceremonial  For more on this, please see Q&A 0752—credit for this insight goes to Tony Coffey of Dublin. More recently (40 years later!) I found another thoughtful piece, here.

Traditions, ceremonies, and rituals can serve good purposes—provided they don't violate God's Word (Mark 7:6-9). The seven sacraments doubtless give structure and confidence to those in a more traditional Christian setting.

Yet how biblical are they? (Most Protestants accept only two of the seven, baptism and communion.) The scriptures we have read in this series call many aspects of the sacraments into serious question.