Common Ground? The Sacraments

On Monday we asked whether Catholics and Protestants can agree on the all-important question of “What must I do to be saved?” Today’s question is related: Is there common ground between Protestants and Catholics on the subject of the Sacraments? Breaking this question down, what are the Sacraments, and are they necessary for salvation?

Once again, it depends on who you ask. Let’s begin with the Catholic position, since it is quite well-defined (we’ve had 2,000 years to think about it).

The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. There are seven sacraments in the Church: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. “Adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus . . . of the Fathers,” we profess that “the sacraments of the new law were . . . all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus’ words and actions during his hidden life and public ministry were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of his Paschal mystery. They announced and prepared what he was going to give the Church when all was accomplished. The mysteries of Christ’s life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of his Church, for “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries.” Sacraments are “powers that comes forth” from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are “the masterworks of God” in the new and everlasting covenant. CCC 1113-1116

So, those are the Sacraments in a pretty impressive little nutshell. There are quite a few different nutshells on the Protestant side of the divide, of all shapes and sizes. Some denominations will tell you there aren’t any sacraments, most will claim that there are two, and a few denominations will propose more than that. One thing most Christians can agree on is that the Sacraments are something that God does. And therein lies the rub….

A Lutheran confessional

For Lutherans, there are two, maybe three sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist (communion), with a dubious addition of Penance (confession) – Luther originally taught that there were three sacraments, then backed off on Penance, and thus there are few Lutherans who practice “Holy Absolution.” Affirmation of Baptism (Confirmation), Holy Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick are practiced, but are considered to be non-sacramental rites. Anglicans and Episcopalians recognize Baptism and the Eucharist as “dominical” (“of the Lord”) sacraments, and may or may not offer the “sacramental rite” of Reconciliation. In Presbyterian denominations, Baptism and the Eucharist are considered sacraments; Presbyterians marry and ordain (some confirm, others do not), but do not consider these to be sacraments. Methodists recognize Baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments; while they perform the rites of Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, and Anointing of the Sick, for Methodists those are not sacraments. In other words, all of these denominations would agree that God works (in one way or another) through baptism and holy communion; this is why baptism and holy communion are considered sacraments. On the other side of the sacramental divide, Evangelical denominations (Baptists, nondenominational churches) believe that baptism and holy communion are not something that God does – they are, rather, something that Christians do in obedience to God. They therefore prefer to refer to baptism and communion as ordinances. Thus, if you ask Evangelicals how many sacraments they recognize, they will say “none,” even though they do baptize and participate in the Lord’s Supper. Some Baptists recognize foot washing (as performed in Catholic parishes on Holy Thursday) as an ordinance, and engage in it on a regular basis. Members of the Church of the Brethren do the same, and would add anointing to their list of ordinances. Quakers and members of the Salvation Army recognize no sacraments by any name; they do not baptize, nor do they receive communion.

And so we observe a gradual paring-down of the Sacraments, from the Catholic understanding of 7 Sacraments, to the mainline Protestant belief in 2 sacraments, to the Evangelical acceptance of 2, or 3, or 4 ordinances only, to no sacraments or ordinances whatsoever. All of this hinges, as I said, on the understanding of what a Sacrament is and what it accomplishes. To the minimalists, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances, not sacraments, meaning that they are commands that believers obey. No grace is conferred; the fulfillment of the ordinance merely symbolizes something important. Let’s examine the Catholic position again. To Catholics, while the Sacraments are symbols, they are at the same time much, much more than symbols:

Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.

This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. CCC 1127-1128

This is where the Protestant and the Catholic understanding of sacraments diverge. Calvin, who taught that Baptism and Holy Communion are sacraments, stated unequivocally: “The sacraments do not confer grace.” Adherents of Reformed theology found the theological concept of ex opere operato (“by the very fact of the action’s being performed”) to be superstitious, making out of the Sacraments “magical rites,” as R.C. Sproul calls them, “that people rely on for salvation instead of faith in Christ alone.” While pooh-poohing the belief that sacraments confer grace, Sproul writes that Calvinists “confess that baptism is a real means of grace wherein the Spirit strengthens our faith and reminds us of the work of Christ” (wrenching the whole discussion back to “faith alone,” the be-all and end-all of the Protestant experience). Believing that the Sacraments are outward or sensible signs instituted by Christ to give grace requires, apparently, too much faith. This Reformed devaluation of the Sacraments further devolved into the prevailing Evangelical belief that the Sacraments are not even somehow “a real means of grace,” but mere symbols that Jesus insisted that we reenact to remind ourselves and the world of His life, death and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper, as it is called, is seldom celebrated in Evangelical churches, simply because nobody quite knows what to make of this “symbol.” When I partook of the crackers and the grape juice as an Evangelical, I would become disgruntled, thinking guiltily that I could have come up with a better “symbol” than eating Saltines and drinking Welch’s. As Catholic Flannery O’Connor famously quipped, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.

The Church takes the Sacraments extremely serious, for obvious reasons. Jesus Himself stated that Baptism and Holy Communion are necessary for salvation:

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Jn 3:5

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. Jn 6:53-54

Of course, you can mock the literal understanding of these verses as superstition, or you can admit that you lack the faith to take Jesus at His word. To the Church:

Sacraments are “powers that comes forth” from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are “the masterworks of God” in the new and everlasting covenant.

Okay, you’ve got to admit that the whole Catholic explanation sounds grand, yet Evangelicals have one very compelling objection to the Catholic understanding of the Sacraments. There are Evangelicals who live at a level of spirituality that puts many sacrament-partaking Catholics to shame. How can this be, skeptical Protestants demand, if the Sacraments confer such incredible graces, and our ordinances are mere symbols?
If the Church is right about the Sacraments,
shouldn’t things be the other way around?

From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. CCC 1128

The subject under discussion has now shifted from the Sacraments and the graces they confer to the fruits of the Sacraments. The complaint that many Catholics bear no fruit is certainly a valid one. People can receive a sacrament and yet bear no fruit because they are not properly disposed. Let’s say I tootle into Reconciliation, confess all my sins and receive absolution, without repenting of those sins; in fact, I plan to go out and commit them all again next weekend. One thing the Catholic Church and our separated brethren can agree on is that the Sacraments aren’t magic – I can fool the priest with crocodile tears, but don’t expect to see me growing more Christ-like as a result of the sacrament! Another consideration would be that, while grace is always abundantly available in any given sacrament, sacrament-partaking Catholics are not forced thereby to automatically bear fruit. I can receive all the grace I need from my reception of the Holy Eucharist to aid me in showing forbearance towards irksome family members, but at the same time I can still choose to explode when they refuse to play Parcheesi with me. That explains unfruitful Catholics. How to explain non-sacrament-partaking, Christ-like Protestants? While the divine life of grace is primarily imparted to us through the Sacraments, it is not exclusively imparted through the Sacraments, explaining why an untold number of properly-disposed Protestants live faith-filled, God-honoring lives by availing themselves of the graces God grants them through spiritual communion, prayer and Bible-reading. Uninstructed Catholics may surmise that sacraments like Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist somehow work automatically, or that being Catholic is some kind of guarantee of being spiritually fruitful, neither fallacy being taught by the Church – or they may just not care. There are Protestants who, while rejecting the incredible outpouring of grace in the Sacraments, are at least sharp enough not to spurn the grace offered to them by other means. Those Protestants put fruitless Catholics to shame.

On the Catholic side of the aisle, the saints are the best example of the grace that flows freely through the Sacraments, wild, tumultuous, inexhaustible grace that sanctifies and produces holy fruit. With that wealth of grace available to us, Catholics have no excuse for living mediocre lives, just as the child of a billionaire has no excuse for wearing rags and eating out of garbage cans. The grace is there in the Sacraments, like a fortune in the bank, but remember – God’s never going to force you to make a withdrawal and spend it. What you do with your fortune is still up to you.


On the memorial of Sts. Cyril and Methodius

Deo omnis gloria!

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