This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 25 states:
XXV. Of the Sacraments
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.
This Article begins the next set of articles of faith on the subject of sacramentology with a brief summary of the definition of a Sacrament. In three parts, Article 25 defines what a sacrament is, addresses the question of how many sacraments there are, and addresses the question of how the sacraments are to be used. As with many of the Articles of Religion, there is a strong focus on the issues of the time (the late 1500’s), but their teaching value remains for us extremely valuable.
Part 1 – the definition of a sacrament
Readers today may be more familiar with the pithy saying, a Sacrament is “an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace.” Article 25 begins by spelling out more clearly what that means. First, a negative rejection: Sacraments are “not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession.” This was the teaching of the Radical Reformation, and their legacy holds sway over the majority of Evangelical Protestants today. Many of them teach that things like Baptism and Communion are rites in which we confess and celebrate our faith in Christ. But that is only a surface layer of meaning. More than that, we confess that Sacraments are “certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us”. They’re not so much about our faith, are they are about God’s faithfulness to us. Thus, the sacraments are not mere human rituals that we carry out, but are rites through which “he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.” In other words, God is at work in the sacraments.
This much alone (even before going into the specifics in the next few Articles) sets Lutherans, Anglicans, and some conservative Presbyterians apart from virtually all other Protestant sects. This also plays into the discussion of whether or not to participate in Communion from certain different church traditions (both in Article 23 and further back in my blog).
Part 2 – the number of sacraments
Next, Article 25 tackles the question of how many sacraments there are. This was a hotly debated subject throughout the time of the Reformation, and the legacy of that discussion can still be felt today. Western medieval Catholicism had more or less settled on seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Penance (or Confession or Absolution), Matrimony, Ordination, and Unction (Anointing of the Sick). The Protestant Reformers were at odds over exactly how to work out the definition and number of sacraments. Many Lutherans ended up sticking with three: Baptism, Communion, and Confession / Absolution. Calvinists stuck with two: Baptism and Communion. The Radical Reformers mostly denied the very concept of a sacrament, making this debate moot as far as they were concerned.
Anglicans, as one might guess, were less able to make a clear statement about the exact number of sacraments. So rather than giving a hard-fast number, Article 25 sets out two categories of sacraments: “Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel” and those “commonly called Sacraments… not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel”. The first category, Gospel Sacraments, consist of Baptism and Communion. The second category consists of the remaining five traditional medieval sacraments. As a result, traditionalists are permitted to continue teaching of seven sacraments, albeit with the distinction made between Baptism & Communion on the one hand, and the other five on the other. Or, as many low church Anglicans prefer, one is also free to speak of only two Sacraments. Either way, rites for all seven of these sacraments have always been provided for in the Book of Common Prayer.
The reason for the distinction into these two categories is that the other five “have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God”. In other words, although their example, command, and theology may be found in the Bible, the exact form or matter was not clearly specified. The background for this reasoning is the theological assertion that a sacrament has primarily two components: form and matter. The form consists of words (such as “this is my body…” and “I baptize you in the name of…”), and the matter consists of people and objects (the right sort of minister, the water for baptism, bread & wine for communion, man & woman for matrimony, oil for unction, etc.). What Article 25 observes is that only Baptism and Communion have both form and matter clearly prescribed in the Bible, while the other five only have one or the other. (A table describing these can be found at the end of this article.)
Part 3 – the use of sacraments
Lastly, Article 25 steps into the realm of right use of the sacraments. Medieval theology and piety had reached a point where people commonly paid such great reverence to the Sacraments (especially of Holy Communion) that they were getting distracted from their real purpose. Holy Communion was instituted to be eaten by God’s people, not simply “to be gazed upon” during the Mass or in Eucharistic Adoration, nor “to be carried about” as was highly popular on the festival of Corpus Christi. Some have argued that this Article does not utterly abolish the practice of visible adoration of the consecrated host, but it definitely puts such practices in a place of subservience under the proper use of Communion: eating and drinking.
But finally, to make sure that people didn’t swing from one extreme to another, Article 25 concludes with the biblical warning about due reverence towards and preparation for receiving the sacraments. The statement that those who “receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation” is a warning straight from 1 Corinthians 11:27-30. The sacraments are not magical things to be manipulated, but they are holy things to be reverenced and received.
The form & matter of the sacraments:
|Form (Words)||Matter (Substance)|
|Baptism||“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)||Water (Acts 8:36)|
|Communion||“This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25)||Bread & Wine (1 Corinthians 11:23,25)|
|Confirmation||“Defend, O Lord, this your servant N. with your heavenly grace, that he may continue yours for ever…” – ACNA liturgy||Bishop laying on hands (Acts 8:14-17)
Anointing with oil traditionally added
|Confession||“… I absolve you from all your sins: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” – traditional liturgy, inspired by John 20:23||Bishop or authorized minister (John 20:21-23)|
|Matrimony||“… I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the name of…” – traditional liturgy||Male and female (Genesis 1:27-28)|
|Ordination||“N. Receive the Holy Spirit for the work of…” – traditional liturgy||Bishop laying on hands (1 Timothy 5:22 & 2 Timothy 1:6)|
|Unction||“I anoint you with oil in the name of…” – ACNA liturgy||Presbyters (priests) anointing with oil (James 5:14-15)|