1. God’s work in the sacraments is not simply one role among many. Everything else, even the other actors, is a divine gift which is part of God’s work. He gives all these gifts, fills them with life and goodness, blesses them, and makes them holy.
2. “It is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as an guarantee” (2 Cor 1.21–22). We are baptized in the name of the Trinity (see Mt 28.19), not only into their family but by their power, for the divine authority given to the risen Jesus underwrites this act (see Mt 28.18; S.t., 3, q. 64, aa. 1, 3).
The Father begins the work of salvation in us and brings it to perfection (see Phil 1.6). If we do anything, it is only because he does it in us (see Phil 2.13). He makes everything work together for the good of those who love him (see Rom 8.28), for he means to bring us to the perfection of Jesus himself in glory (see Rom 8.29). Thus prayer for the grace required to gain perfection appropriately is addressed to the Father (see Rom 15.5).
Jesus our Lord, in communion with the Father, makes charity abound (see 1 Thes 3.12). He is the head and source of the Church (see Col 1.18). Thus he is the author of life for us (see Acts 3.15). Moreover, our progress is toward his perfection; we grow up toward him, to conformity to his pattern (see Eph 4.15; 5.2). Insofar as he is God, our Lord himself brings about our transformation into his own likeness (see 2 Cor 3.18). Jesus in glory is in the process of filling the universe (see Eph 1.22–23). He holds in himself the total capacity for all the good which is to be, and he associates us with himself in realizing fulfillment (see Eph 2.6; Col 3.1).
During his earthly life, Jesus was always filled with the Spirit (see Lk 4.1; 10.21). He promised that the Father would give the Spirit to those who ask (see Lk 11.13). However, only through his resurrection is Jesus made Lord in power and enabled to impart the Spirit (see Jn 7.39; Rom 1.4).7 He promises to send the Spirit, but must leave this life and be transformed by resurrection to do so (see Jn 16.7). When he appears as glorified Lord, he comes as one sent by the Father who is able to send human persons as he himself is sent, with the power of the Spirit: “ ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ ” (Jn 20.21–22), and he handed over the authority to extend redemption to all humankind (see Mt 28.18–20).
3. The Church teaches that the sacraments contain and give grace (see DS 1310/695, 1451/741, 1606/849). (The Church does not precisely assert in her solemn teaching that the sacraments cause grace, though this is often said by theologians and in popular writing.8) They contain and confer grace because the divine action which justifies and sanctifies is present in them.
4. This divine action is not present in the sacraments as if the finite performance comprehended God’s infinite love, but because God makes his love available to us in this way, as he makes it available in the words of Scripture and in the humanity of the Word, which the sacraments make present and effective for us. As a human act, even as the human act of Jesus, a sacrament is effective only insofar as it is a mode of cooperation with God’s action, which alone re-creates and divinizes.
5. Thus sacraments are not merely human acts. In them the Spirit is united with the water and the blood of Jesus’ redemptive death (see 1 Jn 5.6–9). The divine power of the Spirit, available to our glorified Lord to complete his work (see Jn 7.38–39; 15.26; 16.7; 20.22), does bring it to completion in us.
6. Finally, God’s role in the sacraments not only makes them effective but reveals this effectiveness. They are revelatory signs, made up of words and deeds, which, though ours, are also Jesus’ (cf. DV 2; SC 5–7). God not only reconciles and divinizes us, but makes it plain to us what he is doing by giving us evidence of it (see 1 Jn 5.6–11). For example, by providing the sacrament of penance, God manifests his forgiveness of a Christian’s sins through the Church’s words of absolution which the contrite sinner hears as divine pardon. Thus faith is nourished. God’s revelation is effective. He communicates not mere information but his own truth and love: his very self.
The role of divine action in the sacraments explains why they both work from the very performance of the rite (ex opere operato) and work only by virtue of a divine response to the faith and prayer of the Church. The sacraments are effective whenever they are properly carried out and worthily received, because the covenant established in Jesus is real and effective—the gift of the Spirit to the Church is true and irrevocable. This is no more magical than is obtaining gold in exchange for a check, when someone keeps the account full of funds to draw upon. God has sworn and he will not renege.
At the same time, the Church never takes the Spirit for granted. His work is free and personal cooperation. Hence, in various invocations, such as the epiclesis which asks the Spirit to effect the consecration of the Eucharist, the Church (like a loving wife) gently asks the Spirit of her Lord to do what he has promised and is always ready to do.9
7. See Lucien Cerfaux, The Christian in the Theology of St. Paul (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), 292–95. This is not to say Jesus lacked divine power during his earthly life. But the power to bestow the Spirit at will seems to follow from the status of Jesus as Christ in glory (see Jn 16.7; 20.21–22).
8. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 3, q. 62, a. 1. Thomas’ way of speaking has been adopted widely; it follows from his position that sanctifying grace is a created quality. I disagree, but even on my account one could say in a loose sense that the sacraments “cause” grace, since they bring it about that the divine nature is communicated and that the human person shares in and is more and more perfectly integrated with charity. E. Schillebeeckx, O.P., Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed, Andrews and McMeel, 1963), 4–5, says that grace is an encounter (personal meeting) with God as seen from the human side. It seems to me this theory is far less adequate than that of St. Thomas, for it reduces the inward transformation of the human person affected by the Spirit. Indeed, I do not see how Schillebeeckx’s conception can satisfy the requirement of the Council of Trent (see DS 1530/800, 1561/821) that grace inhere, for encounters do not inhere.
9. Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J., The Early Liturgy to the Time of Gregory the Great, trans. Francis A. Brunner, C.Ss.R. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1959), 70, 218–20. To say that the Spirit acts is not to deny that both the Father and Jesus as Word also act in all the sacraments.