The Christian sacraments are the (traditionally seven) rites instituted by Jesus and mentioned in the New Testament that confer sanctifying grace on the faithful. The seven sacraments of Catholicism are baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance and restoration, anointing of the sick, holy orders (ordination to the ministry), and matrimony. The Eastern Orthodox Church has the same seven, though some of them are defined slightly differently, and the Eastern Church also teaches that anything exhibiting the presence of God (described in the Trisagion Prayer as being “in all places and filling all things”) can be considered sacramental, or holy.

Though fundamentalist Protestants generally reject the notion of sacraments, one of the most famous fundamentalists, Dr. Bob Jones, is often quoted as having preached, “all ground is holy ground,” which raises the question whether fundamentalist objections to “sacraments” are mainly semantic, since most Baptists and many other “Bible” church members refer to communion and baptism not as “sacraments” but as “ordinances.”

Overlaps and Differences

What Catholics call confirmation, the Orthodox call chrismation, and what Catholics refer to as penance and restoration is referred to in Orthodoxy as repentance. Protestants, understandably, with their hundreds (some say their tens of thousands) of denominations, have many divergent views on sacraments. Virtually all practice baptism, and communion or the Eucharist (which means “thanks-giving”), also called “the Lord's Supper.”


Symbols are said to mean something different in Eastern and Western perception. In the Eastern Churches, symbols are not figurative but are actually essential to the thing symbolized. So, for example, Orthodox believers consider Christ the true symbol of God, while actually being God himself. Western believers think of symbols of Christ as “tokens” or “suggestive” ornaments, like the Ichthus (fish) symbol.

In a recent book of dialogues between Orthodox and Reformed (Calvinist) theologians, the Reformed writer agreed that the two communions could find agreement on the Eucharist and baptism. Calvin (the founding father of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches) spoke of the sacraments of communion and baptism as “means of grace.” Lutherans, likewise, are in virtual agreement with Catholics and Orthodox about the two main sacraments. Neither Lutherans nor the Orthodox use the Catholic term “transubstantiation” for the miraculous change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but neither do either of them consider the term a stumbling block.

Sacraments Not Enough

Though earlier teachings may have been widely interpreted as holding that Catholics, the Orthodox, or both believe the sacraments are efficacious for salvation by themselves, the teachings of both communions now clearly state that without underlying faith on the part of the recipients, the sacraments do nothing in terms of achieving salvation. On the other hand, in virtually all of the sacramental liturgies, the salvific (or saving) work of Jesus Christ is so plainly presented that anyone hearing and sincerely believing the words could find saving faith through them.

The use of the word ordinance rather than sacrament by some evangelicals is sometimes explained as stemming from their rejection of any “means” of grace. A look at some of their documents on the issue shows that they take communion because Jesus mandated it, not because it does them any good in terms of achieving salvation. Though they may call the communion a “symbol,” they distance themselves from the use of that word as understood in more traditional churches.

Not Always Literalists

Though evangelicals usually claim to take the Scriptures literally, they sometimes reject a literal (and usually even a spiritual) interpretation of Jesus' words, as when he instituted communion at the Last Supper, he said, “this is my body, this is my blood.” They likewise do not take literally “baptism for the remission of sins” in Mark 1:4 and Acts 2:38, or Acts 22:16, which describes baptism as “washing away your sins.” The best explanation of communion they have is that it “memorializes” Jesus' shedding his blood and having his body broken for those who believe in him.


In much of the evangelical tradition, baptism is performed primarily for a “testimony” to the world that the believer (either an adult or a youth having achieved the “age of accountability”) has come to saving faith in Christ and therefore wants to follow him into this symbolic act (some shudder at calling it either a “rite” or a “ritual”).

But across the Protestant spectrum, some consider baptism a sacrament, some see it as the very means of salvation (as in “baptismal regeneration”), and many see it as merely following orders. Many (Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists) practice infant baptism, as do Catholics and the Orthodox. All of the infant-baptizing Protestants administer the water by sprinkling or pouring, as Catholics do. The Orthodox, uniquely, immerse infants, and they also immerse any adults converting who have not previously been baptized or have been baptized in a non-Trinitarian church (one that does not adhere to the doctrine of the Trinity).

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