Why is Holy Communion so important to confessional Lutherans?
Since the Reformation, no teaching has caused more division than the teaching of the Lord’s Supper. Today, it continues to separate confessional Lutherans from Roman Catholics and other Protestant churches. Why is Holy Communion so important to us?
The teaching and celebration of the Lord’s Supper were at the forefront of the Lutheran Reformation. Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic teaching that the priests transformed the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and offered them up as a sacrifice to earn God’s grace.
In the centuries before the Reformation, abuses to the Sacrament had increased. Not only was the wine withheld from the laypeople, but also the bread was paraded through the cities and fields and worshiped by the people as part of Corpus Christi processions. In addition, priests spent their days saying private masses at the side altars of cathedrals and in monasteries to bring spiritual blessings to those who paid for those private masses. The Roman mass became an integral part of how salvation became a transaction. People needed to have enough credits on the positive side of the ledger to offset their sins and reduce their time in purgatory, so they paid for private masses to be performed for them.
The Lutheran Reformation brought changes. The laypeople received the wine. The private masses ended. The side altars were removed. The Corpus Christi processions were abolished, and, most important, the Lord’s Supper was no longer considered a sacrifice for sin because the one sacrifice of Christ was enough.
Yet Luther still held strongly to the Scriptures, which asserted that Christ’s true body and blood are present under the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Other Protestants did not agree. Ulrich Zwingli, a reformer from Zurich; John Calvin, a reformer from Geneva; and numerous others believed that the bread and wine merely represented or symbolized Christ’s body and blood. They taught that the body and blood of Jesus were in heaven, and believers, through faith, ascended to heaven to receive Jesus’ body and blood in a purely spiritual way when they ate the bread and drank the wine.
However, Luther and others stood firm on the Bible’s teaching that Jesus’ true body and blood are really present in the Lord’s Supper. To change this teaching would fundamentally alter how people understand the gospel. But how?
Both the Roman Catholic view and the representation view turn the Lord’s Supper from gospel into law. The Roman Catholic view has the priests work to change the bread and wine and then offer a sacrifice. Grace then disappears. The obedience of the worshipers to come and receive symbols of Christ’s body and blood also does not bring forgiveness. In both situations, the Lord’s Supper becomes about human effort.
Jesus comes to us in Holy Communion with his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. The same Jesus who gave his body into death and poured out his blood on the cross to redeem the world comes to us—to me—in a very personal and tangible way to give the blessings of his death. We are not doing anything. We are simply receiving the gifts Jesus gives us.
That’s the nature of the gospel. There are no conditions to meet, no laws to obey, no ceremonies to perform. It is a pure gift, pure grace. We can do nothing. We can earn nothing. We bring nothing to the table but our sinfulness and failures, our despair that maybe we are too sinful and too wicked for God to love us.
So many people in their anguish, distress, and doubts want Jesus to come and show himself for comfort and reassurance. He does come—in the Sacrament. God has packaged his gospel promises in simple, physical means. Every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, Jesus is here, in a very certain, very objective, very real way with his very certain, very objective, and very real forgiveness, life, and salvation. We receive what Jesus is giving to us. His words “for you” ring in our ears and our hearts.
The Lord’s Supper is, in several ways, a test of our faith, even as it strengthens our faith. Luther consistently pointed to the simple meaning of Jesus’ words, “This is my body.” As confessional Lutherans, we accept that “is” means “is,” not “changes into” or “represents” or “symbolizes.” Who are we to put our spin on Jesus’ words, especially when Paul clarifies Jesus’ words in 1 Corinthians 10:16? “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?”
The Lord’s Supper also brings us face-to-face with exactly who Jesus is. Zwingli and Calvin believed that after Jesus’ ascension, his body was confined to a place in heaven. Luther and confessional Lutherans believe that because Jesus is true God, he is not limited in any way. He is God and man in one person since his conception and birth. His divine powers and characteristics are shared by his human nature. We simply believe that, because he is God. He can be—and is—really present with his body and blood when we celebrate the Sacrament, just as he said.
Finally, we believe that we receive the gifts he is giving us in the Lord’s Supper, even through the simple act of eating and drinking bread and wine. Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). With a joyful faith, we cling to his words and promise.
The differences are important
Historically, the difference between the confessional Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper and other Protestant churches’ understanding is evident in the way we approach the Sacrament. Confessional Lutherans recognize that something serious and holy is happening. Reverence and devotion are on display. God’s people lift up their hearts in thanksgiving. We echo the song of the angels when Isaiah was in the presence of God receiving forgiveness as his lips were touched with a coal from the altar (Isaiah 6). We join the Palm Sunday worshipers in singing our hosannas because Jesus is coming to save us. We hear the solemn Words of Institution, recounting and proclaiming what Jesus is giving in the Sacrament. We sing that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, which means he has taken away our sins. We ask for his mercy, knowing that he is giving it. We plead for his peace, confident that we are receiving it.
We come to the Table with humility, confessing our need for Jesus to come to us. We receive forgiveness, life, and salvation. We leave the Table with reverent joy in the peace of forgiveness. With strengthened faith and sins forgiven, we go to serve, knowing that we will fall short. That’s why we return to the Lord’s Table again and again.
Author: Joel Otto
Volume 109, Number 10
Issue: October 2022