Article XXV: Of the sacraments

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

Article XXV: Of the sacraments
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, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in Him.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, have they a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

We receive sacraments all the time, but how often do we ponder them? Why do we have sacraments? Of what benefit are they to us? Many Episcopalians might remember that they are “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace” but so what?

This Article helpfully reminds us that our sacraments are means, but not the end. We Christians rely on sacraments as nourishment and strength for our journey, but they are not the goal of our journey. Too much superstition can take away from the efficacy of the sacraments upon us, ironically. Of course, the opposite is to refuse reverence for the sacraments which also has the effect of denying their efficacy in us. (Here I am not speaking of objective effect, but of subjective effect. The reality of objective effect would be a great topic for another blog post, but it’s not this one.)

The sacraments proclaim the same Gospel as the scriptures contain, but in a very different way. Our church needs both word and sacrament. One without the other is simply impossible. They are two sides of the same coin. It is tempting to try to separate them somehow, but one without the other really makes no sense.

Some Episcopalians reading this might be surprised to learn that Anglican tradition defines only two sacraments. They could be even more surprised to learn that this definition continues. Check out the catechism, which talks about “two sacraments” and five more “sacramental rites”. As for me, I continue to refer to seven sacraments, and the prayer book does not prevent me from doing so.

The general point of this Article is that, in lovely prose, the sacraments are “certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us”. If we take that seriously, then we will be profoundly grateful for the presence of the sacraments in our life together in the church. Deep reverence will not be confined merely to ceremonially High Church partisans. When I see the casual way people too often treat ritual and sacraments, I am dismayed. How can we ask anyone to take the sacraments (or the Gospel itself) seriously, if we ourselves to not act in reverence and even awe?

Let’s take baptism for example. To treat the baptismal font as if our (eternal) life depended on it is a beautiful thing. This will be true if we are careful in how we do this. We must not practice blind superstition, acting as if there are magical powers among us. Rather, we must realize that the sacrament of baptism is a startling proclamation of the Good News of Easter morning. When we begin to grasp that, we begin to treat the font, the water, the oil, the candidates, and all the baptized as if they are signs of grace. And that’s exactly what they are. Signs of grace.

(I’ll say more about Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist in the coming discussion of Articles 26-31.)

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • Do the sacraments always “work”? Does it matter if the recipient or the officiant have the right attitude?
  • How might we know when we are being to pious or to casual? Is there such a thing as too pious or too casual when it comes to sacraments?
  • Does it matter if there are two, or seven, or some other number of sacraments? Why?
  • How do the sacraments work in your own life? How do you see them at work in the lives of others?
  • Does the church need the sacraments? Do the sacraments need the church?

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Image courtesy of flickr user duncan.

Previous: Article XXIV: Of speaking in the congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth
Next: Article XXVI: Of the unworthiness of the ministers, which hinders not the effect of the sacraments

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1 Response

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    I’ve seen an artful dodge of Anglican Fudge on this by saying the two sacraments of the Gospel are different and more important than the others because we all participate in them, but those “sacramental rites” are still sacraments–just less important because they aren’t as essential.

    I’ve also seen people point out that confirmation, ordination, and marriage flow from baptism, and shouldn’t be considered separate from Baptism. Then they go into more Fudge on healing and absolution, although still relating them to baptism.

    The real artful dodge on this one goes to the Orthodox. Are there 7 sacraments? Yes. But I have also heard some Orthodox say there are not ONLY 7 sacraments. There could be more. It is a sneaky way to answer the question to a person of the Roman Rite.

    I have no problem with calling the Big Two “Sacraments of the Gospel,” in an implication they are different. Well, they are.

    If healing and absolution are sacraments, I have trouble separating the two. Read James 5 to catch my drift. And, whether one or two sacraments, you could call them “Sacrament(s) of the Scripture,” since they are in James and not the four Gospels.

    The other three? Personally, any definition that I’ve seen of a sacrament that is broad enough to include them I’m not sure would limit the number to those three.

    Maybe I’m a Closet Orthodox?

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