An ordinance is a Christian rite, associated with tangible elements (water; bread and wine), that is celebrated by the church of Jesus Christ. The term is closely associated with the word sacrament, which is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.
Among the three branches of Christendom, two church rites—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are regularly celebrated. Despite this commonality, the three traditions differ as to the proper terminology (ordinances or sacraments), the actual number (two; seven; seven plus), and the nature of these rites. Focusing on Protestant theology and practice, this article addresses baptism, in both its paedobaptist and credobaptist expressions, and the Lord’s Supper. It further rehearses the four major views of this latter ordinance: transubstantiation (Roman Catholic); consubstantiation, or sacramental union (Lutheran); memorial (Zwinglian); and spiritual presence (Reformed).
Broadly speaking, Christianity encompasses three major branches: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. In all churches affiliated with these traditions, two common celebrations stand out: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Communion; Eucharist). Tragically, what seemingly unites the three branches actually conceals a division involving the terminology, number, and nature of these rites.
Terminology: Ordinances or Sacraments
How are we to refer to these two rites? The answer to this question reveals a deep division among Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. For most, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sacraments; for others, they are ordinances.
The name sacrament is derived from the Latin word, sacramentum, which was used in Latin translations of the Bible. The Greek New Testament uses the word μυστήριον (mystērion = mystery) to refer to matters that God once hid but now has revealed through the gospel (e.g., Rom 16:25-26; Eph 3:3-13; Col 1:24-27). The early church applied this term to its administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, considering them to reveal a mystery of divine grace. When the Greek Bible was translated into Latin, μυστήριον (mystērion) became sacramentum, which could refer to a rite or an oath of allegiance. By the fifth century, Augustine’s definition of sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace became decisive. The church considered these two rites as sacred signs designed by God to indicate a divine reality, a reality that was included in and caused by the signs themselves.
The name ordinance became associated with these two rites when Protestant churches made a decisive break with the Roman Catholic Church. Included in the protest of some Protestants was a rejection of the name sacrament; it had too many connotations associated with Catholic theology and practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In its place these Protestant churches put the name ordinance, signifying that these rites were ordained, or instituted, by Christ himself.
Today, the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox churches, and many Protestant churches refer to these rites as sacraments, while some Protestant churches call them ordinances. Per the title of this article, the word ordinance will be used, but without prejudice for the term sacrament.
Number of Ordinances
How many ordinances are there? As before, the answer to this question reveals a deep division among the three traditions of Christendom. The Catholic Church has seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. While embracing these seven “major mysteries,” Orthodox churches do not have a definite number of sacraments and include other events of blessing, service, prayer, song, procession, and more that render tangible the presence of God. Protestant churches have two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
In terms of the historical development of this difference in number, Augustine’s idea of a sacrament as a visible sign and cause of an invisible grace became the standard definition for the church. Much later (~1150), theologian Peter Lombard enumerated the seven sacraments. Subsequent comments (e.g., Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274], Council of Florence [1431-1449]) refined Lombard’s treatment but maintained the number. The Council of Trent officially proclaimed these seven, adding that “if anyone says … any one of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament, let him be anathema [cursed]” (7th session , Decree Concerning the Sacraments). This condemnation, along with others decreed by Trent, underscores that a major difference introduced by the Reformation had to do with the number—and, to be treated next, the nature—of sacraments.
Indeed, it was the conviction of Protestant churches that the church should celebrate only two sacraments. The reason for this reduction in number was that Christ ordained only two rites with their accompanying tangible signs. Jesus commanded his disciples to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Thus, Christ ordained baptism, with the accompanying sign of water, as a rite that the church must observe. At his last supper, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matt 26:26–28). Thus, Christ ordained the Lord’s Supper, with the accompanying signs of bread and wine, as a rite that the church must observe.
Accordingly, a major division plagues the churches affiliated with the three branches of Christianity in terms of the number of the ordinances. But there is further disagreement still.
Nature of the Ordinances
What is the nature of the ordinances? The answer to this question unveils yet another division among churches. There are three general answers:
- The sacraments infuse grace ex opere operato (by their administration) into the people of God. His grace is transmitted through the sacraments as they are administered, and that grace effects the transformation of the character of their recipients, whose participation in the sacraments is necessary for salvation.
- The sacraments are means of grace by which God confers the benefits of salvation to his people. Rather than infusing grace, the sacraments, in conjunction with the Word of God, offer a promise of divine blessing (e.g., sanctification) to their recipients, who appropriate the promise by faith.
- The ordinances symbolize the faith and obedience of the people of God. Rather than transmitting grace or serving as means of grace, the ordinances are opportunities for their recipients to express their allegiance to Christ.
To fully appreciate the nature of the Protestant ordinances, each one must be considered.
In the early church, baptism by immersion was administered to people who grasped the gospel, repented of their sins, and believed in Jesus Christ for salvation (e.g., Acts 2:37-41). An important development was the baptism of infants. Some leaders denounced the practice, while others traced its origin to the apostles. Eventually, the church found a parallel between the baptism of infants and the Old Testament rite of circumcision. The church also linked infant baptism to the removal of original sin. By the fifth century, infant baptism became the official practice of the church.
Today, the ordinance of baptism is administered to infants (paedobaptism; Greek paidea = child) and to believing adults (credobaptism; Greek credo = belief). These two views of the recipients of baptism express different views of its nature.
Discussion of the nature of paedobaptism falls under two categories. The first category is exemplified by Roman Catholicism. As the first of the seven sacraments, baptism cleanses its recipients from original sin, regenerates then, and incorporates them into the Catholic Church. Effective ex opere operato (by administering the sacrament), baptism infuses grace and thereby begins the lifelong process of transforming the character of the Catholic faithful. Cooperating with this grace, Catholics become progressively more and more justified and, engaging in good works, are enabled to merit eternal life. Importantly, baptismal regeneration means that baptized infants are saved; indeed, this sacrament is necessary for salvation.
The second category of infant baptism is exemplified by (historical) Reformed Protestantism. Baptism is a means of grace by which God offers a promise to its recipients: they will thereby become partakers of the salvation of which baptism is the divinely appointed sign and seal. By being baptized, infants are not saved. Rather, they are incorporated into the covenant community in which they will hear the gospel and, as heirs of the covenant promise, will embrace the grace of God by faith for salvation. Moreover, the sacrament is not effective ex opere operato but depends on the Word and the Spirit for its validity.
According to credobaptism, baptism is an ordinance instituted by Christ for people who offer a credible profession of faith in him and who, in obedience to his command, are baptized. In most cases, the mode of baptism is immersion: people are completely lowered under the water and brought up out of the water. Discussion of the nature of credobaptism falls under two categories. The first category is exemplified by Southern Baptists. Baptism “is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus” (Baptist Faith and Message 2000). Accordingly, the nature of baptism is a human act by which faith in God’s provision of salvation is expressed. It is not salvific but testifies to salvation already experienced.
The second category builds on this common view of the nature of baptism by expanding on its meanings, as indicated in the New Testament. First, on the basis of Jesus’s command to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19), baptism associates new believers with the triune God. Second, as noted above, immersing baptism vividly portrays new believers’ identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-5; Gal 3:26-28). A third meaning of baptism is cleansing from sin, in accordance with Peter’s Pentecost message: “Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38; cf. Act 22:16; Ezek 36:25).
Escape from divine judgment is a fourth meaning of baptism. Just as Noah and his family escaped God’s judgment of the flood (the antitype), so also Christians escape from divine judgment via baptism—the plunging under water as a type of death (1Pet 3:20-21). As a fifth meaning, baptism symbolizes incorporation into the church. It is the initiatory rite, signaling new believers’ intention to follow obediently and faithfully the mediator of the new covenant, Jesus Christ, in new covenant community.
The second ordinance to be discussed in terms of its nature is the Lord’s Supper, also referred to as (Holy) Communion (1Cor 10:16-17), the Eucharist (Greek eucharistia = thanksgiving), the breaking of bread (Matt 26:26; 1Cor 11:24), and other names. Scripture addresses this rite in only two places: Jesus’s institution at his last supper (Matt 26:26-29 and parallels) and Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians (10:14-22; 11:17-34). In the early church, only baptized believers in proper relationship to Christ could participate in this ordinance, which was celebrated weekly.
In terms of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, the early church held several views. Some saw it as a sacrifice, linked to the prophecy of Malachi (1:10-11). As to the nature of this sacrifice, some believed that the sacrifices are the bread and wine as fruits of divine creation, while others held that the sacrifices are the actual body and blood of Christ. Others focused on the Lord’s Supper as an act of commemoration. Still others considered it in strongly symbolic terms. The early church also underscored several benefits of participation in the Lord’s Supper, including release from death, nourishment, and sanctification.
Eventually, four positions on the nature of the Lord’s Supper developed, all of which continue to be held today.
- Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic position, officially proclaimed in 1215. During the administration of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the bread is transubstantiated—or changed—into the body of Christ, and the wine into the blood of Christ, by the power of God. As explained by Thomas Aquinas, transubstantiation is the change (trans) of substance (that which makes something what it is). However, the accidents (the characteristics that can be perceived by the senses) remain the same. As the sacrament of the Eucharist is administered, though the bread still looks, smells, feels, and tastes like bread, its substance has been changed into the body of Christ. Similarly, though the wine still looks, smells, and tastes like wine, its substance has been changed into the blood of Christ. All Protestant churches reject transubstantiation.
- Consubstantiation, or sacramental union, is the Lutheran view. As developed by Martin Luther (1483-1546), the Lord’s Supper is a last testament made by Christ as he was about to die. In this promise he designated an inheritance—the forgiveness of sins—and appointed its heirs—all those who believe in his promise. Moreover, during the administration of the sacrament, Christ is truly present in both his deity and humanity, “in, with, and under” the substance of the bread and wine. Because Christ’s body is everywhere present, and in accordance with his words of institution (“this is my body”; Matt 26:26), God brings about the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
- Memorial is the view of many non-sacramentalist (e.g., Baptist) churches. As developed by Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), this position is that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial of Christ’s death. Being located in heaven, Christ’s body (and blood) cannot be present in the sacrament. Moreover, Christ’s words of institution (“this is my body”; Matt 26:26)—are figurative and cannot be taken literally. Accordingly, the memorial view stands against both transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Most importantly, Jesus commanded, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1Cor 11:24); thus, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial celebration by which the church remembers what Christ did on the cross to accomplish salvation.
- Spiritual presence is the view of many Reformed Protestant churches (e.g., Presbyterian; Christian Reformed). Moving beyond the memorial view, John Calvin (1509-1564) maintained that the bread and wine are certainly symbols, but they are not empty symbols: they render what they symbolize. By his spiritual presence, Christ presents himself and his saving benefits through these means of grace. How Christ can be located in heaven and spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper is ultimately a mystery. But Calvin invoked the power of the Holy Spirit to unite Christ in heaven with the church on earth. The benefits of this sacrament include participation with Christ, church unity, and nourishment toward sanctification.
Though the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox churches, and Protestant churches administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper, these common celebrations conceal a great division among the three branches. They differ widely as to the terminology (sacraments or ordinances), number (seven, seven plus others, two), and nature (paedobaptism, credobaptism, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, memorial view, spiritual presence view) of these rites.
- John H. Armstrong, ed., Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007)
- David F. Wright, ed., Baptism: Three Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009)
- Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)
- John H. Armstrong, ed., Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007)
- Gordon T. Smith, ed., The Lord’s Supper: Five Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008)
- Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980)
- “Protestantism: Rituals and Worship,” patheos.com
- Kevin DeYoung, “A Brief Defense of Infant Baptism,” TGC blog
- Sam Storms, “A Brief Defense of Believer’s Baptism,” Enjoying God blogpost
- Dustin Crowe, “What Does It Mean to Remember Jesus in the Lord’s Supper?” TGC (January 6, 2014)
- R. C. Sproul, “The Battle for the Table,” Ligonier Ministries (November 1, 2006)