Sacraments of the good news

It is my understanding that the Church sponsors no such thing as ‘sacraments’ in and of themselves. There are only sacraments of the good news, i.e., signs or proclamation activities which direct us – like John the Baptist and the Scriptures themselves – to see and proclaim the truth about Jesus who is the Sacrament of God. To refer to the Church’s sacraments as ‘signs’ is to say something about the way that sacraments work, that they work through what they say, and what they say is communicated in language apposite to us. In other words, the sacraments work as signs because we can read them. It is because we know what it looks and feels like to wash away dirt from our bodies, for example, that the Church can describe baptism in terms of washing away sins (so Acts 22.16; Eph 5.26; Tit 3.5). It is a sign that looks somewhat alike. Beating someone over the head with a hammer, on the other hand, could never become a sacramental sign of forgiveness because that would contradict its normal meaning. It would point in the wrong direction. This point is well made in Timothy Radcliffe’s Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist (London/New York: Continuum, 2008), p. 189.


  1. Well put, Jason. Reminds me of Jenson’s Augustinian description of the sacraments as “visible words” and N.T. Wright’s “act-speeches.” Of course I agree with what you’ve said here, but I wonder if this talk threatens to subvert the mysteriousness of the sacraments? Does it “tame” them, bringing them entirely into the realm of rationality?


  2. Anglicans, (by the Thirty Nine Articles anyway) believe the Sacraments are both a ‘sign & seal’. I am myself more towards Luther on the Sacraments, however. Which I hope means plenty of “mystery”! Actually, it is Rome who has sought a scholastic rationality, at least with ‘transubstantiation’.

    “We say with Augustine that the sacramental symbols are visible words.” (Peter Martyr Vermigli)

    *Btw, I have a grand book, by the Norwegian Ole Borgen: John Wesley on the Sacraments, A Theological Study. It shows just how “Anglican” both John and Charles were on the Sacraments.


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