Heidelberg 68: How Many Sacraments?

Open Quote 3 lines68. How many Sacraments has Christ instituted in the New Testament?

Two: Holy Baptism and Holy Supper (Heidelberg Catechism)


To Protestants, whether confessional or more broadly evangelical, it may seem obvious that there are only two sacraments but to the 60 million American Roman Catholics and to the millions of Roman Christians worldwide it is assumed that there must be 7 sacraments. If we begin with Holy Scripture the only two sacraments that have a dominical origin are baptism (e.g., Matthew 28:18–20 ) and the Lord’s Supper (e.g., Luke 22:14–20). Our Lord performed other acts, e.g., washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:3–11) but he did not institute foot washing as a ritual or a sacrament, i.e., as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace to be observed perpetually until his return. The Apostle Paul confirms the sacramental status of baptism (1 Cor 10:2) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10:3–4; Eph 4:3) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23–26). He nowhere commands or commends any other ritual, sacramental actions. James mentions anointing with oil (James 5:14) and does instruct its use but not as a sacrament. Whereas baptism signifies the death of Christ (and our identity with that death) in Romans 6 and the Lord’s Supper obviously signifies Christ’s death and his mysterious, gracious, nourishment of our souls by the operation of the Holy Spirit, James’ exhortation to anoint the sick is no more a sacrament than prayer (vv.13, 15, 16), praise (v. 13), or confession of sin (v. 16). These are all good spiritual practices but not every spiritual practice is a sacrament or an objective sign and seal of gospel promises.

There is no evidence in the second century AD that the church received from the apostles and practiced any more than the two dominical sacraments (baptism and communion). The so-called Apostolic Fathers (a collection of mostly second-century writers gathered together in the 19th century and so-designated) refer only to baptism and the supper as sacraments. The Apologists Justin Martyr and Irenaeus refer only to the two dominical sacraments. Anointing with oil (unction) was performed in the relatively early on but it was not regarded as a sacrament in the 2nd century. It began to be performed with more frequency in the 5th century as a “sacramental” (a quasi-sacrament). As late as the 9th century, however, when Radbertus and Ratramnus were arguing about the nature of communion, they agreed that there were only two sacraments. Both were well read, high-intelligent writers. It is incredible to think that the universal practice of the church was to receive 7 sacraments and yet they (and all their colleagues, including regional synods, monks, bishops et al) knew of only 2 sacraments.

In the 12th century, Peter Lombard mentioned 7 sacraments in the Sentences 4.13.1). Some of the 7 were mentioned at the 4th Lateran Council (1215) but the first assembly in which all 7 were mentioned was the 2nd Council of Lyons (1274) by Emperor Michael Paleologus in his confession, as part of his submission to the papacy. The same list was published at the Council of Florence (1439), which attempted to bring about union with the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian church in Exsultate Domine by Eugenius IV.

The reality is, however, that the Roman sacramental system was only, finally, unequivocally instituted in the 16th century during the Council of Trent (1545–63). The development of the Roman sacramental system is a great, clear illustration of the necessity and utility of the regulative principle of worship. The Roman sacramental system grew out of popular piety. Laity and ministers began to adopt elaborations on the divinely-instituted sacraments. Roman scholars define sacramentals as “rites and prayers” and as things done in “imitation” of the sacraments and as “signs which bear a resemblance to sacraments.” Among such imitations of the sacraments were mixing water with communion wine, crossing oneself, triple baptismal effusion, feast days, certain postures, the habit (religious dress adopted by monks and nuns), vestments (priestly dress), the religious use of incense, blessings etc. Rome conceded at Trent that these things are pure ecclesiastical inventions.

To the two dominical sacraments the medieval church gradually converted some sacramentals into sacraments: confirmation (chrismation), penance, extreme unction (anointing the sick), holy orders, and matrimony. These were described as “sacraments of the new law.” The (1994) Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sacraments as “powers that come forth” from the church (§1116). Acc. to the Catechism, “they confer the grace they signify” (§1127). They are efficacious because Christ operates “in them” (§1127; cites Trent, 1547). They work “ex opere” (§1128; Trent, 1547). In a word Rome turned 2 objective covenant signs and seals, intended to point to Christ and to confirm his promises, into 7 sacraments that were said to infuse the recipient with grace with which the recipient must voluntarily cooperate toward sanctification, justification, and salvation. Rome turned 2 gospel sacraments into 7 expressions of a covenant of works. NB: It is quite possible to talk much about grace while turning the covenant of grace (gospel) into a covenant of works (law).

Confessional Protestants, especially confessional Reformed Christians should never be tempted to think that they are missing out. They are not. What are advertised by Rome as additional sources of grace are really just additional ways of putting Christians under the “new law” (their expression) of cooperation with grace unto eventual acceptance with God. That’s not good news and the sacraments that Christ instituted are good news for believers that he has accepted them freely only on account of Christ’s obedience for them which is imputed to them by grace alone (sola gratia) and received through faith alone (sola fide) and that faith and salvation are God’s free gifts to this people.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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