What Are the Ordinances of the Church?

Paul Enns
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Protestants have historically recognized two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, whereas Roman Catholics have held to seven sacraments: baptism, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), confirmation, penance, extreme unction, holy orders, and marriage. There is a difference of opinion regarding terminology. Catholics (and some Protestants) prefer the term sacrament, which comes from the Latin sacramentum, meaning “a thing set apart as sacred.” The term sacramentum in the Latin Vulgate was also used to translate the Greek word musterion (Eph. 5:32) and “came to be used for anything that had a secret or mysterious significance. Augustine called it ‘the visible form of an invisible grace.’”[1] Sacrament was later defined as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”[2] It is for this reason that many Protestants have preferred the term ordinance, which does not have the connotation of conveying grace. An ordinance might simply be defined as “an outward rite prescribed by Christ to be performed by His church.”[3]

Lord’s Supper

Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper on the eve of His crucifixion, commanding that His followers continue to observe it until His return (Matt. 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:14–23). This was a new covenant or testament in contrast with the old Mosaic covenant. To enact the covenant, death was necessary because death provided forgiveness of sins. Paul also rehearsed the ordinance for the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 11:23–32). Of course, the issue at hand is, what is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? There have been four distinct views in Christendom concerning its meaning.


The Roman Catholic view concerning the Lord’s Supper is called transubstantiation, meaning “a change of substance.” The Roman Catholic Church teaches that a miracle takes place at the Eucharist (the Mass) in which the elements of the bread and wine are actually changed into the literal body and blood of Christ, although the sensory characteristics (which the Catholics call “accidents”) of the elements— touch, taste, smell—may remain the same. The Creed of Pope Pius IV stated: “I profess that in the Mass is offered to God a true, proper, and propitiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead; . . . there is truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ; and that there is a conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the blood.”[4] As the priest consecrates the elements, their substance is changed from bread and wine to the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Thus in Catholic teaching, the participant actually partakes of the body of Christ. The Catholic Church claims that this is the teaching of John 6:32–58.

John O’Brien, a Roman Catholic, has stated, “The Mass with its colorful vestments and vivid ceremonies is a dramatic reenactment in an unbloody manner of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.”[5] A contemporary Roman Catholic theologian equates it with salvation, stating, “In his body and blood, then, Jesus himself is offered. He presents himself as a gift for salvation.”[6]

There are several serious problems with this view. (1) It views the work of Christ as unfinished, the sacrifice of Christ continuing in the Mass. Yet Christ declared His work completed (John 19:30) as did also the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 10:10–14). (2) Christ’s human body would have to be omnipresent if this teaching were true; however, Christ’s human body is localized in heaven (Acts 7:56). (3) In instituting the Supper, Christ used a common figure of speech—the metaphor (“This is My body . . . My blood”)—in referring to the bread and cup. He was physically present yet distinct from the elements when He referred to them as His body and blood. Similarly, in the John 6 passage, Jesus used a powerful metaphor (“eat My flesh . . . drink My blood”) to vividly picture a saving faith relationship to Himself. To insist that these expressions are literal language is to do violence to fundamental hermeneutical principles. (4) It was forbidden for Jews to drink blood (Lev. 17:10–16), yet this is what Jesus would be asking them to do if transubstantiation were what He intended.


The Lutheran view is referred to as consubstantiation, meaning Jesus’ body and blood are actually present in the elements but the bread and wine remain such; they do not change into literal body and blood as taught in Roman Catholic doctrine. To emphasize the presence of Christ in the elements, Lutherans use the terms “in, with, and under” to express the actual presence of the body and blood of Christ. Martin Luther illustrated the point by stating that as heat penetrated an iron bar when placed in the fire, the bar nonetheless remained iron.[7]

Lutherans also differ from the Roman Catholic view in rejecting the notion of the perpetual sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist. Luther insisted, however, “that by partaking of the sacrament one experiences a real benefit—forgiveness of sin and confirmation of faith. This benefit is due, however, not to the elements in the sacrament, but to one’s reception of the Word by faith.”[8]

The problem with the Lutheran view of the Eucharist is the failure to recognize Jesus’ statement “This is My body” as a figure of speech.

Reformed View

The Reformed view is also called the Calvinist view because its adherents are from the Reformed churches (and others) who follow Calvin’s teaching on the subject. Adherents to this view reject the notion of the literal presence of Christ in any sense and in this are similar to adherents of the memorial view. This view, however, does emphasize the present spiritual work of Christ. Calvin taught that Christ is “present and enjoyed in His entire person, both body and blood. He emphasizes the mystical communion of believers with the entire person of the Redeemer. . . . The body and blood of Christ, though absent and locally present only in heaven, communicate a life-giving influence to the believer.”[9] Because of the mystical presence of Christ in the elements, grace is communicated to the participant in the elements; moreover, it is a grace that is similar to that received through the Word, and, in fact, it adds to the effectiveness of the Word.[10]

A problem with this view is that there is no explicit statement or inference from Scripture suggesting that grace is imparted to the participant.

Memorial View

The memorial view is also referred to as the Zwinglian view because the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) is considered a clear exponent of this view in contrast to other current views of his time. In contrast to the Calvinist view, Zwingli taught that there was no real presence of Christ but only a spiritual fellowship with Christ by those who partake in faith. Essential to the memorial view is the notion that the bread and cup are figurative only; they are a memorial to the death of Christ. While Zwingli acknowledged a spiritual presence of Christ for those who partake in faith, Anabaptists rejected the idea of Christ being present in the Lord’s Supper any more than He would be present anywhere else. The memorial view emphasizes that the participants demonstrate faith in the death of Christ through this symbolic activity.

The memorial view has much to commend it in the Scriptures. An examination of the passages reveals the significance of the Lord’s Supper. It is a memorial to His death (1 Cor. 11:24, 25): the recurring statement “in remembrance of Me” makes this clear, the bread symbolizing His perfect body offered in sin-bearing sacrifice (1 Peter 2:24) and the wine His blood shed for forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7). It is a proclamation of the death of Christ while waiting for His coming (1 Cor. 11:26): it involves a looking back to the historical event of the cross and an anticipating of His return in the future (Matt. 26:29). It is a communion of believers with one another (1 Cor. 10:17): they eat and drink the same symbolic elements, focusing on their common faith in Christ.



New Testament baptism had its origin in the command of Christ to make disciples and baptize them (Matt. 28:19). In the origination of this ordinance there is a particular order established. The first act was to make disciples, then those disciples were to be baptized. This is the pattern that is carried out in the book of Acts. Peter commanded that his hearers should first repent, then be baptized (Acts 2:38). Only those who heard the gospel, understood it, and responded to it through faith and repentance could be baptized. The result was that the people received the Word, then were baptized (Acts 2:41). Those who responded to Philip’s message first believed, then were baptized (Acts 8:12), similarly with the Ethiopian (Acts 8:38), with Paul (Acts 9:18), the Caesarean Gentiles (Acts 10:48), Lydia (Acts 16:14–15), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:32–33), and Crispus (Acts 18:8). All of these references indicate that baptism follows belief; repentance and faith precede the ordinance of baptism.

Baptism means identification. In New Testament baptism it involves identification with Christ in His death and resurrection. Being baptized in the name of Christ (Acts 2:38) stresses association with Christ in the rite. Although Romans 6:4–5 refers to Spirit baptism and not water baptism, the passage nonetheless illustrates the meaning of water baptism. It is a public declaration that the believer has been united to Christ by faith in His death and resurrection.

Views of Baptism[11]

(1) Means of saving grace (baptismal regeneration). In this view baptism “is a means by which God imparts saving grace; it results in the remission of sins. By either awakening or strengthening faith, baptism effects the washing of regeneration.”[12] The Roman Catholic view is that faith is not necessary; the rite itself, properly performed, is sufficient. The Lutheran view is that faith is a prerequisite. Infants should be baptized and may possess unconscious faith or faith of the parents.

(2) Sign and seal of the covenant. This is the view of Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are “signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing by means whereof God works in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. . . . Like circumcision in the Old Testament, baptism makes us sure of God’s promises. . . . The act of baptism is both the means of initiation into the covenant and a sign of salvation.”[13]

(3) Symbol of our salvation. The view of Baptists and others is that baptism is only an outward sign of an inward change. It serves as a public testimony of faith in Christ. “It does not produce any spiritual change in the one baptized. . . . Baptism conveys no direct spiritual benefit or blessing.”[14] Moreover, it is to be conducted only with believers. Hence, this third view is the only view that holds that only believers should be baptized. The first two views state that, along with adult converts, children (infants) should or may be baptized.


There are differences of long standing concerning the mode of baptism. Part of the problem is that the word baptism is actually an untranslated word, having been incorporated into English through transliteration of the Greek word baptisma (verb, baptizo). There are three modes of baptism being practiced today: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. The defense for each of the modes is as follows.[15]

(1) Pouring or affusion. Historically, pouring was applied by the one baptizing pouring water three times over the head of the one being baptized—once for each member of the Trinity. It is argued that pouring best illustrates the work of the Holy Spirit bestowed on the person (Acts 2:17–18). Phrases such as “went down into the water” (Acts 8:38) and “coming up out of the water” (Mark 1:10), it is claimed, can relate to pouring just as well as immersion. The Didache, written early in the second century, stated, “But concerning baptism, thus shall ye baptize. Having first recited all these things, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (running) water. But if thou has not living water, then baptize in other water; and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”[16] The inference is that although the early church employed immersion, it allowed for pouring. It appears that both of these modes were in existence as early as the second century.

Further support for the pouring mode is claimed from early pictorial illustrations showing the baptismal candidate standing in the water with the minister pouring water on his head. And finally, in the household baptisms of Cornelius (Acts 10:48) and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:33) it would appear more likely that pouring rather than immersion was employed.

(2) Sprinkling or aspersion. In the early centuries sprinkling was reserved for the sick or those too weak to receive public baptism by immersion or pouring. Sprinkling was not accepted in general usage until the thirteenth century. Two precedents are often cited in support of sprinkling. In the Old Testament, Levites were cleansed when water was sprinkled on them (Num. 8:5–7; 19:8–13). Hebrews 9:10 refers to these ritual cleansings as “baptisms” (translated “washings” in the NASB). In the third century, Cyprian declared that it was not the amount of water nor the method of baptism that cleansed from sin; rather, where the faith of the recipient was genuine, sprinkling was as effective as another mode.

(3) Immersion. It is generally acknowleged that the early church immersed the people coming for baptism. A lexical study of baptizo indicates it means to “dip, immerse.”[17] Oepke indicates baptizo means “to immerse” and shows how the word has been used: “to sink a ship,” “to sink (in the mud),” “to drown,” and “to perish.”[18] This basic meaning accords with the emphasis of Scripture: Jesus was baptized by John “in the Jordan” and He came up “out of the water” (Mark 1:9–10; cf. Acts 8:38). On the other hand, the Greek has words for sprinkle and pour that are not used for baptism.

The many pools in Jerusalem would have been used for immersion and would likely have been used to immerse a large group like the three thousand on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41). It is also known that proselytes to Judaism were self-immersed, and immersion was also the mode practiced by the early church. Immersion best illustrates the truth of death and resurrection with Christ in Romans 6.

Infant Baptism

Infant baptism, which is practiced by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans, is defended on several grounds. It is related to covenant theology. As infants in the nation Israel were circumcised and thereby brought into the believing community, so infant baptism is the counterpart of circumcision, which brings the infants into the Christian community. It is related to household salvation (cf. Acts 16:15, 31, 33–34; 18:8). Some understand the statement “when she and her household had been baptized” (Acts 16:15) to mean infants were baptized.[19]

[1] Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God’s Program, 191.

[2] R. S. Wallace, “Sacrament,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 965.

[3] Charles C. Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody, 1972), 149.

[4] Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1965), 168–69.

[5] Ibid., 114.

[6] Alois Stoger, “Eucharist,” in J. B. Bauer, ed., Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 234.

[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3:1117.

[8] Ibid., 1118.

[9] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 653.

[10] Ibid., 654.

[11] For a summary of these views see Erickson, Christian Theology, 3:1090ff.

[12] Ibid., 3:1090.

[13] Ibid., 3:1093.

[14] Ibid., 3:1096.

[15] See the summaries of the three views in Ryrie, Basic Theology, 424; and G. W. Bromiley, A. T. Robertson, T. M. Lindsay, and W. H. T. Dau, “Baptism,” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 1:410–26.

[16] J. B. Lightfoot, orig. ed.; J. R. Harmer, ed. & comp., The Apostolic Fathers (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), 126.

[17] William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, rev. by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1979), 131.

[18] Albrecht Oepke, “Baptizo,in Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed., and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, trans., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:530.

[19] Lenski states, “Now ‘her house,’ as here used, is the regular term for the members of one’s immediate family. Thus any children Lydia may have had would be included (in baptism). . . . The point at issue is in regard to children up to the age of discretion and not only ‘infants.’ . . . The apostles and their assistants baptized entire households and by baptism received them into the Christian church.” R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 660. Cf. David John Williams, Acts: A Good News Commentary (San Francisco: Harper, 1985), 185; and William Neil, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 143.

For Further Reading:

The Moody Handbook of Theology

by Paul Enns

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