Sacrament - General Definitions and Terms

General Definitions and Terms

Hexam's Concise Dictionary of Religion calls a sacrament "a Rite in which GOD (or Gods) is (are) uniquely active". But within Christianity the word is used in a more restricted sense.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the sacraments as "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions." The catechism included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof."

Some Protestant traditions avoid the word "sacrament". Reaction against the 19th-century Oxford Movement led Baptists to prefer instead the word "ordinance", practices ordained by Christ to be permanently observed by the church. "Sacrament" stresses mainly, but not solely, what God does, "ordinance" what the Christians do.

The Catholic Church and Oriental Orthodoxy teach that the sacraments are seven. The Eastern Orthodox Church also believes that there are seven major sacraments, but applies the corresponding Greek word, μυστήριον (mysterion) also to rites that in the Western tradition are called sacramentals and to other realities, such as the Church itself. Similarly, the Catholic Church understands the word "sacrament" as referring not only to the seven sacraments considered here, but also to Christ and the Church. Anglican teaching is that "there are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord", and that "those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel".

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