Defective Views of the Sacraments: Inherent & Independent Virtue

James Bannerman
The Church of Christ
pp. 536-550

Two parties holding extreme positions on either side of this question. There is one party who deny the grand and characteristic distinction between sacramental and other ordinances already enunciated, and hold that the Sacraments have no virtue except as badges of a Christian profession, and signs of spiritual truths. There is another party holding opinions on the subject admitting of various modifications, but agreeing in this, that they ascribe a high spiritual efficacy to the Sacraments apart from the faith or spiritual act of the receiver. By the first party the views of the Sacraments already stated by me are held to be erroneous in the way of attributing to them a greater virtue than actually belongs to them. By the second party these views are regarded as defective in the way of ascribing to Sacraments a less virtue than really belongs to them. Let us endeavour briefly and generally to estimate the merits and truth of the principles adopted by these two parties,—reserving until a future stage in our discussions the more particular examination of their theories, in their application to the Sacraments of the New Testament individually.
. . .

Error II. Inherent & Independent Virtue.

II. The Sacraments of the New Testament are regarded by another party as in themselves, and by reason of the virtue that belongs to them, and not through the instrumentality [1] of the faith or the Spirit in the heart of the recipient, effectual to impart justifying and saving grace directly, in all cases where it is not resisted by an unworthy reception of the ordinance. This general opinion may be held under various modifications; but all of them are opposed to the doctrine I have already laid down, that the Sacraments are seals of a justifying and saving grace already enjoyed by the recipient, and not intended for the conversion of sinners; and that they become means of grace only in so far as the Spirit of God, by the aid of the ordinance, calls forth the faith of the recipient, and no further.

The Church of Rome — inherent physical virtue.

The doctrine of the efficacy of Sacraments, directly and immediately of themselves, and not indirectly and mediately through the faith of the receiver, and through the Spirit in the receiver, is advocated in its extreme and unmodified form by the Church of Rome. According to that Church, these ordinances, as outward and material rites, become, after certain words of institution pronounced by the priest, possessed of a sacramental virtue, which is conveyed infallibly to the soul of the person who receives them, on two conditions, which are necessary to justifying and spiritual grace being really imparted. First, on the side of the priest who pronounces the words of institution, there is required, as a condition of the supernatural grace being imparted, that he have the intention to make the Sacrament and confer it; for without this, the outward matter of the ordinance would remain mere matter, and have no sacramental character or virtue. And second, on the side of the recipient of the ordinance, it is required that he be free from any of those sins which, in the language of Popery, are called “mortal,” and which, when contracted and not removed, would resist the operation of the sacramental virtue, and prevent his soul receiving spiritual grace. But when these two conditions are present,—when the priest intends to consecrate and dispense the ordinance, and the recipient is not barred from the reception of its virtue by mortal sin,—such is the efficacy of the Sacrament in itself, and directly, that it infallibly communicates to the partaker of it justifying and saving grace.

The doctrine of the Church of Rome is very distinctly brought out in the canons of the Council of Trent, and also in her Catechism. “If any,” says the 11th canon concerning the Sacraments in general, “if any shall say that there is not required in the ministers, when they make and confer the Sacraments, at least the intention of doing what the Church does, let him be accursed.” “If any shall say that the Sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace of which they are the signs, or that they do not confer that grace on those who place no obstacle in the way, as if they were only outward signs of grace or justification already received by faith, and certain badges of the Christian profession, by which believers are distinguished from infidels, let him be accursed.” “If any shall say that grace is not conferred by the Sacraments of the New Law, ex opere operato, but that faith in the Divine promise alone avails to secure grace, let him be accursed.” According to this doctrine, then, Sacraments impart grace, not through the channel of the faith of the receiver, and not in dependence in any way on his spiritual act, but immediately and directly from themselves, “ex opere operato.” This last expression is to be interpreted in connection with the distinction drawn by the Church of Rome between the Sacraments of the Old and New Testament Churches. The Sacraments of the Gospel Church are superior in efficacy to those under the law, in the Popish theory, because the former, or the New Testament Sacraments, work grace independently of the spiritual disposition or act of the recipient; whereas the latter, or Old Testament Sacraments, were dependent on the spiritual disposition or act of the receiver of them. The “opus operatum” of the New Testament Sacraments, or the virtue they have by their own act, apart from the spiritual state of the recipient, is contrasted with the “opus operantis” in the Old Testament Sacraments, or the virtue which they had, not in themselves, or in their own operation, but only in connection with the spiritual act of the partaker. According to the proper theory of the Church of Rome, the Sacraments of the New Testament impart grace ex opere operato, or from their own intrinsic virtue and direct act on the soul of him who receives them.

Oxford Movement in the Church of England — inherent spiritual virtue.

This doctrine of the inherent power of Sacraments in themselves to impart grace, held by the Church of Rome, is also the system maintained, although with some important modifications, by another party beyond the pale of that Church, the representatives of which, at the present day, are to be found in the High Churchmen of the English Establishment. The doctrine of the High Church party in the English Establishment in regard to the Sacraments differs indeed in two important particulars from the full and unmodified development of it found in the Popish system; but in other respects it is substantially the same,—equally implying the inherent power of Sacraments to impart grace, not through the spiritual act of the recipient, but apart from and independently of it.

The advocates of High Church principles in the Church of England generally—although there is a numerous and increasing section of them who in this respect approximate more nearly to Rome—generally reject the Popish doctrines,—first, of the opus operatum, and second, of the necessity for the intention of the priest in the Sacrament. They deny that the Sacraments have any immediate physical influence upon the soul, by the very act of outwardly participating in them,—such as is implied in the opus operatum of the Church of Rome; and they deny, further, that the intention of the priest to make and confer the Sacrament is a necessary condition of it, without which it could impart no grace. These two elements in the Popish theory of sacramental ordinances are rejected, generally speaking, by the High Church disciples of the English Establishment, although instances are not awanting—and they seem to be multiplying of late—of both these monstrous pretensions being, in a certain sense, maintained by them.

But they agree with the Romish Church in the grand and fundamental principle which belongs to its doctrine of the Sacraments,—namely, that they communicate grace from the sacramental virtue that resides in themselves,—or, as some prefer to put it, that invariably accompanies them by Christ’s appointment,—and by their own immediate influence on the soul, and not instrumentally by the operation of the Spirit of God on the worthy recipient and through the medium of his faith. This is the characteristic principle that is common both to the Popish and the High Church theories of Sacraments. Both these parties hold that there is something in or connected with the ordinance which directly and immediately does the work of grace upon the soul; and not merely indirectly and mediately through the Spirit of God working on the soul, and the faith of the soul working in return. The Church of Rome ascribes this efficacy of the ordinances to the opus operatum of the Sacraments, and the act and intention of the priest in consecrating them. The High Churchmen of the English Establishment usually reject both of these doctrines as laid down by the Council of Trent, and ascribe this efficacy of the ordinances to the deposit of spiritual grace which Christ has communicated to the Church, and connected with the Sacraments, and given them the power to impart. But the High Churchmen of Rome and the High Churchmen of England agree equally in this, that there are in the Sacraments an efficacy and power to impart grace of themselves, directly and immediately, to the soul of the recipient; and that they are not merely aids or instruments for bringing the recipient into direct and immediate communication with Christ to receive grace from Him.

Although both the Canons and Catechism of the Council of Trent lay down, to all appearance, expressly and undeniably the doctrine that there is a physical virtue in Sacraments, whereby they operate upon the recipient, yet there are not awanting doctors of the Romish Church who are anxious to soften down the dogma of the opus operatum, and to explain it in the sense of a moral and spiritual, and not a physical virtue, residing in the ordinance. And in this modified form of it, the Romish doctrine of the Sacraments—apart from the necessity of the priest’s intention—approximates very closely to the High Church theory entertained by many in the Church of England. That theory maintains the doctrine of not a physical but a spiritual virtue deposited and residing in the Sacrament, which operates universally, not through the faith or spiritual act of the recipient, but directly and immediately through the act of participation in the outward ordinance. This, in fact, is no more than part of the general doctrine that the Church is the grand storehouse of grace to man, and not Christ Himself; and that it is by communication with the Church, and not by direct communication with Christ, that the soul is made partaker of that grace. The Sacraments, as the chief medium through which the Church communicates of its stores of spiritual blessings, are the efficient instruments for imparting grace directly to the recipient.

The effectual cause of sacramental grace.

Now, there is one preliminary remark which, in proceeding to estimate the value and truth of such principles in regard to the Sacraments, it is necessary to bear in mind. It is not denied, but, on the contrary, strongly maintained and asserted, that the Sacraments are means of grace. To the believer who uses them aright, they are made the means of conveying spiritual blessings. In regard to this, there is no controversy between the opponents and the advocates of High Church views of the Sacraments, whether Popish or Tractarian. But the question in dispute is, whether the Sacraments become effectual, from a virtue in themselves, or in the priest that consecrates them, or only by the work or the Spirit and the faith of the recipient?

That the faith of the believer is called forth and exercised in the ordinance, and that through this faith he receives grace additional to what he enjoyed before, we do not dispute, but, on the contrary, strenuously maintain. That the spiritual act of the believer in the ordinance, when in faith he gives himself to his Saviour, is met by the spiritual act of Christ in the ordinance, when in return He gives Himself and His grace to the believer, is a doctrine at all times to be asserted and vindicated. That the faith of the recipient, in the act of committing and engaging himself to Christ, through means of the ordinance, is a faith unto which Christ is given in return, we would constantly affirm; and in this sense, and in this way, the Sacraments become means or channels or instruments whereby grace is given and conveyed. But they are no means of grace except through the faith of the recipient, and in consequence of his own spiritual state and act. There is no inherent power in the ordinance itself to confer blessing, apart from the faith of the participator, and except through the channel of that faith. There is no deposit of power—whether, with the Church of Rome, we deem it physical and ex opere operato, or whether, with Tractarians and High Churchmen, we call it spiritual—in the Sacraments themselves to influence the mind of him who receives them. They have no virtue of themselves, apart from the work of Christ through His Spirit on the one side, and the spiritual act of the recipient through his faith on the other side. In the language of Amesius, in his admirable reply to Bellarmine, Sacraments have no power “efficere gratiam immediate, sed mediante Spiritu Dei et fide” [to effect grace immediately, but mediately through the Spirit of God and faith].

Has the Church, then, ordinances for its administration and use which, either by the original appointment of Christ, or by deposit of grace from Christ, have in themselves virtue to impart spiritual blessing through the administration of them alone? Or has the Church ordinances for its administration and use which have no virtue in themselves to communicate grace, except in connection with the faith of the receiver, and the blessing imparted by the Spirit? Are the Sacraments of the New Testament themselves a quickening power in the soul, apart from the faith or spiritual act of the participator,—the original deposit of grace committed to them being still retained, and still communicable through their administration, and that alone? Or are these Sacraments effectual to impart grace only in connection with the faith and spiritual disposition of the recipient,—there being necessary to their efficacy, both the act of the believer, in the use of them, giving himself to Christ, and the act of Christ, through the same ordinance, giving Himself to the believer.

It matters little whether, as with the Popish Church, the Sacraments are invested with a physical virtue, in consequence of which they impart grace; or whether, as with the High Churchmen of other denominations, they are invested with a spiritual virtue in consequence of which they impart grace,—if in both cases the grace is given by the Sacrament itself, and not given through the Spirit and the faith in the heart of the recipient. It matters little whether a physical or a spiritual explanation is given of sacramental efficacy, if it be efficacy exerted apart from Christ in the ordinance giving Himself to the believer, and experienced apart from the believer in the ordinance giving himself to Christ. Whatever be the efficacy and virtue, physical or moral, if it is independent of and separate from the faith of the recipient covenanting in the ordinance with Christ, and the act in answer to that faith of Christ covenanting with the recipient, it is not the sacramental grace which the Scripture recognises. It becomes, when thus separated and drawn apart, a mere charm, a trick of magic, whether physical or spiritual, utterly unknown to the Gospel economy.

Four reasons independent virtue in the Sacraments is wrong.

Let us endeavour to apply to this theory those tests which may serve to try its merits and its truth. There are four different tests by which we may try the merits of this sacramental theory, whether held in its extreme form by Papists, or in its more modified form by High Churchmen of other communions.

1. Scripture.

1st, Tested by Scripture, which constitutes the rule for the exercise of Church power, there is no warrant for asserting that there is an inherent and independent virtue in Sacraments to impart justifying or saving grace. The truth of this general proposition may be established by a very wide and ample deduction of evidence from Scripture. It is impossible for us to do more than advert to the leading heads of proof in connection with this question.

1. Justification by Faith alone.

In the first place, those multiplied and various declarations of Scripture, which state that we are justified by faith alone without works on our part, very distinctly prove that the Sacraments cannot have an independent and inherent power in themselves of conveying justifying and saving grace. Such passages expressly assert that faith is the immediate instrumental cause of justification. They are inconsistent, therefore, with the theory that the Sacraments directly and immediately of themselves impart grace, although they are quite consistent with the doctrine that the Sacraments indirectly, and through the faith of the worthy receiver, may impart grace.

2. Christ alone is the object of faith.

In the second place, the doctrine that the Sacraments have an inherent virtue to confer grace, is opposed to the whole tenor of Scripture, which sets forth Christ as the one and the immediate object of faith and hope to the believer, in the matter of his justification and salvation. The Word of God, from its commencement to its close, clearly and constantly and invariably points to Christ, and to nothing but Christ, as the only source to which a sinner must look for forgiveness and acceptance with God. The theory of the Sacraments held by High Churchmen presents another and a different object for his faith, and teaches him to rest in an outward observance as sufficient. It is part of that most destructive system which places the Church and the ordinances of the Church between the sinner and his Saviour.

3. The insufficiency of the Sacraments to communicate grace of themselves.

In the third place, the very express testimony of the Apostle Paul, in regard to the insufficiency of the Sacraments under the Old Testament Church to communicate grace of themselves, is an argument equally effectual to show that the New Testament Sacraments are insufficient likewise. Abraham was not justified by circumcision, but by the faith of which his circumcision was the seal (Rom. 2:25-29; 3:20, 30; 4:3-11; Heb. 9:11f.; 10:1-11).

4. Relation to the Word.

In the fourth place, the statements of Scripture which at first sight might be construed as if they ascribed a gracious influence to the Sacraments of the New Testament in themselves, and which seem to connect saving benefits with the observance of them, are not stronger or more numerous, but less so, than those which ascribe justifying and saving blessings to the ordinance of the Word, or truth received by the reader or hearer of it. We know that the Word or the truth justifies, not of itself, but through the faith of him that receives it; and that, apart from this faith, it has no virtue or power of a gracious kind at all. In the same manner, Sacraments impart grace, not of themselves, but through the faith of those who receive them; and, apart from that faith, they have no life or blessing whatsoever.

5. The spiritual nature of the Gospel.

In the fifth place, the theory of an inherent virtue or power in the administration of the outward ordinance is utterly opposed to those numerous passages of Scripture which assert that the power of the Gospel is altogether of a spiritual kind, and is in no respect akin to a mere external and material influence, as if such could impart a supernatural grace. It is “not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” And instead of pointing to any outward source of power or efficacy, and exclaiming, “Lo here, or Lo there!” the Christian has been taught to think that “the kingdom of God” has its source and presence “within him” (Rom. 14:17; Luke 17:21). The theory which ascribes to the Sacraments an infallible virtue which, unless counteracted by some obstacle, such as infidelity or open vice, must operate to impart grace, is inconsistent with those numerous statements of Scripture which represent the Gospel as a spiritual power, adapted to the spiritual nature of man.

Sacramental union of the sign and the thing signified.

In estimating the bearing of Scripture testimony on this question, there is one consideration of a general kind which it is of great importance to the argument to bear in mind. In every theory of the Sacraments that can be held,—from the lowest to the highest, from the Socinian up to the Popish,—the Sacraments are regarded as at least signs of spiritual things, representing and exhibiting the blessing in outward resemblance. The union thus established, according to any theory that can be held of them, between the sign and the thing signified by it, has introduced into Scripture a kind of phraseology which at first sight appears to give some sanction to the High Church system in regard to sacramental ordinances. There is often an exchange of names between the sign and the thing signified in Scripture, in consequence of which what may be predicated of the one is often asserted of the other, and vice versa. This usage of language, so frequently exemplified in Scripture in connection with this matter, is a usage found commonly in other writings and in regard to other matters, and gives rise to no sort of misapprehension in our interpretation of it. It is the great foundation indeed of all figurative language.

Thus, when Christ is said to be “the Passover sacrificed for us,” there is an exchange of this kind, in which the name of the sign is given to the thing signified; and when Christ says of the bread, “This is my body,” there is an exchange in the opposite way, and the name of the thing signified is attributed to the sign. And in perfect accordance with this usage of language, there are several passages in Scripture in which the mere outward observance in the case of the New Testament Sacraments, the external sign, has a virtue attributed to it which in reality belongs, not to the sign, but to the grace represented in the observance, or to the thing signified. Thus, for example, “Baptism” is said in one passage “to save us;” although, from the further explanation contained in the passage itself, it is plain that it is not the outward sign but the thing signified that is spoken of under the name of the sign; for the apostle adds immediately, “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God” (1 Peter 3:21). In the same manner the Apostle Paul speaks of “the cup of blessing” as “the communion of the blood of Christ,” (1 Cor. 10:16)—language in which that is predicated of the sign which is truly predicated only of the thing signified.

In short, the sacramental union between the outward sign and the inward grace gives occasion to not a few examples in Scripture in which what is true of the one only, or the inward grace, is attributed to the other, or the outward sign. Almost the whole plausibility of the argument from Scripture in favour of the High Church theory of the Sacraments comes from this source; and it is completely removed when the familiar canon of criticism, applicable to Scripture in common with other writings, is attended to,—namely, that what truly belongs to the thing signified is often predicated figuratively of the sign, and so ought to be interpreted and understood [cf. WCF 27.2; 29.5].

2. The Supreme Authority of Christ.

2d, The theory of an inherent power, physical or spiritual, in the Sacraments, is inconsistent with the supreme authority of Christ, from whom all Church power is derived.

The doctrine that would deposit in sacramental ordinances a grace communicable to the participator, apart from his communion with Christ, directly and immediately, is inconsistent with the office and right of Christ to hold in His own hand all blessing, and to dispense from His own hand, not mediately through another, but at once from Himself, the grace which His people receive. Such a theory takes the administration of grace out of the hands of Christ, ever present to dispense it, and transfers it to a priest standing in His room. There can be no participation in heavenly blessing except what comes from direct communication with Christ on the part of the soul that receives it; and it is a dishonour to Him, who is the ever-living and ever-present administrator of all grace to His people, to put the mute and conscious ordinance in the place of Christ, and to transfer the dependence of the soul for spiritual blessing from the Divine Head in heaven to the outward ministry of Sacraments on earth.

That Christ might by His original appointment have made the Sacraments the receptacle of a physical influence, fitted and able to work a supernatural blessing on the soul, it would perhaps be presumptuous to deny. That Christ might at the first institution of the ordinances have made them a reservoir or storehouse of grace enough for all ages of the Church, and imparted to them a spiritual blessing out of which every subsequent generation of His people might draw their supply, we need not be anxious to dispute. Or that Christ, without communicating at the beginning to Sacraments a store either of physical or spiritual grace sufficient for all generations, might have tied Himself up to the indiscriminate and invariable communication of His Spirit along with the administration of outward Sacraments, and bound Himself down, without any choice or discretion, to link spiritual grace to material rites, apart from the faith of the person observing them,—this, too, is perhaps a possible imagination. But had Christ, as the Head of ordinances in His Church, done either the one or the other of these things, He must to that extent have divested Himself of His office as Mediator, or resigned the exercise of it; He must in so far have abdicated His functions as the sole and living and ever-present administrator of grace to His Church; and been shut out from that exclusive and supreme agency which He maintains as the dispenser as well as author of every blessing by which the soul is to be saved.

3. Christian Liberty.

3d, The theory of the Sacraments which ascribes to them an independent virtue or power, is inconsistent with the spiritual liberties of Christ’s people.

Such a system brings the soul itself into bondage. It keeps the spirit, which Christ has Himself redeemed, waiting upon man for the communication of the blessings of its redemption; it makes the soul which Christ has ransomed dependent for its freedom on the ministry of a fellow-creature. There cannot be a worse or more abject thraldom than that which subordinates the flock of the Saviour’s purchase to any one but Himself, and causes them to hang upon the intention entertained or not entertained by a priest for the enjoyment or forfeiture of spiritual blessing. But even apart from the monstrous doctrine of the Romish Church as to the intention of the priest being necessary to the efficacy of the ordinance, the sacramental theory we have been considering, whether Popish or Tractarian, is inconsistent with the spiritual freedom of those whom Christ has redeemed. That freedom consists in subjection to and dependence on Christ, and none but Christ,—in being emancipated from all dependence on any other except their Saviour,—in being kept waiting, not at the footstool of man for saving blessings, but at the footstool of Christ,—and in being taught to look for all the grace they need day by day, not to the ministry of man’s hand, but to the hand of Christ. Spiritual freedom for the believer is bound up with a dependence on Christ immediately and directly, and on Him alone, for every blessing that he needs.

4. The Spirituality of the Church.

4th, The sacramental theory we have been considering is inconsistent with the spirituality of the Church, and of the power exercised by the Church for the spiritual good of men.

When, according to that theory, the Sacraments become the instruments of justification and the source of faith, instead of the seal of a justification already possessed, and the exercise and aid of a faith already in existence,—when they are made to come between the soul, in its approach to Christ, and Christ Himself, and communion in the external ordinance is substituted for the fellowship of the Spirit, it is a fatal evidence that the Church, which so teaches and so practises her teaching, although she has “begun in the Spirit,” has “sought to be made perfect by the flesh” (Gal. 3:3). If the external ordinance be made to occupy that place which belongs to the Spirit, and participation in the ordinance be the substitute for faith, the sacramental theory thus reduced to practice will be but the commencement of worse and deeper degradation. It is but the beginning of a course which, consistently followed, must lead to a religion of form and self-righteousness, of sense and sensuous observances, of carnal ordinances and a ceremonial holiness, of outward satisfaction and penances and merit.

There will be the priest and the bloodless but efficacious sacrifice, grace conferred by the tricks of a physical or spiritual magic, a religion that manifests itself outwardly and not inwardly, the holiness of houses, and altars, and sacred wood and stone, but not the holiness of the Spirit; the atonement of Sacraments and penances and creature merits, but not the atonement of the Saviour received by faith; a righteousness of bodily discipline and fleshly mortification, but not the righteousness of God imputed to the believer; a justification made out of pains and merits, of sufferings and works, but not a justification freely given by Divine grace and freely accepted by faith; an outward baptism to regenerate the sinner with water at first,—the food of the communion table, made flesh and blood by the consecration of a priest, to sustain the life so begun, and the anointing with oil at last to prepare the soul for the burial. Such are the inevitable fruits of the sacramental theory, consistently carried out in the Church of Christ, making the very temple of God to be the habitation of every carnal and unclean thing [Rev. 18:2].


[1] Throughout this section, Bannerman employs scholastic language of causality; primarily the distinction between the efficient cause and the instrumental cause. “Efficient cause, or productive and effective cause, which is the agent productive of the motion or mutation in any sequence of causes and effects” (p. 56). “Instrumental cause; in the realm of second causes, the means, or medium, used to bring about a desired effect, distinct from the material and formal causes, as a tool is distinct from both the material upon which it is used and from the form that determines what the material is or will be” (p. 59). Under media (means), “The instrumentality through which an end, or goal, is accomplished, sometimes termed instrumental cause, or second cause. It is characteristic of means that they are passive in the order of causes and are utilized by the efficient cause. The value, positive or negative, of means therefore derives from the end achieved, the means in themselves being neutral” (p. 212). (Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 2 ed.).

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