(ssac' ruh mehnt) an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It usually refers to a religious ritual which is believed to carry a special healing or saving power. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are the two sacraments almost universally recognized in Christendom, though many evangelical Christians shy away from the word sacrament in favor of “ordinances.”
The word comes from the Latin sacramentum, vow, and it especially refers to the vow taken by a Roman soldier upon his induction into the army. This made it particularly appropriate for early Christians to designate their baptism, a confession and induction into the army of Christ. Later, Christians extended the use of the term to preaching, the Lord's Supper, foot washing, blessing, marriage, ordination, and any other rite seen as a channel of divine grace into the heart and life of the believer. The theological issue which most divided Christians was whether the divine grace was conveyed simply by a correct performance of the rite or whether the recipient must have an active faith and make a personal response to the power of God's spirit.
The Latin Bible translated the Greek word mysterion (mystery) in such passages as
1 Corinthians 2:7,
Ephesians 3:3, and
Colossians 1:26 with the Latin word sacramentum. Although none of these passages uses “mystery” to refer to baptism, Lord's Supper, or any other religious rite, the later church began to make that identification and gave that special meaning to the word.
There is strong biblical support for the theological idea of an outward sign carrying an inward spiritual power. When Paul wrote of being “buried with Christ” in baptism, he certainly meant that this visible rite demonstrates our spiritual union with Christ in His death and resurrection. It is not, however, an automatic or mechanical transmission of divine grace. It depends upon the inward faith and spiritual response of the believer. Since God became flesh in Jesus Christ, it follows that God can use anything He chooses in His created order to convey His truth and saving power to the one who believes in Him. See Ordinances.