Hi, Fr. Bruce —
First of all, note the term some Protestants use is Ordinance. What is an Ordinance but a law, something we do because Jesus commanded us to do it. Most denominations, that use this terminology, also believe that these ordinances are highly symbolic but that's it; there is no spiritual reality.
As a Baptist, I believed that Christ instituted two sacraments or ordinances. These were Baptism and Communion but I also believed neither of these were efficient by themselves. Baptism could only be administered after someone had professed faith and had already be regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Therefore it was an outward sign of something that had transpired aside from the action of Baptism. Communion was a memorial meal that proclaimed the Death and Resurrection of Our Lord. It was "The Lord's Supper" but aside from the believer's faith, it offered no intrinsic grace.
To be honest, we celebrated them out of obedience but not because either was understood to be needed for salvation.
If you are going to really talk to a Protestant about the sacraments you need to talk to them about the nature of a covenant. Sacraments are covenant acts, a covenant is a real exchange of persons not just promises; it's not a simple contract.
You really have to go through the Old Testament and show them the importance of the covenant to the Hebrew people and then show how, from the very beginning, all God had been trying to do is establish a covenant with man. In other words, all that God is trying to do is give Himself to us.
In fact, the doctrine of atonement can be distilled down to the very simple statement.
God (Christ) gave Himself for us, in order to give Himself to us.
Therefore, a Sacrament, which comes from the Latin word for oath, is a vehicle through which God promises and gives Himself to us. Sacraments or oaths are an essential part of a covenant.
So the difference:
- Ordinance = We do this because He told us to do it. Simple obedience; not a bad thing,
but strictly juridical and very much rooted in Nominalism.
- Sacrament = God giving Himself to us by a covenantal action.
It's key to note that before a Protestant is going to get this, he 's going to need a major paradigm shift. A few proof texts won't do it.
Scott Hahn's work is based on a rediscovery of the Church Father's work on this subject.
Hahn in his work, the Lamb's Supper takes us back to a pre-Trent understanding of the Liturgy and Covenant; he's not trying to undo Trent. What he actually does is "hits the nail on the head".
He explains what Vatican II was trying to get at when it tried to emphasize that "meal" aspect of the Eucharist.
Yes it is a meal, but what meal? It's not just a community meal. It's a participation in the Lamb's Wedding Supper which is already taking place in Heaven and fully takes place after the Resurrection of the body. It is also participation in the Divine Liturgy taking place in Heaven wherein Christ, the Risen Lord is still offering Himself to the Father and with Himself, He offers us as well, because we are in Him and it is the Sacrifice of Calvary, as Trent taught us. All of this can only be fully grasped when we understand the notion of covenant: one person giving themselves completely to another.
We always say we receive Jesus when we receive the Eucharist and that's fine. It's obviously theologically correct but, I think it's better to say in the Eucharist, Jesus gives Himself for us and to us. For us, because it is still the one Sacrifice of Calvary and to us because that is the reason He gives Himself for us in the first place.
Hope this helps,