The sacraments extend Jesus’ redemptive act into the present, enabling us to cooperate in that act and also making it effective for our justification and sanctification. As extensions of Jesus’ act, the sacraments not only reveal and communicate the divine life which they signify but also respond to God’s redeeming love with human worship. Having planned from the beginning for us to be his co-workers in redemption, Jesus instituted the sacraments to make this possible in a way wholly suited to our needs and capacities.
Although correctly defined as signs of a sort, insofar as they are principles of Christian life sacraments ought mainly to be considered as acts. Indeed, they are cooperative actions, involving the Spirit, Jesus, the Church by her minister, and the recipient, joined to accomplish the salvation of human persons. They permit us to become participants not only in the benefits of Jesus’ redemptive act but in the act itself. And they are moral principles because they organize a Christian life, which begins with baptism and is structured by the other sacraments.
While defining the sacraments as signs emphasizes their symbolic dimension, they are more than just signs of faith, for they contain and confer the grace they signify. All the same, their bodily, symbolic dimension is an essential part of their redeeming and sanctifying power. As created reality, represented by the humanity of Jesus, cooperates in its own redemption by the Incarnation, so the outward, symbolic dimension of the sacraments enables us to do something suited to our condition in order to collaborate with Jesus in our own reconciliation and perfection.
At the same time, everything else in the sacraments, even the other actors, is a divine gift which is part of God’s work. 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. Furthermore, God’s role in the sacraments not only makes them effective but reveals this effectiveness; in this sense they are revelatory signs.
The sacraments are also actions of Jesus. We have seen that, as a human act, Jesus’ redemptive act still exists, since acts which determine a person last. Every Mass is really a performance of this same, enduring redemptive act. The divine person, the Lord Jesus, continues to act humanly in the sacraments, which make the actions of the Word himself visibly present. Thus, one’s meeting with Jesus in the sacraments is not a symbolic or purely spiritual encounter, but a real meeting with the Incarnate Word, and so also with the Father and the Spirit.
The sacraments are actions of the Church as well—the supreme part of her activity, in which she offers worship to God and confers his love on us. Moreover, the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and orders not only are acts of the Church but inaugurate the recipients into her offices, making certain of their actions official actions of the Church. Through them one shares, in distinct ways, in the priesthood of Jesus.
Finally, the sacraments are actions of the recipient, designed precisely to allow God’s children to have a personal share in the renewal and sanctification he effects in them. The sacraments also nourish Christian life. The acts by which we receive the sacraments enable us to bring everything else in ourselves into perfect integration with charity.
Baptism is the basic sacrament. To receive or at least desire baptism is, as the Church teaches, essential for salvation. Baptism is personal union with Jesus, and from this all else follows: that it overcomes sin, that in being baptized one receives the Spirit, that through baptism the Church is formed. In receiving baptism, one does not simply become a new and better self—one becomes the new man who is Jesus, so closely united with the Lord that one already shares, though in an invisible way, in his resurrection and glory. It can be said of baptism that it is Christian life in embryonic form; the other sacraments add nothing extrinsic but in their several ways develop to maturity what is already present there.
One is not justified by one’s works; salvation is by grace through faith. Nevertheless, having received the gift of divine life in baptism, one must begin to live according to the new life one has received—one must live a Christian life. Baptism not only requires this, however, but makes it possible. Freed from the law, Christians are able to live according to the Spirit. There is no longer any excuse for sin.