The Sacraments Convey Grace

baptism Ordination may be bestowed on a candidate by a bishop.

More than Signs

The sacraments are the means through which God unites his creation to himself and shares the fruit of the Incarnation with mankind.  The Prayer Book Catechism says that a sacrament is:

...an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof. (1928 Book of Common Prayer, p. 581)

From this we learn that a sacrament is a means of grace: not a mere badge or token of grace received otherwise, but rather an effective sign by which grace is given and by which that gift is pledged for our assur­ance. This definition is in contrast to some Protestant views which hold that a sacrament has no objective, actual effect, but only is a mere sign or token of grace that is given aside from the sacraments.

Ex Opere Oper­ato

The Catholic view is that sacraments are not mere signs, but rather are signs which effect what they signify and signify what they effect.

Consider, for example, baptism. Some Protestants hold that baptism is a mere token of forgiveness of sins, which forgiveness God actually gives immediately to the soul of those to be saved in response to faith or merely of his good pleasure. The Anglican Catholic view is that bap­tism is the means used primarily by God to forgive sins, convey grace, begin new life, and incorporate the new Christian into the Body of Christ. We believe in ‘Baptism for the remission of sins’ (Nicene Creed), and not merely as a sign of such remission given otherwise – though the sacraments also are such signs or pledges. So, baptism not only signifies washing from sin, but also is the means by which sins are washed away.

Sacraments are confected by human ministers, but these ministers are merely instruments. The primary agent is God. The sacraments are divine acts performed by human instruments for human beings. Since the sacraments are primarily God’s acts, they do not depend upon the personal worthiness of their ministers (cf. Article XXVI, BCP, p. 607). Likewise the sacraments are effective even when they are imperfectly understood by their minister or recipient: indeed, we can never fully understand the sacraments or the grace they convey. However, a direct or habitual rejection of God or of the grace offered in a particular sacrament does render the recipient incapable of receiving the grace of that sacrament.

A ‘direct’ rejection of God or of the grace of the sacraments would include, for instance, someone making his communion to please his parents, while in his heart rejecting belief in God or telling himself that the Eucharist is superstitious nonsense. An ‘habitual’ rejection of God or of the grace of the sacraments means the recipient is living a life that as a whole is turned away from God and the possibility of growth in grace. Someone, for instance, who lives persistently in a state of adultery is habitually turned away from God. In such a state he is essentially closed to receiving the grace of a sacrament, though he may not directly or consciously reject that grace and though he may not think that he is receiving the sacraments fruitlessly.

In short, in the sacraments God always, truly, really, and objectively conveys grace, except to those who positively reject the grace offered or who have rendered themselves incapable of receiving it. Grace is always offered through the sacraments, but sometimes the offer is refused. The sacraments are sometimes likened to a train on a track: the train will reach the end of the track necessarily unless something stops or derails it.

There are, of course, many other means of grace besides the sacra­ments. For instance, prayer outside the sacraments is a means of grace. These other means of grace (many of which are called, some­what confusingly, ‘sacramentals’, as opposed to ‘sacraments’) differ from the sacraments. Sacraments convey grace objectively to all who do not positively reject it. Sacramentals depend much more on the subjective intention, piety, and effort of those who use them. For instance, someone who blesses himself with holy water is not thereby objectively made any better or holier. If he does receive grace on account of his act, that grace flows from the pious intention he brought to it – from the recollection of baptism stirred up by his act, for instance.

This distinction between sacraments and sacramentals is sometimes spoken of with two Latin tags. Sacraments convey grace ex opere oper­ato (by the work worked – as the objective result of what is done). Sacramentals convey grace ex operando operis (by the working of the work – as a result of something subjective in the process of doing what is done).

So, a sacrament is an ‘outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace’ which both gives the grace it signifies and also assures us that that grace is objectively offered. A sacrament is real and effective if it is ‘valid’. To be valid it must have several elements: proper form (the words said), matter (the thing done or the visible action or the mate­rial used), minister (the person who performs the sacrament), and intention (the intent or purpose of the minister). Proper intention usu­ally means intending what Christ or the Church wishes us to do in the sacrament and not intending anything that contradicts that. No one can receive any other sacrament until he is baptized. To have a good effect the sacrament most also have a proper recipient.

Besides validity, theologians also speak of sacramental regularity and irregularity. An irregular sacrament is valid (i.e., it truly offers grace) but unlawful. For instance, a priest who has been deposed from holy orders ought not to administer the sacrament of penance or absolution (except, perhaps, to someone in extremis). Nevertheless, if he does so, the grace of the sacrament is given.

Seven in Number

There are seven sacraments: Holy Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, the Holy Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Unction of the Sick.

The Articles of Religion say that there are two sacraments ordained by Christ, namely baptism and the Eucharist, and that the other five things com­monly called sacraments are different from these two in that they lack a visible sign or ceremony ordained by God. The Catechism also speaks of "two only, as generally necessary to salvation..." ordained by Christ (BCP, p. 581).

Most Anglican Catholic theologians interpret these two formularies as follows: there are, as commonly held in the Eastern and Western Churches, seven sacraments. Two of these were instituted by Christ himself as the generally necessary means to salva­tion, namely baptism and the Eucharist.  The phrase itself is a term of art with a closely defined meaning.  To say that two sacraments only are generally necessary to salvation means exactly what is says and nothing more or less.  By `generally necessary' we mean that some of the other sacraments may be necessary for some people, but not in general or for all. 

So, for instance, if John has a vocation to the priesthood, or if Jim and Mary have a vocation to the married state, then one of the other sacraments is particularly necessary for their salvation.  But not everyone has such a vocation, so matrimony and ordination cannot be generally necessary for salvation.  Likewise, everyone should be confirmed:  confirmation is a sacrament that should be general.  But confirmation is not absolutely necessary to salvation, or even for admission to Holy Communion, if, for instance, there is no bishop available for a long time, as in the American Colonies before the consecration of Samuel Seabury on November 14, 1784.  But the fact that Confirmation may not be generally necessary to salvation, does not make it any less of a sacrament.

The Question of Faith

Some might ask, 'why must we have these sacraments at all; is not faith in Christ alone necessary for salvation'?  The brief answer is this:  in general it is necessary to have faith in Christ, be baptized, and then regularly receive the Eucharist.  This brief answer needs elaboration.

It usually is easier and safer to speak positively about salvation than negatively.  God has told us infallibly what we need to do to be saved.  God does not tell us infallibly who in particular will not be saved.  God is free to save anyone anyway he pleases, for "the Spirit bloweth where he listeth."  That God promises to save people in a certain way, however, does not mean that he cannot or does not save people in other ways.  We don't know about that.  We are not invited to make judgements about who is not saved.  We are commanded to do what God tells us so that we will be saved. 

So, what is necessary for salvation?  The general picture we get from the New Testament is that salvation is a two-fold process.  It requires that we die to self and live to God.  We die to self by repentance for past sins, which are revealed by the light of God's command­ments, and with faith in his promises.  This dying to self is accomplished `generally' by faith in the heart and by baptism:  "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved..." (Mk 16:16).  So too when the Philippian jailer asks Sts. Paul and Silas, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved," Paul answers, "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ," and then baptizes him "straightway" (Acts 13:30-33). 

After we die to self by inner conversion and baptism, we live to God by following his commandments, especially concerning love.  The Eucharist both enables and symbolizes this `new life' (Book of Common Prayer, p. 75) in God, for it feeds us constantly in and with the Body of Christ into which baptism incorporates us.  Naturally the other sacraments and practices of Christian piety enter into this new life. 

This is the general, positive rule.  It does not follow that there are no exceptions.  The Church from very early days, for instance, enrolled among the martyrs those catechumens (people preparing for baptism) who were killed during persecutions.  While the Fathers certainly view baptism as "generally necessary," the circumstances of persecution create an anamolous situation where the general rule cannot apply. The Fathers speak of such martyred catechumens as receiving the "baptism of blood," which certainly is adequate to wash away their sins.  The necessity for baptism presupposes opportunity.  Where opportunity does not present itself the Church accepts the "baptism of desire," the desire to be baptized, for the fact of baptism.  Our Lord suggests as much:  "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.' (Mk 16:16, again.)  Note that Christ does not say, `He that is not baptized shall be damned.'

Nevertheless, it is never safe to suppose that a mental, subjective state of faith in Christ can replace the objectively effective sacrament established and commanded (Mt 28:19) by him.  A positive refusal to seek baptism at the first opportunity argues that what seems to be faith is no such thing.  Faith properly leads, not to a minimal, grudging participation in the sacramental life of the Church, but to the fullness of such participation, with all of its sacraments, acts of piety and worship, and opportunities for service and growth in faith, hope, and love.