This is not intended to be a debating thread, so any one coming in to pick fights is abusing my intent. My purpose here is to try to construct some informative statements on the various forms of belief among various Protestant groups as they compare and contrast with the beliefs of Catholics. Specifically I want to better understand the Protestant notions of the sacraments, particularly why they usually affirm only two, when I believe there’s just as much warrant for Reconciliation/Confession as Baptism and the Eucharist.
I’ve drawn up this summary of what I think is the picture and welcome any correction. I focus first on what a Sacrament is, then discuss the two commonly held sacraments, then finally pose some questions about Confession. You’ll see I make a distinction between the two main thrusts of “classical Protestantism,” that is, Lutheran and Reformed theology, as well as a third category that sort of lumps a lot of groups together. I realize this may be an oversimplification, but for the issue at hand it seems they generally are more alike than different. If you’re a member of one of these communities and believe that your particular church’s thought is different than what I describe, please explain.
Again, my purpose is purely investigative, not argumentative. This is to establish what denomination X believes, not why X is right while Y and Z are wrong.
What is a “sacrament”?
The Catholic Church teaches a sacrament is an act which both symbolizes and realizes an outpouring of Divine grace. The act is not merely representative of that grace being imparted but is itself the means by which the grace is conveyed. To be valid, a sacrament must meet some basic requirements both in the form in which it is done, and the intent for which it is done. The Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments. Catholic sacraments, with the exception of baptism and marriage, must be administered by an ordained clergyman, generally a priest, though Holy Orders requires a bishop.
Lutheran churches teach essentially the same as the Catholic, though identify only two sacraments. In keeping with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, Lutherans believe all Christians are capable of administering either the sacraments, but recognizing an earthly need for order, authority, and accountability, in practice reserve the administration to ordained clergy.
Reformed churches teach that the sacrament is an act which symbolizes the outpouring of Divine grace which has already been promised from before the foundation of the world and is being continuously delivered to the Christian participant at every moment of his or her existence. Nevertheless, they are not merely symbolic but, when and only when the participant is already marked with Divine grace through Election, they are also means of “spiritual feeding” for the participant, but in a subjective, spiritual way, rather than an objective, real way as affirmed by Catholics and Lutherans. Reformed Christians recognize two sacraments. The theology regarding the administration of sacraments is the same as the Lutheran, though sometimes ruling elders in the congregation will administer the sacraments in tandem or independently of the ordained pastor (teaching elder).
Churches in the Baptist, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, and Evangelical (ABEP) traditions vary widely on this matter as on all others, but in general affirm only two sacraments. They do not believe them to be necessarily a “means of grace” in either a Lutheran or Reformed understanding, but rather merely external signs of grace already given independently of the ritual, either through predestinarian election or as a result of the Christian’s acceptance of Christ as Lord. Some congregations do believe the performance of the sacrament serves a distinct spiritual function for the believing participant, while others merely see them as social-theological phenomena meant to educate and better connect the congregation as a church community. Due to these positions, many Protestants in this grouping dislike even the term “sacrament” instead preferring less mystically charged terminology like “ordinances.” Most would adhere to the same position regarding administration as the Lutherans and Reformed.