We Believe, Teach, and Confess – Part 10 | What Do The Lutheran Confessions Say About The Lord’s Supper?
In this article we will concentrate on what the Lutheran Confessions teach as being the essence of the Lord’s Supper.
As we are still a part of the church militant here on earth, in “these last times of this old age of the world” we have to reckon and deal with controversies in the understanding of the main articles of the Christian Faith. We lament the disunity; but it is also true, that as we have to struggle to find the true understanding, it forces us to consider the Words of Christ more diligently.
With the Small Catechism, we confess that the Word and command of Christ are absolutely clear with regard to the Lord’s Supper. Luther took the Words of Institution from the Gospel-writers Matthew, Mark and Luke as well as from the Apostle Paul, and harmonised them into one united Words of Institution. Doing this he confessed the continuity between the first Lord’s Supper and any repeated afterwards.
This harmony in understanding is confirmed by the fact that all four writers “unanimously and with the same words and syllables repeat concerning the consecrated and distributed bread these distinct, clear, firm, and true words of Christ: This is My body, altogether in one way, without any interpretation [trope, figure] and change.” [Formula of Concord, Article VII].
This is huge! This sorts out many doubtful questions – for instance: if Paul and Luke refer to something else other than Matthew and Mark when they mention the “cup”: “Therefore there is no doubt that also concerning the other part of the Sacrament these words of Luke and Paul: This cup is the new testament in My blood, can have no other meaning than that which St Matthew and St Mark give: This (namely, that which you orally drink out of the cup) is My blood of the new testament, whereby I establish, seal, and confirm with you men this My testament and new covenant, namely, the forgiveness of sins.” [Ibid.].
This is not some exotic teaching of Lutherans, but rather something that was already believed, taught and confessed in the early church! The following quote is taken from Chrysostomos’ sermon on the passion of Christ (from around 400 AD) :
“Christ Himself prepared this table and blesses it; for no man makes the bread and wine set before us the body and blood of Christ, but Christ Himself who was crucified for us. The words are spoken by the mouth of the priest, but by God’s power and grace, by the word, where He speaks: ‘This is My body,’ the elements presented are consecrated in the Supper. And just as the declaration, Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,” was spoken only once, but is ever efficacious in nature, so that it is fruitful and multiplies, so also this declaration [“This is My body; this is My blood”] was spoken once, but even to this day and to His advent it is efficacious and works so that in the Supper of the Church His true body and blood are present.” [Ibid.].
This takes us to the main dispute that raged over the proper understanding of what we receive with our mouth in the Lord’s Supper. What do these words, “This is my body” truly mean? The Lutheran Confessions are crystal clear that these Words of Christ are to be taken literally, as they stand, namely that we truly receive Christ’s body born of Mary, which was crucified, resurrected and was ascended to the right hand of God.
Two kinds of objections against what the Lutheran Confessions confess can be identified within the group of reformers: On the one hand, those who confess that in the Lord’s Supper only bread and wine are distributed and received with the mouth, nothing more! In other words, the real absence of Christ’ body and blood in His Supper is confessed. On the other hand, those who “pretend that they also believe a true presence of the true, essential, living body and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, however, that this occurs spiritually through faith.”
[Formula of Concord, Epitome VII]. Nevertheless, this attempt also ends up in confessing the real absence of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, because the body of Christ is still only present in the highest heaven “to which we should elevate ourselves into heaven by the thoughts of our faith, and there, not at all, however, in the bread and wine of the Holy Supper, should seek this body and blood [of Christ].” [Ibid.].
So how do the Lutheran Confessions clarify the matter beyond any doubt? Is there a Word of God available which interprets these Words of Christ, so that Scripture interprets Scripture? Yes, there is! And so the Lutheran Confessions turn to what Paul unfolds in 1 Corinthians 10 in what they call an “especially clear testimony”:
The “repetition, confirmation, and explanation of the words of Christ which St. Paul makes 1 Cor. 10[:16], where he writes as follows: ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?’ is to be considered with all diligence and seriousness [accurately], as an especially clear testimony of the true, essential presence and distribution of the body and blood of Christ in the Supper. From this we clearly learn that not only the cup which Christ blessed at the first Supper, and not only the bread which Christ broke and distributed, but also that which we break and bless, is the communion of the body and blood of Christ, so that all who eat this bread and drink of this cup truly receive, and are partakers of, the true body and blood of Christ…
And if Paul were speaking only of the spiritual communion of the body of Christ through faith, […] he would not say that the bread, but that the spirit or faith, was the communion of the body of Christ. But as he says that the bread is the communion of the body of Christ, that all who partake of the consecrated bread also become partakers of the body of Christ, he must indeed be speaking, not of a spiritual, but of a sacramental or oral participation of the body of Christ, which is common to godly and godless Christians [Christians only in name].” [Formula of Concord, Article VII].
As this clearly proves the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the elements during the Lord’s Supper, we should take note that we receive the body and blood of Christ in its spiritual mode: “… when Dr Luther or we employ this word spiritual in regard to this matter, we understand by it the spiritual, supernatural, heavenly mode, according to which Christ is present in the Holy Supper, working not only consolation and life in the believing but also condemnation in the unbelieving; whereby we reject the Capernaitic thoughts of the gross [and] carnal presence which is ascribed to and forced upon our churches by the Sacramentarians against our manifold public protestations. In this sense, we also say […] that in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are spiritually received, eaten, and drunk, although this participation occurs with the mouth, while the mode is spiritual.” [Ibid.].
Finally, I want to address the question often heard in our time: Does it really matter that much, what we as a church confess and teach regarding the Words of Institution? The essence of the Lord’s Supper depends on God’s Word and command. Properly understood this means that it relies on the right intention of God’s Word and command. If the original intention is changed, effectively the Words are changed. If “is” is interpreted as “represents,” it means that the Word of God has been tampered with. Therefore, strictly speaking, whoever changes the intention of God’s Word does not speak the genuine Word’s of Institution over the elements, and consequently, only bread and wine are served [Formula of Concord, Article VII]. This should not be confused with the fact that our faith does not make the sacrament. If a denomination confesses that the Words of Institution intend the real absence of Christ’s body and blood, it will not be the Lord’s Supper they are celebrating.
Therefore it is essential that we confess and teach the genuine intention of God’s Word and command so that the magnificent blessings, forgiveness of sins, strengthening of our faith, eternal life and salvation are given to us in the Lord’s Supper, and that we receive these in faith! ■
Pastor Kurt Schnackenberg, Shelly Beach