He said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22)
He commanded them, “Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised… in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)
There has been a renewed interest in recent years among evangelical Christians regarding the sacramental nature of our faith. Most Protestants recognize Baptism and Communion as sacraments, although they usually prefer the term “ordinance” (a fancy way of referring to something that Jesus instructed us to do).
Catholics have seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders (ordination to full-time ministry).
There are many nuances and a range of opinions on just how these sacraments actually work, but the common thrust is that these actions — done properly and done by the right (ordained) people — confer grace to us. As one friend put it: “there is an ontological change (spiritual growth) imparted.”
As this definition states, sacramentalism is the belief that the proper administration of the sacraments — regardless of how many you include in your personal list — imparts something of God’s grace to us (and for some, are the means of salvation). God’s ongoing grace to us — this side of Kingdom come (the “not yet”) — is given through our participation in the sacraments.
It is not my intention to attempt a thorough examination of each school of thought and its various and sundry permutations. Actually, I would like to suggest something far more basic:
The Holy Spirit is the Sacrament of the Christian life, and any additional rituals — mediated by people — detract from the sufficiency of the Spirit.
I would highly recommend Gordon Fee’s excellent book Paul, the Holy Spirit, and the People of God as a resource here. Fee’s robust argument that the “promise of the Father” that Jesus referred to — the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all Christians — is at the heart of a Trinitarian understanding of our faith.
Fee does a masterful job of tracing the Spirit’s work in our salvation, the transforming of our ethics (justice), empowering our sanctification and our service, and creating an authentic koinania community among us.
A few gems from the book:
“Holiness also (especially) means the Holy Spirit lives in believers, reproducing the life of Christ within and among them, particularly in their communal relationships.” (page 109)
“Both Paul’s exhortation to the community in Ephesians 5:18 (“be filled with the Spirit”) and his instruction to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6-7 (“fan the gift into flame”) imply the need to continual, ongoing appropriation.” (page 124)
“[This book] is a plea for recapturing Paul’s perspective of Christian life as essentially the life of the Spirit, dynamically experienced and eschatologically oriented — but fully integrated in the life of the church.” (page 187)
Again, there are many nuances within the sacramentalist school of thought that I haven’t addressed here. My desire is not to somehow demonstrate that sacramentalism is wrong per se, but only that it is a pale substitute for the true source of God’s ongoing grace in our lives: the Holy Spirit of Jesus, who will continually fill us with Himself as we seek Him.