As you look back over the history of the Church, look back over the epochs that have thrown themselves as it were against the Church, a number of things come to mind immediately. First of all, let's start with the dangerous epochs at the time when Christianity became the religion of the Holy Roman Empire. So you have not long after that what is commonly known as the Dark Ages that runs from the time of the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire clear through to 1500. Over 1000 years of Dark Ages they're called. And the dominating danger to the Church at that time was sacramentalism. Sacramentalism. And that's the word that you will identify in your mind with this first epoch. Sacramentalism means that the Church was dominated by sacraments, by mechanisms, by external mechanical means--dominated by attempting to know God through some kind of automatic action. Whether it was lighting a candle or genuflecting or it was bowing down, whether it was going through beads, or whether it was inflicting some pain upon yourself physically, whatever it might have been, these were mechanical means supposedly to give people salvation. Sacramentalism was a severe danger to the Church. ... You attached yourself to the Church externally. ... [S]acramentalism came and stayed, and it's still with us.There are several misconceptions in this discourse. And although MacArthur never uses the word "Catholic" in this particular sermon, he has argued against sacraments in Catholicism elsewhere in nearly identical language.1
Misconception #1: Sacraments are "external means" that involve "automatic action" involving only "external" attachment to the Church.
MacArthur believes sacraments involve only external actions that have some "automatic" result. This is not the case. All seven sacraments in the Catholic Church are signal of interior realities as well.
Consider the Catholic concept of how Jesus Incarnate was sacramental according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
CCC#515 His humanity appeared as "sacrament", that is, the sign and instrument, of his divinity and of the salvation he brings: what was visible in his earthly life leads to the invisible mystery of his divine sonship and redemptive mission.Notice the terms describing sacrament: sign, instrument, visible, invisible. Just as Christ's physical death lead to the outpouring of grace, so too do His sacraments. Look how the Church views the sacrament of marriage:
CCC#1617 Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church.
The point in quoting these two paragraphs is to show that the definition of a sacrament goes beyond the external. Remember, MacArthur argued that Catholics believe the way to attach to the Church is simply externally. But Catholics do not believe this. It is possible MacArthur is unaware of what a sacrament is. Openness to Christ is mandatory for the sacraments to have effect. They are not merely mechanical as MacArthur asserted that Catholics believe.
If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify; or, that they do not confer that grace on those who do not place an obstacle thereunto...let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, 7.VI)
The sacraments always give grace if we receive them with the right dispositions. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, will be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. (I Corinthians 11:27) (Baltimore Catechism #309)
He who knowingly receives a sacrament of the living in mortal sin commits a mortal sin of sacrilege, because he treats a sacred thing with grave irreverence. (Baltimore Catechism #312)
To receive the salvific remedy of the sacrament of penance, a member of the Christian faithful must be disposed in such a way that, rejecting sins committed and having a purpose of amendment, the person is turned back to God. (Code of Canon Law, #987)
You see the sacraments are not "automatic" as MacArthur claimed Catholics believe. According to Catholic teaching, a skeptic who received the waters of baptism would not receive the graces bestowed in baptism because he posited an obstacle. The recipient resisted what the sacrament conferred. Necessarily, interior conversion must accompany the recipient,2 whether it be during baptism, confession, reception of the Eucharist, etc...
There are a number of Catholic resources that defend the reality that sacraments really confer grace. A few examples from Scripture include the teaching that in baptism we die and rise with Christ (Rom. 6:4), are saved by baptism (1 Pet. 3:21), and that baptism results in the forgiveness of our sins (Acts 3:28). Partakers in the Eucharist are given life (John 6:47-68), and participate in Christ's sacrifice as well as commune with other members of the Church (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Etc... Sacraments are not substitutes for salvation by Christ. They are rather instruments established by Christ for us to receive His grace. No one can truthfully say Catholics believe salvation is through sacraments instead of Christ.
Christ Himself juxtaposed outward signs with inward realities so that we would believe in that which we could not see. The story of the paralytic is an example of this. Jesus healed the paralytic and asked the crowd, "Which is easier, to say stand up and rise or that your sins are forgiven"? (Luke 5:17-26). What Jesus was demonstrating, is that what He showed visibly was the same thing that happened spiritually. The onlookers therefore were prompted to have faith in what they could not see (that the man's sins were healed) because of what they could see with their eyes (that the man was physically healed). So too, the sacraments bear a visible and invisible character,3 not just something external as MacArthur incorrectly understands.
Misconception #2: Sacraments came to the Church only after "Christianity became the religion of the Holy Roman Empire."
It is unclear when precisely MacArthur believes this to have taken place. He does state that by 1500, sacraments had been in the Church for "over 1,000 years." That places the beginning at least prior to 500. For the purpose of this post, I am going to give all benefit of the doubt to MacArthur and say he believes sacraments began in 311/313 with the Edict of Tolerance and Edict of Milan by Roman emperors Galerius and Constantine. Although these imperial decrees did not yet make Christianity the official religion of the state, they did make Christianity legal to practice. (It is often said the Edit of Thessalonica in 380 was the beginning of Christianity as the official state religion of Rome).
So going with the earliest date of 311, we take a look earlier to see if what MacArthur suggested was true. Did the Church only become sacramental after 311? For learned Catholics, the answer seems obvious: of course not. To those unfamiliar with the writings of the earliest Christians, the following may prove enlightening.
A.D. 75Epistle of Barnabas - Concerning [baptism], indeed, it is written that the Israelites should not receive baptism that leads to the remission of sins... [W]e descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up bearing fruit in our heart...A.D. 80Shepherd of Hermas - And I said, "I heard, sir, some teachers say that there is no other repentance than what takes place when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins." He said to me, "That was sound doctrine you heard; for that is really the case."A.D. 110Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, 7 - I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.A.D. 151Justin Martyr, First Apology, 61 - Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66 - And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.A.D. 181Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus, 2.16 - On the fifth day the living creatures which proceed from the waters were produced, through which also is revealed the manifold wisdom of God in these things; for who could count their multitude and very various kinds? Moreover, the things proceeding from the waters were blessed by God, that this also might be a sign of men’s being destined to receive repentance and remission of sins, through the water and laver of regeneration,—as many as come to the truth, and are born again, and receive blessing from God.A.D. 203Tertullian, On Baptism, 7 - After this, when we have issued from the font, we are thoroughly anointed with a blessed unction,— (a practice derived) from the old discipline, wherein on entering the priesthood, men were wont to be anointed with oil from a horn, ever since Aaron was anointed by Moses. Whence Aaron is called Christ, from the chrism, which is the unction; which, when made spiritual, furnished an appropriate name to the Lord, because He was anointed with the Spirit by God the Father; as written in the Acts: For truly they were gathered together in this city against Your Holy Son whom You have anointed. Thus, too, in our case, the unction runs carnally, (i.e. on the body,) but profits spiritually; in the same way as the act of baptism itself too is carnal, in that we are plunged in water, but the effect spiritual, in that we are freed from sins.A.D. 246Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 1.3-4 [A] man quickened to a new life in the layer of saving water should be able to put off what he had previously been. ... [B]y the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years had been washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, had been infused into my reconciled heart—after that, by the agency of the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth had restored me to a new man.
These are merely samples from an abundance of early Christian texts demonstrating the prominent belief in the reality of sacraments. MacArthur's claim that sacraments were a later corruption of Christianity is simply false.
Misconception #3 - Lighting a candle, genuflecting, bowing down, going through beads, and "inflicting some pain upon yourself" are sacraments.
To state the obvious: none of these are sacraments.
Nor are any of these things contrary to the Christian faith. Even Scripture has examples of bowing or kneeling in prayer. Inflicting "pain," if done prudently such as in the form of fasting, which is also Biblical, facilitates our own life of living in Christian obedience and charity. Candles mirror the lampstands of the book of Revelation. Going through beads (if MacArthur is referring to the Rosary or other prayer meditations) accompanies prayer and can help us meditate on holy words in the tradition of Scripture like Psalm 136. In this third misconception, MacArthur again neglects to recognize or acknowledge the interior disposition accompanying the outward action, and so he falls into error.
1MacArthur stated in his sermon A Biblical Response to the Catholic-Evangelical Accord: "[T]he primary reason why people in the Catholic system are not Christians is because the system becomes a surrogate Christ and salvation is a mechanical thing by being attached to the Church. And you're attached to the Church by means of rituals and sacraments and ceremonies and all of that. ... And pray for these people that are involved in this. I find it very difficult. I know them personally, of course, and find it extremely difficult to understand how they can be drawn into this. Love your Catholic friends, love them enough to recognize that they probably don't know Jesus Christ. Don't attack them unkindly, but point out the issue is not external, it's internal." And by rejecting sacraments, MacArthur as well rejects the Orthodox Church which also has an ancient pedigree.
2This is even the case with the baptism of infants: "The fact that infants cannot yet profess personal faith does not prevent the Church from conferring this sacrament on them, since in reality it is in her own faith that she baptizes them. ... [T]he child who is baptized believes not on its own account, by a personal act, but through others, 'through the Church's faith communicated to it.'" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Infant Baptism, 1980, #14)
3The 19th-20th century Catholic priest and theology and philosophy professor Rev. Daniel Kennedy described a Catholic perspective on the visible and invisible dimensions of sacraments:
- Taking the word "sacrament" in its broadest sense, as the sign of something sacred and hidden (the Greek word is "mystery"), we can say that the whole world is a vast sacramental system, in that material things are unto men the signs of things spiritual and sacred, even of the Divinity. "The heavens show forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands" (Psalm 18:2). The invisible things of him [i.e. God], from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity" (Romans 1:20).
- The redemption of man was not accomplished in an invisible manner. God renewed, through the Patriarchs and the Prophets, the promise of salvation made to the first man; external symbols were used to express faith in the promised Redeemer: "all these things happened to them [the Israelites] in figure" (1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 10:1). "So we also, when we were children, were serving under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman" (Galatians 4:3-4). The Incarnation took place because God dealt with men in the manner that was best suited to their nature.
- The Church established by the Saviour was to be a visible organization (see CHURCH: The Visibility of the Church): consequently it should have external ceremonies and symbols of things sacred.
- The principal reason for a sacramental system is found in man. It is the nature of man, writes St. Thomas (III:61:1), to be led by things corporeal and sense-perceptible to things spiritual and intelligible; now Divine Providence provides for everything in accordance with its nature (secundum modum suae conditionis); therefore it is fitting that Divine Wisdom should provide means of salvation for men in the form of certain corporeal and sensible signs which are called sacraments. (For other reasons see Catech. Conc. Trid., II, n.14.)
(Taken from Catholic Encyclopedia: Sacraments)