Why Do We Need Sacraments?

Answering our question in the title, Why do we need sacraments?, is difficult due to variant understandings of the nature and supposed purpose(s) of the sacraments in our respective traditions. What is a sacrament? According to The Catechism of The Episcopal Church, a sacrament is an "outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." We find the following in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:
SACRAMENTS ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken [enliven, give birth to], but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
This Anglican expression is closely related to the Roman Catholic view: "The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian's life of faith." (link) For many in the Medieval and Renaissance period, the "Body and Blood of Christ come to be really present on altars where bread and wine were and still seem to be."1 The Episcopal Church adopts this view, promoted by the likes of John Calvin, noted as Real Presence. But this view is only one among others.

The Transubstantiation view of the Eucharist -- that the elements of bread and wine are converted to the body and blood of Jesus; the "substance of the bread and wine departs in order to make room for the Body and Blood of Christ" (link) -- was the predominant view of the Western, Latin church for over a thousand years prior to the Reformation. This view incorporates Real Presence, obviously, but Real Presence advocates do not typically incorporate Transubstantiation theory.

Post-Reformation theologian Jacob Arminius' views of the sacraments are, like those of most Baptists, simple: he notes only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper, and defines a sacrament as do Baptists: a "sacred and visible sign or token and seal instituted by God, by which ... He ratifies to His covenant-people the gracious promise proposed in His word, and binds them, on the other hand, to the performance of their duty. Therefore no other promises are proposed to us by these signs than those which are manifested in the word."2 These signs "cause something else to occur to the thoughts," which "affect not only the mind, but likewise the heart itself."3 Yet they do not do so automatically.


For Arminius, the sacraments are signs created by God (water, bread, wine), which substances are used as visible signifiers to "the exhibition of the thing signified through the authority and the will of Him who institutes it."4 The water in baptism does not automatically save the recipient, for instance, but God saves a person by the Spirit of grace through one's faith in Christ, and the sacrament of baptism is merely what signifies the promise of God given to the individual; and also, as a visible sign, strengthens the faith of the recipient of God's grace.5

We are beginning to understand why we need these physical sacraments, these tokens, these material expressions of an immaterial reality. Underscoring this Aristotelian metaphysic: "Experience acquaints us with bodily things in wide variety."6 The elements, such as water, bread, and wine, offer us a physical and tangible reality that aids in our experiencing a metaphysical and spiritual inner reality. The elements of the Eucharist are not merely theoretical. They are not dogmas to argue and debate. The bread and the wine, for example, inform us of a higher reality that cannot be experientially seen with the eyes or felt by our hands.

Moreover, someone telling us about God and about the ways of God and about what God expects from us is one form of revelation, but it can be questioned. Yet, when Jesus appears to us in the flesh, dwelling with us day after day -- walking and eating and laughing and teaching and suffering along with us -- we experience God in the physical: the eyes can see; the ears can hear His words; the nose can smell His presence; the mouth can communicate with the Savior; the hands can touch His flesh.

"The Word became flesh," writes St. John, "and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14 NIV, emphasis added) After all, writes the author to the Hebrews, "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word." (Heb. 1:3) Given our physicality, God understood that we needed physical traits to represent spiritual realities, so that we could inwardly meditate upon the goodness of God's grace and love.

__________

1 Marilyn McCord Adams, Some Later Medieval Theories of the Eucharist: Thomas Aquinas, Gile of Rome, Duns Scotus, and William Ockham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2.

2 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation LXIII. On Baptism and Pædobaptism," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:435.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 2:436.

5 Ibid. "The sacraments of the New Testament have not the ratio [reason, premise] of sacraments beyond that very use for the sake of which they were instituted, nor do they profit those who use them without faith and repentance." (2:440)

6 Adams, 4.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.