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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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There is no word in the Bible which corresponds to the word sacrament. It is a Latin word; and, agreeably to its derivation, it was applied by the early writers of the western church to any ceremony of our holy religion, especially if it were figurative or mystical. But a more confined signification of this word by degrees prevailed, and in that stricter sense it has been always used by the divines of modern times. Sacraments, says Dr. Hill, are conceived in the church of Rome to consist of matter, deriving, from the action of the priest in pronouncing certain words, a divine virtue, by which grace is conveyed to the soul of every person who receives them. It is supposed to be necessary that the priest, in pronouncing the words, has the intention of giving to the matter that divine virtue; otherwise it remains in its original state. On the part of those who receive the sacrament, it is required that they be free from any of those sins, called in the church of Rome mortal; but it is not required of them to exercise any good disposition, to possess faith, or to resolve that they shall amend their lives; for such is conceived to be the physical virtue of a sacrament administered by a priest with a good intention, that, unless when it is opposed by the obstacle of a mortal sin, the very act of receiving it is sufficient. This act was called, in the language of the schools, opus operatum, the work done independently of any disposition of mind attending the deed; and the superiority of the sacraments of the New Testament over the sacraments of the Old was thus expressed, that the sacraments of the Old Testament were effectual ex opere operantis, from the piety and faith of the persons to whom they were administered; while the sacraments of the New Testament convey grace, ex opere operato, from their own intrinsic virtue, and an immediate physical influence upon the mind of him who receives them. This notion represents the sacraments as a mere charm, the use of which, being totally, disjoined from every mental exercise, cannot be regarded as a reasonable service. It gives men the hope of receiving, by the use of a charm, the full participation of the grace of God, although they continue to indulge that very large class of sins, to which the accommodating morality of the church of Rome extends the name of venial; and yet it makes this high privilege entirely dependent upon the intention of another, who, although he performs all the outward acts which belong to the sacrament, may, if he chooses, withhold the communication of that physical virtue, without which the sacrament is of none avail.

The Socinian doctrine concerning the nature of the sacraments is founded upon a sense of the absurdity and danger of the popish doctrine, and a solicitude to avoid any approach to it, and runs into the opposite extreme. It is conceived that the sacraments are not essentially distinct from any other rites or ceremonies; that, as they consist of a symbolical action, in which something external and material is employed to represent what is spiritual and invisible, they may by this address to the senses be of use in reviving the remembrance of past events, and in cherishing pious sentiments; but that their effect is purely moral, and that they contribute, by their moral effect, to the improvement of the individual in the same manner with reading the Scriptures, and many other exercises of religion. It is admitted, indeed, by the Socinians, that the sacraments are of farther advantage to the whole society of Christians, as being the solemn badges by which the disciples of Jesus are discriminated from other men, and the appointed method of declaring that faith in Christ, by the public profession of which Christians minister to the improvement of one another. But in these two points, the moral effect upon the individual, and the advantage to society, is contained all that a Socinian holds concerning the general nature of the sacraments. This doctrine, like all other parts of the Socinian system, represents religion in the simple view of being a lesson of righteousness, and loses sight of that character of the Gospel, which is meant to be implied in calling it a covenant of grace. The greater part of Protestants, therefore, following an expression of the Apostle, Romans 4:11 , when he is speaking of circumcision, consider the sacraments as not only signs, but also seals, of the covenant of grace. Those who apply this phrase to the sacraments of the New Testament, admit every part of the Socinian doctrine concerning the nature of sacraments, and are accustomed to employ that doctrine to correct those popish errors upon this subject which are not yet eradicated from the minds of many of the people. But although they admit that the Socinian doctrine is true as far as it goes, they consider it as incomplete. For, while they hold that the sacraments yield no benefit to those upon whom the signs employed in them do not produce the proper moral effect, they regard these signs as intended to represent an inward invisible grace, which proceeds from him by whom they are appointed, and as pledges that that grace will be conveyed to all in whom the moral effect is produced. The sacraments, therefore, in their opinion, constitute federal acts, in which the persons who receive them with proper dispositions, solemnly engage to fulfil their part of the covenant, and God confirms his promise to them in a sensible manner; not as if the promise of God were of itself insufficient to render any event certain, but because this manner of exhibiting the blessings promised gives a stronger impression of the truth of the promise, and conveys to the mind an assurance that it will be fulfilled. According to this account of the sacraments, the express institution of God is essentially requisite to constitute their nature; and in this respect sacraments are distinguished from what may be called the ceremonies of religion. Ceremonies are in their nature arbitrary; and different means may be employed by different persons with success, according to their constitution, their education, and their circumstances, to cherish the sentiments of devotion, and to confirm good purposes. But no rite which is not ordained by God can be conceived to be a seal of his promise, or the pledge of any event that depends upon his good pleasure. Hence, that any rite may come up to our idea of a sacrament, we require in it, not merely a vague and general resemblance between the external matter which is the visible substance of the rite, and the thing thereby signified, but also words of institution, and a promise by which the two are connected together: and hence we reject five of the seven sacraments that are numbered in the church of Rome, because in some of the five we do not find any matter without which there is not that sign which enters into our definition of a sacrament; and in others we do not find any promise connecting the matter used with the grace said to be thereby signified, although upon this connection the essence of a sacrament depends.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Sacrament'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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