The Heresy of Sacramental Theology

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" Galatian 1:6-8

What was it that so upset the apostle Paul that he wished a curse upon people?

As he relates in Galatians chapter 2, it started with a cult which had grown in the church at Jerusalem under the very noses of Peter, James and John who apparently were oblivious to the corruption. The group Paul refers to simply as "the circumcision" started sending out messengers to preach to the Gentiles saying, "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. Acts 15:1,2 In Gal 2:4,5 Paul says, "This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you." There were false brothers in the first Christian church, the church at Jerusalem, who had strong influence there.

Indeed the apostle Peter was afraid of them. For Paul writes, "When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group." Gal 2:11,12

And it's because of false brethren and because of fear of false brethren, and because post-Biblical institutional authority did not allow itself to be scrutinized that such heresy has not only continued to this day, but has dominated institutional Christianity for millenia in the form of sacramental theology.

For what was it about the doctrine of the circumcision which upset Paul so much? It was the heresy that salvation is a function of regulations and ceremony. When he arrived in Jerusalem he was told by these alleged "believers", "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." Acts 15:5 That is essentially the same as those who say that to be saved one must obey the ten commandments and get baptized to be saved. Or as in Catholicism which adds all kinds of sacramental ceremonies to the conditions for salvation, of which I'll speak on further.

There are those of a sacrament theology who would argue that God simply replaced one ceremony with another, namely circumcision with baptism, and one set of regulations with another, namely the Law of Moses with ten commandments (which, by the way, are a summary of the Law of Moses). As so they preach a salvation by works, but a different set of works than the circumcision. But in Galatians and elsewhere in his letters where Paul attacks this subject, he does not make that argument. Rather he discards the principle and concept of sacramental salvation altogether in favor of salvation by faith. And while Catholics and other denominations of a sacramental theology may argue that they put their "faith" in their sacraments to save them, that clearly is not the "faith" of which Paul speaks of, as he contrasts that kind of faith in works with faith in Christ. The two are so incompatible that Paul curses to hell those of a sacramental theology.

Notice, for example, in Galatians chapter 3 where he argues, "I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?" Gal 3:2 and in verse 6 "Consider Abraham: "He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."" which is the same argument he made in Romans 4 against the idea held by those of a sacramental theology.

"If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about— but not before God. What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works" Rom 4:2-6

While the Bible declares that salvation is a free gift of God granted by faith APART FROM WORKS, Catholicism says just the opposite.

CANON IV of their "Council of Trent" states, "If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification;-though all (the sacraments) are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema."

And "anathema" is the same word Paul uses in chapter 1 of which the NIV translates "may they be eternally condemned." So ironically while Catholicism declares anathema the apostle Paul and Bible believing Christians, the apostle Paul declares anathema upon Catholicism.

Paul preaches faith, apart from works, saves, and as such faith is the sole condition for salvation. Indeed when asked, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul responds, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" Acts 16:30,31 To the Christians in Ephesus Paul said, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith— and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."

Following regulations of law and ceremony do not justify a person. Paul says, "Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by faith.'" Gal 3:11 And so "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus" Gal 3:26 Faith in law, ceremony, regulations Paul contrasts against faith in Christ. Those who have put their faith in ceremonies, sacraments, regulations to saved them are under a curse and disqualified from the kingdom of God. For "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.'" Gal 3:10 Thus in Catholicism you lose your salvation every time you sin and only gain it back through the sacraments. You go to "confession", open a curtain, kneel down and talk to priest behind a screen. You have to repeat a certain formula and are then told as an "act of contrition" you have to go and pray certain number of "Our Fathers" and "Hail Marys". A number that the priests arbitrarily makes up. You have to attend the Sunday sacrifice of the mass in which Jesus is allegedly transformed into piece of bread in a sort of Harry Potter transubstantiation ceremony and recrucified  weekly, as you chant the mantra, "Receive this offering made by our hands to the praise and glory of your name. For your good and the good of all your church.", so that you can take in your weekly dose of Christ. For Christ's one sacrifice was not sufficient under Catholicism, which is yet another of the many heresies of Catholicism.

While Catholicism boosts of its historic roots in the early church, yes indeed we find Catholicism in the very first church, the church at Jerusalem, in the form of the cult of the circumcision.

Sacramental theology has made the kingdom of God to be a matter of eating and drinking, in contrast to what the Bible says, that "the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking" Rom 14:17 "Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them." Heb 13:9 And Paul writes, "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." Col 2:20-23 Ceremony neither saves, nor does it even restrain the sinful nature.

Water Baptism as a Requirement for Salvation

But while Catholicism is the primary culprit in the propagation of sacramental theology, it is not the only denomination which does so. A number of denominations, including Catholic, Orthodox and various Protestant denominations, like the International Church of Christ, share the idea that water baptism is necessary for salvation. That makes salvation contingent upon a ceremony, which makes it a works based salvation. That's sacramental theology.

But in particular it's the practice of INFANT BAPTISM shared among Catholics, Orthodox and Reformed Churches which really shows that such people don't have a clue as to what constitutes the gospel of Christ. Augustine, an early 4th century theology which the Catholics and Reformers reference said that infants who die without baptism are consigned to hell.

Catholics have the idea that infants are imputed with the guilt of Adam's sin, and as such are condemned regardless of whether they themselves have personally sinned. For the Catholic, baptism washes the guilt of original sin, thus making salvation contingent upon a religious ritual.

Catholic Council of Trent CANON XIII.-If any one saith, that little children, for that they have not actual faith, are not, after having received baptism, to be reckoned amongst the faithful; and that, for this cause, they are to be rebaptized when they have attained to years of discretion; or, that it is better that the baptism of such be omitted, than that, while not believing by their own act, they should be bapized in the faith alone of the Church; let him be anathema.

The Reformed churches also have the imputed guilt idea, but for them infant baptism was not for salvation but for an acknowledgement that children born of Christian parents are automatically saved. That is, salvation by the flesh, apart from faith in Christ. Indeed all who practice infant baptism are preaching a gospel that salvation is APART from faith in Christ.

Methodists claim, "In all forms of Christian baptism, God claims those being baptized, whatever their age or ability to profess their faith." And claim, "Baptism is a rite demonstrating the washing away of the guilt of Original Sin.", which puts Methodists in the anti-gospel sacramental theology camp.

While the Orthodox don't agree with the idea of imputed guilt, they do view baptism as necessary for salvation. But the particular "spin" they put on baptism is that the inclination towards sin, which is "original sin" from the Orthodox point of view, is removed through baptism. That is that baptism removes one's sinful nature. Obviously unBiblical. Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia saying, "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want." Gal 5:16, which is also the same as Paul speaking of his own Christian experience in Romans 7, both passages of which indicate that the saints retain their sinful nature. In fact John writes, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." 1John 1:8 The Orthodox are deceived on this point, as are some in the Charismatic "holiness" groups who believe they have attained sinful perfection.

MacArthur: In his speech on Is Infant Baptism Biblical?

It was considered a heresy worthy of death. Anybody who violated baptism as ordained in their country, whether a Catholic or a Protestant country, came under the punishment of this civil code. This was around for a long time. If you go back to the year 391 you read the following order from the emperors. “Whoever forsakes the holy faith and desecrates the holy baptism through heretical superstition shall be excluded from human society.”

In other words, if you go against infant baptism, you’re excluded from human society, may give no judicial evidence, can as has been before prescribed, make no will…you couldn’t leave a will, take possession of no inheritance or be appointed heir by no one. So if you came along and said believers need to come to the place of faith in Christ and then be baptized, which is what the New Testament teaches, you were persona non-grata in your society. The document also, this translated into English, says, “We would also banish such person to far distant places if we did not deem it a more severe punishment to make him dwell among men without having the pleasure of fellowship with them. But he shall never regain his former legal capacity, nor can he at any time make amends for his crime by repentance, nor hide the same under invented evasions and excuses because those who profaned the faith which they placed in God and as traitors to divine mysteries associate with the unbelieving, cannot be justified by tissues of lies. For one comes indeed to the help of the fallen and erring but to the infamous who profane the holy baptism, no amelioration can procure mitigation as in the case of other offenses.” You’re done if you affirm any other than an infant baptism. You are finished in the society.

A law of the Emperors Honorius and Theodosius II in the year 413 says, “If any person is convicted of having undertaken the rebaptism of a member of the Catholic Church, the one who has committed this shameful crime together with the one provided he is of accountable age who has allowed himself to be baptized shall be punished with death without mercy.” They executed the person who did the baptizing and the person who was baptized. As a result of the execution, something else would follow, the confiscation of all possessions. Further quoting from the writer Wormes, “Originally indeed these severe laws of the civil code were not issued for the defense of infant baptism, but were to secure the existence of the state church against rebaptism in any Christian circles. And the property of such persons was confiscated. They were branded violators of the civil law, punished by death and the loss of all property.”

Consequently, infant baptism reigned supreme because people didn’t want to lose their lives. The Catholic Church hated the Anabaptists even through the Middle Ages, the Reformers, the Reformed Church who got their soteriology right, hated the Anabaptists, the rebaptizers, because they bought into the Roman Catholic view of infant baptism. And one of the sad realities of the Reformation is that Reformers who believed in sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, sola Christus, all the solas, drowned people who baptized believers. You want to be baptized, we’ll put you down and won’t bring you up until you’re dead.

There were always those who believed in baptism, as the New Testament teaches it, Bohemian Brethren, Waldencians, pre-Waldencians, the broad name of Anabaptists which was a nickname meaning rebaptizers. And as I said, the Reformation didn’t provide any respite for this. We read. “But of these ideals, the Reformation period had little understanding and even in the newly formed Protestant Churches, freedom of conscience remained an unknown thing. Not only was it again laid down exactly what and how one must believe, but all other opinions and convictions in matters of faith were suppressed with iron energy. Luther’s original defense of the freedom of a Christian remained an unfulfilled demand. The right of free Christian individuality was an ideal that remained at that time unrealized.” This writer says, “The Reformation did not bring to an end the zeal for bloody persecution. On the contrary, it began a new era of tribulation, tears and blood and not less indeed in the regions of the churches that it separated from Rome than where the Roman Church continued to assert its way.”

In other words, the animosity and the persecution of these people who wanted to do baptism the way the Scripture says were persecuted both in Catholic and Protestant places. This persecuting zeal was directed very specially against the rebaptizers who rejected infant baptism and demanded a return to the original Christian mode of baptism taught in the New Testament.

So sometimes you hear people say, “Well, we need to agree on a lot of things, but baptism is a minor detail.” It’s not a minor detail if you’re about to be drowned for believing it. The city law for Hanover, Germany, and other German cities with the specific approval of Luther and Melanchthon, called for all rebaptizers to be beheaded. The Zwinglians and Baptists were to be flogged and banished from the city forever. They saw believers baptism as disrupting the national church, posing a threat to national solidarity and being a blasphemous heresy that would corrupt others and break the power of the nationalized church. All over Germany, rebaptizers were called devilish vermin and executed.

You know, it saddens the heart of a Protestant, let alone a Baptist like me, by conviction to read such judgments from the pen of a Catholic historian. But truth must be honored. So the sixteenth century church as we know it, the Reformed Church that we love for its soteriology, knew no tolerance for rebaptizers. Infant baptism was required as the only baptism and defended by fire, water and the sword.

You would have thought that if one of the great hallmarks of the Reformation was sola scriptura, that if they really believed that everything had to come from the Scripture, they would have set aside infant baptism since it wasn’t anywhere in the Bible. But in spite of its absence in Scripture, they defended it and practiced it as if it was biblical and the pressure was that the Catholics had these unified states that were unified both by political and military power, but also unified by religious power and everybody was a Catholic because you were baptized a Catholic. And so you were under the tyranny of the church and that way they controlled their populations which made them powerful forces. And the Protestant states that they didn’t do that would be weakened by disparity and diversion and they had to make sure that all their people were also part of everything and there was absolute solidarity so they could defend themselves against the Catholic nations. So they held on to something that I am convinced that even Martin Luther knew wasn’t in the Bible and wasn’t really right.

We expect the Roman Catholic Church to engage in such practices because the Roman Catholic Church is full of things that aren’t in the Bible, right? Of course, we know that. and they also believe in a whole source of revelation outside the Bible which they call Tradition, or the Magisterium, church councils, the Pope speaking ex cathedra. And it all carries equal weight with Scripture. And, of course, they are the only true interpreter of Scripture so they can twist and pervert the Scripture to make it say things that it obviously doesn’t say. We expect that from the Roman Catholic Church. We expect the Roman Catholic Church to come up with things that aren’t biblical.

But what is sad is that the Reformed Church never really filled up the Reformation. And when you debate this sometimes with them, they say, “Well, history tells us that the Reformers accepted that.” And when I hear that, I always say, “History is not a hermeneutic. History is not a principle of interpretation. It doesn’t matter what happened in history. A lot of things happen in history that can’t be viewed as the Revelation of God. Only honest hermeneutics, honest exegesis in the Scripture can yield the true meaning of Scripture. You can’t read habits into Scripture, you can’t read traditions into Scripture. History is no hermeneutic. History does not contribute to the true interpretation of Scripture. They will come back with this, “Well the Scripture doesn’t forbid infant baptism. The Scripture doesn’t forbid it.” That is really a very, very fragile argument. Are we supposed to affirm the reality of all kinds of things Scripture doesn’t forbid to justify that sprinkling babies as an act of Christian baptism is done because it’s not forbidden in Scripture and to standardize it, and imprint it with divine authority, though it’s a ceremony invented by men for the worst of political reasons is then to open the way to any ritual, any behavior, any ceremonial, any teaching or anything else that isn’t strictly forbidden by Scripture.


MacArthur later says:

I was locked up in a room for seven hours as one of the most well-known Reformed theologians on the face of the earth. At the end of seven hours, they said okay. What do you have to believe to be a Christian? You say, “If you’re in the church, you’re in the community of faith and you’re okay. What do you have to believe to be a true Christian, to which he replied, “That’s a good question,” and wouldn’t give me an answer. That comes right out of that kind of concept. There’s this idea that they’re sort of federally included. It gets to the point where salvation is a collected thing and you get into the collected saved group by infant Baptism.


And Later:

The great mark of the Reformation was justification…justification not by sacrament, not by ceremony, not by symbol. Justification by faith through grace, how could they understand that and then come up with something like infant Baptism which by a rite on a baby confers to that baby salvation? Infant Baptism is nothing, has no saving efficacy, delivers no grace, confers no faith, is a symbol of nothing. It is absolutely and totally pointless.

The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources