I remember a time as a young child, growing up in an American Baptist church, when I noticed communion was being offered to most individuals in the church. I also noticed that I was also not given communion. In typical small child fashion, I told my mom that I wanted to take communion too. She explained to me that I was not permitted to do so until I understood what it meant. I then asked what it meant. She wouldn’t tell me, because she didn’t want me to repeat rote doctrine back to her without my understanding it. I’m thankful for my parents, who raised me in church where I learned of Christ.
I remember also each Sunday that communion was offered (once per month in this church), the pastor would read St. Paul’s account from 1 Corinthians from his King James Bible (naturally… though years later he switched to some more modern translation, I think a paraphrase) “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation unto himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
I remember being amazed that the pastor was permitted to say the word “damn” (and also the word “ass,” as in a mode of transportation), in church no less! Today I’m amazed that as an FE, I read the passages on the Lord’s Supper and come to a conclusion so far from the scriptures: that this institution is only a bare memorial to our Lord’s work on the cross, and that it is unrelated to salvation, that it is merely a work performed by the hands of men.
As I mentioned before in a prior post, FE’s are divided regarding the meaning of this sacrament. In the US (where the FE faith has really taken shape), opinions fall mainly in two camps: a strict interpretation of this action being plainly a memorial, and believing that in some mystical way, God conveys grace to the recipient in a non-sacramental way.
What does it mean that is grace received sacramentally? To one who’s unfamiliar with this concept, it’s probably easier to first explain what it does not mean. It is not an invisible means of grace whereby you could partake and walk away only knowing that you’ve received grace because you feel like you did. It’s also not grace that arrives by an arbitrary means. How I have been guilty of proclaiming both of these (even if not as it specifically regards the Lord’s Supper)!
So how is grace received sacramentally? It is done so when a person participates in the act of a sacrament, which for brevity we can define as “The Word (Christ) bound to a physical medium, as God has instituted.” But to the FE, grace is never received sacramentally, even in cases when it is claimed that grace is received in performance of an act. In these cases, the grace conferred is through the performance of the act itself, because God is pleased with its performance. Some may tie the gracious efficacy of the ritual to the disposition of the believer, citing 1 Corinthians 11:27 as I did above.
Again, in the FE faith, this reduces down to two positions: memorialistic, and also non-sacramental conveyance of grace. In both of these cases, the gospel is denied and the law embraced in the sacrament, so they’re similar in that regard. Yet, they are not the same error and deserve their own treatment. However, I feel that I’ve addressed the latter one well enough in prior posts. The gospel is objective and not dependent upon our internal feelings, but the mystical interpretation of the sacrament says the opposite. If you receive the sacraments in the mindset of the mystical view whereby their efficacy is derived from your own internal feelings, then you end up with disasters like what I wrote about regarding my second baptism. You also end up being assured of your salvation because of what’s existent inside of your own mind. This is not good news. Minds can change; Jesus does not! So I’d like to devote the remainder of this long post to interacting with the other FE position, the memorialist‘s position, which states that the Supper was instituted as a perpetual memorial to Christ’s work, “This do in remembrance of me.” This view also comes with an implicit denial of the gospel.
Huh? Because FE’s don’t believe the Lutheran views on the sacraments, they are denying the gospel?
Plainly, yes… but it’s a bit more nuanced than that. I don’t really think that FE’s intentionally deny the gospel in their views of this sacrament the way a non-believer does, but again, the denial is implicit. Like so many aspects of FE-ism, the law is considered to have the power that, in reality, only the gospel has. The law is a standard or plumb line. It is never able to forgive sin. It’s advent only increases the trespass. As shown in prior posts here, the gospel offers the forgiveness of sins through Jesus, and brings life. The law does not offer a salutary benefit. It is good because it is God’s word, but it is not good news. Only the gospel is good news.
That is the foremost distinction between FE’s and Lutherans on the sacraments. FE’s primarily view the Lord’s Supper as prescriptive, and Lutherans (and other Christian bodies who view it sacramentally) view it as promissory. That is, FE’s approach the Supper in a mindset of obedience (and rightly so, for we are commanded to partake!), whereas Lutherans approach the Supper in a mindset of reception of God’s gifts, namely the forgiveness of sin. This can be seen from Luther’s writing in the Small Catechism.
What is the Sacrament of the Altar?
It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.
Where is this written?
The holy Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul, write thus:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread: and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and gave it to His disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.
After the same manner also He took the cup, when He had supped, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Take, drink ye all of it. This cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins. This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.
What is the benefit of such eating and drinking?
That is shown us in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins; namely, that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?
It is not the eating and drinking, indeed, that does them, but the words which stand here, namely: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins. Which words are, beside the bodily eating and drinking, as the chief thing in the Sacrament; and he that believes these words has what they say and express, namely, the forgiveness of sins.
But the typical FE understanding of this sacrament does not allow room for such things. The typical FE understanding is that the sacrament is a mere memorial of Christ’s work. That is, it does not deliver forgiveness of sins, nor life, nor salvation… For where there is no forgiveness of sins, there is no life and also no salvation given. This means, most plainly, that the presence of the gospel in the sacrament is denied. Knowing then that Christ has commanded us to participate in this sacrament, without the gospel in the sacrament, there is only the law that is offered. When only the law is offered without the gospel, there is only condemnation with no hope for forgiveness.
When I was in primary school, I had a friend who shared my sense of humor. One day when we were in school, our teacher handed back some tests that we had taken a few days before. Most of the class had done quite poorly on their tests. The teacher then passed out another series of papers to us and explained: “This homework is for extra credit. You don’t have to do this work, but I recommend it. It can’t hurt you; it can only help you.” My friend leaned over to me, and I leaned toward him. Our heads came close together and he jokingly whispered: “It can’t help you; it can only hurt you.”
Examine the following passage of scripture.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
I have never met an FE who denies this passage, at least not with their speech. However different the actual ritual may play out in an FE church (and that may be a topic for a different time), this passage is not denied (when it’s actually read). In FE churches, individuals are encouraged to examine themselves as the scriptures say, to not bring any known unrepentant sin to the table (Good! Excellent suggestion!).
Because even though the table is just a bare memorial in this FE view, it still brings the threat of judgement if it is carried out improperly. Though there isn’t much emphasis placed on this passage in some FE churches I’ve attended, this doesn’t fix matters any. You cannot simply ignore a passage and claim a high view of scripture. The memorialist FE view offers the heavy hand of the law with no hope of the gospel. You gain no benefit but a memory when you do it correctly; you gain the guilt of the body and blood of the Lord when you do it incorrectly. This means that the only things you stand to gain are sickness, death, and damnation. The only thing you are offered is the law, not the gospel. This is not our Lord’s institution!
It’s worse than a teacher who would offer “extra credit” to her students that has no chance of helping them, since it has only the power to harm them.
But one part of this is worth repeating.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Which body is this referring to? Christ’s body. And not Christ’s body in the “we are the body, he is the head” body whereby “body” refers figuratively to believers united under Christ, as Paul write in Ephesians and alludes to in 1 Corinthians 10. That would be a conflation of the points he is making. Otherwise, both “body” and “blood” must refer to the same figurative unity of believers, and it’s obvious that the symbolic language just doesn’t hold. The body spoken of in this passage is Christ’s very body, the one he lives in and ascended to Heaven in. Perhaps there are different interpretations of what “discern” means in this context (To distinguish in all reverence? To admit the presence of? Others?), but the passage is clear that the body spoken of is Christ’s.
Consider this passage of scipture.
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
In exhorting believers to refrain from partaking in the table of demons, St. Paul calls the Lord’s table a participation in Christ’s body and blood. The Greek word used there actually means something akin to “deep fellowship, sharing.” Later (in chapter 11, quoted above), St. Paul threatens the guilt of the body and blood of Christ. Thus, when Jesus stands in front of his disciples in the upper room and says “Eat this; it’s my body,” and “Drink this; it’s the New Covenant in my blood,” and when St. Paul says that the Lord’s Supper is a participation and sharing in Christ’s body and blood, and judgement is offered for those who do not discern Christ’s body, Lutherans believe this in the simplest meaning of the word phrases. We believe that in this sacrament we are offered the gospel in Christ’s lifeblood, by God’s promise, united with bread and wine. We believe truly that this sacrament brings the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. We believe the scriptures as they are written, without qualification.
Praise God for his mercy! Thank him for his gifts!
It is not my intention that this topic should take several posts, but it is quite a long one and I have many thoughts to still work through. The scriptural explanation offered here is what I esteem of primary importance, but there are other arguments to be made for holding the doctrine of the real presence, as Lutherans believe. For now, I am content to keep this post from growing any longer. I am excited that some day very soon my wife and I will participate in Christ’s sacrifice, having Christ placed into our mouths, and having our pastor tell us after we’ve communed with the body and blood of Christ:
Now may this the true body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto life everlasting. Depart in peace. Amen.