How Do the
Sacraments Function in the Life
of a Catholic Believer? - Part 1
by Dr. John
Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon
of Catholicism involve particular spiritual activities/responsibilities
partaken of by believers, such as penance and the holy Eucharist. The
sacraments are presided over by a Catholic priest who acts as a mediator
between God and man. These special activities are said to dispense God’s
"grace" (here, as a spiritual substance or power) and God’s favor.
As we examine
the sacraments we will see that they are viewed as necessary to
salvation—and that, therefore, Rome teaches a salvation based on both
faith and works.
In contrast to
Protestantism, which accepts two sacraments (baptism and communion),
Roman Catholicism teaches there are seven sacraments, all of which are
believed to have been instituted by Jesus Christ. The seven sacraments
are baptism, the Holy Eucharist, penance, matrimony, anointing of the
sick, confirmation, and holy orders.
sevenfold sacramental system was apparently initiated for the first time
in the twelfth century and made an article of faith in the fifteenth
century. (This means that for over one thousand years, Christians were
not required to accept the current sacramental system, which Rome
maintains is necessary for salvation.) Nevertheless today, "For the
Roman Catholic his whole life from the cradle to the grave, and indeed
beyond the grave in purgatory, is conditioned by the sacramental
Thus, understanding the sacraments in Catholicism is essential to
understanding Catholicism itself.
The results of
each of the sacraments may be summarized below:
Baptism (which is not repeated) cleanses from original sin,
removes other sin and its punishment, provides justification in an
initial form, spiritual rebirth (John 3:3) or regeneration and is
"necessary for salvation."2
2. Confirmation (not
repeated) bestows the Holy Spirit in a special sense leading to "an
increase of sanctifying grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit" as
well as other spiritual power and a sealing to the Catholic Church.3
(In a sense, the larger process of justification begins at
confirmation because justification cannot begin prior to faith which
is defined as "man’s assent to revealed [i.e., Catholic] truth," nor
can it occur before baptism.4)
Penance removes the penalty of sins committed after baptism and
confirmation. Thus, mortal or "deadly" sins are remitted and the
"justification" lost by such sins is restored as a continuing process.5
4. Holy Eucharist is
where Christ is re-sacrificed or "re-presented" and the benefits of
Calvary are continually applied anew to the believer.6
This occurs at the Mass.
Marriage is where grace is given to remain in the bonds of
matrimony in dictates with the requirements of the Catholic Church.7
6. Anointing the sick
(formerly extreme unction) bestows grace on those who are sick,
old or near death and helps in forgiveness of sins and sometimes the
physical healing of the body.8
7. Holy orders (not
repeated) confers special grace and spiritual power upon bishops,
priests and deacons for leadership in the Church as representatives of
Christ "for all eternity": "Holy Orders is the Sacrament of the New
Law instituted by Christ, through which spiritual power is given
together with the grace to exercise properly the respective office.
The sacrament gives a permanent character, meaning that it cannot be
repeated, and that it ordains one for all eternity."9
Catholicism offers its members is a sacerdotal or priestly
religion. Sacerdotalism is a system in which salvation is mediated
through the functions of the priesthood, in this case through the
This may help
us understand why Rome teaches it is the only true Church. Also,
it will help us comprehend the historic position of Rome that salvation
is only possible in Catholicism—because apart from the sacraments of
Rome, a person cannot be saved. In other words, if salvation comes
only through the means of grace dispensed by the priest through the
sacraments—then logically, a person who does not partake of the
sacraments cannot be saved.10
Catholic text, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, while conceding
that God can communicate grace without the sacraments, nevertheless
asserts, "The sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for
the salvation of mankind." And, "The sacraments are the means appointed
by God for the attainment of eternal salvation. Three of them [baptism,
penance, holy orders] are in the ordinary way of salvation so
necessary that without their use salvation cannot be attained."11
Encyclopedia discusses the nature and
functions of the sacraments as follows:
It is necessary to set
forth the essential elements of a sacrament. These are: (a) a sensible
sign instituted by God, which gives sanctifying grace; (b) both matter
and form present with each sacrament; the matter is the material used,
the form the accompanying words and action; and (c) a minister,
someone authorized to give the sacrament with the intention of doing
what the Church intends.... the sacraments produce grace....
Sanctifying grace is given by reason of the rite itself (ex opere
operato), and grace is not given if the sacrament if not received with
the necessary moral disposition. In addition, each sacrament confers a
special grace, called sacramental grace. As defined by the Council of
Trent, it is the teaching of the Catholic Church, that every one of
the sacraments of the New Law was instituted by Christ.... Vatican II
declares: "The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build
up the body of Christ, and finally to give worship to God. Because
they are signs they also instruct."12
sacraments are mediated through men who are instructed to represent God.
They are held to dispense God’s grace and favor and each of the seven
sacraments is believed to confer a special grace termed "sacramental
sacraments, "...internal grace is that received in the interior of the
soul, enabling us to act supernaturally."13
Further, "The supernatural gift of God infused into the very essence of
the soul as a habit is habitual grace. This grace is also called
sanctifying or justifying grace, because it is included in both....
The Council of Trent (Sess. VI, C.11) declares the teaching: ‘If anyone
should say that men are justified either by the imputation of Christ’s
justice alone or by the remission of sins alone.... let him be
sacraments dispense grace merely by the performance of the rite itself
or ex opere operato; however, to be functional the sacrament must
be received by a Catholic in the necessary moral condition.
Thus, the real
difference between the Protestant and Catholic view of sacraments is not
in the number of sacraments, two vs. seven. Rather, it is in what the
sacraments are believed to do: in their meaning and purpose.
Protestantism sees both baptism and confirmation primarily as symbols
and/or memorials of vital theological truths. Baptism, e.g., symbolizes
the believer’s death to his old life and resurrection to new life in
Jesus Christ. Communion commemorates the death of Christ for our
sins—and also reminds the believer that not only did Christ die for all
the believer’s sin, but He rose from the dead as proof of the believer’s
justification before God (Romans 4:25). But Catholicism sees the
sacraments as actually changing a person inwardly, almost as if through
a continual form of regeneration and spiritual empowerment. In
Protestantism a sacrament underscores a promise of God; in Catholicism
it is an outward sign of an actual infused grace or spiritual power.
words, the sacraments infuse a special grace into the soul of a Catholic
in order to meet a special need—they are therefore an outward sign of an
infused grace. This explains why the basis for a doctrine like
justification in Catholic theology is not the fact of Christ’s
righteousness being imputed (reckoned) to a believer solely by faith.
Rather, it is the fact that—through the sacraments—Christ’s
righteousness is infused into our very being so that we progressively
become more and more righteous—and on that basis—the fact we have actual
righteousness now—we are declared "righteous." Thus, in Catholicism
justification occurs primarily by means of the sacraments—not by faith
1 H. M. Carson, Dawn or
Twilight? A Study of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Leicester,
England: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 87.
2 Robert C. Broderick, ed.,
The Catholic Encyclopedia, rev. and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson
Publishers, 1987), p. 65.
3 Ibid., p. 131.
4 Ibid., p. 319.
5 Ibid., pp. 466-468, 319.
6 Ibid., pp. 375-376.
7 Ibid., p. 372.
8 Ibid., pp. 39-40, 208.
9 Ibid., pp. 438-439.
10 Recent changes in Rome
indicate that this is no longer completely true—technically, people
can be saved apart from the Roman Catholic Church, but neither easily
nor necessarily without consequence. Although Rome used to teach that
outside the Church there was absolutely no possibility of salvation, a
priest who taught this traditional belief was recently censored by the
Church, which claimed his teaching was heretical.
In essence, other
churches and religions are now seen to have varying degrees of truth
or vestigial remnants of truth; people may be saved in other
churches—and even other religions—but anyone who desires the one true
Church must join Rome because only Rome has the full truth.
This also underscores
the historic basis for Rome denying salvation to Protestants and
Vatican I referring to Protestants as heretics and schismatics.
Vatican II has softened the tone, apparently seeing more grace
operating outside the Church, and now merely refers to Protestants as
"separated brethren" an apparent attempt to help them return to their
11 Ludwig Ott,
Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and
Publishers, 1974), pp. 340-341, emphasis added.
12 Broderick, ed., pp.
13 Ibid., p. 246.
14 Ibid., p. 253.
Copyright 2006, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute