The Sacraments: Opportunities of Grace

Roman Catholic Christians believe that the grace--the divine life--of Jesus Christ is present in the sacraments because the Bible, the activity of the Apostles, and the constant faith, the paradosis--the tradition--of the early church all testify to this belief.

The first and primary sacrament is Jesus Christ himself.

1 Pet 2:4
Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
1 Jn 1:1-2
(We proclaim to you:)
what was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life--
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it and
proclaim to you the eternal life that
was with the Father and
was made visible to us

The Church of Jesus Christ rightly may be called a sacrament. Vatican Council II best described this reality.

On the Church, 1
By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament, an intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind, that is, she is a sign and instrument of such union and unity.
On the Church, 48
Christ ... through his Spirit, has established his body, the Church, as the universal sacrament of salvation.

Jesus used specific acts and objects as visible signs of the life and blessings he came to give.

Jesus was baptized with water in the Jordan and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

Mk 1:9-10
It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.

Jesus' first miracle was to turn water into wine.

Jn 2:1-11
... there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee ... Jesus told them, "Fill the jars with water." ... the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine ... Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee.

Jesus multiplied bread and fish to feed the crowd.

Mk 6:41-44
Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to (his) disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate (of the loaves) were five thousand men.

Jesus touched people to heal them.

Mk 1:41
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean."

Jesus used his spit to cure a blind man.

Mk 8:23
Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on him and asked, "Do you see anything?"

Jesus breathed on his apostles to give them the Holy Spirit.

Jn 20:22
He breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit."

Jesus gave his apostles his own body and blood in the form of bread and wine.

Mk 14:22-23
While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take it; this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it.

The Apostles followed the example of Jesus and carried out his teaching.

The apostles anointed the sick for healing.

Mk 6:13
They (the Twelve) drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

The apostles laid their hands on people to receive the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:17
Then they (Peter and John) laid hands on them and they received the holy Spirit.

The apostles laid their hands on others to be set apart for special ministry or mission in the church.

Acts 6:6
They presented these men (the seven deacons) to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them.

The apostles baptized.

Mt 28:19
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,

The apostles forgave sins.

Mt 18:18
Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

The apostles understood marriage as a mystery (Greek: mysterion; Latin: sacramentum).

Eph 5:32
This (marriage) is a great mystery (mysterion), but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.

The apostles offered bread and wine in thanksgiving (eucharist) for Jesus' death.

Lk 22:19
Do this in memory of me.

Vatican Council II expressed the purpose of the sacraments and the relationship between Christ acting and the reception of the sacraments.

Constitution On the Sacred Liturgy, 59
The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to worship God. Because they are signs, they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it.
Constitution On the Sacred Liturgy, 7
He (Jesus) is present in the sacraments by his power, in such a way that when someone baptizes, Jesus himself baptizes.

The constant faith of the Church has been consistent in the teaching about the sacraments.

1st - 6th century
Church Fathers (from Christian antiquity until Clement of Alexandria (Athens, 150 - 215 AD) and Origen (Alexandria, 185 - 254 AD)) used the words sacramentum and mysterion to describe these hidden and holy things in the life of the church.
16th century
The Council of Trent (1545 - 1563) defined sacraments as symbols of holy and invisible graces in visible form. This definition is found in the works of Augustine (Numidia, now Algeria, 354 - 430 AD).

In the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Sacraments are described as follows.

Catechism Section 1084
"Seated at the right hand of the Father" and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church, Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace. The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the actions of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.
Catechism Section 1127
Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.
Catechism Section 1131
The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament.

Note that the Catholic Church does not state that the Sacraments are the only way that these graces are bestowed upon us.

The sacraments exist for both us individually and as part of the Church community.

Catechism Section 1134
The fruit of sacramental life is both personal and ecclesial. For every one of the faithful on the one hand, this fruit is life for God in Christ Jesus; for the Church, on the other, it is an increase in charity and in her mission of witness.

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By Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl.
Catholic Biblical Apologetics, © Copyright 1985-2004, Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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Last Updated: July 22, 2004