(For the benefit of new readers, and because it is relevant to what I have been posting recently, I am reposting an earlier article. This is highly irregular, I know.)
From the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer:
Question. How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?
Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
(The answer given in the Catechism is the official commentary on Article XXV. That is, it explains the difference between the five “commonly called sacraments,” or lesser sacraments, all five of which were clearly present in the Old Testament, and that transmit grace specific to their purpose, but are not “generally necessary to salvation,” and the two sacraments of the Gospel, i.e., ordained by Christ when he was physically present in the flesh on earth.)
In the New Testament we find exceptions to the rule, but no exceptions to the principle behind it. That rule is that the two sacraments of the Gospel, that is, ordained by Christ, are “generally necessary to salvation.” In accord with the witness of the Universal Church stated over and over by the Fathers, and easily proved by scripture, we see that our new birth is in the waters of baptism; 1 and we see, as well, that we must feed on Christ’s Body and Blood in order to receive his eternal life. 2 Therefore, it is no stretch or leap of logic, but rather the unavoidable conclusion of Reason, that these two sacraments not only signify but also effect salvation, that the grace they convey is unto eternal life.
We see that our Anglican Fathers were so careful in their teaching that they stated this in a manner that shows deliberate and thorough consideration. They did not say only that these two sacraments are necessary for salvation, but "generally necessary to salvation." After all, they inherited the Tradition of the Church which recognized that some martyrs were baptized in their own blood, by desire, having had no opportunity to receive the sacrament from ministers of the Church. Even the word “to” was chosen carefully, because these two sacraments create a path to salvation. Yet, for those martyrs baptized in their own blood, by desire, the way to this salvation was clearly open. That grace to salvation can be opened without the sacraments, by God’s direct action, is proved by scripture, as follows:
And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.3
This man did not have the opportunity to be baptized, and the Lord granted him mercy. What is generally necessary was not necessary for him.
But, even though the sacrament itself was not available to him, the power of the sacrament was present and grace bestowed by that power. For that power is the word of God. It is the power of the word of God that transforms water into the matter of a sacrament, and the word of God spoken by a minister (“in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”) that both signifies and effects grace to salvation. The power of baptism was present in the words of Christ himself: “Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” So we see that even though God is not bound by the rule, the principle is still there, that of the power of his word working through the grace imparted by the Holy Spirit. The power that makes baptism a sacrament, that fills the actions of the Church through form, matter and intention, was present in the word of the Lord spoken, in this case, from the cross.
The thief had no opportunity to eat the body of Christ and drink his blood. But, the power of the word of God, “this is my body…this is my blood,” was present in the words Jesus spoke to him. So, we see that the grace of the sacraments can be received when no opportunity exists for the form, matter and intention to be present. Nonetheless, we do not presume on the grace of God, as if simply because he can work without the sacraments and effect the same grace by his word, we have any right to neglect the ministry that he has revealed and commanded us to carry out. The Church in its ministry both proclaims and administers salvation, and so we are to both preach the Gospel and provide by form, matter and intention the sacraments that are “generally necessary to salvation” to everybody who would be part of the Church. We only mean that the revelation of Christ, the Word made flesh, is about Grace rather than the making of yet more laws, and that God in his mercy may be expected to grant mercy to those who have desired the sacraments when those sacraments were beyond their reach. And, we mean that God, rich in mercy, is powerful and acts through his word. This is what is meant by saying, “In the New Testament we find exceptions to the rule, but no exceptions to the principle behind it.” That principle is the power of the Word of God, the power that the Holy Spirit applies directly to human souls.
Pentecost and house of Cornelius
We know that the Holy Spirit was given by the laying on of the Apostle’s hands, which is why the portion of scripture that is written into the service of Confirmation is from the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts.
Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. 4
We could as well use the nineteenth chapter, where Paul, expecting all disciples to have received the Holy Ghost, realized from the absence of their understanding that the believers in Ephesus had yet to receive either proper Baptism or Confirmation. The Church has always taught that Confirmation is the sacrament in which Christians receive the Holy Spirit with his manifold gifts that are distributed as it pleases him throughout the Body of Christ.5 From the scriptural accounts, in the Book of Acts, the sacrament itself was performed by the Apostles with the laying on of their hands, and with prayer.
But, on two occasions God gave the grace of this sacrament directly from heaven. Those two occasions were the outpouring the of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles 6 in the house of Cornelius. On that second occasion the gifts of the Holy Spirit were evidently given even before these people were baptized. In the first case, the Day of Pentecost, this was the birth of the Church as the body of Christ, the extension of his Incarnation to continue his ministry in the world. On that second occasion, God acted directly even though it had been established that he normally gave this gift by the laying on the Apostle’s hands, and only after baptism. It may well be that none of the Jewish men with Peter would have laid hands on these Gentiles 7 and prayed for them, and it is also clear that this direct action was intended to be just like the Day of Pentecost itself.8 Much more can be said about the particulars of the outpouring of the Spirit in the house of Cornelius. For our purpose it is necessary to notice two things: 1) the lesson that the Apostles drew from this, and 2) a false lesson they did not draw, because it would have been a mistake.
The lesson they did draw was that without circumcision the Gentiles were fellow heirs of salvation in Christ. 9 But, they did not conclude that God had ceased to give the Holy Spirit through the laying on the Apostle’s hands, that is, what came to be called Confirmation. The Apostles continued to lay hands on the new believers, and they continued to receive the Holy Spirit and the gifts he brings. So, we see the principle that God uses the sacraments, but is not bound by them. We see that the Church has no right to neglect the ministry of Christ as he has ordained it, and therefore no right to presume on God’s grace by failing to administer the sacraments. We see that the power and principle of the sacraments is never absent, even when God acts directly in an extraordinary and sovereign manner of his own choosing.
Life and power
The New Testament shows the birth of the Church as an explosion of life and power. I have spent years carefully examining the debates between Anglicans and some Roman Catholics over the issue of our orders (from the 16th century to almost modern times, nothing new in substance having been said for decades). Larger than the many details is this major difference: Even though the Anglican side, back when these debates went on, proved its case from the history of the Church, including everything that can be shown from the theology and practice of the Holy Catholic Church in the many different rites used for ordination beginning in ancient times, the other side would respond with elaborate arguments that reduced the sacrament of Holy Orders in two ways. It was reduced by a legalistic approach, and it was treated almost as if it was an issue of magic that might fail if the formula, as it had evolved right up to that time, was not precise. The arguments against Anglican Orders were, finally, unworthy of sacramental theology altogether, because they formed a position that completely lost sight of the sacraments as a lively impartation of grace. Grace was gone from view in legalistic polemics, aimed not at understanding the work of the Holy Spirit, but at grasping for straws in a technical nightmare of hair-splitting. Instead of form, matter and intention used by the Holy Spirit to give something that is powerful and larger than anything the mind can grasp, many unnecessary and burdensome details were added, and arguments produced, including some the nature of which even the worst lawyers would blush with embarrassment to make (if only because Anglican apologetics, and explanations were not answered. From 1624 on, the Anglicans explained why their fathers never departed from Sacramental Intention).
What is at issue is the life and power of God granting gifts to fallen man by the Holy Spirit. The power of the sacraments rests always in the word of God, the underlying principle without which nothing is sacramental. They remain mysterious, utterly dependable in their effects because of the promises of God that he will act in response concerning each of them; and above all, they are all about one thing: Grace. Each sacrament brings its gift to man, each imparting its own specific grace from the Word of God, by the Holy Spirit.
1.Compare John 3:3f with the opening verses of Romans 6.
5.I Corinthians 12
6.Chapters two and ten.
7.Acts 10:45- Note the astonishment.