Louis Berkhof

Systematic Theology:

III. The Sacraments in General


In distinction from the Roman Catholic Church, the Churches of the Reformation emphasize the priority of the Word of God. While the former proceeds on the assumption that the sacraments contain all that is necessary for the salvation of sinners, need no interpretation, and therefore render the Word quite superfluous as a means of grace, the latter regard the Word as absolutely essential, and merely raise the question, why the sacraments should be added to it. Some of the Lutherans claim that a specific grace, differing from that which is wrought by the Word, is conveyed by the sacraments. This is all but universally denied by the Reformed, a few Scottish theologians and Dr. Kuyper forming exceptions to the rule. They point to the fact that God has so created man that he obtains knowledge particularly through the avenues of the senses of sight and hearing. The Word is adapted to the ear, and the sacraments to the eye. And since the eye is more sensuous than the ear, it may be said that God, by adding the sacraments to the Word, comes to the aid of sinful man. The truth addressed to the ear in the Word, is symbolically represented to the eye in the sacraments. It should be borne in mind, however, that, while the Word can exist and is also complete without the sacraments, the sacraments are never complete without the Word. There are points of similarity and points of difference between the Word and the sacraments.

1. POINTS OF SIMILARITY. They agree: (a) in author, since God instituted both as means of grace; (b) in contents, for Christ is the central content of the one as well as of the other; and (c) in the manner in which the contents are appropriated, namely, by faith. This is the only way in which the sinner can become a participant of the grace that is offered in the Word and in the sacraments.

2. POINTS OF DIFFERENCE. They differ: (a) in their necessity, the Word being indispensable, while the sacraments are not; (b) in their purpose, since the Word is intended to engender and to strengthen faith, while the sacraments serve only to strengthen it; and (c) in their extension, since the Word goes out into all the world, while the sacraments are administered only to those who are in the Church.


The word "sacrament" is not found in Scripture. It is derived from the Latin sacramentum, which originally denoted a sum of money deposited by two parties in litigation. After the decision of the court the winner's money was returned, while that of the loser was forfeited. This seems to have been called a sacramentum, because it was intended to be a sort of propitiatory offering to the gods. The transition to the Christian use of the term is probably to be sought: (a) in the military use of the term, in which it denoted the oath by which a soldier solemnly pledged obedience to his commander, since in baptism the Christian pledges obedience to his Lord; and (b) in the specifically religious sense which it acquired when the Vulgate employed it as a rendering of the Greek musterion. It is possible that this Greek term was applied to the sacraments, because they have a faint resemblance to some of the mysteries of the Greek religions. In the early Church the word "sacrament" was first used to denote all kinds of doctrines and ordinances. For this very reason some objected to the name, and preferred to speak of "signs," "seals," or "mysteries." Even during and immediately after the Reformation many disliked the name "sacrament." Melanchton used "signi," and both Luther and Calvin deemed it necessary to call attention to the fact that the word "sacrament" is not employed in its original sense in theology. But the fact that the word is not found in Scripture and is not used in its original sense when it is applied to the ordinances instituted by Jesus, need not deter us, for usage often determines the meaning of a word. The following definition may be given of a sacrament: A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, in which by sensible signs the grace of God in Christ, and the benefits of the covenant of grace, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers, and these, in turn, give expression to their faith and allegiance to God.


Three parts must be distinguished in the sacraments.

1. THE OUTWARD OR VISIBLE SIGN. Each one of the sacraments contains a material element that is palpable to the senses. In a rather loose sense this is sometimes called the sacrament. In the strict sense of the word, however, the term is more inclusive and denotes both the sign and that which is signified. To avoid misunderstanding, this different usage should be borne in mind. It explains how an unbeliever may be said to receive, and yet not to receive, the sacrament. He does not receive it in the full sense of the word. The external matter of the sacrament includes not only the elements that are used, namely, water, bread, and wine, but also the sacred rite, that which is done with these elements. From this external point of view the Bible calls the sacraments signs and -seals, Gen_9:12-13; Gen_17:11; Rom_4:11.

2. THE INWARD SPIRITUAL GRACE SIGNIFIED AND SEALED. Signs and seals presuppose something that is signified and sealed and which is usually called the materia interna of the sacrament. This is variously indicated in Scripture as the covenant of grace, Gen_9:12-13; Gen_17:11, the righteousness of faith, Rom_4:11, the forgiveness of sins, Mar_1:4; Mat_26:28, faith and conversion, Mar_1:4; Mar_16:16, communion with Christ in His death and resurrection, Rom_6:3, and so on. Briefly stated, it may be said to consist in Christ and all His spiritual riches. The Roman Catholics find in it the sanctifying grace which is added to human nature, enabling man to do good works and to rise to the height of the visio Dei (the vision of God). The sacraments signify, not merely a general truth, but a promise given unto us and accepted by us, and serve to strengthen our faith with respect to the realization of that promise, Gen_17:1-14; Exo_12:13; Rom_4:11-13. They visibly represent, and deepen our consciousness of, the spiritual blessings of the covenant, of the washing away of our sins, and of our participation of the life that is in Christ, Mat_3:11; Mar_1:4-5; 1Co_10:2-3; 1Co_1:16-17; Rom_2:28-29; Rom_6:3-4; Gal_3:27. As signs and seals they are means of grace, that is, means of strengthening the inward grace that is wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit.

3. THE SACRAMENTAL UNION BETWEEN THE SIGN AND THAT WHICH IS SIGNIFIED. This is usually called the forma sacramenti (forma here meaning essence), because it is exactly the relation between the sign and the thing signified that constitutes the essence of the sacrament. According to the Reformed view this is: (a) not physical, as the Roman Catholics claim, as if the thing signified were inherent in the sign, and the reception of the materia externa necessarily carried with it a participation in the materia interna; (b) nor local, as the Lutherans represent it, as if the sign and the thing signified were present in the same space, so that both believers and unbelievers receive the full sacrament when they receive the sign; (c) but spiritual, or as Turretin expresses it, relative and moral, so that, where the sacrament is received in faith, the grace of God accompanies it. According to this view the external sign becomes a means employed by the Holy Spirit in the communication of divine grace. The close connection between the sign and the thing signified explains the use of what is generally called "sacramental language," in which the sign is put for the thing signified or vice versa, Gen_17:10; Act_22:16; Act_22:16; 1Co_5:7.


Roman Catholics hold that baptism is absolutely necessary for all unto salvation, and that the sacrament of penance is equally necessary for those who have committed mortal sins after baptism; but that confirmation, the eucharist, and extreme unction are necessary only in the sense that they have been commanded and are eminently helpful. Protestants, on the other hand, teach that the sacraments are not absolutely necessary unto salvation, but are obligatory in view of the divine precept. Wilful neglect of their use results in spiritual impoverishment and has a destructive tendency, just as all wilful and persistent disobedience to God has. That they are not absolutely necessary unto salvation, follows: (1) from the free spiritual character of the gospel dispensation, in which God does not bind His grace to the use of certain external forms, Joh_4:21; Joh_4:23; Luk_18:14; (2) from the fact that Scripture mentions only faith as the instrumental condition of salvation, Joh_5:24; Joh_6:29; Joh_3:36; Act_16:31; (3) from the fact that the sacraments do not originate faith but presuppose it, and are administered where faith is assumed, Act_2:41; Act_16:14-15; Act_16:30; Act_16:33; 1Co_11:23-32; and (4) from the fact that many were actually saved without the use of the sacraments. Think of the believers before the time of Abraham and of the penitent thief on the cross


1. THEIR ESSENTIAL UNITY. Rome claims that there is an essential difference between the sacraments of the Old, and those of the New Testament. It holds that, like the entire ritual of the old covenant, its sacraments also were merely typical. The sanctification wrought by them was not internal, but merely legal, and prefigured the grace which was to be conferred on man in the future, in virtue of the passion of Christ. This does not mean that no internal grace accompanied their use at all, but merely that this was not effected by the sacraments as such, as it is in the new dispensation. They had no objective efficacy, did not sanctify the recipient ex opere operato, but only ex opere operantis, that is, because of the faith and charity with which he received them. Because the full realization of the grace typified by those sacraments depended on the coming of Christ. the Old Testament saints were shut up in the Limbus Patrum until Christ led them out. As a matter of fact, however, there is no essential difference between the sacraments of the Old, and those of the New Testament. This is proved by the following considerations: (a) in 1Co_10:1-4 Paul ascribes to the Old Testament Church that which is essential in the New Testament sacraments; (b) in Rom_4:11 he speaks of the circumcision of Abraham as a seal of the righteousness of faith; and (c) in view of the fact that they represent the same spiritual realities, the names of the sacraments of both dispensations are used interchangeably; circumcision and passover are ascribed to the New Testament Church. 1Co_5:7; Col_2:11, and baptism and the Lord's Supper to the Church of the Old Testament, 1Co_10:1-4.

2. THEIR FORMAL DIFFERENCES. Notwithstanding the essential unity of the Sacraments of both dispensations, there are certain points of difference. (a) Among Israel the sacraments had a national aspect in addition to their spiritual significance as signs and seals of the covenant of grace. (b) Alongside of the sacraments Israel had many other symbolical rites, such as offerings and purifications, which in the main agreed with their sacraments, while the New Testament sacraments stand absolutely alone. (c) The Old Testament sacraments pointed forward to Christ and were the seals of a grace that still had to be merited while those of the New Testament point back to Christ and His completed sacrifice of redemption. (d) In harmony with the whole Old Testament dispensation, a smaller measure of divine grace accompanied the use of the Old Testament sacraments than is now obtained through the faithful reception of those of the New Testament.


1. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT. During the old dispensation there were two sacraments, namely, circumcision and passover. Some Reformed theologians were of the opinion that circumcision originated among Israel, and was derived from this ancient covenant people by other nations. But it is now quite clear that this is an untenable position. From the earliest times the Egyptian priests were circumcised. Moreover, circumcision is found among many peoples in Asia, Africa, and even Australia, and it is very unlikely that they all derived it from Israel. Only among Israel, however, did it become a sacrament of the covenant of grace. As belonging to the Old Testament dispensation, it was a bloody sacrifice, symbolizing the excision of the guilt and pollution of sin, and obliging the people to let the principle of the grace of God penetrate their entire life. The passover was also a bloody sacrament. The Israelites escaped the doom of the Egyptians by substituting a sacrifice, which was a type of Christ, Joh_1:29; Joh_1:36; 1Co_5:7. The saved family ate the lamb that was slain, symbolizing the appropriating act of faith, very much as the eating of the bread in the Lord's Supper.

2. IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. The Church of the New Testament also has two sacraments, namely, baptism and the Lord's Supper. In harmony with the new dispensation as a whole, they are unbloody sacraments. However, they symbolize the same spiritual blessings that were symbolized by circumcision and passover in the old dispensation. The Church of Rome has enlarged the number of the sacraments to seven in a wholly unwarranted manner. To the two that were instituted by Christ it added confirmation, penance, orders, matrimony, and extreme unction. It seeks the Scriptural ground for confirmation in Act_8:17; Act_14:22; Act_9:6; Heb_6:2; for penance in Jas_5:16; for orders in 1Ti_4:14; 2Ti_1:6; for matrimony in Eph_5:32; and for extreme unction in Mar_6:13; Jas_5:14. Each of these sacraments is supposed to convey, in addition to the general grace of sanctification, a special sacramental grace, which is different in each sacrament. This multiplication of the sacraments created a difficulty for the Church of Rome. It is generally admitted that sacraments, in order to be valid, must have been instituted by Christ; but Christ instituted only two. Consequently, the others are not sacraments, or the right to institute them must also be ascribed to the apostles. Before the Council of Trent many, indeed, asserted that the additional five were not instituted by Christ directly, but through the apostles. The Council, however, boldly declared that all the seven sacraments were instituted by Christ Himself, and thus imposed an impossible task on the theology of its Church. It is a point that must be accepted by Roman Catholics on the testimony of the Church, but that cannot be proved.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: Has the term musterion the same meaning in the New Testament as it has in the mystery religions? Are the New Testament teachings respecting the sacraments borrowed from the mystery religions, as a recent school of New Testament criticism claims? Is the assertion of this school correct, that Paul represents the sacraments as effective ex opere operato? Why do the Lutherans prefer to speak of the sacraments as rites and actions rather than as signs? What do they understand by the materia coelestis of the sacraments? What is meant by the Roman Catholic doctrine of intention in connection with the administration of the sacraments? What negative requirement does Rome consider necessary in the recipient of the sacrament? Is it correct to describe the relation between the sign and the thing signified as an unio sacramentalis? What constitutes the gratia sacramentalis in each of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church?

LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 483-542; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Sacramentis, pp. 3-96; Hodge, Syst. Theol. III, pp. 466-526; Vos, Geref. Dogm. V. De Genademiddelen, pp. 1-35; Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 727-757; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 422-431; Litton, Introd. to Dogm. Theol., pp. 419-450; Schmid, Doct. Theol. of the Ev. Luth. Ch. pp. 504-540; Valentine, Chr. Theol. II pp. 278-305; Pieper, Christl. Dogm. III, pp. 121-296; Kaftan, Dogm., pp. 625-636; Pope, Chr. Theol. III, pp. 294-310; Miley, Syst. Theol. II, pp. 389-395; Wilmers, Handbook of the Chr. Rel., pp. 305-314; Moehler, Symbolism, pp. 202-218; Schaff, Our Fathers' Faith and Ours, pp. 309-315; Bannerman, The Church II, pp. 1-41; Macleod, The Ministry and the Sacraments of the Church of Scotland, pp. 198-227; Candlish, The Sacraments, pp. 11-44; Burgess, The Protestant Faith, pp. 180-198.