That is not because they could be invalid and ineffectual without repentance and faith, but rather the very opposite; because they are always, if administered properly, effectual and valid. In the sixth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul never suggests that baptism can fail to be effectual: Rather, he states boldly that baptism has produced its powerful effect in each person who has received the sacrament, and that for this reason the baptized person has no longer any obligation to sin, but instead an obligation to holiness. We ought to meet it with faith, and the resolve to live in the new life by yielding the members of our bodies as "servants to righteousness unto holiness." 3 The same applies to Holy Communion: Because it is real as an objective fact, those who eat without faith and repentance add sin to sin; that is, they eat and drink unto judgment. 4 Paul does not say that the person who eats and drinks unworthily has merely failed to receive grace; he says something very different. In both of the "Sacraments of the Gospel," also known as the Dominical Sacraments (because they were instituted by the Lord himself 5), grace unto eternal life is imparted directly by God, providing a χάρισμα (a gift or grace) that empowers the believer.
And, so it is that the sacraments, properly administered, cannot fail. They obligate the one who receives them, but not in the way that the Law obligates. For the Law is weak through the flesh, 6 and therefore it cannot provide a power to rise above the pull of the world, the gravity of our own flesh that takes us down into sin and death. But, the Dominical Sacraments do provide the very χάρις (grace) needed to live up to the obligations they impose. That is, they are the work of no one less than the Holy Spirit who gives life and power through them, aiding us to become saints. Received with faith, they impart grace that is both merciful and powerful. We are assured that our sins are forgiven, and we are given power to live by grace; and living by grace is the only way to grow and be transformed in holiness that the Law, by commandments, cannot provide.
However, the Law can tell us we are sinners, and in that way can slay us. Understood properly, the Law acts as a schoolmaster to show us we need the Savior. Those individuals, mentioned in the Gospels, who thought themselves justified by the Law, were deceived about themselves; for an honest reader sees by the Law that he is exactly like other men. This is the very irony our Lord intended to convey in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican 7. The man who should have been convicted more deeply of his own sin was the Pharisee; indeed, even more so than the Publican who confessed his sins and prayed to be forgiven. For the Pharisee knew the Law better and should have been able to see in that mirror what kind of a man he was. 8
The Sacraments of the Gospel must be combined with a true knowledge of God's Law in the life of every Christian. Only then do we see the grace that is imparted. Only then do we see how much we have to depend on grace, not on our own flesh or simply on our limited willpower; "for the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". 9 Because we have the grace that is given by the Holy Spirit, who imparts grace upon grace when we continue to feed on the Living Christ in the food and drink of eternal life, we have a greater obligation not due strictly to commandments, but because the power that is in us overcomes the world through our faith. 10
Absolutely null and utterly void
A multitude of the people, even many of Ephraim, and Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet did they eat the passover otherwise than it was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, The good LORD pardon every one that prepareth his heart to seek God, the LORD God of his fathers, though he be not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary. And the LORD hearkened to Hezekiah, and healed the people. - II Chron. 30:18-20
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. - Luke 23:39-43
Because the Sacraments give what the Law cannot give, it is ironic if we perceive them strictly in legal terms. On one hand, the Church must do everything with great care because we are commanded and commissioned to minister according to the pattern shown to us on the holy mountain-not Sinai, but the mountain in Galilee where the Risen Christ appeared to the Apostles and gave the Great Commission. 11 We must baptize in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and on that other mountain, Jerusalem, earlier, back on the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord gave us a commandment and commission. All things must be done with care, such as the Laying on of hands according to what St. Paul recalled in his Epistles to Timothy and Titus where we see the Scriptural pattern of Apostolic Succession in some of its earliest examples. 12
Anglicans have always known that the Bible and the understanding of the Church in Antiquity give us no option. We must maintain the Apostolic Succession, because the Sacraments that require Ordination require, for obvious reasons, a valid Episcopacy. These are not only the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, but others that are related. Confirmation follows Baptism and completes it. 13 Receiving Holy Communion is unthinkable without Absolution. 14 And, Absolution ties these Sacraments to healing with the Anointing and prayer for that purpose, which is a priestly sacrament. 15 Frankly, only Matrimony seems to be simply a sacrament of "states of life allowed in the Scriptures," inasmuch as these others are all related somehow to the two Dominical Sacraments, and so play a part in salvation. Maintaining the Episcopacy and holding fast to the Formularies and Laws of our Anglican Patrimony is, therefore, necessary for the work we are commanded to do. And so our Anglican heritage clings to and understands the Divine appointment of the Episcopacy in the clearest possible terms. 16
But, as I have argued before, this does not limit God to work within the rules he has given to us, for he has never imparted grace through the Law in any age. We must be careful to do all things shown to us, and according to the revealed pattern. But, the need we may feel to dismiss the working of God's grace in many places where this knowledge is lacking, must be resisted as a temptation. And, we have the example in Scripture of the thief on the cross to show that God is not bound to the Sacraments (though we most certainly are) to give us hope for the people unable through ignorance or circumstance to receive the sacraments.
Once I heard Billy Graham explain in sacramental terms his practice of what Baptists and other Evangelicals refer to as an "Altar Call." He said, "You say, by coming, I receive Christ; I repent of my sins, of my former life. You see, it is an outward sign of the inner and invisible work of the Holy Spirit in your heart." It is easy to react and say, "but there is no sacrament of the Altar Call." Nonetheless, it was obvious to me that Dr. Graham deliberately used terminology from sacramental theology, and that it was far from mockery or irreverence. Indeed, we may have a real and well founded hope that people who sincerely went forward and prayed received grace that was in no way alien to the grace of the sacraments; rather, grace that flowed from that same Source.
Contrary to what many have thought, Anglicanism never goes so far as to deny the effect of what most Protestant bodies refer to as sacraments. Neither does Anglicanism affirm them. Simply, we claim not to know how God may work within those venues. We cannot do as the Roman Catholics have done, that is, to declare ministries to be "absolutely null and utterly void." The reason is simple. God has revealed what the sacraments are, and we have been given in that revelation a proper and Traditional way to administer them. But, he has clearly revealed something more, namely his willingness to work beyond the limits of what we understand, and that is because of his mercy and love. Therefore, we see the thief on the cross assured of salvation by the Lord himself, even though he was never in baptism buried with Christ and raised to newness of life, and had not eaten and drunk the food and drink of eternal life. I know that many people have had a life changing and permanent conversion in Billy Graham Crusades and other Protestant venues. Some, upon becoming Anglicans, received the sacraments and all the grace and assurance of grace God promises through them.
In these matters we cannot know more than what God has revealed, and therefore we have the comfort of hope for those who have not received the sacraments as we have. Grace does not come by the Law, and we are not in bondage to a system of thought so rigid that we should feel obligated to explain all the mysteries that God himself has not explained to us. We are not in Rome, and need not do as the Romans do; we need declare no ministry "absolutely null and utterly void," and, thanks be to God that we are are free from so terrible a burden.
This does not give us the liberty to ignore, in our own churches, the proper way to live the sacramental life. Our people must be baptzed, and taught how and when to receive the sacraments fully in accord with what has been revealed and handed down to us from the beginning of the Church, "from the Apostles' time," as the Preface to the Ordinal says. We have rules and must have rules, and we cannot treat everyone's claim to have sacraments as a valid claim; often we must act as if they are not. We have no liberty to treat Episcopacy and the sacraments connected to it as optional. We may, however, rejoice that the whole purpose of the sacramental system is to impart grace that cannot be obtained through the Law, and we may have sincere and honest hope for the many Christians beyond our reach. That is the truly Catholic way.
1. Gal. 3:24, Eph. 2:1, Rom. 6
2. As taught in the Catechism and the Offices of Instruction, shedding light on the meaning of Article XXV.
4. I Cor. 11:19-34. "Judgment" is a better translation of κρίμα than "damnation" in v.29.
5. Baptism was practiced by John the Baptist because the ritual; bath of cleansing is in the Torah. Thus, baptism was a Jewish rite that was applied to all converts because a Gentile needed to be cleansed from all uncleanness in addition to circumcision when he converted. John's work at Jordan testified to the back-slidden Jew that he had strayed from God's holy covenant and needed a conversion as great as any Gentile. Nonetheless, the Lord established Christian Baptism in the Great Commission of Matthew 28: 16-20, giving it both a Form and Intention that sprang from his resurrected life, and with the full revelation of God's Name; so it is for us a Sacrament of the Gospel, that is, a Dominical Sacrament.
6. Rom. 8:3
7. Luke 18:9f
8. James 1:22-25
9. Matt. 26:41
10. I John 5:4
11. Heb. 5:8, Matt. 28:16f
12. Titus 1:5, II Tim. 1:6,7; 2:2
13. Acts 8:14-16, 19:3 in context.
14. John 20:22,23 I Cor. 11:28
15. James 5:14-16. The word for "elders" could be translated as "priests." It is πρεσβύτερος.
16. See these examples from The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by Richard Hooker:
'The first Bishops in the Church of Christ were his blessed Apostles, for the Office whereunto Matthias was chosen the sacred History doth term episkopen, an Episcopal Office.' (VII.4.1)
'And yet the Apostles have now their successors upon earth, their true successors, if not in the largeness, surely in the kind of that Episcopal function, whereby they had power to sit as spiritual ordinary Judges, both over Laity and over Clergy where Churches Christian were established.' (VII.4.3)
'...Presbyters must not grudge to continue subject unto their Bishops, unless they will proudly oppose themselves against that which God himself ordained by his Apostles, and the whole Church of Christ approveth and judgeth most convenient.' (VII.5.8)
'And what need we to seek far for proofs that the Apostles who began this order of Regiment by Bishops, did it not but by divine instinct, when without such direction things or far less weight and moment they attempted not?' (VII.5.10)