What is the difference between a sacrament and an ordinance?

The Catholic church observes seven sacraments. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and many others observe two sacraments- the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Baptists observe two ordinances- the Lord’s Supper and baptism. If these things are discussed in casual conversation, the terms sacrament and ordinance are often used as if they mean the same thing. Even the thesaurus treats them as synonyms.

In a technical, theological sense a sacrament does not mean the same as ordinance, and in fact, every denomination intends something different with the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Though the outward practice of the Lord’s Supper may be very similar in  a Lutheran church and a Baptist church, the beliefs about what is taking place are very different. The difference is not just a difference of terms. The differences cannot be brushed aside as unimportant.

A sacrament is something that gives grace to the recipient. By receiving the elements of the sacrament, whether it be water, bread or wine, the person receives the grace of God. The grace received is not necessarily saving grace, but grace for Christian living. For example, a baby baptized in the Presbyterian church is believed to receive grace that makes her a member of the covenant community. In the sacramental view, participating in the Lord’s Supper gives a person a measure of grace which strengthens him to live in obedience.

An ordinance is a command to be obeyed. In the observance of communion and baptism the church and the Christian obey the commands of Jesus. The ordinance presents a memorial of the work Jesus to save. In communion and baptism the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are graphically portrayed. No grace is transferred to the individual by either ordinance. By participating the individual testifies of grace received. This view is held mostly by Baptists.

Differences over the sacraments/ordinances are not something that should cause great controversy between Christian brethren. Nor is this generally a gospel issue which marks someone out as unbeliever or a false teacher. Space exists for friendly disagreement among Christians, but the difference of understanding over ordinances and sacraments is important. Many theologically conservative churches will expect a person to accept the church’s view of the rite before participating. This issue shapes how one views the function and purpose of two of the most important memorials given by Jesus to His church.