In this series of posts on the Thirty-nine Articles, having looked at the church and its ministry, we now reach the sacraments. After some comments about the sacraments in general, we focus specifically on baptism; the articles on the Lord’s Supper will be our theme next time.

25. Of the Sacraments

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.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Those five commonly 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, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; 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.

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. 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 Saint Paul saith.

Gerald Bray describes the Anglican doctrine of the sacraments as ‘moderately Protestant’ (Bray, 135).

Against the Protestants of the ‘radical reformation’, Article 25 asserts that the sacraments are ‘not only badges or tokens’. To the Swiss Anabaptists, ‘as to many today, baptism and the Lord’s supper are things Christians do to demonstrate their faith, but they play no active part in strengthening or confirming that faith’ (Bray, 136). But Article 25 affirms that God works ‘invisibly in us’ through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In contrast with Roman Catholic teaching, the Articles are simply not interested in those other practices ‘commonly called Sacraments’. Article 25 doesn’t write them off as such, nor does it explicitly deny them the label of ‘Sacraments’; it simply observes that they are not ‘Sacraments ordained of Christ’, nor do they have ‘any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God’.

In further contrast with Roman Catholic teaching, Article 25 emphasises the necessity of receiving the sacraments ‘worthily’. The sacraments are not like a ‘medicine’ that ‘can give us health simply by taking it’. Rather, they are ‘spiritual food for those who are spiritual’ (Bray, 136-7). The reference is to 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, which warns that those who eat and drink ‘in an unworthy manner … eat and drink judgment on themselves’ (NIV).

Finally, Article 25 states what ought to be obvious: that the sacraments were ‘ordained of Christ’ in order ‘that we should duly use them’, that is, in order that they should be received. The Articles give no place for the mediaeval ‘devotional practices’ of ‘the reservation and exposition of the consecrated bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper’ (Bray, 143).

26. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.

Article 26 is about the doctrine of the church’s ministry, and draws out from that doctrine some principles for the church’s discipline.

Doctrinally, Article 26 makes the important point that those who exercise authority in the church do so in Christ’s name. This means, for example, that if an ungodly person preaches a wholesome sermon in Christ’s name (for example, by reading one of the Homilies listed in Article 35), or baptises in Christ’s name, or administers the Lord’s Supper in Christ’s name, then such ministry may be received by the faithful as coming from Christ himself. (Historically, this discussion goes back to the Donatist controversy of the fourth and fifth centuries.)

‘Nevertheless’, in terms of discipline, this does not mean that it is no big deal if your minister is notoriously immoral. Far from it! But, in line with 1 Timothy 5:19-20, accusations against ministers should be handled carefully and seriously.

However, there is no hint that rash action is called for if ‘the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments’. What if discipline is not exercised? Would the Articles have us immediately break fellowship with these ‘evil Ministers’ and form our own separate churches? Not at all. That simply isn’t how the English Reformation happened. Now, this is not to say that there is no situation in which it would be right to separate from the Church of England. But our first response should always be one of patience and prayer.

27. Of Baptism

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.

Notice ‘not only … but … also’. Baptism is indeed a ‘mark’ by which it is possible to distinguish ‘Christian men’ from ‘others that be not christened’. By it a person is ‘grafted into the Church’. But, as Article 26 has just reminded us, ‘in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good’. So baptism doesn’t automatically make someone ‘good’.

Baptism has this deeper effect only for ‘they that receive baptism rightly’. For these people, not only are they grafted into the church through baptism, and not only are the promises of the gospel ‘signed and sealed’ thereby, but baptism proves to be a means, throughout their lives, of faith being confirmed, and of grace increasing.

Thus, as with the sacraments in general (Article 25), the Anglican view of baptism is different both from that of the Anabaptists (because through baptism God actually does something ‘invisibly in us’), and from that of the Roman Catholics (because through baptism God does something ‘invisibly in us’ only in those who receive it rightly).

The mention of ‘the institution of Christ’ is, presumably, a reference to Mark 10:13-16 (‘Suffer the little children to come unto me…’), which is the reading included in the Book of Common Prayer service of baptism. It would seem strange for Jesus to have received infants in this way, only then to exclude all infants from his church. In my experience, Christians who do not believe in infant baptism still want their children to feel that they belong to the church, and to feel welcomed by Jesus. Infant baptism, it seems, is an excellent way of expressing this.