Culture Practical

Does a Sinful Pastor Invalidate the Sacraments?

Eric Hageman
Written by Eric Hageman

As I have written elsewhere, many of my closest friends are Roman Catholics.  The shocking Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic priesthood has caused some of them, among other Catholics, great sadness and frustration.

Understandably so.  We trust our ministers to teach us and lead us.  Particularly relevant, we trust them with our youth.  We hold them up as authority figures, to be respected and, as it were, revered.  Sexual abuse betrays that trust irretrievably.

Above all, we trust our pastors to deliver the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion and to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

Surely, sexual abuse rattles our trust in those sacraments, too, right?

Wrong.

Unlike the earthly trust we give our pastors, our trust in the sacraments they deliver cannot be affected by their sins, no matter how heinous.  A contrary view reflects the heresy of donatism, that unworthy ministers cannot administer the sacraments and that baptisms they perform are invalid.

For their many differences, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics have rightfully rejected donatism since the Reformation.  Melanchthon wrote in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession that

“we condemn the Donatists and Wyclifites, who thought that men sinned when they received the Sacraments from the unworthy in the Church.”

Likewise, the decree of the Council of Trent declared anathema those who rejected

“baptism which is given by heretics in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

These positions reflect the fact that sinful hands cannot sully God’s sacraments.  Those sacraments are objective, and their efficacy comes not from any human merit but from God.  They are means of His grace, not ours.

The truth is, scripture tells us that all pastors and priests are sinners.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Romans 3:23.  Fortunately, Scripture also assures us that our salvation does not turn on pastors’ merits.  Jesus chose sinful men to conduct his ministry on earth.  He works through them to deliver His grace.

So, we can all rest assured that the sacraments delivered by sinners are just as effective as if delivered from Christ Himself.  Even more important, the message of the Gospel is given to us, delivered always through impure lips.

About the author

Eric Hageman

Eric Hageman is an appellate attorney in Washington, DC. His church home is Immanuel Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Alexandria, VA.

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