Understanding the sacraments: Instituted by Christ

The mysteries of Christ’s life are the foundations of what he would dispense in the sacraments

The Church has always taught that the sacraments were instituted by Christ himself. She is convinced that this truth is rooted in the Word of God and the tradition, as the Catechism affirms: “Adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus… of the Fathers,” we profess that “the sacraments of the new law were…all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1114, citing the Council of Trent).

However, as with many other aspects of the sacraments, this, too, has been the subject of debate and controversy. The Reformers maintained that only baptism and the Eucharist were instituted by Christ. The Council of Trent responded to this erroneous teaching by stating, “If anyone should say that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, anathema sit [let them be cut off].”

Institution by Christ was again challenged by the Modernists in the late 19th century. In response, Pope St. Pius X said, “That affirmation is false which says that the sacraments arose from the Apostles’ and their successors’ interpreting an idea and intention of Jesus in a way appearing advisable to them in light of the circumstances and events of their time, or indeed enjoined upon them by such circumstances and events” (Lamentabili).

In the 20th century it was argued that Christ instituted some of the sacraments “only implicitly,” contending that they were “‘included’ in the foundation of the Church” (Paul Haffner, The Sacramental Mystery, 10). This, too, undermines the constant teaching of the Church and so must be rejected.

The Scriptures clearly attest to Christ’s institution of baptism (Matthew 28:19), the Eucharist (Luke 22:7ff, Matthew 26:17ff, Mark 14:12ff and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), and Penance (John 20:23).

For other sacraments there is clear apostolic tradition that “must be traced back to Christ himself inasmuch as the Apostles considered themselves to be no more than ‘servants of Christ and ministers of the mysteries of God’ (1 Corinthians 4:1)” (A General Doctrine of the Sacraments and the Mystery of the Eucharist, Auer, 85). Thus, we can affirm institution by Christ for confirmation from Acts 8:17 and 19:6; for the anointing of the sick from James 5:14ff; for holy orders from 2 Timothy 1:6, 2:2; and for Marriage from Ephesians 5:25 and Matthew 19:3-9.

Haffner suggests that for a number of the sacraments there are New Testament references to an institution before Easter and an institution after Easter. He writes, “The pre-Paschal institution lays the foundation for the sacrament, while the post-Paschal institution brings the sacrament about in its fullness. Only after the accomplishment of the Paschal Mystery can the sacraments become fully effective as they draw their efficacy from Christ’s Sacrifice and His Resurrection” (9). One example he cites is the sacrament of penance. Christ promised the power before Easter (Matthew 16:19b) and bestowed it fully after His Redemptive Act was accomplished (John 20:22-23)” (Haffner, 139).

Finally, institution by Christ also is implied by soteriology (the study of salvation) “which teaches us that all redemptive grace can come only from Christ, and what the sacraments do is apply such redemptive grace to us” (Auer, 85). For this reason as well, the sacraments must have been instituted by Christ.

A related question addresses the issue of what aspects of the rites were established by Christ: What belongs to the essence or to the integrity of the sacrament, and what rites must therefore the historical Christ himself have established? Not surprisingly, this question has received a number of answers throughout history.

Although the individual sacraments “must go back to a command of the historical Jesus” (Auer, 87), “it is evident that many aspects of the external rite were left to the Church to determine more fully” (Haffner, 10).

Ultimately, the sacraments are a continuation of Christ’s earthly ministry.

Jesus’ words and actions during his earthly ministry “were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of his Paschal mystery. They announced and prepared what he was going to give the Church when all was accomplished. The mysteries of Christ’s life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of his Church, for “what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries” (CCC 1115).

Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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