The Sacraments as True Causes of Grace: An Ecumenical Obstacle

If the Church can be accused of anything at all, (it is that) she attributes too much power to God, for it is only she who proclaims to the world that God is so powerful that he takes up creation and uses it to bring about that which he wills.

 The Baptism of Christ by Paolo Veronese-1661

In his treatment of the sacraments in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas naturally begins the discussion by asking what a sacrament is, 1 and whether they are necessary. 2 Immediately following these introductory questions, Thomas broaches the topic we will here be discussing, the question addressed in the very first article of question 62, “Whether the Sacraments Are the Cause of Grace?” In this article, the third objection to this question appears to be the strongest: “what is proper to God should not be ascribed to a creature. But it is proper to God to cause grace, according to Psalm 83:12: “The Lord will give grace and glory. Since, therefore, the sacraments consist in certain words and created things, it seems that they cannot cause grace.” This is a lucid and forceful objection that cannot be swept aside lightly, and it is this exact objection that the Protestant Christian will raise against the Catholic understanding of the sacraments. John Calvin, who will act as our dialogue partner in this treatment, says as much in his defining work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, when he states, “They (the sacraments) do not of themselves bestow any grace.” 3 In response to this objection, Thomas makes clear the distinction in causes relating to the sacraments, distinguishing between a principal cause and an instrumental cause. It will soon become clear why we can say that the sacraments truly cause grace by acting as instrumental causes, deriving their power from the Incarnate Word who has ordained them to confer grace through the mediation of the Church. Understood in this way, the question, “Whether the Sacraments are the Cause of Grace,” can be answered in the affirmative.

Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin on Sacramental Efficacy

It is no secret that one of the main points of contention between Protestant Christianity and the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox churches) is the institution and efficacy of the sacraments. Most of Protestant Christianity will affirm the existence of only two sacraments: baptism and communion, or “The Lord’s Supper,” as it is commonly called. 4 Now a well-formed Catholic will recognize these as the principal sacraments—baptism being the prime sacrament of initiation, and Holy Communion (the Eucharist) holding pride of place as the source and summit of our faith—and may see this as a “glass-half-full” situation, thinking that if they recognize these two, then the rest may not prove to be so much of a problem with time. Upon further investigation, however, the Catholic will find that the Protestant has not only severed five of the seven branches from the sacramental vine, but the two which he leaves still attached are dead. According to this theology, even though baptism and communion are considered sacraments, they have no real power, and they act as mere symbols. John Calvin states the following:

For the schools of the Sophists have taught with general consent that the sacraments of the new law, in other words, those now in use in the Christian Church, justify, and confer grace … It is impossible to describe how fatal and pestilential this sentiment is, and the more so, that for many ages it has, to the great loss of the Church, prevailed over a considerable part of the world. It is plainly of the devil …5

According to Calvin, from whom all so-called “reformed” theology springs, the assertion that the sacraments could actually cause grace sounds both nonsensical and blasphemous. However, before we proceed any further, let us take a moment to clarify our terms.

In order that we may better discuss the nature of the sacraments in their relation to grace, it is best to make sure that we understand grace properly. In other words, in order to better comprehend how the gift is given, and by whom, it will be expedient to discuss the gift itself. Simply put, grace is a quality in the soul which draws man outside of himself towards supernatural good; 6 Thomas says that “grace, considered in itself, perfects the essence of the soul, in so far as it is a certain participated likeness of the Divine Nature.” 7 In his discussion on whether the sacraments cause grace, Thomas ratifies his earlier remarkswith a passage from Scripture: “He hath given us most great and precious promises; that we may be partakers of the Divine Nature” (2 Pt 1:4). 8 Thus it is clear that sacramental grace is that grace which sanctifies and unites man more intimately to God, for “sanctifying grace ordains a man immediately to a union with his last end,” 9 which is God.

To continue, and wishing to take common ground as often as possible, there is no one who holds to basic Christian principles who can convincingly deny that it is proper to God alone to cause grace. Thomas says as much in the Prima Secundae when he states the following:

Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle.” 10

If this is all that Thomas had to say on the subject, we might begin to think that Calvin’s position is just another link in the unbroken chain of Catholic tradition, but this is obviously not the case. While Thomas here and elsewhere affirms that God is the sole principal cause of all grace, it is his claim that God uses the sacraments as instrumental causes in carrying out the overflow of grace into his creatures (exitus) in order to draw them to himself (reditus). Though an instrumental cause is a subordinate cause in relation to its principal, it is still a true cause, and therefore, can rightly be said to have an effect.

In distinguishing between principal and instrumental causes, Thomas, as usual, is clear and concise:

The principal cause works by the power of its form, to which form the effect is likened; just as fire by its own heat makes something hot. In this way none but God can cause grace … But the instrumental cause works not by the power of its form, but only by the motion whereby it is moved by the principal agent: so that the effect is not likened to the instrument but to the principal agent … 11

Here we come to the heart of the matter. It is not in and of themselves, without qualification, that the sacraments cause grace, for they act as instrumental causes in relation to the principal cause, who is God. Thomas uses the example of the axe: the axe is an instrument which effects true causality (it cuts), but it is only in the hands of a craftsman, acting as principal agent, that the axe can be used to create something. It is true that the instrumental cause (the axe) needs to be moved by the principal cause (the craftsman), but it is exactly in the fact that the axe truly does cut that any end is achieved. In the same manner, the sacraments truly cause grace, in order to achieve the end to which they have been ordained, which is to make men holy, which we have previously discussed.

Instrumental Causality

It may be helpful here for us to return to an earlier treatment in the Summa, a passage which we have already made use of, in order to approach the question from a different angle. In question 112 of the Prima Secundae, Thomas addresses the topic of grace specifically, and the first article asks “Whether God Alone is the Cause of Grace?” One of the objectors says that since Jesus Christ possessed a created nature, and that grace came by Jesus Christ, that it is not proper to God alone to cause grace. In response, Thomas states, “Christ’s humanity is an organ of his Godhead … Now an instrument does not bring forth the action of the principal agent by its own power, but in virtue of the principal agent.” 12 In the case of Jesus Christ, the human nature of the Incarnate Word acted as an instrumental cause which brought grace by its association with the principal cause, here being the divine nature. Thomas goes on: “As in the person of Christ the humanity causes our salvation by grace, the Divine power being the principal agent, so likewise in the sacraments of the New Law, which are derived from Christ, grace is instrumentally caused by the sacraments …” 13 Here we find what may be the most powerful summary of the position Thomas takes against those who would deny the effectual causality of the sacraments: just as Christ’s humanity acted as an instrument to bring about our salvation, so too do the sacraments act as instruments to confer grace.

It should be clear by now why the Catholic can say with assurance and enthusiasm that the sacraments do indeed cause grace. In order to put the clarifying point on the topic, however, let us return to the words of John Calvin, our foil. Closing out his chapter on the sacraments in general, he fires off these two sentences:

It is here proper to remind the reader, that all the trifling talk of the sophists concerning the opus operatum, is not only false, but repugnant to the very nature of sacraments, which God appointed in order that believers, who are void and in want of all good, might bring nothing of their own, but simply beg. Hence it follows, that in receiving them they do nothing which deserves praise, and that in this action (which in respect of them is merely passive) no work can be ascribed to them.” 14

Solidifying his position (and influencing all Protestant theology after him), Calvin reaffirms his conviction that nothing whatsoever is to be attributed to the sacraments themselves. His understanding leaves no room for any sort of instrumental causality; for him, the created world holds nothing of value, and in his eyes it is impossible for God to work through matter. One wonders how Calvin gets around 1 Peter 3:21.

Nevertheless, we see that the sacraments do cause grace, and act as instrumental causes in doing so; but where do they get this power? Nowhere else than Christ’s passion, for the power of the sacraments is the power of the cross. “Now sacramental grace seems to be ordained principally to two things: namely, to take away the defects consequent on past sins … and, further, to perfect the soul in things pertaining to Divine Worship in regard to the Christian Religion,” 15 and it is for this reason that Thomas concludes by saying, “Christ delivered us from our sins principally through his Passion, not only by way of efficiency and merit, but also by way of satisfaction … Wherefore it is manifest that the sacraments of the Church derive their power specially from Christ’s Passion.” 16 The sacraments, which have been ordained by God to cleanse us from sin and to lead us to perfection, confer grace by the merit of the crucified Christ. With the evangelist we can cry out with joy, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:14-16, NRSV).

The Church’s Affirmation of the Teaching of St. Thomas

In light of all this, it should be clear that Thomas is well up to the task of answering this objection and easily cuts through the difficulty. Continuing in the tradition of St. Thomas, the Church takes his voice up into her own teaching and, condensing it into two short paragraphs, the Catechism states the following:

Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies … As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power (CCC §1127).

And immediately following:

This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it … (CCC §1128).

In attributing to the sacraments the power to cause and confer grace, the Catholic does not play the part of Robin Hood, stealing from the divine nature in order to give to created nature; in no way does this put the sacraments in competition with God. If the Church can be accused of anything at all, it may perhaps be vulnerable to the claim that she attributes too much power to God, for it is only she who proclaims to the world that God is so powerful that he takes up creation and uses it to bring about that which he wills.

To say that the sacraments do not, and cannot, cause grace is to deny them any place at all in the Christian life and, yet, this is exactly what Calvin and the rest of Protestant Christianity wants to say. It takes some serious mental gymnastics to affirm that Christ instituted the sacraments of baptism and communion and to simultaneously deny that they have any effect on the recipient. If a knife cannot cut, it is useless, if a car cannot move, it is useless, if a sacrament causes nothing to happen, it is useless; the Catholic doctrine of the real causal power of the sacraments is the only reasonable approach, and indeed is the only approach that is faithful to Scripture. In conclusion, it is the clarity with which St. Thomas presents the sacraments as instrumental causes that proves to be the crucial idea and the only adequate answer to the question; Calvin’s objection, in the end, simply does not stand up to the teaching of the Church as formulated by the Angelic Doctor.

  1. Thomas defines a sacrament thusly: “…a sacrament, as considered by us now, is defined as being the sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy.” Summa Theologiae III, Q. 60, a. 2. Summa Theologiae, III, 60-90. Translated by Fr. Laurence Shapcote, O.P., and edited by John Mortenson and Enrique Alarcon. Lander, Wyoming: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012.
  2. As to their necessity Thomas states: “God’s grace is a sufficient cause of man’s salvation. But God gives grace to man in a way which is suitable to him. Hence it is that man needs the sacraments that he may obtain grace.” ST III, Q. 61, a. 1.
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: Volume Two, (London: James Clarke & Co., Limited, 1953), page 503.
  4. Calvin states: “After these {the sacraments of the old law} were abrogated, the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which the Christian Church now employs, were instituted.” John Calvin, Institutes, page 506. Also see The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 27, paragraph 4.
  5. John Calvin, Institutes, page 501.
  6. “Now he {God} so provides for natural creatures, that not merely does he move them to their natural acts, but he bestows upon them certain forms and powers, which are the principles of acts, in order that they may of themselves be inclined to these movements… Much more therefore does He infuse into such as he moves towards the acquisition of supernatural good, certain forms or supernatural qualities, whereby they may be moved by him sweetly and promptly to acquire eternal good; and thus the gift of grace is a quality.” Summa Theologiae I-II, Q. 110, a. 2. Summa Theologiae, I-II, 71-114. Translated by Fr. Laurence Shapcote, O.P., and edited by John Mortenson and Enrique Alarcon. Lander, Wyoming: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012.
  7. ST III, Q. 62, a. 2.
  8. ST III, Q. 62, a. 1.
  9. ST I-II, Q. 111, a. 5.
  10. ST I-II, Q. 112, a. 1.
  11. ST III, Q. 62, a. 1.
  12. ST I-II, Q. 112, a. 1.
  13. ST I-II, Q. 112, a. 1.
  14. John Calvin, Institutes, page 511.
  15. ST III, Q. 62, a. 5.
  16. ST III, Q. 62, a. 5.
Dr. Joshua Madden About Dr. Joshua Madden

Joshua Madden is Lecturer in Theology with Maryvale Institute, International Catholic College, as well as Lecturer in Theology with St. John Vianney College Seminary & Graduate School of Philosophy. His research and teaching interests are focused on Scripture, Thomas Aquinas, Christology, and Christian anthropology.


  1. There is certainly in Protestantism a denial of place for many of the intermediaries embraced within the Catholic Faith. Mary and the saints in heaven, the priesthood, and the sacraments quickly come to mind – all of which (or whom) are seen by many Protestants as usurping the place to held by God or Christ alone. In the case of the sacraments, however, there seems to be (to me) a connection with the “faith with works” vs. “faith alone” controversy. Sacraments are criticized by non-Catholics I have talked with, as so many “dead works” invented by men to try to replace the crucial need for saving faith in the one work of Christ.

    It is on this point that I see a connection between your article and my article, also in this month’s HPR, “Lest they Receive It in Vain.” In my article I express a possibility for superstition that I fear could be or could become in some Catholics, superstition on their part toward the sacraments. Where there is not authentic and true faith, there can well be confused superstition, especially in a context of great religious ritual, ceremony, bells, incense, vestments, liturgies and so on. When everything looks and sounds “religious” outwardly, there is a temptation to become unmindful of what is reality inwardly. The beauty of the cup outwardly can replace the very problematic reality of the inside, as Jesus said, “You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Mt 23:26)

    In affirming the Catholic Faith concerning the efficacy of the sacraments, you cite the Catechism (CCC §1128), “… the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it ….”

    You omitted the closing sentence in this Catechism paragraph, the very teaching that can help guard against potential superstition in a Catholic who might not know the Faith or have internalized it well, and also against an erroneous “mere works-based theology” judgment in a misinformed non-Catholic. The closing sentence is, “Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.” What is going on within is crucial.

    This part of Catholic teaching, as intrinsic to our sacramental theology as are the preceding sentences, requires, if it is to bear fruit in us, the inward “yes” of the person to the truth of the sacrament – that is, faith. Living, authentic faith seems to be the very factor that our non-Catholic brothers and sisters seem to have such difficulty seeing and hearing about, among us Catholics. Some of them, at least, see much very choreographed religious activity – “works” – but they do not seem to perceive the saving faith that could draw them to us.


  1. […] and Pastoral Review has just published an essay of mine entitled, “The Sacraments as True Causes of Grace: An Ecumenical Obstacle.” The essay discusses the difference in sacramental theology as expressed in the thought of St. […]