Sacramentals, like sacraments, are sacred signs. Unlike the sacraments, however, the sacramentals were not directly instituted by Christ, and do not result in the increase in sanctifying grace, although they do remit venial sin and temporal punishment, increase actual graces, and protect us from the devil. There are basically three types of sacramentals: blessings, by which God's favor is invoked upon persons, places, and things, and by which objects are set apart for religious purposes, "made holy by God's word and by prayer" (1 Tim. 4:5); exorcisms, by which people or things are freed from the power of the devil (Matt. 10:1; Mark 16:17-18); and blessed objects of devotion, which include holy water, candles, ashes, incense, medals, rosaries, scapulars, chaplets, cords, badges, and sacred images.
Protestants say that the use of these blessed objects amounts to superstition or magic. However, something that is magical produces effects in itself. There is no power in any of these blessed objects of devotion. The sacramentals produce an effect, but only because God uses them as an occasion to bestow upon us his graces. The use of the sacramental does not produce the effect; rather, God does, but through the sacramentals. This is no different than the time the Jews were healed by looking at the statue of the bronze serpent (Num. 21:8-9), and were able to win in battle when Moses kept his arms in the air (Ex. 17:11-12).
Protestants object to holy water, calling it unbiblical. But the Bible says otherwise. Numbers 5:17 states: "And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water." Numbers 8:7 reads: "And thus you shall do to them, to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of expiation upon them, and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves." Not only does this show that holy water is Biblically based, but it has been used since the days of Moses. It was used by the Jews ceremonially, and mixed with salt (which is also blessed by priests and used by Catholics), for the purpose of cleansing (Ps. 51:9; 16:4; 36:25).
The Sign of the Cross
Protestants claim that the Sign of the Cross is an unbiblical practice adopted from the pagans around the year 300. Of course, the Sign of the Cross is not explicitly found in Scripture, but the Bible does speak highly of the Cross of Christ: "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6, 14). And the Sign of the Cross is prefigured in the Old Testament: "And the Lord said to him: ‘Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem: and mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof . . . Utterly destroy old and young, maidens, children and women: but upon whomsoever you shall see Thau, kill him not, and begin at my sanctuary'" (Ezek. 9: 4,6). "Thau" is a Hebrew letter that is in the form of a cross. Revelation 7:3 states: "Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads." Thus, Christians have used the Sign of the Cross as a "seal." In the early church, the Sign of the Cross was made on the forehead. As for the origin of the Sign of the Cross, it was a practice that was handed down as part of tradition, and may even date back to the Apostles: Tertullian (The Chaplet 3 [A.D. 220]) "At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross]. For these and such like rules, if thou requires a law in the Scriptures, thou shalt find none: tradition will be pleaded to thee as originating, custom as confirming, and faith as observing them"; Athanasius (Treatise on the Incarnation of the Word 47, 2 [318 AD]): "For by the sign of the cross, a man but using it, their [the devils] wiles are put to flight"; Basil the Great (The Holy Spirit 27, 66 [375 AD]): "Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel . . . who taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?".
Protestants object to the crucifix, saying that Jesus is not on the cross anymore, he has risen. Therefore, a bare cross is appropriate, because we worship Christ risen and not crucified.. According to this logic, all the medieval and renaissance painters were wrong in making portraits of the crucifixion. We use images of Christ crucified because it is a reminder of what Christ did for us on the cross. We were not saved by a bare cross, but rather, by Jesus dying on it, and it is this image that we venerate, although, of course, we worship the Risen Christ.
Protestants are bothered by Mary's promise to those who die wearing the scapular, that they "shall not suffer eternal fire". In other words, they will be saved. This is to be properly interpreted to mean that one who will die wearing the scapular will receive the grace of final perseverence, or the grace of conversion, and we can be assured that those who died wearing the scapular died in the state of grace. The scapular is merely a sign that one died in the state of grace according to the ordinary means. It does not mean that the scapular itself placed the wearer in the state of grace. Protestants also accuse Catholics of placing their trust in the scapular rather than in Jesus, to save them. Catholics do trust in Christ alone for salvation, but they trust in all the means by which Christ saves us. It is necessary to remember that all Christians can lose their salvation through serious sin or apostasy, and the scapular is given as an aid to helping us stay or die in the state of grace.
Protestants object to the rosary, saying it is vain repetition (Matt. 6:7). But the passage from Matthew that they cite only condemns the pagans, who believed that by repeating words they could bring down favors from their gods simply by the sheer quantity of their prayers. Repetitious prayer is Biblical (Ps. 136; Matt. 26:39-44; Luke 18:13; Rev. 4:8), and if it is heartfelt, it is insignificant how often the same words are used. The rosary, far from being repetitious, is a mental prayer, when prayed properly. The prayers that are repeated are used simply as a timepiece for the meditations. The fact is, when a Protestant prays, his prayer is not found word for word in Scripture either. The rosary is a certain form of prayer, and does not have to be found on the pages of the Bible, just like any other prayer.