Traditionally Protestantism has rejected five of the seven sacraments accepted by Roman Catholicism. The two that Protestants accept are Baptism and Eucharist (The Lord’s Supper). Our reason for rejecting the other five is that Protestants are convinced that there is no biblical basis for them, as sacraments. That is to say, though there is a biblical basis for the ideas of confirmation, marriage, ordination, anointing with oil and repentance, there is no biblical basis for considering these matters sacraments.
But there are variations in Protestant thought. The Quakers and Salvation Army, for example, do not formally recognize even Baptism and Eucharist as having special sacramental value. On the other hand, the Lutheran and Anglican traditions speak of sacramental acts in order to lift some of these practices above the ordinary, without going so far as to call them sacraments.
And then there are the varying interpretations and practices respecting Baptism and Eucharist seen among the mainline Protestant Churches. Taking up Baptism first, the major difference in practice is that some churches baptize infants, and some do not.
Among those Protestant churches that baptize infants, the Lutherans and Anglicans believe that the grace of God truly is transmitted via the sacrament. However, it is not ex opere operato, as the Roman Catholics claim. Rather faith on the part of the recipient is necessary. In the case of the infants, it is the faith of the church that is necessary for the grace to be imparted. In no case do they believe that Baptism is necessary for salvation.
The other mainline protestant denominations that practice infant baptism such as United Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists are more radically Protestant than the Lutherans and Anglicans in respect to Baptism. Those traditions consider Baptism to be a sign or symbol that the infant belongs to the fellowship of the Church, or that it is a memorial supper. They would say that the grace of God is conveyed in an inward, spiritual sense, rather than directly and literally.
Turning specifically to the subject of infant Baptism, the practice is reasonable in Roman Catholic theology, because Baptism is necessary for removal of inherited sinfulness and thus for salvation. But Protestants do not believe that. Therefore infant Baptism is more difficult for Protestant theology to justify.
Traditionally, Protestants have set forth several scriptural/theological arguments in favor of Protestant, infant Baptism. The first is the strongest in my opinion. It is argued that infant Baptism represents the covenant relationship that Christians have with God in a way analogous to circumcision under the Old Covenant. As the Hebrews brought their infants for circumcision to symbolize their participation in the covenant people, Christians bring their infants for Baptism for the same purpose.
A second argument revolves around those New Testament passages that speak of whole households being baptized. For example, in Acts 16:32-34, the Philippian jailor and his household are said to be baptized. Presumably, says this argument, there were infants in those households; and thus, baptizing infants is both legitimate and meaningful. Of course, to say that there were infants in those households is a large, unprovable assumption.
A third argument is based on the saying of Jesus where he said, “let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:14). He certainly said that, but unfortunately, there is no indication in the context that it had anything to do with Baptism.
A fourth argument for infant Baptism is that it is a public demonstration of God’s unmerited love for all. Some people seem to believe that God loves only those who serve him in a special way. But God loves everyone, and the Baptism of infants illustrates that fact.
A fifth argument is that infant Baptism teaches boldly that God’s grace can only come from God. No human being can provide it. And the helplessness of the infant strongly symbolizes this.
A sixth argument is that if infants are excluded from Baptism, it implies that they are excluded from the Church. And there is no sound theological reason for excluding infants.
On the other hand, there are a couple of powerful arguments against the practice of infant Baptism. Those who practice only believer’s Baptism will quickly point out two things. First they will point out that the New Testament never mentions the Baptism of an infant. They will say in respect to the “household” passages that a household does not necessarily imply infants. They also suggest that the biblical usage of “household” is a Jewish usage which traditionally included only those twelve years of age or older.
They will point out, second, the fact that the New Testament never mentions the Baptism of any person prior to his confession of faith. These are powerful arguments.
Now before we leave the subject of Baptism, I want to say a word about the mode of Baptism. There are three modes: immersion, pouring, and sprinkling. Immersion is the dipping of the candidate completely under water. Pouring is, as it sounds, the pouring of a larger quantity of water over the candidate. Sprinkling is, of course, the use of a small quantity of water to baptize the candidate.
I believe that all denominations that baptize infants use sprinkling as a mode, though some like the United Methodists permit all three modes. Denominations that do not baptize infants generally insist on Baptism by immersion only.
The main argument for immersion is the use of the Greek word baptizo. In its classical usage, the term did mean “to dip.” However in Hellenistic Greek, the meaning of the word broadened; and the word was used for Jewish rituals that could not mean “immersion.” For example, this Greek word is used in a Jewish ritual to cleanse a bed. And in that ritual, they did not immerse the bed.
It is not my intent to convince anyone that a particular view is correct. However, even though in my opinion the symbolism of immersion is stronger than the others, I believe that any of the three modes can be supported scripturally.
Turning now to the Protestant view of the Eucharist, we might see the differences more clearly if we look at all of the various views, beginning with the denominations that put the most stress on the sacraments and moving to those that stress the sacraments the least.
Of course, the most sacramental churches are the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, because they place great stress on the sacraments and accept a total of seven. In terms of the Eucharist, specifically, they hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation.
Then we find the Anglican Church, which in many ways is the most Catholic of the Protestant denominations. When it comes to the Eucharist, the Anglicans speak of the real presence of Christ in the elements, but they make no attempt to define the Holy Mystery. So although they do not hold to transubstantiation, they still take Christ’s presence quite seriously.
The Lutherans can be placed with the Anglicans since they too are closer to the Catholic view of the Eucharist then the others. But the Lutherans did attempt to define the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and that sets them off from the Anglicans. The Lutheran doctrine often is called consubstantiation. The “con” is from the Latin preposition which means “with”; and that is the key to the Lutheran understanding. In their view the body and blood of Jesus do not literally appear as in transubstantiation; but they appear spiritually “in, with and under” the elements of bread and wine.
Below the Anglicans and Lutherans we find most other mainline denominations, such as the Methodists and Presbyterians, who look upon the Eucharist as an outward symbol of the inward reality of Christ’s presence. Here also you will find the Baptists, though they emphasize the Lord’s Supper as a memorial supper, taken “in remembrance” of what Christ has done for us.
And the denominations that put the least emphasis on the sacraments are the Quakers, or Friends, and the Salvation Army who do not officially recognize any sacraments. However, I should say that I have never known any Quaker or Salvationist to refuse to take the sacrament when present at a service of Holy Communion.
One of the interesting practical consequences of the differences between denominations in regard to the Eucharist is the refusal of some groups to serve the sacrament of Communion to people from other groups. Where this takes place, it is called “closed communion.” That is, the sacrament is closed to all but the members of the particular group in question. For example, Roman Catholics practice closed communion.