Central to Jesus’s ministry on earth was the institution of seven sacraments. Through these sacraments our Lord was able to provide formal ways by which we might enter the Church and receive His grace. They are therefore a way by which Christ made it possible for us to remain in constant real contact and communion with Him in every age.
The institution of each of these sacraments is at least implicitly mentioned in the Scriptures, if not explicitly mentioned. Thus as we move forward in our efforts to open up a line of fruitful communication between ourselves and Protestants we should be prepared to address the sacraments (among many other important points of Catholic belief), at least on a basic level. Indeed questions regarding, for example, confessing one’s sins to a priest or belief in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist are some of the most common points of contention and curiosity to arise in Catholic-Protestant dialogue.
How do we go about this from a practical point of view? Here’s one approach that might work:
1. Start by providing a basic one-liner definition. You want to provide your non-Catholic interlocutor with a working definition of the very thing you are hoping to identify in Scripture. The word “sacrament” is not a familiar term to every Protestant, so this step is essential. First things first.
So you might start by saying “First of all, a sacrament is a physical sign that communicates a spiritual reality. Any questions?” You may also want to have a couple other alternate definitions read to go, just in case the first isn’t particularly clear. Other ways to define a sacrament might be “an outward sign that gives grace” or “an outward sign that makes real what it signifies”. It is not that Jesus cannot give grace in other ways; He can. But the sacraments are the formal means through which He has chosen to give it.
You might also point out, drawing on the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas, that it is fitting that God would provide us with physical signs that convey spiritual realities, since we are ourselves physical and spiritual beings.
2. Show how Jesus often conveys grace – or divine power – through physical things. One of the most striking examples of this is when Jesus heals the woman with the hemorrhage (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48). Here’s the passage from St. Mark’s Gospel:
And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?”….But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Explain to your Protestant friends that this story exemplifies the three primary elements of the sacramental concept: 1) a physical thing for conveying grace 2) grace flowing from God to recipient 3) the recipient’s faith.
In Surprised By Truth, apologist Jimmy Akin explains this passage in the following way:
“This passage contains all the elements of the sacramental principle: the woman’s faith, the physical means (touching Jesus’ clothes), and the supernatural power that went out from Jesus. When the woman came up to him and, with faith, touched his garment, the power of God was sent forth, and she was healed.”
Therefore he concludes:
“This is how the sacraments work; God uses physical signs (water, oil, bread, wine, the laying on of hands) as vehicles for his grace, which we receive in faith”.
In this second step you may also refer to Old Testament examples of where God communicates His grace through a physical means. The healing of Naaman the leper is one such example (and foreshadows the sacrament of baptism). See 2 Kings 5 for that story.
3. Introduce a passage from Scripture that demonstrates the sacrament in question. By the time you’ve reached this step you’ve given a simple definition of a sacrament, you’ve shown an example of how Jesus commonly works through physical means to give His grace, and now it’s time to get to the nitty gritty. Here are some essential passages that you need to know. These are merely samples from a much larger pool of passages to draw from:
The Sacrament of Baptism (through water, washes away our sins)
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5).
Baptism…now saves you (1 Pet 3:21)
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name. (Acts 22:16)
The Sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession (through spoken words, reconciles us with God through the forgiveness of sins)
Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:20-23)
Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17-18)
The Sacrament of Holy Eucharist/Communion (through bread and wine, unites us with Jesus’s body, blood, soul, and divinity)
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” (Matt 26:26)
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when 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 also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11: 23-25)
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor 11:27)
The Sacrament of Confirmation (through oil and the laying on of hands, effects the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit)
Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:17-19)
The Sacrament of Marriage (through spoken consent, binds man and woman into an unbreakable “one flesh” union)
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matt 19:3-6)
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt 5:31-32)
The Sacrament of Holy Orders (through laying on of hands and spoken word, ordains men into apostolic ministry)
In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty), and said, “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled….concerning Judas… For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry…..For it is written in the book of Psalms,
‘Let his habitation become desolate,
and let there be no one to live in it’;
and ‘His office let another take.’ (Acts 1:15-20)
Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the elders laid their hands upon you. (1 Tim 4:13-14)
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (Phil 1:1)
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (through oil, physical and/or spiritual healing)
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15)
All of the above passages are merely samples. Furthermore, although they are key verses they are provided here out of context. From here you will need to open up your own Bible (I recommend with a pen or pencil in hand) and work through the passages yourself, attentively and prayerfully.
Proofs In Plain View
It is important to note that many Protestants accept some of the sacraments to varying degrees, albeit often with an incomplete or imperfect underlying theological understanding.
We might boil down a Protestant’s rejection of the sacraments to two fundamental failures. First, the failure to accept the surface meaning of Scripture. Second, the failure to see beyond the surface of ordinary things.
That God chose in His eternal plan to work His greatest gifts of grace through some of the most ordinary of things – bread, water, wine, words, hands, oil – is something to wonder at. Thus as G.K. Chesterton mused, “the Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary”. Such a realization is enough to radically change the way we see the oh, so ordinary world around us. Like Jesus was to the Jewish eye in the first century, the sacraments are to us today more than what meets the eye. Incomprehensibly more.
Challenging Catholics on their beliefs, Protestants have often asked “Where is that in the Bible?” Thus it is rather ironic that many of the sacraments are plainly instituted or referred to in the Scriptures. It takes little imagination to understand such phrases as “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” or “take; eat; this is my body” or “baptism now saves you”.
Not that there isn’t meaning beneath the surface of these passages. The Catholic Church has always recognized the vast depths of theological meaning in many of the “plain” passages of Sacred Scripture. Nonetheless, for the Bible Christian, the sacraments are in plain view. Sometimes, unfortunately, Christians are either looking past the obvious or not looking in the right place at all.