Grace & the Sacraments:
Definition of Terms:
Grace is the presence and action of God in the life of the individual, enabling them to respond to His call and grow in holiness. Grace is the completely unmerited and freely given gift of God’s divine favor, which empowers individuals to live according to God’s will and attain salvation. Grace is conferred through sacraments, prayer, and virtuous living.
While the sacraments are the primary means of grace, this does not deny the possibility of God’s grace working outside these channels. God’s grace is not limited, and it can reach people in various ways beyond the sacramental system. The sacraments, however, were instituted by Christ to act as visible signs assuring recipients that they have indeed received the grace that is promised. Sacraments are thus outward signs that make God’s grace perceptible to human senses, reinforcing the belief that God’s presence is active in the sacramental actions. When a sacrament is properly administered with the right intention, it not only symbolizes or represents divine grace but also actually imparts that grace to the recipient.
Each sacrament has visible and tangible elements (e.g., water, bread, wine), which serve as signs of the invisible spiritual realities they convey. In the sacrament of Baptism, the pouring of water symbolizes cleansing and rebirth, but it also confers the grace of the forgiveness of sins and initiation into the Church (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21). In the Eucharist (Holy Communion), the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ, but they also convey the spiritual nourishment of the faithful and a deeper union with Christ (John 6:53-54, 1 Corinthians 10:16). In the sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), the confession of sins symbolizes repentance, but it also brings about the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9). In Confirmation, the Holy Spirit is conferred upon the individual, strengthening them with special graces to live out their Christian faith boldly (Acts 8:17, Acts 19:6). In Matrimony and Holy Orders, specific graces are given to support and sanctify the recipient’s vocation and service in the Church. In Anointing of the Sick (Last Rites), spiritual healing and strength are granted to those who are seriously ill or near the end of life.
Sacraments, however, should not be seen as magical or approached superstitiously as though they have guaranteed results. The resulting grace bestowed by the sacraments require faith and a disposition of openness by the recipient to God’s grace. The sacraments require a working cooperation of the individual’s free will to be effective.
The early Church Fathers wrote extensively about the concepts of grace and the sacraments. Salvation was understood to be a result of God’s grace and the human response to that grace working together. They emphasized the importance of God’s initiative in salvation, while also recognizing the necessity of human cooperation. Human response to God’s grace was considered vital, with faith, repentance, and a life of holiness resulting from our cooperation.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), for example, emphasized the role of grace in his theological writings. He argued that humans are born in a state of sin due to the original sin of Adam and Eve, and that only through God’s grace can they be saved. He believed that baptism was a sacrament through which individuals received God’s grace, cleansing them of sin and initiating them into the Church. Another Church Father, Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-108 AD), wrote about the Eucharist as a means of receiving grace. He referred to the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality” and stated that through it, believers partook in the body and blood of Christ, receiving spiritual nourishment and unity with Christ.
Human beings have a deep-rooted desire for meaning and a sense of transcendence beyond the material world. The sacraments address this innate longing by providing tangible signs of God’s presence and grace. Symbols have the power to convey complex ideas and emotions, making profound spiritual truths more accessible and relatable to people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. God’s use of material elements in the sacraments reflects the truth that physical creation is good and can be a means of divine encounter. When Christians participate in shared rituals and receive the sacraments together, it reinforces a sense of unity, which encourages mutual support between members and fosters acts of charity and good will.
Mark 16:16 (Baptism):
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
Acts 8:14-17 (Confirmation):
“When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (Eucharist):
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
James 5:16 (Confession):
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
James 5:14-15 (Anointing of the Sick):
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.”
Acts 13:2-3 (Holy Orders):
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”
Ephesians 5:31-32 (Matrimony):
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
Church Father Quotes:
“Assemble on the Lord’s day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one.” (Didache, 14)
Ignatius of Antioch:
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God… They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6-7)
“Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons.” (Letter to the Philadelphians, 4)
“We do not receive these as common bread or common drink; but just as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him… is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” (First Apology, 66)
Irenaeus of Lyons:
“For as the bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly, so also our bodies, partaking of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of resurrection.” (Against Heresies, 4.18.5)
Cyprian of Carthage:
“Finally, when to the former sacraments of faith, fear, and righteousness, is added the one of fullness of hope and faith, that is to say, the Eucharist, the one that Christ wished us to receive daily, this is the one that can best illumine our hearts and souls with the light of God.” (Letter 63, 4)
“No one can attain to God except through His grace.” (On the Unity of the Church, 13)
“Baptism is a divine thing.” (Letter 69, 6)
Cyril of Jerusalem:
“After the spiritual washing, there follows the participation of the Holy Eucharist. You were first anointed on the forehead, that you might be delivered from the shame which the first man who transgressed bore about with him everywhere; and that with unveiled face you might reflect as a mirror the glory of the Lord.” (Catechetical Lectures, 21.3)
“He, who receives a sacrament with an unbelieving mind, is himself profaned by receiving it.” (Homilies on First Corinthians, 24.2)
“For the heavenly gifts remain not only during this life but also after our death, when the soul is not only parted from the body but also separated from sin. Therefore, not only when we pray and invoke the Holy Spirit upon the gifts do we render them holy and spiritual, but also while they are consumed and become part of us, we are led to a higher life and a more sublime activity.” (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 18.1)
Ambrose of Milan:
“You see how many Sacraments there are; one for obtaining grace, another for its increase, another for healing, another for confirming.” (De Mysteriis, 9.50)
“The Lord Jesus Himself is present in the Sacrifice, as He was once Himself the Offerer of the Sacrifice. What is offered in remembrance of Him is accepted; because it is not the figure of the Body but the Body itself. Therefore, it is said, ‘The Bread which we break, is it not the communion of the Body of Christ?'” (De Sacramentis, 4.3)
“Let us receive the pledge of eternal life, the sacrament that assures us of resurrection. When we receive the body of Christ in the eucharist, our physical being is united with Christ who is spiritual.” (On the Sacraments, Book 5, 5.24)
Augustine of Hippo:
“In baptism, the sins of the past are forgiven, in the Eucharist, our future glory is promised.” (Sermon 272)
“If sacraments had not a likeness to those things of which they are the sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all.” (On Christian Doctrine, Book 1, Chapter 1)
“The sacraments of the New Testament, like those of the Old, are signs of a holy thing, and so perform what they signify.” (On Christian Doctrine, Book 3, Chapter 10)
“You are a sacrament of what you believe, and a sacrament of what you are.” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, 1.1.1)
“The water of the divine mercy is consecrated by the priest over the infant. The priest prays that that which in the infant was made by nature, may be by heavenly grace remade.” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, 1.1.1)
“How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!… He therefore that is within and is not seen, let him hear; let him correct his life, let him come to the sacraments, that he may be seen; let him not fear, that he be not laid hold of.” (Exposition on Psalm 45)
“What is seen in the water [of baptism] is one thing; what is understood in the word is another. You see the water; you see the priest’s ministry. But what is to your eyes invisible is brought about by the working of the Spirit.” (Sermon 56, 6)
Council of Orange II
“[G]race is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed, but grace, which is not due, precedes [good works], that they may be done” (Canons on grace 19 [A.D. 529]).
John Calvin – On the Eucharist:
“The Lord, in order to invite us to Himself, divinely testifies and openly proclaims in the Supper that what He represents by visible signs is, to be sure, accomplished in His invisible gifts. Therefore, if we would participate in this Supper, we must ascend to heaven, where Christ abides at the right hand of the Father, that we may not fix our minds on the bread and the wine but be raised up to Him” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.7).
Martin Luther – On Baptism:
“Baptism is a most wonderful thing, which God alone works and accomplishes, but He does it through a visible, created means. Baptism, therefore, is a divine work, not a human work. God Himself baptizes. … In baptism, God takes hold of us. It is the external water which does such things, not just plain water but the Word of God in and with the water” (Sermons on the Small Catechism).
Martin Luther – On the Eucharist:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way also, He took the cup after supper and, when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me'” (Large Catechism).
John Wesley – On Baptism:
“Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized, but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth” (Sermon 44, “The New Birth”).
John Wesley – On the Eucharist:
“It is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper as often as he can. At the same time, it is the duty of every Christian to know what it means, and to examine himself, whether he eats that bread and drinks that cup in such a manner, that he may indeed be a partaker of his body and blood” (Sermon 101, “The Duty of Constant Communion”).