What even IS a sacrament, anyway?


One of the terrible ironies of church history is that the sacraments, which are supposed to both enable and embody our unity as Christians, have often been the source of intense division.

But, as one of my seminary profs (a Lutheran) reminded us, the response to this division can’t be to ignore the sacraments! In most church traditions, they are too central to both the Christian life and pastoral ministry to sideline for the sake of a watered-down, “least common denominator” approach to Church unity. (And I say that as one who cares deeply about Church unity.)


So, even as we pray with Jesus (see John 17) that the Church might be brought to complete unity, it pays off to humbly lean-in to one’s tradition and what it has to say about the sacraments.

This topic is way too big for just one email, but let’s at least start to explore what Anglicans believe about the sacraments.

“What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?”

That’s how the question is worded in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism. The answer?

“I mean an outward and visible signe of an inward and spiritual grace, given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.”

Did you catch that? A sacrament comprises:

  • an outward and visible sign (like water, bread, wine)
  • an inward and spiritual grace (to quote the Catechism: “death unto sin,” “new birth unto righteousness”; “the body and blood of Christ,” “the strengthening and refreshing of our souls”)
  • ordained by Christ himself (see Matt. 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:19–24; John 3:3–6; 6:25–59; 1 Cor. 11:23–26; Credit to Martin Davie for those references.)
  • given to us as
    • means of receiving the inward and spiritual grace and
    • pledge to assure us that we have received the inward and spiritual grace.

Here is how Article 25 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (“Of the Sacraments”) describes a sacrament:

“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.”

In other words, for Anglicans, sacraments aren’t just things we do to publicly mark ourselves as Christians. They are more than that.

  1. The sacraments are “certain sure witnesses,” given to us for our benefit to remind us tangibly of God’s grace and good will. (This is what “a pledge to assure us thereof” refers to in the Catechism answer above.)
  2. And the sacraments are also “effectual signs…by the which [God] doth work invisibly in us.” Yes, as signs, they point to something else. But as effectual signs, they are “means of grace,” by which God both creates (“quickens”) and sustains (“strengthen and confirm”) our faith.

And, although God clearly has the initiative as the primary agent in the sacraments, our faith is important for the proper reception of the sacraments.

As Article 25 puts it:

“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 St Paul saith [see 1 Cor. 11:27–32].”

Here’s how the ACNA Catechism, To Be a Christian, puts it:

(Q122) How should you receive the sacraments?
I should receive the sacraments by faith in Christ, with repentance and thanksgiving. Faith in Christ is necessary to receive the grace of the sacraments, and obedience to Christ is necessary for the benefits of the sacraments to bear fruit in my life. (Mark 16:16; John 6:52–58; Acts 2:38–47; 1 Corinthians 11:27–32; 1662 Catechism; Articles of Religion, 28)

Of course, this emphasis on faithful reception of the sacraments has important implications for both Baptism (should infants be baptized?) and the Lord’s Supper (what happens when “the wicked” consume the elements?), but we’ll save that for another email! (Read Articles 27, 28, and 29 for a sneak peek!)

How many sacraments are there?

Viewing the sacraments as “effectual signs of grace” distinguishes the Anglican view of the sacraments from certain other Protestant views (e.g., Baptists).

But the “visible sign” and “ordained by Christ himself” parts of the Anglican sacrament definition also distinguishes the Anglican view from Roman Catholic and Orthodox ones by limiting the number of sacraments to just two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

These two sacraments are sometimes called “sacraments of the Gospel” to distinguish them from “sacraments of the Church, the other five sacraments acknowledged by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches: confirmation, ordination, marriage, absolution/penance, and the anointing of the sick (extreme unction).

Here’s how Article 25 views the other five sacraments:

“Those five, commonly [here “commonly” means “mistakenly”] 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 [i.e., a mistaken imitation of them; confirmation, penance, and unction], partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures [ordination/orders and marriage]; 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.”

(UPDATE: “here ‘commonly’ means ‘mistakenly'” is probably too strong. The Prayer Book elsewhere says “the Nativity of our Lord…commonly called Christmas Day,” and there doesn’t seem to be the connotation of inaccuracy there. Regardless, the Article goes on to explicitly distinguish between these “commonly called sacraments” and “sacraments of the Gospel.”)

Now, this doesn’t negate the importance of things like confirmation or ordination! As the ACNA Catechism puts it, “God clearly uses them as means of grace” (Q125). But it does clearly distinguish them from the two Sacraments with a capital “S,” as it were.

(Alright, enough on the sacraments for now! Reply to this email with any questions you have that I should try to answer in future issues of The Curate!)

Quite the opening paragraph!

This is the very first paragraph of Gerald Bray’s Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition (Lexham Press, 2021):

“Anglicanism as we think of it today is essentially a nineteenth-century invention. The elements that make it up are much older than that, of course, but it was only from the 1830s or so that the particular configuration that Christianity assumed in the post-Reformation Church of England and is sister churches came to be regarded as something unique. Before that time, most people assumed that the Church of England was a Protestant body that had separated from Rome in the sixteenth century along with several other churches in Northern Europe. Everyone knew that the details of the separation were unusual, and that political factors had played as much of a role as theological ones, but these secondary matters did not affect the basic principle. The English church happened to have preserved a number of medieval features, like a territorial episcopate with cathedrals that continued to function much as they had before the Reformation. This gave it a certain traditionalist feel, which might look to Protestants like remnants of Roman Catholicism, but this was more in appearance than in reality. Almost all members of the Church of England saw themselves as Protestants and regarded Rome with varying degrees of enmity.”

Say what you will about Gerald Bray (like that he’s a bit unfair to Anglo-Catholics), at least he dives right in! Lexham Press has produced yet another beautiful book, and Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition (emphasis on the Reformed for Bray!) should be on your radar screen if you’re looking for a brief introduction to Anglicanism!

(Ahem, it would pair nicely with our own Simply Anglican by Winfield Bevins.)

A few more prayer resources

After our “How to pray the Anglican way” issue of The Curate, a few people reached out to me with more prayer resources worth mentioning:

3 bald white guys walk into a website…

Here’s a quick update on what David, Greg, and yours truly (Josh) are up to:

The only bracket I care about in March

One last time: It’s not too late to get in on the action in the Logos March Matchups.

Not only are they offering great discounts on commentary sets, but there are also plenty of excellent Anglican resources available on Logos. I use Logos all the time to answer readers’ questions via email!

That’s all for now!

Have a great week!

Replies to this email go straight to my inbox, so please do let me know if you have any questions, comments, concerns, job offers 😉, etc.

~Joshua Steele, Managing Editor

Published on

March 17, 2021


Joshua Steele

Josh Steele was the first Managing Editor of Anglican Compass. Learn more about him at joshuapsteele.com.

View more from Joshua Steele


Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments