How do ordinances and sacraments differ?
The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and some other church groups use the term "sacraments" to refer to an act that conveys God's grace to an individual. Traditionally, seven sacraments exist. These include baptism, confirmation, communion/Eucharist, confession, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick. In the Roman Catholic tradition, these sacraments are considered necessary for salvation.
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However, the Bible teaches salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). As a result, Protestant churches generally do not refer to such acts as sacraments. Instead, the term "ordinances" has historically been used to refer to the acts of baptism and the Lord's Supper. This distinction is used to help highlight that these activities are not connected to salvation.
Baptism is the public expression of a person's faith in Jesus Christ. It is designed for believers as a one-time action that takes place following belief in Jesus. Matthew 28:19 teaches, "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."
Communion is a repeated activity that exists for all believers in Jesus Christ. Luke 22:19-20 teaches, "And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.'"
Both baptism and communion were specifically ordained and commanded by Jesus Christ. These activities were practiced by the apostles and were universally used in the early church. Because baptism and communion are the only two rituals that were used by Jesus, the apostles, and early church, these are the only two sacraments or ordinances held by Protestant churches. Neither provides salvation or saving faith.
Does this mean the other five sacraments are wrong? Not necessarily. Instead, these practices may be considered very important, yet are not considered sacraments. For example, Protestant churches certainly perform marriage ceremonies and consider marriage important, but marriage is not considered a sacrament and is clearly not considered part of one's salvation.
The ordinances of baptism and communion continue to be important today in the lives of Christians worldwide. As we celebrate new life in baptism and remember the Lord's death in communion, we connect with the ancient traditions of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church in worshiping the Lord as He has commanded.
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