Two Sacraments

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (vv. 19–20).

- Matthew 28:18–20

Now that we have explored the sacraments in a general sense, we are prepared to look at each sacrament in more detail. Yet before we do that, we must determine the number of sacraments revealed in Scripture. Christ instituted two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (The Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 68).

It is easy to see why the Heidelberg Catechism singles out these ordinances as sacraments. After all, the Gospels reveal explicitly our Savior’s command to baptize disciples and to partake of bread and wine in His memory (Matt. 28:18–20; Luke 22:14–20). Some churches, in addition, have viewed foot washing as a third sacrament. Other churches do not invest foot washing with sacramental significance, although they may have special foot-washing services during the year. Both groups cite John 13:1–20 in defense of the practice.

What shall we say about this? Clearly, whatever freedom churches might have to engage in foot washing, no church body may impose it as a sacrament upon its people. First, the early church did not see in John 13 a command for the church in every age to wash feet. Acts, for example, records the disciples administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (2:37–42), but this New Testament book never records Apostolic foot washing. Second, Dr. R.C. Sproul notes in his commentary John that the majority of the church has not regarded foot washing as a sacrament because the central significance of foot washing is the same as the central significance of baptism. Jesus’ washing of His disciples’ feet illustrated the cleansing from sin that He provides, but we have baptism to signify and seal this cleansing and forgiveness (pp. 242–43).

Finally, the Roman Catholic Church adds five sacraments to baptism and the Lord’s Supper: penance, confirmation, marriage, holy orders (priestly ordination), and extreme unction (last rites). Of course, Roman Catholicism is right to see some of these acts as helpful to Christian growth. A godly husband, for example, rightly regards his wife as one of the most sanctifying influences in his life. An ordinance such as penance, however, denies the gospel because it calls for sinners to make satisfaction for their sin. In any case, Christ did not institute these five Roman Catholic ordinances during His ministry, so they should not ascend to the level of holy sacraments.

Coram Deo

Theologians often speak of the “ordinary means of grace,” the practices of preaching, prayer, and the sacraments that were instituted by Christ Himself to edify His church. Many want to elevate other practices to a sacramental level and impose them on believers. Some of these practices might be good and helpful—for example, quiet times, fast days, feast days—but none of them are mandatory. We are bound to do only what Jesus commands.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 17
Exodus 12:1–28, 43–51
Acts 8:9–13
1 Corinthians 11:23–26

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