A sacrament, as defined in Hexam's Concise Dictionary of Religion is "a Rite in which God is uniquely active. Augustine of Hippo defined a Christian sacrament as "a visible sign of an invisible reality." The Anglican Book of Common Prayer speaks of them as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace." Examples of sacraments would be Baptism and the Mass." Therefore a sacrament is a religious symbol or often a rite which conveys divine grace, blessing, or sanctity upon the believer who participates in it, or a tangible symbol which represents an intangible reality. As defined above, an example would be baptism in water, representing (and conveying) the grace of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Forgiveness of Sins, and membership into the Church. Another way of looking at Sacraments is that they are an external and physical sign of the conferral of Sanctifying Grace.
Throughout the Christian faith views concerning which rites are sacramental, that is conferring sanctifying grace, and what it means for an external act to be sacramental vary widely. Other religious traditions also have what might be called "sacraments" in a sense, though not necessarily according to the Christian meaning of the term.
The two most widely accepted sacraments are Baptism and the Eucharist (or Lord's Supper). However the traditional Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church or divine mysteries are listed as the following:
Taken together, these are the Seven Sacraments as recognised by churches in the High church tradition - notably Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Independent Catholic, Old Catholic and some Anglican Communions.
The Orthodox Church typically does not limit the number of sacraments, viewing all encounters with reality in life as sacramental in some sense, and their acknowledgement of the number of sacraments at seven as an innovation of convenience not found in the Church Fathers. It came into use, although infrequently, later on from later encounters with the West and its Sacramental Theology . Other denominations and traditions, both in eastern and western Christianity may affirm only Baptism and Eucharist as sacraments, these include many of the Protestant denominations and some of the Old Believers in the Orthodox communion, some of whom reject all sacraments except Baptism.
Some post-Reformation denominations (including Protestants and other Christian denominations who reject that label) do not maintain a sacramental theology, although they may practice the rites themselves. These rites may be variously labelled "traditions" or – in the case of Baptism and the Eucharist ("the Lord's Supper") – "ordinances," since they are seen as having been ordained by Christ to be permanently observed by the church. Protestant denominations, both sacramental and non-sacramental, almost invariably affirm only these two as sacraments, traditions, or ordinances; although they may also practice some or all of the other traditional sacraments as well whilst not acknowledging the action of divine grace in the external form.
Traditionally the Catholic Church defined sacraments as "An outward sign of inward grace, a sacred and mysterious sign or ceremony, ordained by Christ, by which grace is conveyed to our souls. Regarding the validity of the sacraments, however, The Catholic church teaches that:
All sacraments must have proper matter, form, and intention. The form is the sacramental sign, the verbal and physical liturgical action, e.g. the "this is my body" spoken during communion. The matter is the part of the sacrament to which something is done, the physical objects, e.g. the waters of baptism (although not all physical objects used in administering a sacrament are considered essential matter). Intention means that the priest or minister must have the willful intention to do what the Church does (facere quod facit ecclesia). Note that a minister does not have to believe personally all that the Church believes for the sacraments to be valid; he simply has to intend to do what the Church does. This means that if a person pours water over your head, reciting the words spoken at baptism, but is doing so only to demonstrate how to baptize, that baptism is not valid. Also, a child who is pretending to baptize another child would not confer a valid baptism upon that child, because his intention is to play, not to baptize. The importance of intention also shows that while the sacraments are effectual in and of themselves, they are not magic whereby God works against our will.
Sacraments are effective ex opere operato, i.e. effective on account of the work itself. During the 4th century some otherwise orthodox Christians asserted that the effectiveness of the sacraments depended on the holiness of the minister. In other words, if the presbyter baptizing was in a state of sin, his baptisms didn't "take." These Christians eventually broke off from the wider Catholic Church, and were called "Donatists." The Donatists, situated primarily in North Africa, asserted that bishops consecrated by sinful bishops weren't really bishops at all. St. Augustine and others spilled a lot of ink to refute this position regarding sacraments, which is characterized in the Latin as ex opere operantis, i.e. sacraments are effective on account of the one doing the work. While the Church calls her priests (and all Christians) to high standards of holiness, the sacraments are effective independent of a minister's holiness because a perfect God is ultimately providing the sacramental grace, not the imperfect human minister.
The seven sacraments are also accepted by Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy, but these traditions do not limit the number of sacraments to seven, holding that anything the Church does as Church is in some sense sacramental. Some lists of the sacraments taken from the Church Fathers include the Consecration of a Church, Monastic Tonsure, and the Burial of the Dead. More specifically, for the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christian the term sacrament is a term which seeks to classify something that may, according to Orthodox thought, be impossible to classify. The Orthodox communion's preferred term is Sacred Mystery. While the Catholic Church has attempted to dogmatically define the sacraments, and discover the precise moment when the act results in the manifestation of the grace of God, the Orthodox communion has refrained from attempting to determine absolutely the exact form, number and effect of the sacraments, accepting that simply that these elements are unknowable to all except God. According to Orthodox thinking God touches mankind through material means such as water, wine, bread, oil, incense, candles, altars, icons, etc. How God does this is a mystery. On a broad level, the mysteries are an affirmation of the goodness of created matter, and are an emphatic declaration of what that matter was originally created to be.
Despite this broad view, Orthodox divines do write about there being seven "principal" mysteries. On a specific level, while not systematically limiting the mysteries to seven, the most profound Mystery is the Eucharist or Synaxis, in which the partakers, by participation in the liturgy and receiving the consecrated bread and wine (understood to have become the body and blood of Christ itself) directly communicate with God. In this sense, there is no substantial difference from the practice of other churches of the Catholic patrimony . The emphasis on mystery is, however, characteristic of Orthodox theology, and is often called apophatic, meaning that any and all positive statements about God and other theological matters must be balanced by negative statements. For example, while it is correct and appropriate to say that "God exists", or even that "God is the only Being which truly exists", such statements must be understood to also convey the idea that God transcends what is usually meant by the term "to exist.
As befits its prevailing self-identity as a via media or "middle path" of Western Christianity, Anglican or Episcopal sacramental theology expresses elements in keeping with its status as a church in the Catholic tradition, and a church of the Reformation. With respect to sacramental theology, that Catholic heritage is perhaps most strongly asserted in the importance Anglicanism places on the sacraments as a means of grace, sanctification, and salvation as expressed in the church's liturgy.
Anglicans recognise two sacraments - Baptism and the Holy Eucharist - as having been ordained by Christ ("sacraments of the Gospel," as Article XXV of the Thirty-Nine Articles describes them). Anglo-Catholics have always counted the sacraments at seven. In this sense, Baptism and Eucharist are the "precepted, primary, and principal sacraments ordained for our salvation." and the other five sacraments are lesser, deriving their efficacy from the former.
In the Anglican tradition, the sacerdotal function is assigned to clergy in the three orders of ministry: bishops, priests and deacons. Anglicans hold to the principle of ex opere operato with respect to the efficacy of the sacraments vis-a-vis the presider and his or her administration thereof. Article XXVI of the Thirty-nine Articles (entitled Of the unworthiness of ministers which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament) states that the "ministration of the Word and Sacraments" is not done in the name of the one performing the sacerdotal function, "neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness," since the sacraments have their effect "because of Christ's intention and promise, although they be ministered by evil men."
This strict definition narrowed the number of sacraments down to just three: Holy Baptism, _Sacramental_union:_.22in.2C_with.2C_and_under_the_forms_of_bread_and_wine.22 or The Lord's Supper, and Confession, with the other four rites eliminated for not having a visible element or the ability to forgive sin. This definition, and the resulting elimination, has historically been held by Lutheranism. Although some Lutheran Synods have reduced the number further, by the disuse and discounting of sacramental confession, which once was required before the reception of communion.
Within Lutheranism, the sacraments are a Means of Grace, and, together with the Word of God, empower the Church for mission. It is important to note that although Lutherans do not consider the other four rites as sacraments, they are still retained and used in the Lutheran church.
The enumeration, naming, understanding, and the adoption of the sacraments vary according to denomination. Many Protestants and other post-Reformation traditions affirm Luther's definition and have only Baptism and The Lord's Supper as sacraments, while others see the ritual as merely symbolic, and still others do not have a sacramental dimension at all.
In addition to the traditional seven sacraments, other rituals have been considered sacraments by some Christian traditions. In particular, foot washing as seen in Anabaptist and Brethren groups, and the hearing of the Gospel, as understood by a few Christian groups (such as the Polish National Catholic Church of America), have been considered sacraments by some churches.
Since some post-Reformation denominations do not regard clergy as having a classically sacerdotal or priestly function, they avoid the term "sacrament," preferring the terms "sacerdotal function," "ordinance," or "tradition." This belief invests the efficacy of the ordinance in the obedience and participation of the believer and the witness of the presiding minister and the congregation. This view stems from a highly developed concept of the priesthood of all believers. In this sense, the believer himself or herself performs the sacerdotal role .
Baptists and Pentecostals, among other Christian denominations, use the word ordinance, rather than sacrament because of certain sacerdotal ideas connected, in their view, with the word sacrament. . These churches argue that the word ordinance points to the ordaining authority of Christ which lies behind the practice.
There are other Ordinances which are performed, but which are not required for salvation, these are "Sacrament" or the Lord's Supper, ministering to the sick, the blessing of a child, and various other blessings.
The Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) also do not practice formal sacraments, believing that all activities should be considered holy. Rather, they are focused on an inward transformation of one's whole life. Some Quakers use the words "Baptism" and "Communion" to describe the experience of Christ's presence and his ministry in worship.
There are a number of religions which also utilize sacraments in a similar context to the Christian Eucharist.
The Native American Church utilizes The Holy Peyote Sacrament as a means of communion with the Great Father. The NAC as well as the Unaio de Vegital are synchronistic in that they believe that The Bible is the written word of God, in addition to the belief that the sacraments are messengers of his will. The UDV consumes a tea called ayahuasca or Huasca, which is believed to be the Holy Communion.
In the book In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky, esoteric philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff gives an alternative view in regards to the Christian sacraments. Gurdjieff asserts that, originally, the sacraments were used as marks for points at which an individual, through his or her own efforts, would raise to a higher level of Being. The sacraments, in the beginning, were used as rituals to reinforce ideas and milestones. They were not used to convey grace or other things, as is professed in contemporary times. Religious degradation and wiseacring over time are cited as causes of this change.