How Understandings of the Sacraments Differ
What is the difference between the Catholic understanding of a sacrament and the Protestant understanding of it? Denis B
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify (1084).
Thus each sacrament is a sign of something beyond itself. A good example is the pouring of water in baptism: a sign that the person is being washed clean to enter a new life. This action is also an efficacious sign, in that it brings about an invisible regeneration of the human soul. Christ immediately shares his life of grace with the person; all sins are forgiven and the way is opened to life with him and the Christian community.
The Heidelberg Catechism influenced by the teachings of John Calvin (1509-1564) declared that “sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals instituted by God in order to declare more fully and seal to us, by the use of them, the promise of the gospel; namely, that he grants us the grace of forgiveness of sins and eternal life, for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished by the cross”.
Number of Sacraments
On the surface these definitions may not appear to be different, but Protestants subordinate the sacraments to the Word of God and believe that they give nothing that the Word of God does not give. This is consistent with Protestantism’s subordination of the Church to Scripture.
Catholicism holds that the sacraments, like the Church, are established by Christ’s will to bring about salvation to humanity.
Calvin taught that Christ established only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Catholics uphold the traditional seven sacraments instituted by Christ: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Eucharist, Holy Orders, Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick.
Baptism among Protestants is not much different from our own teaching. Water and the Trinitarian formula are used. Catholic doctrine is that this sacrament renews the person absolutely, as mentioned above, Protestants believe that although baptism removes original sin and raises to new life, it presupposes faith and seals it.
The Lord’s Supper for Calvin is not a sacrifice in the Catholic sense, but a memorial of Christ’s death on the cross in which the believer has a share.
The words, “This is my body; this is my blood”, in the Eucharistic rite are not literal, as Catholics believe. Bread and wine represent Christ’s body and blood. The whole ceremony of the Supper seals and strengthens the participants’ faith in Christ who is spiritually present.
Catholics and Protestants both believe that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of spiritual growth.