What is a sacrament as to the name and as to the thing?

Necessity of treating the sacraments.

I. As God willed to enter into a covenant with the church (of which we have thus far spoken) in order to apply to her the salvation purchased by Christ, so (such is his goodness) for the greater confirmation of faith, he has condescended to seal this covenant by sacraments as seals, that by them as badges he might distinguish and separate his people from the rest of the world. On this account, the necessity to consider them is incumbent upon us. Not only to ascertain more distinctly their nature and use; but also to unravel more easily the numerous and most important controversies which are wont to be agitated about them by various adversaries. For we cannot behold without grief that those things which were instituted by God to be bonds and symbols of union and concord among Christians, have been made (by the depravity of men) the seed plot of contentions and the apple of discord (mēlon eridos), which has torn asunder Christians by a mournful divorce.

II. However, this topic contains many heads. First, we will dispute in general concerning the sacraments; second, in particular of baptism and the holy Supper, which are the two sacraments of the New Testament instituted by Christ; third, of the five false and spurious ones added by Romanists. But we must first say something about the word and the definition of a sacrament.

Use of the word “sacrament.”

III. We do not think there should be any contention about the word “sacrament.” For although (being Latin) it does not occur in the books of the Old and New Testaments, still its use has been so customary in the church and it has been received so long, that if anyone (influenced by superstition) would abstain from it (as is done by the Socinians, who in this way aim not so much at the word as at the very nature of the sacraments), we think he is scrupulously and preposterously religious. Hence the Romanists do an injury to Luther and the Lutherans to us when they charge us with being shocked at this word, since it is evident that it is ordinarily used by us. But no less ridiculous are the Romanists who, because this word is not found in Scripture, wish to prove its insufficiency. For to whom can it seem strange if a Latin word does not occur in the Scriptures, which are written in Hebrew and Greek?

And its origin.

IV. It is well known that sacramentum comes from sacrando (i.e., “to consecrate” and “to initiate”) as juramentum from jurando, testamentum from testando. With the ancient authors of the Latin language it signifies two things. (1) The “money” or the pledge deposited by two parties to a suit with the pontiffs in a sacred place, with which he was mulcted who had lost his cause as a punishment of an unjust litigation (as Varro observes, On the Latin Language5*.180 [Loeb, 1:166–69]). (2) An “oath” which was taken only when some sacred deity was invoked. Hence sacramento contendere (with Cicero) means “to affirm by a solemn oath”; sacramento interrogari, sacramento teneri, etc. But it is used peculiarly to denote a military oath by which soldiers bound themselves by a certain rite and prescribed words to the state and the magistrate, that they would strenuously perform what the emperor had commanded and would not desert the military standards. Hence the phrase obligare sacramento (Cicero, De Officiis 1.36 [Loeb, 21:38–39]) and Isidore (Etymologiarum 9.3 [PL 82.347]). Hence in the old glosses sacramentum is a military oath (horkos stratiōtikos). Tertullian: “We were called to the militia of God, even then when we responded to the words of the sacrament” (To the Martyrs 3 [FC 40:22; PL 1.697]).

V. The word, having been transferred from military affairs to sacred uses, was employed by ecclesiastical writers to signify any mystery or sacred and not obvious doctrine. Hence everywhere in the fathers you will find the sacrament of the Trinity, of the incarnation, and of faith, and in general the whole Christian religion comes under this name. In this sense, the word is used in the Vulgate where the word “mystery” occurs (1 Tim. 3:16; Eph. 1:9; 5:32). “The sacrament of the seven stars” (Rev. 1:20); “the sacrament of the beast” (Rev. 17:7). More strictly it is taken for a sacred sign or external symbol which exhibits one thing to the sense, another to the mind. In this sense Augustine says, “Signs, when they pertain to divine things, are called sacraments” (Letter 138, “To Marcellinus” [FC 20:40; PL 33.527]). At length and by various degrees, it most recently came to signify a sign and seal of the covenant in Christ, instituted by God in the church. Again, sacrament in this sense is taken either for external signs or rites simply, or for the internal thing signified; or to embrace both the external and internal thing, the sign and thing signified complexly, in which sense it is here considered by us.

The word mystērion answers to it.

VI. To this word the Greek word mystērion corresponds, derived also by profane writers either from muein (“to initiate into sacred things,” whence the priests over sacred rites were called mystai, either from closing [para to muein to stoma] the lips, because it was fitting, as Eustathius says, that “the priests of secret rites should close their lips, and not reveal things which were not to be uttered” [tous mystas myein to stoma, kai mē ekphainein amemyēnta]) or from the Hebrew sthr, which is to “shut up,” hence msthr (“secret”). Afterwards the sacred writers transferred this word from a superstitious to a better use to designate all the heads of the Christian religion which are hidden from flesh and blood. But in the Scriptures, it is never used for a sacrament, as this word is taken strictly for the signs of the covenant of grace (although in other respects we do not repudiate that word, because the sacraments are really signs of a secret thing or of invisible grace, which have a hidden signification and commend themselves most especially with a latent mystery).

VII. Scripture more properly calls them “signs of the covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 13; 17:11), “signs and seals” of the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11), and simply “signs” (Ex. 12:13), “patterns” (hypodeigmata, Heb. 8:5; 9:23) and “figures” (antitypa, 1 Pet. 3:21). In the Old Testament, the word ’vth occurs (Gen. 17:11; Ex. 31:13, 17; Ezk. 20:12, 20), which denotes a sign and is applied to the old sacraments.

Various definitions of sacrament.

VIII. Now although it cannot be perfectly defined, because it is something concrete and extraordinary which consists of things which are not in the same genus, still it can be fitly described. By many it is said to be “a sign of a sacred thing,” as Augustine, who says, “Signs, when they pertain to sacred things, are called sacraments” (Letter 138, “To Marcellinus” [FC 20:40; PL 33.527]). The definition of the Scholastics is: “A sacrament is the visible form of invisible grace.” But neither pleases the modern Romanists. Bellarmine says these definitions are imperfect, if they are taken according to the sound of the word; but if they are received according to the sense of the Roman church, they are legitimate because by signs they understand sensible signs established and active (“De Sacramentis in Genere,” 1.2 Opera[1858], 3:20–22). Therefore he seems expressly to find fault with two things in the adduced definitions. The first, that the sacraments are called a visible form too specifically; for he contends that it is sufficient for the nature of a sacrament, if the sign is sensible (i.e., can be perceived by any sense, even if not by the sight). The other, that the sacraments are not said to be active signs (i.e., effecting grace). These two things he expressly places in the definition of a sacrament which he draws from the catechism of the Council of Trent in these words: “A sacrament is a thing subjected to the senses, which has the power not only of signifying but also of effecting grace” (Catechism of the Council of Trent [tr. J.A. McHugh, 1923], p. 142). This is cunningly proposed by Bellarmine in order to favor the invented sacraments of penitence, matrimony and the like, which are without a visible sign. Again, that he may lay the foundation of that false hypothesis (to wit, that the sacraments of the New Testament confer grace ex opere operato, as they express it, of which we will speak hereafter).

The true definition is proposed.

IX. In defining a sacrament, we follow Paul, who, speaking of circumcision, says, it is “a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:11). This is a generic definition and is rightly ascribed to the species. Therefore, this torch throwing its light before us, we say: “The sacraments are the signs and seals of the grace of God in Christ.” Or a little more explicitly: “Sacred visible signs and seals divinely instituted to signify and seal to our consciences the promises of saving grace in Christ and in turn to testify our faith and piety and obedience towards God.” In this definition, the nature of the sacraments is made clearly known from their causes (concerning which something must be said didactically before we treat them argumentatively).

The matter of a sacrament is twofold: the sign.

X. The matter of a sacrament is twofold: one external and sensible, the other internal and intelligible; the former is called the sign, the latter the thing signified. That is perceived by the senses of the body and especially by the sight; but this by the mind, furnished with a fit instrument for it (to wit, faith). That is an element instituted by God in order to signify and seal grace; this is the grace of God in Christ or Christ with all his benefits. Now by the sign we understand whatever in the sacraments has the relation of signification, which is of a twofold kind. First, the external symbols belong here. Second, the ceremonial rites or acts, both of the minister standing in the place of God and of the believers perceiving. The actions of this kind in baptism are the sprinkling of water or immersion; in the Supper, the breaking, distribution and reception of the bread and wine, all of which have their signification. Still by way of eminence (kat’ exochēn) the external elements themselves are called signs for a peculiar reason—because they are earthly things and substances about which such ceremonies and actions are performed.

And the thing signified.

XI. The other part of the sacramental matter is the thing signified, by which nomenclature is understood Christ himself with all that faith applies to itself for salvation. Now it applies to itself Christ with all the benefits which flow from his passion and death, which Paul embraces when he says, “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Thus Christ crucified (who is as it were the nucleus of the sacraments) is signified with all the saving benefits which he purchased for us by his death, for the commemoration of which these signs were instituted, to confirm both its truth and utility—signifying the truth, exhibiting and sealing the utility. As Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever (Heb. 13:8), so he has always declared the same grace to his church and sealed it by the sacraments. This is the reason why with respect to the internal matter Paul ascribes the sacraments of the New Testament to believers under the Old (1 Cor. 10:1–3); and in turn the sacraments of the Old to believers under the New (Col. 2:11; 1 Cor. 5:7). Further, the thing signified differs from the sign in three particulars: (1) in nature and properties, for the sign is an earthly and visible thing; the thing of the sign is heavenly and invisible; (2) in object, for the sign tends to the body, the thing signified to the soul; (3) in the mode of communication, for the mode of the sign is bodily, of the thing signified spiritual.

The form.

XII. The form of the sacrament is placed in the analogy or relation (schesei) of the external matter to the internal, of the sign to the thing signified, by which the thing promised is so represented to our minds that it is caused also to be truly communicated. In this analogy consists the union of the sign with the thing signified, which consequently is neither natural by bodily contact, nor local by contiguity, nor even spiritual by a spiritual energy (energeian) by which the signs are immediately made alive, or the power to regenerate or justify given to them; but it is relative and sacramental, placed principally in three things—signification, sealing and exhibition. The signification depends on the similitude between the sign and the thing signified. The sealing, upon the institution of God by which these external symbols have not only the relation of a sign, but also of a seal; since to the promises are added the sacraments to induce greater confidence in the thing promised, still in such a way that our faith is supported by them and not the word of God, which is self-credible (autopiston). The exhibition of the truth of God because God does not trifle by instituting bare and empty signs; but as by the vocal word he really performs what he promises, so in the sacrament (which is a palpable and visible word) he gives by the thing itself that which the signs represent, so that with the signs (in the legitimate use of the sacrament) is connected the true possession and fruition of the thing signified, as the French Confession, Article 38, teaches (Cochrane, p. 157). Still we do not recognize in the signs any implanted or inherent power by which they either act upon grace or on any quality of the soul, whether we call it a stamp or anything similar. For as the sound of the spoken word at length striking the ears and the air does not strike the heart by any power inherent in itself; so neither does the external sign possess any power to affect the soul, but only strikes the senses.

XIII. From this analogy and agreement, however, between the sign and the thing signified arises the sacramental phraseology; or those enunciations frequently used in the Scriptures (called by theologians “sacramental predications”), in which the names of the signs and things signified are interchanged with each other. The sign is predicated of the thing signified—Christ is called the Passover (1 Cor. 5:7); or, on the contrary, the thing signified is predicated of the sign—as circumcision is called the covenant, the body of Christ is called bread. The foundation of these predications is the sacramental union which by analogy (kat’ analogian) joins the sign and thing signified, and consequently makes these predications true on account of the truth of the signification, sealing and conferring in the lawful use. As in the person of Christ the hypostatical union of the natures makes those predications true in which the properties of one nature are enunciated either of the whole person or also of either nature expressed by a concrete term, yet without any confounding of the natures, because they are united without being mixed (asynchytōs) and immutably (atreptōs).

The efficient.

XIV. The efficient of the sacraments is God alone. (1) He is the sole author of the promises and of the covenant of grace. Now it is his to promise and give grace, of whom also it is to seal it. (2) God is the sole author of the word; therefore of the sacraments also, which are the visible word. (3) They are parts of divine worship which can be instituted by God alone. Now God effects the sacrament by the word of institution; for the word being added to the element, it becomes a sacrament not by the infusion of a new quality, but by a change of use. There are, however, two parts of the word which is called sacramental: the command and the promise. The command unfolds the dignity of the sacrament and the reason of the use of its lawful administration. The promise demonstrates the thing signified, the perspicuity and truth of the significations and so the whole efficacy of the sacrament; so that no more is to be sought in the external sacrament than is contained in the promise, lest it degenerate into an idol. The word of command is that by which God orders the sacraments to be rightly administered and perceived, by prescribing their formula and commanding their legitimate use. Hence the dignity and integrity of the sacrament ought to be estimated (which is lessened neither by the fault of the minister, nor by the unbelief of the partaker, although the unbeliever perceives the sign alone without the thing). The essence of a sacrament is from the divine institution. Therefore if the sacrament is administered according to it, whether the receiver believes or not, it is all the same. The truth of the promises does not depend on the faith of the believing; otherwise unbelievers could weaken the truth of God and from the infidelity of men God could be made a liar (which is absurd). Therefore, although faith is necessary to perceive the thing signified, still it is not necessary to constitute the essence and integrity of the sacrament.

The end.

XV. The end of the sacraments is either proper or accidental. The proper is either principal or primary, or secondary and less principal. The principal is the confirmation of the covenant of grace and the sealing on the part of God of our union with Christ (promised in the covenant) and of all his benefits; and on our part the testification of our deep gratitude to God and of love towards our neighbor. The less principal is that they may be badges of a public profession and of divine worship by which they who belong to the visible church are distinguished from other assemblies. Hence it is evident how great is the philanthropy (philanthrōpia) of God, who, letting himself down as it were to us creeping upon the ground, wishes to seize not only our minds but also our external senses with the haste and admiration of his grace, inasmuch as he subjects it to the bodily senses, to the hearing in the spoken word, to the touch and sight in the sacraments. However, signs are wont to be employed in weightier things. For trivialities are not confirmed by signs, but when they are of great importance; as when princes are inaugurated, when marriages are entered into, when donations are made or other agreements, signs are wont to be employed to confirm these things which we wish to be best attested, that they may be known not only by reason, but also by sense. The accidental end is the just condemnation of the wicked and hypocrites abusing the sacraments, which end (accidental through the fault of men) does not overthrow the proper end. For Christ does not cease to be by himself the author of life and the bestower of it with respect to believers, although (by accident on account of the unbelief of men) he is the savor of death unto death and a stone of stumbling and of destruction with respect to hypocrites and unbelievers.

XVI. Now from what has been said it is easily gathered “What are the requisites of a sacrament properly so called.” What are required and concur to constitute it intrinsically and extrinsically, whether as essential parts or as necessary conditions. They are principally these four. (1) The external and visible element with the rite, or the earthly and corporeal matter which holds the relation of sign. (2) The heavenly and spiritual thing contained in the promise of grace, which has the relation of the thing signified, which coheres with the sign in its lawful use, not substantially by composition, but sacramentally by a mystical relation. (3) The divine institution (and that immediate) that it may be a sacrament. (4) The stated and ordinary use of it in the church. For from these four a sacrament properly so called is intrinsically and extrinsically constituted and from them its truth appears and is known. Intrinsically, indeed, from the element with the rite and the word of the promise of grace as essential parts. But extrinsically from the divine institution as the efficient and immediate cause, and from the stated and ordinary use of the testification and sealing in the church as the proximate end.

XVII. This is clearly proved by an induction of the sacraments of the Old and New Testaments; for the divine institution was common to all, as is evident with respect to circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14), to the Passover (Ex. 12:3–20), baptism (Mt. 28:19), the Supper (Mt. 26:26–28). Common was the external sign with some rite annexed: in circumcision the cutting off of the foreskin; in the Passover the lamb slain and eaten; in baptism the laver of water; in the Supper the bread broken and the wine poured out. Common was the word of promise of grace according to the covenant of God and the circumcision of the heart (Dt. 30:6); Christ, the Lamb slain (1 Cor. 5:7); the washing away of sins by the blood and spirit of Christ (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 6:11); and the body of Christ broken and his blood shed for us. Finally, the use of both classes of sacraments was stated and ordinary and common to the church.


* Corrected citation

PL Jacques Paul Migne, Patrologiae … series Latina. Paris: Garnieri Fratres, 1878.

FC Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

PL Jacques Paul Migne, Patrologiae … series Latina. Paris: Garnieri Fratres, 1878.

FC Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

PL Jacques Paul Migne, Patrologiae … series Latina. Paris: Garnieri Fratres, 1878.

FC Fathers of the Church. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.

PL Jacques Paul Migne, Patrologiae … series Latina. Paris: Garnieri Fratres, 1878.

Cochrane A.C. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966.