How Do the Sacraments Function in the Life of a Catholic Believer?-Part 1

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2003
The sacraments of Catholicism involve particular spiritual activities/responsibilities partaken of by believers. They are said to dispense God’s “grace” and God’s favor. The authors explain the seven sacraments practiced in the Catholic church and the results of each.


The sacraments of Catholicism involve particular spiritual activities/responsibilities par­taken of by believers, such as penance and the holy Eucharist. The sacraments are pre­sided over by a Catholic priest who acts as a mediator between God and man. These special activities are said to dispense God’s “grace” (here, as a spiritual substance or power) and God’s favor.

As we examine the sacraments we will see that they are viewed as necessary to salva­tion—and that, therefore, Rome teaches a salvation based on both faith and works.

In contrast to Protestantism, which accepts two sacraments (baptism and communion), Roman Catholicism teaches there are seven sacraments, all of which are believed to have been instituted by Jesus Christ. The seven sacraments are baptism, the Holy Eucharist, penance, matrimony, anointing of the sick, confirmation, and holy orders.

Rome’s sevenfold sacramental system was apparently initiated for the first time in the twelfth century and made an article of faith in the fifteenth century. (This means that for over one thousand years, Christians were not required to accept the current sacramental system, which Rome maintains is necessary for salvation.) Nevertheless today, “For the Roman Catholic his whole life from the cradle to the grave, and indeed beyond the grave in purgatory, is conditioned by the sacramental approach.”[1] Thus, understanding the sacra­ments in Catholicism is essential to understanding Catholicism itself.

The results of each of the sacraments may be summarized below:

  1. Baptism (which is not repeated) cleanses from original sin, removes other sin and its punishment, provides justification in an initial form, spiritual rebirth (John 3:3) or regen­eration and is “necessary for salvation.”[2]
  2. Confirmation (not repeated) bestows the Holy Spirit in a special sense leading to “an increase of sanctifying grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit” as well as other spiritual power and a sealing to the Catholic Church.[3] (In a sense, the larger process of justifica­tion begins at confirmation because justification cannot begin prior to faith which is de­fined as “man’s assent to revealed [i.e., Catholic] truth,” nor can it occur before baptism.[4])
  3. Penance removes the penalty of sins committed after baptism and confirmation. Thus, mortal or “deadly” sins are remitted and the “justification” lost by such sins is restored as a continuing process.[5]
  4. Holy Eucharist is where Christ is re-sacrificed or “re-presented” and the benefits of Calvary are continually applied anew to the believer.[6] This occurs at the Mass.
  5. Marriage is where grace is given to remain in the bonds of matrimony in dictates with the requirements of the Catholic Church.[7]
  6. Anointing the sick (formerly extreme unction) bestows grace on those who are sick, old or near death and helps in forgiveness of sins and sometimes the physical healing of the body.[8]
  7. Holy orders (not repeated) confers special grace and spiritual power upon bishops, priests and deacons for leadership in the Church as representatives of Christ “for all eternity”: “Holy Orders is the Sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ, through which spiritual power is given together with the grace to exercise properly the respective office. The sacrament gives a permanent character, meaning that it cannot be repeated, and that it ordains one for all eternity.”[9]

Thus, what Catholicism offers its members is a sacerdotal or priestly religion. Sacerdotalism is a system in which salvation is mediated through the functions of the priesthood, in this case through the Catholic sacraments.

This may help us understand why Rome teaches it is the only true Church. Also, it will help us comprehend the historic position of Rome that salvation is only possible in Catholi­cism—because apart from the sacraments of Rome, a person cannot be saved. In other words, if salvation comes only through the means of grace dispensed by the priest through the sacraments—then logically, a person who does not partake of the sacraments cannot be saved.[10]

A standard Catholic text, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, while conceding that God can communicate grace without the sacraments, nevertheless asserts, “The sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for the salvation of mankind.” And, “The sacraments are the means appointed by God for the attainment of eternal salvation. Three of them [bap­tism, penance, holy orders] are in the ordinary way of salvation so necessary that without their use salvation cannot be attained.”[11]

The Catholic Encyclopedia discusses the nature and functions of the sacraments as follows:

It is necessary to set forth the essential elements of a sacrament. These are: (a) a sensible sign instituted by God, which gives sanctifying grace; (b) both matter and form present with each sacrament; the matter is the material used, the form the accompanying words and action; and (c) a minister, someone authorized to give the sacrament with the intention of doing what the Church intends…. the sacraments produce grace…. Sanctifying grace is given by reason of the rite itself (ex opere operato), and grace is not given if the sacrament if not received with the necessary moral disposition. In addition, each sacrament confers a special grace, called sacramental grace. As defined by the Council of Trent, it is the teaching of the Catholic Church, that every one of the sacraments of the New Law was instituted by Christ…. Vatican II declares: “The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and finally to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct.”[12]

Thus, the sacraments are mediated through men who are instructed to represent God. They are held to dispense God’s grace and favor and each of the seven sacraments is believed to confer a special grace termed “sacramental grace.”

Through the sacraments, “…internal grace is that received in the interior of the soul, enabling us to act supernaturally.”[13] Further, “The supernatural gift of God infused into the very essence of the soul as a habit is habitual grace. This grace is also called sanctifying or justifying grace, because it is included in both…. The Council of Trent (Sess. VI, C.11) declares the teaching: ‘If anyone should say that men are justified either by the imputation of Christ’s justice alone or by the remission of sins alone…. let him be anathema.’”[14]

Finally, the sacraments dispense grace merely by the performance of the rite itself or ex opere operato; however, to be functional the sacrament must be received by a Catholic in the necessary moral condition.

Thus, the real difference between the Protestant and Catholic view of sacraments is not in the number of sacraments, two vs. seven. Rather, it is in what the sacraments are be­lieved to do: in their meaning and purpose. Protestantism sees both baptism and confirma­tion primarily as symbols and/or memorials of vital theological truths. Baptism, e.g., symbol­izes the believer’s death to his old life and resurrection to new life in Jesus Christ. Com­munion commemorates the death of Christ for our sins—and also reminds the believer that not only did Christ die for all the believer’s sin, but He rose from the dead as proof of the believer’s justification before God (Romans 4:25). But Catholicism sees the sacraments as actually changing a person inwardly, almost as if through a continual form of regeneration and spiritual empowerment. In Protestantism a sacrament underscores a promise of God; in Catholicism it is an outward sign of an actual infused grace or spiritual power.

In other words, the sacraments infuse a special grace into the soul of a Catholic in order to meet a special need—they are therefore an outward sign of an infused grace. This explains why the basis for a doctrine like justification in Catholic theology is not the fact of Christ’s righteousness being imputed (reckoned) to a believer solely by faith. Rather, it is the fact that—through the sacraments—Christ’s righteousness is infused into our very being so that we progressively become more and more righteous—and on that basis—the fact we have actual righteousness now—we are declared “righteous.” Thus, in Catholicism justification occurs primarily by means of the sacraments—not by faith alone.


  1. H. M. Carson, Dawn or Twilight? A Study of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Leicester, En­gland: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 87.
  2. Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, rev. and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 65.
  3. Ibid., p. 131.
  4. Ibid., p. 319.
  5. Ibid., pp. 466-468, 319.
  6. Ibid., pp. 375-376.
  7. Ibid., p. 372.
  8. Ibid., pp. 39-40, 208.
  9. Ibid., pp. 438-439.
  10. Recent changes in Rome indicate that this is no longer completely true—technically, people can be saved apart from the Roman Catholic Church, but neither easily nor necessarily without consequence. Although Rome used to teach that outside the Church there was absolutely no possibility of salvation, a priest who taught this traditional belief was recently censored by the Church, which claimed his teaching was heretical.In essence, other churches and religions are now seen to have varying degrees of truth or vestigial remnants of truth; people may be saved in other churches—and even other religions—but anyone who desires the one true Church must join Rome because only Rome has the full truth.This also underscores the historic basis for Rome denying salvation to Protestants and Vatican I referring to Protestants as heretics and schismatics. Vatican II has softened the tone, apparently seeing more grace operating outside the Church, and now merely refers to Protestants as “sepa­rated brethren” an apparent attempt to help them return to their “Mother Church.”
  11. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), pp. 340-341, emphasis added.
  12. Broderick, ed., pp. 534-535
  13. Ibid., p. 246.
  14. Ibid., p. 253.


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