Linking holiness and sacraments would seem to be a contradiction in Salvation Army thinking and practice. The doctrine of holiness is a foundation stone of The Salvation Army's theology. Sacramental worship, particularly the use of bread, wine and water, are rites carried out in other church traditions. Can the two be brought together in one idea?

As a young Salvationist I can remember being taught that The Salvation Army was a non-sacramental church. The emphasis was on an Army that was a practical and pragmatic holiness Movement. The life that was totally and completely committed to God was the focus of its holiness teaching. The constant encouragement to be like Jesus was parallelled with the call to duty and service. The Salvation Army was a mission that was not going to be caught up with the “trappings” of church.

Although I still agree with this emphasis, what I couldn't see then and what I have now come to realize is that The Salvation Army has captured the essence of sacramental worship within the heart of its holiness doctrine. The call to an intimate personal relationship with Jesus Christ is also the call to display outwardly the love and the nature of the one who now dwells within. This is the truth that brings holiness and the sacramental life together.

The Sacramental Life
The meaning behind the word sacrament as used in most church traditions is that of a rite in which the activity of God is evident and real. Participation in the Eucharist, for example, is meant to indicate the inner grace of God through the visible signs of the bread and wine.

When Jesus reclined with his disciples at the meal that is now called the Last Supper, he was meeting with friends. Throughout the three years of being together, Jesus had dramatically affected the lives of the disciples. Now he prepares them for the future by asking them to remember him. “Remember who I am and what I have done” was the challenge of Jesus during this final meal together.

And the disciples did, not by instituting rites or rituals, but by the total commitment of the rest of their lives to Jesus. They proclaimed his gospel to the “ends of the earth” (see Acts 1:8) and all of them were to suffer as a result. But they remembered Jesus in the most profound way possible—by their lives and actions.

This whole-of-life expectation was emphasized during Peter's encounter with Jesus in the days following his passion and Resurrection (see John 21:15-19). In the first conversation that Jesus had with Peter after Peter's denial of his Lord (see John 18), Jesus asks, “'Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?'” Peter's answer to this question was immediate, “'Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.'”

But Jesus was not yet finished with Peter. He asks him the same question, not just once more, but twice more. “'Do you love me more than these?'” Was Jesus repeating the question because Peter had denied him three times or was Jesus emphasizing something very important? For the Jews the repetition of something gave it increased importance. For example, in Isaiah 6:3 and in Revelation 4:8 we read that God was not just “holy” or even “holy, holy”; God was “holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty.” Three times reveals the ultimate importance of the statement.

When Jesus asked Peter three times, he was not asking him to be an acquaintance, or even just a friend. He was asking Peter to love him with the absolute unconditional love that we see between a father and a son (see John 1:12-13). And Peter's response for the third time, “Lord, you know that I love you,” secures a relationship that was to see Peter become the leader of the Early Church.

The Power of Relationship
We cannot underestimate the power of relationship, especially relationships founded on love. In a recent tragedy in my country a young father jumped from a wharf into rough treacherous water to save his two small boys from drowning. The father ignored the danger and the impossibility of saving his children. He jumped into the water regardless, and both he and his boys were drowned. Why did he do it? At the heart of this father's instinct was the most powerful experience that the human being knows, the power of a relationship that is founded on love.

This love relationship was the power behind the events of the Last Supper; this love relationship was the power that made Jesus' encounter with Peter so significant. It is nothing less than the power of this love relationship that is at the heart of holiness and results in the sacramental life—the life lived as the outward evidence of God's relationship with us.

All too often in the Army we have talked about holiness as things we should do or shouldn't do, or about how we get holiness and what we need to do to stay holy. The same sort of thinking has occurred in other church traditions when rites and rituals have been used to remember Jesus. But the heart of holiness and the sacramental life is a relationship with Jesus Christ that results in our wanting to be like him in every way—in our actions, in our thinking, in our living. Holiness is our relationship with Jesus that is sealed through the indwelling of the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and is then evident to all around us. Can there be a more powerful sacrament?

The Salvation Army as a Sacramental Church
Rather than being a non-sacramental church, I believe that The Salvation Army is a fully sacramental church because it takes Jesus' call to remember him in a literal and pragmatic way. The whole of the Salvationist's life is sacramental because we ourselves have become the outward sign of the inner grace. Instead of a symbolic ritual, Salvationists are called to be the outward sign of the inner presence of Jesus. “My life must be Christ's broken bread, my love his outpoured wine,” wrote General Albert Orsborn.

This desire, even expectation, for the Salvationist is not an arrogant one, nor does it hint of idealism. It is real because it is the outcome of our personal relationship with Jesus himself and makes holiness a reality in the Christian life.

Although I believe that The Salvation Army has rightly put aside the physical elements of sacramental worship (bread, wine and water), we have embraced within our lives of holiness the meaning of sacrament so that we ourselves become the visible sign of the inner grace of God's presence in our lives. I now believe The Salvation Army to be as sacramental as any church tradition. The transformation that Christ brings about in our lives through his indwelling Spirit shows itself in the actions and attitudes of our holy living. We are the outward sign of his wonderful and miraculous indwelling grace within our lives.

Lt-Colonel Philip Cairns is a member of the International Doctrine Council and is the divisional commander of the Australia Capital Territory and South New South Wales Division in the Australia Eastern Territory. This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of The Officer and is used with permission.


On Friday, May 10, 2024, S. Abraham said:

Obedience to God with compassion towards man is the expectation of our Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew 23:23. Growing in holiness and following the external acts of obedience like the early church, ie following baptism and communion is important. The sacraments are followed as a rule of the church whereas growing in holiness is individual personal act before God. I am from India and I believe that the Salvation Army should immediately begin to follow these two sacraments.

On Saturday, May 29, 2021, Terry Fern said:

Excellent article, however, Jesus and the historic church believed in a "sacramental life" and still partook of weekly communion and practiced water baptism - Biblical symbols are important. There are historical reasons for the Salvation Army not practicing the sacraments but these should defer to Scripture and historic church practice. The SA is a wonderful church, but it is time to celebrate the physical sacraments that evidence spiritual obedience to Jesus and New Testament Scripture.


On Thursday, January 9, 2020, Ron Schroeder said:

Good stuff here, Thank you. I have been attending a local Sal Army Corp in IL since last March and am starting Solider class starting this Sunday so of course I am questioning stuff now. I was born, raised and baptized Lutheran LCMS but didn't come to Christ till 2014. Being a Lutheran I do understand God's Grace, I guess the whole no communion and being baptized is making me wonder but I'll just take the classes and pray to God if this is his will for me. I also work for the Army now since May of last year too.


On Wednesday, August 29, 2012, Garry Hopkins said:

I have been reading, with great interest, the comments on Colonel Carin's article The Real Sacrament. While I do concur with the concept that Salvationist can be witnesses to the idea that one can live the Christian life without the sacraments, I agree with Barbara Moulton, we ought to guard against the suggestion that "Salvationists have a deeper experience of holiness because of their non sacramental stand." The practice or non practice of the Sacraments is not necessarily synonymous with holy living.

I am happy that Moe has found a place of worship where she can practice the two sacraments espoused by Protestantism as opposed to the seven espoused by Roman Catholicism. However I am reluctant to accept the suggestion that the reason the Christian church practices the sacrament is because Jesus instituted them. I would point to two prominent theologians of both traditions who reject " the answer that declares we have them because Jesus instituted them." One of the most influential and respected Protestant theologian, Dr. Paul Tillich (in The Protestant Era) and the Catholic theologian, Donal M. Baillie (in The Theology of the Sacraments) reject that simple answer.

On Thursday, August 16, 2012, Reverend Barbara Moulton said:

I was raised in The Salvation Army and served as an Officer for nine years. When I read columns like this I am concerned, because the writer appears to forget that there are many sister denominations which emphasize holiness of life and heart AND fully embrace the sacraments of communion and baptism.

Cairns writes, "Instead of a symbolic ritual, Salvationists are called to be the outward sign of the inner presence of Jesus." The reality is that every Christian is called to be the outward sign of the inner presence of Jesus, whether we participate in communion or not. My present denomination believes in and teaches sanctification with clarity and conviction.

If The Salvation Army believes that is called to be a witness that one can live the Christian life without the sacraments, then they should teach and celebrate this. You can do this without suggesting that Salvationists have a deeper experience of holiness because of their non sacramental stand.


On Wednesday, August 8, 2012, Brian Adams said:

Symbol, ceremony, and ritual have always been a part of Biblical worship, going all the way back to animal sacrifice in the Tabernacle. I despise neither ritual nor those for whom ritual is a meaningful part of worship. Any Christian who feels compelled by conscience or through his or her study of scripture to partake of the sacraments obviously should do so.

At the same time, the more I consider the question the more convinced I am that the distinction between the outward, symbolic ritual and the underlying spiritual reality is not some sort of uniquely Salvation Army perspective, it is in fact the clear and unambiguous message that runs through scripture, Old Testament and New.

I believe the early Salvationists got it right. "Outward sign of inward grace" is not (with all due respect, Bradley) some sort of outdated Salvation Army cliche, it is a pure condensation of Biblical truth.

On Wednesday, August 8, 2012, Moe said:

This article sounds like an excuse as to why The Salvation Army is holding on to tradition. As a former Salvation Army attender, I believe that not having a communion Sunday is a missing piece of worship. My current church does communion Sunday on a monthly basis and we also focus on the idea of living grace out to others. On communion Sunday, we have a second offering to support a local group and 100% of the funds goes to that charity. It's a simple way of living out our faith.

On a theological note, it is very difficult for me not to live out communion Sunday when Jesus says "do this in rememberance of me". How can one argue that we should not be involved with bapitsm and communion? It beats me but I am happy to be baptized and to partake in communion at my current church which is of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination.

On Monday, August 6, 2012, Brad Oxford said:

Please, when will leaders of The Salvation Army stop beating this issue to death! You leaders have taught your "outward sign of an inner grace" idea so much that it's either people will accept it or not! You keep talking about symbols. I don't know of another church in the world that has as many symbols as the Army! Time to give it up already. We get it, the stance on the sacraments will never change until new blood takes over the old mind-set of the current leaders. It's like the Roman Catholic Church, until there is a modern-day pope, with modern-day "top leadership" there will never be women preachers in the RC Church. Regardless of how RC parishioners feel about the issue, the "women preacher thing" will never change until the mind-set of top leadership changes, regardless of the loss. Same applies to the Army, regardless of what Salvationists say, some things (such as the sacramental stand) will never change while the old guard remains!

On Thursday, August 2, 2012, Major John Gerard said:

When as a young man I knelt at the Mercy Seat to seek the blessing of Holiness, having understood somewhat what was entailed, my life blossomed into ministry , so much so, the Call of God to Officership beame a natural extension of that commitment. I continue to enjoy now the fruits of my labour well into retirement. Jesus never fails, and the cross is not greater than His grace. Praise the Lord!

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