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A Worthy Understanding of the Sacraments

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Posted by Robert Brewis, 21 Jun 2018

In the second of our mini-series on the issue of receiving the sacraments, Robert Brewis looks at some background to our understanding of the sacraments and then examines the Articles to see what they teach on this matter.

What does it mean to be a worthy receiver of the sacraments? As Article 25 says, ‘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.’

Strong stuff! So what does it mean to receive the sacraments ‘worthily’?

Sacraments and sacramentalism
The consistent teaching of Hebrews is that a person is in the new covenant by faith alone (Hebrews 2:10-17; 4:3, 14; 7:25; 8:6, 10:22). Notice Jesus himself administers the new covenant, and a person shares in his rest, his work, and the new covenant by faith. The new covenant is entered into by belief, and the sacraments of the new covenant (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are God’s way of assuring believers that what he promised to do upon faith, he has done. For the person of faith, they seal one’s interest in the covenant. The new covenant is a promise of salvation upon faith flowing from Christ’s work, and therefore to be in the covenant one has to have faith, not merely receive a sacrament.

So the sacraments are gifts of grace to strengthen our faith. They seal a person’s share in the gospel that they have through repentance and faith. ‘Seal’, here, means something like, ‘give legal ratification to what is ours’ by being a believer.

Therefore without faith, the gift of grace though offered in the sacraments is not received, rather it is rejected. Without repentance and faith a person receives a sacrament they do not rightly receive, since it offers a Christ with whom the person is not in faith-union and therefore they receive none of his benefits. Consequently, without faith the sacraments are no longer legally sealing the gifts granted in the gospel to believers.

The idea that a person without repentance and faith can benefit from the sacrament is sacramentalism. This is the belief that Christ is given and received through a sacrament whatever the state of the person. However in the New Testament, the only possible union with Christ is faith-based. Sacramental union with Christ is alien to each part of the New Testament corpus. For example, in Matthew 7v21-23, Jesus says to hypocrites “depart from me, I never knew you”; and in Acts 8v20-23, Peter says to the baptised Simon Magus “you have no part or share in this” There can be temporary faith, but never sacramental union with Christ, nor the giving of salvation by mere reception. To argue so would be to place unrepentant people in Christ and under wrath, contrary to John 3v36.

Without repentance and faith we take the lively grace gifts of the sacraments and subsume them under empty and meaningless ritualism.

Sacraments in the Articles

The text of Article 25 of the 39 Articles goes back to Cranmer’s version in 1553 (where it was Article 26) and needs to be interpreted in light of justification by faith, the Anglican doctrine of the church and Cranmer’s wider thinking.

In Anglican thought, the sacraments follow the word and are only made meaningful by the word. This is seen in Article 19 where the preaching of the gospel must be set before the sacraments; the emphasis on faith for right reception in Article 25 where the sacraments are given to strengthen existing faith; in Article 26 where the sacraments are effectual due to Christ’s promise to those who believe it; and the requirement of the catechism for children to articulate the gospel promises attached to the sacraments, before they receive the Lord’s Supper. The homily on the “The Worthy Receiving and Reverent Esteeming of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ” in The Homilies of the Church of England As Appointed in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I speaks of the necessity of repentance and faith so that one receives the sacrament rightly.

So the sacraments do not contain grace and the administration of them does not convey it, rather they are defined as sure witnesses and effectual outward signs of inward grace, that by them God works invisibly in us, to quicken, strengthen and confirm faith.

The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace to those of faith. Article 28 says that the benefit is received by the “faithful”, i.e., those who repent. The benefit is the body of Christ eaten spiritually, received by faith alone. Article 29 is explicit that in the Lord’s Supper, to partake of bread and wine without repentance and faith is in no way to receive Christ in any sense, “The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.”

Similar thinking is found in the rubric before the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper: “If a Minister be persuaded that any person who presents himself to be a partaker of the holy Communion ought not to be admitted thereunto by reason of malicious and open contention with his neighbours, or other grave and open sin without repentance…”

Later the minister reads these words:
“Therefore if any of you be a blasphemer of God, an hinderer or slanderer of his Word, an adulterer, or be in malice, or envy, or in any other grievous crime, repent you of your sins, or else come not to that holy Table; lest, after the taking of that holy Sacrament, the devil enter into you, as he entered into Judas, and fill you full of all iniquities, and bring you to destruction both of body and soul.”

Finally those famous words:
“Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort…”

The Lord’s Supper received without true repentance and faith leads to condemnation, because it is blaspheming the work of Christ.

So how does one become a worthy receiver and the sacraments? By repenting of our sins and trusting in Christ’s death for the forgiveness of our sin. Only then are we members of the new covenant and the only then are we certain of having its blessings sealed to us.

Robert Brewis is Associate Minister at Christ Church, Chadderton

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