*As a preliminary note, this is the first of eight posts regarding the sacraments. This initial post is a general overview of the Sacraments, and is intended to speak about them generally. We will be going into specific theology about each sacrament in their individual post. *
*Secondary note: Let me be very clear on this point. The Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by, “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”1 Do not lose that while reading this article. We’ll get to salvation (justification, sanctification, etc.) in a different article.*
In preparation for writing on this topic, I soon found that my understanding of the sacraments was lacking, so I am deeply grateful for this endeavor. I spoke with my spiritual director, who is a canon lawer2, and asked him several questions about the sacraments. Here were the preliminary questions:
Me: Are the sacraments salvific?
Spiritual Director: Of course they are.
Me: But, can you obtain salvation without receiving them?
Spiritual Director: Ah… that’s an entirely different question. Christ gave the Church everything that was necessary for salvation. No more. No less. So, yes, the sacraments are salvific in the sense that they help us to live a grace filled life, but there are those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to receive this teaching. For those of us who know the truth of the sacraments, it would be extremely presumptuous to assume that we don’t need to receive them.
He went on to discuss the various types of ignorance (nescience, vincible and invincible), and the repercussions of ignorance in our lives. With that said, I pray that this is informative, and helps you, as it has helped me, to better understand the sacraments, our need of them, and the profound love of our God for giving them to us.
The term “Sacrament” comes from the Latin word sacramentum, and was first used by Tertullian, around 200 A.D., as adherence to God. The Greek word mysterion, mystery, is used in Eastern Christianity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church3 states,
The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.4
Sacrosanctum Concilium5 says that the purpose of the sacraments are to,
[…] sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God; because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called ‘sacraments of faith.’ They do indeed impart grace, but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them most effectively disposes the faithful to receive this grace in a fruitful manner, to worship God duly, and to practice charity.6
Additionally, paragraph 1116 of the Catechism states,
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.
Lastly, the Roman Catechism (Catechism issued after the Council of Trent in 1547 A.D.) states,
But by the Latin Fathers who have written on theological subjects, the word sacrament is used to signify a sacred thing which lies concealed. The Greeks, to express the same idea, made use of the word mystery. This we understand to be the meaning of the word, when, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, it is said: That he might make known to us the mystery (sacramentum) of his will; and to Timothy: great is the mystery (sacramentum) of godliness; and in the Book of Wisdom: They knew not the secrets (sacramenta) of God. In these and many other passages the word sacrament, it will be perceived, signifies nothing more than a holy thing that lies concealed and hidden.
Let it not, however, be supposed that the word sacrament is of recent ecclesiastical usage. Whoever peruses the works of Saints Jerome and Augustine will at once perceive that ancient ecclesiastical writers made use of the word sacrament, and some times also of the word symbol, or mystical sign or sacred sign, to designate that of which we here speak.9
The seven Sacraments are10:
- Some passages that demonstrate the Sacrament of Baptism are: Matthew 3:16; Matthew 28:19; Mark 1:8; Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 1:4-5; Acts 2:38; Acts 8:16; Acts 8:36-38; Acts 11:16; Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33; Acts 18:8; Acts 19:3-6; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 5:25-26; Col. 2:12; 1 Peter 3:20-21.
- Some passages that demonstrate the Sacrament of Confirmation are: Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 39:29; Joel 2:28; John 14:16; Acts 2:4; Acts 8:14-17; Acts 19:3-6; Hebrews 6:2.
- Penance (Reconciliation)
- Some passages that demonstrate the Sacrament of Penance are: Matthew 16:19; Luke 24:47; John 20:21-23; Rev. 1:18; Luke 24:46-47.
- Some passages that demonstrate the Sacrament of Penance are: Matthew 16:19; Luke 24:47; John 20:21-23; Rev. 1:18; Luke 24:46-47.
- Holy Communion (Eucharist)
- Some passages that demonstrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion are: Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 24:35; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:24-27.
- Holy Orders (Deacon, Priest, and Bishop)
- Some passages that demonstrate the Sacrament of Holy Orders are: Acts 6:3-6; Acts 13:2-3; 1 Tim. 3:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-9; 1 Tim. 4:14; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Tim. 5:17-19; 1 Tim. 5:22.
- Some passages that demonstrate the Sacrament of Matrimony are: Mt. 19:10-11; Eph. 5:31-32.
- Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction)
- Some passages that demonstrate the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick are: Mark 6:13, James 5:14-15.
The Sacraments cooperate in our salvation, and are therefore exceedingly efficacious in attaining salvation. Furthermore, is also important to understand that the Sacraments are things instituted by God, not man, which is why they inherently posses the power to impart salvation.11
The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. “Sacramental grace” is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior. – Cf. Council of Trent (1547): DS 1604.
For example, John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, but it was not a Sacrament. In contrast, the baptism of the new covenant is more than a symbol, it is a sacrament.
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’“12 [emphasis added]
Another example of our Lord indicating that a sacrament aids in our salvation is when He states,
So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”13 [emphasis added]
[Here is a link to my blog posts on the Eucharist, if you’d like a better understanding of our Lord’s teaching on the Eucharist. The Eucharist: Why it’s More than a Symbol and The Eucharist: Why it’s More than a Symbol – Final Remarks.]
The sacraments are a means of grace, given directly from God, in our lives. Meaning, the reception of these Sacraments aids the soul in living a grace filled life. While men, specifically priests, are the stewards of the sacraments, they are not the ones who impute/infuse the grace of the Sacrament.
What about those who, through no fault of their own, cannot understand the sacraments or salvation in Jesus Christ? For example, Protestants, who have been in protest for 500 years, and have been passed down their theological paradigm. Lumen Gentium14, which is a document published by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964, states,
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.(20*) She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.(129) Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”,(130) the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. – Lumen Gentium, Paragraph 16
Now, with all of this said, why were the sacraments instituted and so what? What impact would/do the sacraments have upon my soul? I’m going to let the Roman Catechism answer that question:
The first of these reasons is the feebleness of the human mind. We are so constituted by nature that no one can aspire to mental and intellectual knowledge unless through the medium of sensible objects. In order, therefore, that we might more easily understand what is accomplished by the hidden power of God, the same sovereign Creator of the universe has most wisely, and out of His tender kindness towards us, ordained that His power should be manifested to us through the intervention of certain sensible signs. As St. Chrysostom happily expresses it: If man were not clothed with a material body, these good things would have been presented to him naked and without any covering; but as the soul is joined to the body, it was absolutely necessary to employ sensible things in order to assist in making them understood.
Another reason is because the mind yields a reluctant assent to promises. Hence, from the beginning of the world, God was accustomed to indicate, and usually in words, that which He had resolved to do; but sometimes, when designing to execute something, the magnitude of which might weaken a belief in its accomplishment, He added to words other signs, which sometimes appeared miraculous. When, for instance, God sent Moses to deliver the people of Israel, and Moses, distrusting the help even of God who had commissioned him, feared that the burden imposed was heavier than he could bear, or that the people would not heed his message, the Lord confirmed His promise by a great variety of signs. As, then, in the Old Law, God ordained that every important promise should be confirmed by certain signs, so in the New Law, Christ our Saviour, when He promised pardon of sin, divine grace, the communication of the Holy Spirit, instituted certain visible and sensible signs by which He might oblige Himself, as it were, by pledges, and make it impossible to doubt that He would be true to His promises.
A third reason is that the Sacraments, to use the words of St. Ambrose, may be at hand, as the remedies and medicines of the Samaritan in the Gospel, to preserve or recover the health of the soul. For, through the Sacraments, as through a channel, must flow into the soul the efficacy of the Passion of Christ, that is, the grace which He merited for us on the altar of the cross, and without which we cannot hope for salvation. Hence, our most merciful Lord has bequeathed to His Church, Sacraments stamped with the sanction of His word and promise, through which, provided we make pious and devout use of these remedies, we firmly believe that the fruit of His Passion is really communicated to us.
A fourth reason why the institution of the Sacraments seems necessary is that there may be certain marks and symbols to distinguish the faithful; particularly since, as St. Augustine observes, no society of men, professing a true or a false religion, can be, so to speak, consolidated into one body, unless united and held together by some bond of sensible signs. Both these objects the Sacraments of the New Law accomplish, distinguishing the Christian from the infidel, and uniting the faithful by a sort of sacred bond.
Another very just cause for the institution of the Sacraments may be shown from the words of the Apostle: With the heart we believe unto justice; but with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. By approaching them we make a public profession of our faith in the sight of men. Thus, when we approach Baptism, we openly profess our belief that, by virtue of its salutary waters in which we are washed, the soul is spiritually cleansed.
The Sacraments have also great influence, not only in exciting and exercising our faith, but also in inflaming that charity with which we should love one another, when we recollect that, by partaking of these mysteries in common, we are knit together in the closest bonds and are made members of one body.
A final consideration, which is of greatest importance for the life of a Christian, is that the Sacraments repress and subdue the pride of the human heart, and exercise us in the practice of humility; for they oblige us to subject ourselves to sensible elements in obedience to God, from whom we had before impiously revolted in order to serve the elements of the world.
These are the chief points that appeared to us necessary for the instruction of the faithful on the name, nature, and institution of a Sacrament. When they shall have been accurately expounded by the pastor, his next duty will be to explain the constituents of each Sacrament, its parts, and the rites and ceremonies which have been added to its administration.17 [emphasis added]
The sacraments have the ability to bring heaven to earth, to tear the veil between all things seen and unseen, and to allow the Church Militant (the Church on earth) and the Church Triumphant (the Church in eternity) to unite in time and space. Another way to say this is that the sacraments make the reality of the Church being both here and there, now and not yet. Through the sacraments, heaven comes, not just to visit, but to live with us and in us.
Ubi Caritas Est Vera, Deus Ibi Est.
(Where true love is, God is there)
- 1 Corinthians 2:2b NRSV
- A Canon Lawyer is an individual who is skilled in Canon Law. Canon Law is the judicial system of the Catholic Church, which aids the Church in regulating its external organization, government, and ensures that the Church is being ordered and directed towards its mission.
- Code of Canon Law: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_INDEX.HTM
- Catechism of the Catholic Church: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM
- Catechism of the Catholic Church: Paragraph 1084
- Sacrosanctum Concilium: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html
- Sacrosanctum Concilium: Paragraph 59
- Cf. Council of Lyons II (1274) DS 860; Council of Florence (1439): DS 1310; Council of Trent (1547): DS 1601.
- Roman Catechism (Catechism of the Council of Trent): http://www.catholicapologetics.info/thechurch/catechism/trentc.htm
- Roman Catechism: Part II: The Sacraments – The Word “Sacrament”
- Catechism of the Catholic Church: Paragraph 1117
- John 3:5-7 NRSV
- John 6:53-58 NRSV
- Lumen Gentium: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html
- To be clear, this is not to be interpreted as justification for the willfully ignorant or disobedient, but truly, through no fault of their own, they were not able to come to saving knowledge in Jesus Christ.
- Parenthetical citation references can be found in the foot notes of “Lumen Gentium”
- Roman Catechism: Part II: The Sacraments – Why the Sacraments were Instituted
- Catechism of the Catholic Church: Paragraph 1121