Suppose someone were to ask the following, “if we are saved by the finished work of Jesus on the cross, why do I even need the sacraments? Isn’t it blasphemy to add to what Jesus did and say that we need to go through a series of rituals in order to experience the grace of Christ which the Bible tells us clearly, is given freely by the finished work of the cross?”
The assumptions in this inquiry have fallen victim to a little theological ‘slight of hand’ caused by a few verses misinterpreted and wrenched from their context in addition to subsequent leaps of logic based on those misconstrued verses. But before we dive in deeper, let’s first discuss, the definition of sacraments. What exactly is a sacrament?
What are Sacraments?
By definition, sacraments are religious rituals or ceremonies that transmit divine grace. It may sound a bit occult, but in the Catholic Church, sacraments are based from Christ’s actions, and teachings.
“It is Finished”
Looking at John 19:30, where Jesus says “it is finished,” some people conclude that Jesus wasn’t merely stating that His act of sacrifice was finished but that the entire salvation of every human being was finished. There is, of course, nothing in the text that would indicate anything even close to such an outrageous conclusion.
However, undeterred, these folks will attempt to press the same theological leap on philosophical grounds. I’m sure you’ve heard it. It goes something like this:
Do you agree that a person cannot make it through life without sinning? (which we would agree to of course)
Therefore, they continue, of our own effort, none of us can attain salvation, agreed? (again…we would gladly concede)
Then, they insist, Jesus came to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus, they conclude, paid the entire debt for us and we have no obligation whatsoever. In fact, they insist, that whatever good we do, in the pursuit of salvation, actually undermines and casts slurs on Christ’s perfect work.
Understanding Your Choices
This logic can quickly be taken apart by their own theology. Jesus asked the Pharisees, in Matthew chapter 12, if it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Seems strange that He would even have to ask such a question, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, the question can be shortened, “Is it lawful to do good?” Pretty hard to make the case that it isn’t. We can, of course, go even further because the fact is that it is unlawful not to do good. So, which of the two is blasphemous?
- Doing good in hopes of salvation.
- Doing evil, thinking that your salvation is assured.
Now that we have made this point, let’s take it further. Did God not say that apart from Him, we can do nothing? Is God not the author of all good? Is Satan not the author of all evil? How then, citing the two examples above, can person one do good and yet be against God while person two can do evil and be with God? Jesus spoke of this dilemma.
Luke chapter 6:43-45:
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
John the Baptist takes it further, with chilling clarity:
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Salvation is a Process
How then, can God demand that we do good rather than evil, show us the awful, eternal consequences of not doing so, and then, see it as blasphemy when we do our best to do what we are commanded to do!? These folks come to this strange conclusion because they see salvation as an act. Salvation is not an act, it is a process.
Paul tells us that we are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). How, they ask, can we who are sinners “work out” our salvation? It is a valid question. We Catholics have a valid answer for it too: grace. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
First, the argument that Jesus came to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, is incorrect, although understandable conclusion. For God to do it For us, would be to violate His own promise of free will. Just as surely, for God to require, under penalty of damnation, that we do that which we cannot do, would violate His own perfect goodness and turn Him into the very definition of cruelty.
Fortunately, God’s goodness is beyond anything we can possibly comprehend. In order to give us a means of salvation, God Himself took on human flesh and suffered the most unspeakable horror we could imagine; He gave up His own body and blood for the sake of poor sinners like me and you. All legitimate Christians agree on this point. Where we part company, is in the first sentence of this paragraph. Jesus died to give us a means to salvation not to give us salvation itself. These folks will quickly point to a plethora of verses that state that Christ died once and for all.
One example: 1 Peter 3:18 – For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; These good people are failing to make the distinction between the sacrifice (which is, indeed, once and for all) and the application of the sacrifice (which is perpetual).
When God instituted the priesthood, for the sacrificial offering, he declared that it would be forever. Exodus 29:9 – and you shall gird them with girdles and bind caps on them, and the priesthood shall be theirs by a perpetual statute. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.
The ‘once saved, always saved’ defenders dismiss today’s priesthood by asking “If the sacrifice has been abolished, what need do we have for a Priesthood?” To which, I would respond that the offering was never abolished and therefore we need a priesthood to offer it. That is why Exodus 29:9 tells us that the priesthood is perpetual (forever).
Before the coming of Christ, in human form, sin was atoned for as such:
- Sinner confesses the sin to a priest.
- A sacrifice is made
- The sacrifice is offered to expiate the sin.
- The sacrifice is consumed for benefit of all
What now? The process is the same with one exception. Rather than sacrificing over and over, the one, perfect sacrifice of Christ is reoffered.
- Sinner must confess the sin (John 20:23)
- Sacrifice was made once, for all. (Hebrews 9:12)
- Sacrifice is to be offered, and consumed. (Luke 22:19)
The fact is clear that the sacraments follow the clearly established formula shown in scripture. But why? Remember that word I brought up – grace? Grace is the great equalizer. No, Jesus did not die for us to give us salvation but to give us the means to salvation. That means is Grace. The Grace we receive through the merits of Christ’s death. The Grace we receive when we receive the body and blood of Jesus.
Grace does two things:
- It cleanses us of sin
- It makes us stronger, and more resistant to further sin.
Many times, we Catholics are accused of implying that Christ’s blood is not sufficient for the expiation of all sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the application of that precious blood to our sin that is the issue. That is why we need the Sacraments. It is true that we humans cannot earn salvation by our own efforts. However, with Christ, we can do anything…even be saved.