Today we will take a look at the concept of sacraments. The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin “sacramentum”, signifying something sacred, namely, an oath. It also denotes a “mystery.” Sacraments may be used differently by various groups and can be found in the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and even in some Protestant churches. But since they are most prominent in the Catholic Church, we will deal with the Catholic view of sacraments.
Portrait of a Sacrament
So what are Catholic sacraments, and how important are they?
There are many descriptions of them, e.g., sacraments are said to be visible signs of an invisible reality… visible signs instituted by Christ to give grace… signs that really effect what they symbolize… outward signs of inward grace… signs that accomplish what they signify… vehicles of grace… signs that cause us to be united to Christ in the deepest and greatest possible way... etc., etc.
Here are some statements from Catholic sources concerning their importance:
The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1113)
By His power He [Christ] is present in the sacraments… (Pope Paul VI, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” a Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Paragraph 7)
His purpose also was that they might accomplish the work of salvation which they had proclaimed, by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves. (Ibid., Paragraph 6)
Sacraments are "powers that come 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 #1116)
The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. (CCC #1129)
Therefore, sacraments are extremely important to the Catholic Church. They are foundational to its existence and welfare, since they are “necessary for salvation.”
So, according to the Catholic Church, how does a sacrament actually work?
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. (CCC #1127)
The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. (CCC #1131)
What the Catechism is saying is that sacraments are symbols that have the power to “confer” / furnish / supply grace and to actually do what they symbolize (e.g., baptism actually washes away sin, and the Eucharist actually becomes Jesus’ flesh and blood, etc.)
Finally, what happens if one does not believe it?
The Council of Trent declares:
If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify; or, that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place an obstacle thereunto; as though they were merely outward signs of grace or justice received through faith, and certain marks of the Christian profession, whereby believers are distinguished amongst men from unbelievers; let him be anathema. (Session 7, Canon VI)
If any one saith, that by the said sacraments of the New Law grace is not conferred through the act performed, but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices for the obtaining of grace; let him be anathema. (Session 7, Canon VIII)
So, we see here that if one does not believe what the Catholic Church teaches about the sacraments, he is declared “anathema” by the Catholic Church. An anathema is the gravest (most severe) form of excommunication, where one is eternally condemned to Hell unless and until he does penance to the Church’s satisfaction (see the online New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia – under the topic, “anathema”).
Symbol or Reality?
There is a confusing problem with the Catholic idea of sacraments. In the Eucharist, for example, Catholics believe that Christ is somehow present in a “sacramental” way (whatever that means). But if sacraments “accomplish what they signify”, if they actually do what they symbolize, then why do they need to symbolize at all? Catholics believe the Eucharist is not JUST a symbol, but is both “the real thing” (i.e., Christ’s actual body and blood) and at the same time, a SYMBOL of the “real thing.” But a certain object cannot be BOTH a symbol of something else AND its reality. It is either one or the other. If it is a symbol of a particular thing, then it is not that particular thing. If it is literally the “real thing,” then there is no need for it to be a “symbol of itself.” You can’t have it both ways. This is simply equivocation. No such thing exists in Scripture, nor in the modern world that we live in.
A Biblical Concept?
The concept of sacraments with “special powers” that can earn (or control the amount of) grace given to someone is certainly not biblical. How can a person “control grace” by rituals, objects and ceremonies? How can grace be dependent on works (especially grace for salvation)? It isn’t. But this is a typical example of the works-based salvation of the Catholic Church.
But grace is not something you can buy through the performance of a ritual. By its very definition, grace excludes works. Grace is usually defined as “the UNMERITED favor of God.” It cannot be earned or bought.
Then how do we get grace, according to the Bible? Grace is received by FAITH, not by works, ceremonies or “sacraments.” (Romans 4:16; 5:2; 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-9) See also our three-part series on “Faith Alone” and our “Sola Fide Revisited” article, elsewhere on this blog.
Some may accuse us of being “anti-sacramental,” and automatically assume that we believe that “matter is evil.” But this is ridiculous and does not necessarily follow. We don’t think that matter is “evil,” nor do we make it a “spirit versus matter” issue.
And we are not against symbolism. Symbols are fine. Symbols help us to understand many concepts. They are very useful and meaningful in our everyday lives and in Scripture. But they don’t save anyone. One is saved by simply trusting in the work and the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross for us, and that alone.
Not only is the Catholic concept of sacraments NOT IN SCRIPTURE, it is also AGAINST Scripture. It is a system of obtaining the priceless grace of God by works and rituals. Any system that can buy the grace of God is corrupt and anti-biblical, and anyone who believes in this view of sacraments is in serious doctrinal error, whether they claim to be Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant.