Arguably the most important moment of the Protestant Reformation occurred October 2, 1529. This was the second day of the Marburg Colloquy, a conference of Protestant leaders who hoped to forge some sort of unity out of the welter of reforming movements that had exploded across Europe since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenburg twelve years before.

That Friday morning, Huldrych Zwingli, the ex-priest from Zurich who had emerged as the most important Reformation leader next to Luther, walked in a room to confront the monk of Wittenburg himself. Luther sat waiting for Zwingli; upon the Zuricher’s entrance, Luther stood and wrote “Hoc Est Enim Corpus” – “This is My Body” – on the table. And with this, Zwingli could not agree.

The question of the Lord’s Supper destroyed the unity of the Reformation. Zwingli and Luther agreed that salvation came no way but through the unmerited grace of God, that the Catholic Church was riddled with corruption, that scripture and not tradition should govern the church. They agreed that Catholicism invested the sacraments – the Lord’s Supper, baptism, penance and the rest – with mechanical (rather than gracious) power, for Catholics understood them as tasks which gained the doer merit in the eyes of God upon their completion. The belief that the sacraments work in some metaphysical way is often termed “sacramentality,” but for the Reformers, Catholic sacramentality diminished the grace and authority of God.

All the Reformers reduced the number of sacraments to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper; those Christ clearly instituted. Beyond this, they fell into disarray.

Luther clung to some degree of Catholic sacramentalism – that is, he believed that God did work through the sacraments, though in a way compatible with salvation through grace alone. He taught that the sacraments could serve as a visible seal of God’s gracious promise of salvation. The operative power, however, was that promise, extended at God’s own pleasure rather that at the prayers or wishes of the communicants at the time of the sacrament itself. Without grace, the sacraments were useless. As he wrote in his 1529 Small Catechism, “Without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost.” Similarly, as Christ said, “This is my body,” he meant it; the Lord’s Supper possessed a supernatural grace deeply connected to its identification with the very body of Christ. He likened it to an iron thrust into a fire; the heat and the metal so intermingled as to be inseparable.

Zwingli spurned the supernaturalism he saw in Catholic sacramentalism and believed Luther drank too deeply of that tradition. Unlike Luther, Zwingli taught the sacraments were only acts humans did to honor God. They were one way streets; God worked through no means of grace, but only through pure grace alone. Baptism was a sign that one desired to enter into membership with the church of Christ; the Lord’s Supper was taken simply to remember and honor Christ’s suffering. Zwingli’s position has come to be called memorialism.


By 1641, the ancestors of those Christians we today call Baptists were forming congregations in the Spitalfields district of London. In October of that year, a member of one of these congregations, a tailor named Edward Barber, wrote A Small Treatise of Baptism, or Dipping, arguing for the first time in English that baptism done properly requires full immersion. He also referred to the act exclusively as an “ordinance,” a term echoed three years later in the Baptist London Confession of 1644. The confession does not refer to “sacraments,” and takes a Zwinglian view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, declaring that both are to be “dispensed only upon persons professing faith . . . [as] a confirmation of our faith.”

The term “ordinance” was common throughout the Reformation period; however, it meant (and still means) something distinct from “sacrament.” Calvin famously stated ““A sacrament is an holy ordinance … wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” [Shorter Catechism, q. 92]. That is, an ordinance is something commanded by God which believers do only because of that instruction. (Thus the same root as the word “order.”) An ordinance has no metaphysical power. A sacrament, however, is an ordinance that conveys grace. For Calvin, it was proper to call baptism and the Lord’s Supper sacraments, for he believed with Luther that they were, in his famous term, “instruments of grace.”

These Baptists, on the other hand, given their Zwinglian tendencies, were the first Christian group to use the term “ordinance” exclusively to describe baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This vocabulary has persisted among Baptists to this day, along with the exclusively memoralist view of these ritual acts.


In October 2000, Dennis Neuenschwander of the Seventy spoke at BYU on “Ordinances and Covenants.” Neuenschwander outlines three functions of ordinances: learning of God, making covenants, and gaining access to divine power.

Interpreted one way, Neuenschwander uses the term ‘ordinance’ properly. That is, he emphasizes, as did Zwingli, the human side of these rituals. In them we make promises to God, we obey commandments; we perform works and learn and gain instruction. Indeed, as his title implies, for Neuenschwander “ordinance” and “covenant” are virtually synonymous. Again, in one way, this would have been unobjectionable even to Zwingli; he taught that in baptism, for example, the believer vowed to God to join the body of Christ.

But it his notion of what covenant is that ultimately differentiates Neuenschwander’s understanding of the term ‘ordinance’ from that of the Reformers. Though he claims that “We cannot originate such covenants,” a line which the Reformers would have embraced, Neuenschwander’s sacramentality is much closer to that of Catholicism than to the reformers. Without obeying the ordinance,” he argues, “we can neither enter the covenant nor receive its blessings.” Conversely, covenants can be gained simply through participating in the associated ordinance, and maintained by living it. Like Catholicism, then, Neuenschwander allots authority to ordinances in their own right, while to a Reformer they were only effective insofar as they expressed the grace which God did or did not grant according to his will. For Neuenschwander, though God erected the covenant, it stands open, waiting only on our willingness and readiness to enter it; for the Reformers, God rather than humanity governs its borders. It is this understanding that leads Neuenschwander to speak of the “power of the ordinance” – a phrase that to a Reformer would have been incomprehensible and self-contradictory.

Characteristically, Neuenschwander speaks of the practical effects of these rituals. Their substance matters little; they are a means to him, but not a means of grace – rather, a means to bind us to higher and higher standards of behavior. This is curiously, but typically, pragmatic. Neuenschwander does not spend energy musing on whether the Eucharist is actually the body and blood of Christ. Somehow this makes him faithful to the memorialism implied in “ordinance,” in a roundabout way.


These differences run deep, and ultimately to theology in its literal sense – the science of who God is.

For Catholics, it is the being of God that matters; his nature, his absolute goodness, and the sacramentality of their faith is conceptualized in terms of the glory of participating in the body of Christ – exhibited most dramatically in the doctrine of transubstantiation. The careful organization of Catholicism, the seven sacraments which begin at one’s birth and end with death are constructed that one may lead one’s life in a state of constant communion with the divine. To receive the Host means to be incorporated into the City of God, and to belong.

For the Protestants, it is God’s sovereignty which matters. The glory of God is in his absolute mastery of the universe; his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, his ultimate knowledge of the future and authority over the presence, his absolute nature as the source of all that is good. This granted, the sacramentality of Protestantism could hardly be other than it is. Erecting a sacramental system that presumed to demand grace from God is to misunderstand God’s power at best and to commit blasphemy at worst. Rather, it is for us to thank God for that which he graciously gives us.

For Mormons, it is the attributes of God which matter, and our aspirations to them. Mormon sacramentality is constructed in terms of behavior rather than grace. The ordinances are prods, crutches, training wheels that teach divine nature and work to coax it out of us. This means, then, that they are relatively unimportant in substance: debates over the nature of the divine presence in the Eucharist mean little to Mormons, because the important thing is as Neuenschwander noted – the covenants and demands that they impose upon our daily lives.