Sunday Catechism: Magical Thinking


Q: How do the sacraments become effective means of salvation?

Q: The sacraments become effective means of salvation, not because of any special power in them or in the people who administer them, but rather by the blessing of Christ and the working of His Spirit in those who receive them by faith.

This week, after going over what sacraments roughly are and when we practice them, we spent most of our time discussing what was “magical” about them. The answer to this week’s catechism question is careful to state that they are “effective” but don’t have innately any “special power.”


Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition often get characterized as undervaluing or downplaying the Holy Spirit. I think we’ve seen as we work our way through the catechism that this is patently untrue. Sure, we may see with a jaundiced eye some of the flagrant manifestations of what may be deemed “Holy Ghost possession,” like speaking in tongues and so on, but the role of the third person of the Trinity is critical in doctrines of salvation and sanctification. We cannot come to belief on our own; we need the Spirit. We cannot repent on our own; we need the Spirit. We cannot understand the Word on our own; we need the Spirit. And we cannot, without the Spirit, find meaning and power in the sacraments.

There is no holy water. There are no holy men. There is no magic bread nor juice. There are no magic incantations. What there is is the grace of the Spirit, animating our rituals and deepening our remembrances.

I think this is an important distinction to keep in mind not only with the formal sacraments, but also with all the little tricks and hacks and props and systems that we use to organize and improve our lives. Magical thinking is actually a form of mechanistic thinking: we link direct causalities between actions and results to impute to ourselves a sense of control. We think, “if only I follow these rules or apply these techniques, I’ll gain the edge I’ll need.” We exaggerate our hopes and idolize our means.

Which is not to say these things cannot be of use. We need to remember, though, where the true power and credit actually lies. Instead of constantly fiddling with our tools, it is far more important to seek the companionship and presence of the transcendent God who is not so far away. Do we spend our time constantly looking for fixes, obsessing over little adjustments to improve our lives? Or do we stay fixed in grace, a work-in-progress, a vessel of blessing?

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