Rev. S.A. Dorr
1963 Synod Convention Essay
When in confirmation class or in a sermon or in a synodical essay such as this one we deal with this or that aspect of the Lord’s Supper, we are dealing with something that is very dear to our hearts. No one has to instruct us and tell us that we should know and understand (within the limits of our human reason) all that we can of the Scriptural doctrine. This is all the more true because there is so much misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper among Christians in general and also among us in particular. On the one hand, some people tend to make too much of this Sacrament, ascribing to it qualities and effects which are unheard of in Scriptures; such people speak of this Sacrament as though only through it could one become a mature Christian, as though only through it one could gain assurance of eternal life. On the other hand, some people tend to make too little of the Lord’s Supper, taking away from it qualities and effects which the Scriptures do ascribe to it; such people reason that since God deals with us in the Gospel, the written Word, and there assures us of life eternal, therefore we need give little or no attention to the Sacrament of the Altar. Of course, both such groups are wrong in their beliefs.
What is more, both such extremes have a common basis for their error, and that is this: Both fail to appreciate the Scriptural fact that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. One who appreciates that fact, that through the Lord’s Supper, by means of the Lord’s Supper, God gives us His saving grace in Jesus the Savior, is neither going to ascribe to it powers and qualities beyond those named in the Bible, nor is he going to place too low a value on it, for the fact that it conveys the grace of God in Christ will give him a love for it. This is what we are to be occupied with in the opening period of each of our four sessions during this convention — the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. In order that we may understand this more thoroughly, we propose to discuss the topic under four heads, as follows:
I. The Scriptural and Traditional Lutheran Doctrine of the Means of Grace
II. The Essence of the Lord’s Supper (what it is)
III. How the Lord’s Supper Serves as a Means of Grace.
IV. Some Practical Applications of the Fact that the Lord’s Supper Is a Means of Grace.
I. The Scriptural and Traditional Lutheran Doctrine of the Means of Grace
The teaching concerning the Means of Grace which is believed among us is a distinctively Scriptural and Lutheran teaching; that is, while almost everyone who professes to be a Christian speaks of the “means of grace” in some respect, yet the teaching which we profess differs from that of most denominations. Indeed, the term “means of grace” is used in so many different ways that when one uses it, he must begin with a definition. So — let us begin with a definition. Let us use that one provided in Pieper’s “Christian Dogmatics” (English translation), page 103, Vol. III, as follows:
“… He (God) ordained the means by which He gives men the infallible assurance of His gracious will toward them; in other words, He both confers on men the remission of sins merited by Christ and works faith in the proffered remission, or where faith already exists, strengthens it. The Church has appropriately called these divine ordinances the means of grace. They are the Word of the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
“According to Scripture, a twofold power inheres in these means: first, an exhibiting and conferring, or imparting, power, and secondly, as a result of this, an efficacious or operative power.”
These words suggest to us, then, that when we speak of the Means of Grace, we must begin with Jesus Christ. He and His work are the starting point in all Christian doctrine. Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, perfectly redeemed the world, all people who have ever lived or ever will live; by His holy life and by His innocent death He has completely reconciled the world unto God. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them, and hath committed unto us the Word of Reconciliation,” 2 Cor. 5,19. This is old doctrine, to be sure; but it needs to be emphasized strongly at the outset of this presentation, because it underlies and gives meaning to everything that we are going to say on this matter. In Christ Jesus God has completely redeemed us; “… (He) needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for His own sins and then for the people’s; for this He did once, when He offered up Himself,” Heb. 7,27.
This complete redemption which Christ has wrought for us God has used in order to declare our sins forgiven; in Christ God has reconciled the world unto Himself; therefore on account of Christ He has declared all the sins of the world forgiven. This is the Good News which the Gospel of Jesus Christ conveys to us. God has not kept it a secret, but by means of His Holy Word He offers and conveys to us this forgiveness which Christ has won for us. To repeat a part of the Bible verse quoted above — “(God) hath committed unto us the Word of reconciliation.” What God did for us in Christ He has told us in the Gospel; the declaration of forgiveness which He has made in Christ is there offered to us. The completeness of that forgiveness, of that justification, could be emphasized in no better way than to quote Question 195 in the Synod “Explanation”: “That I was justified means that God by grace imputed to me the righteousness of Christ and acquitted me of the guilt and punishment of my sin so that He regards me in Christ as though I had never sinned.” God’s declaration of forgiveness in Christ is meant for and offered to us all. Each of us can make the beautiful words just quoted his own. Through faith in Christ we are met here today in this convention as people whom God, for Christ’s sake, regards as though they had never sinned.
We ought to take a minute for appreciating the wonder of this idea. We have not come to our convention as people who are engaged in a search for peace with God, forgiveness from God, justification from God; we are met here as people whom God long ago in Christ declared just. We join the Apostle Paul when he says: “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Rom. 5,1. How grateful we are, and how active we need to be in expressing our gratitude for the Gospel, the good news about Jesus and His redemption and justification of us all. All of us who have faith in this Gospel can join in singing:
Thou my Savior once hast entered
Through Thy blood the holy place;
Thy sacrifice holy there wrought my redemption.
From Satan’s dominion I now have exemption.
The way is now free to the Father’s high throne,
Where I may approach Him through Thy name alone.
To emphasize and make clear: The Gospel not only tells us that God is ready to forgive us; it gives us that forgiveness. The Gospel not only assures us that Christ has won salvation for us; it makes that salvation ours. It is both a description of our title to a mansion in the Father’s house, and it is itself the title. It is the history of our redemption, and it is also God’s means of conferring the results of that redemption upon us. This is why we call the Gospel a “means of grace”; it is a means by which God confers His forgiving grace upon us.
Now we know that there are those who say that God needs no such means; He does not need a Gospel, a written Word, through which He comes into a person’s heart and confers His saving grace upon that person. Right: God does not need such means; but in His wisdom He has adopted them. By way of comparison, consider this: God does not need ordinary food for keeping us alive, either. He could and did feed the Israelites in the desert with manna; He could and did feed Elijah and the widow and her son with food that He Himself multiplied in a supernatural way; Jesus could and did make the few loaves and fishes feed over five thousand people; God certainly does not need ordinary food for keeping us alive. And yet that is the way He usually preserves us. “He maketh His sun to rise … and sendeth rain.” This is the way in which God provides for our physical needs. In like manner, a person may say all He wishes to say that God does not need Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Gospel for conferring His grace upon us; the fact is, that this is the way that God Himself has chosen; “He hath committed unto us the Word of reconciliation.”
And this Word of God is effective no matter in what form it appears. When a minister preaches it in a formal sermon, that is God’s Word, bringing all His grace. When the mother tells it to her little child in the home, that is a means of grace. When the father reads it in the family devotions, that is a means of grace. When it is called to our memory by a picture of the Good Shepherd, let us say, or by the sign of the cross, this Gospel is a means of grace. Every time and in every way by which the Gospel is brought to us, it is a means of grace, bringing us God’s forgiveness in Christ.
Now, having said this about the Gospel, we hasten to add that these same things are true about Baptism and the Lord’s Supper also. What is offered to us in the Gospel is offered to us in Baptism; and what is offered to us in Baptism is also offered to us in the Lord’s Supper. This is true because the chief thing in both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is the Gospel, God’s promise in Christ. We quote again from Pieper:
“According to Scripture, all means of grace have the same purpose and the same effect, namely, the conferring of the forgiveness of sins and the resultant engendering and strengthening of faith.” Page 108.
Or we quote from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:
“Just as the Word enters the ear in order to strike our heart, so the rite (viz., of the Sacraments) strikes the eye, in order to move the heart. The effect of the Word and of the rite is the same, as has been well said by Augustine, that a sacrament is a visible Word, because the rite is received by the eye and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, signifying the same things as the Word. Therefore the effect of both is the same.” (Triglot 309, XIII, 4f)
These words are simple and clear; just let the last sentence be repeated: “The effect of both (the Gospel and the sacraments) is the same;” because this is according to Scripture, it has been in our Lutheran confessions since 1530 — “The effect of the Gospel and of the Sacraments is the same.”
Though in this paper we are not chiefly concerned with the effect of Holy Baptism, let us quickly note this verse in connection with what has just been quoted from the Apology: “Baptism doth also now save us … by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” 1 Pet. 3,21. Or recall what Peter preached on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,” Acts 2,38; or Jesus’ words to the disciples shortly before His ascension: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved,” Mark 16,16. — But this is common doctrine among us, and everyone knows that Baptism is one of God’s means of offering and actually giving the forgiveness of sins. At a future convention we might well have an essay on Baptism as a means of grace.
But here we are chiefly concerned with saying that the Lord’s Supper is to be included among the Means of Grace; it is one, not the only one, but one of God’s ways of offering, conveying, and sealing unto us the forgiveness of sins. A quotation from Martin Luther will help us understand this:
“Therefore this Luther has correctly taught, that he who has an evil conscience because of sin should receive the Sacrament and get consolation, not from the bread and wine, not from the body and blood of Christ, but from the Word which in the Sacrament offers, presents, and gives to me Christ’s body and blood as given and shed for me,” St. L. XX, 275.
Later on in this paper more detail as to how the Lord’s Supper functions as a means of grace will be furnished; at this point we are only seeking to emphasize the fact that it is Lutheran doctrine to teach that God conveys His grace to us through means, and that these means are the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. All of them have the same promise; all three of them finally serve the same end — the creation or the strengthening of saving faith in Jesus Christ.
A further detail with regard to the true Lutheran doctrine about the Means of Grace should be noted here, and that is this: Because we believe that the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper actually do offer and convey the saving grace of God in Christ, therefore we are mightily concerned that the Gospel be taught in all its truth and purity and that the Sacraments be administered according to Christ’s own institution. If we believe, e.g., that God truly operates through the Lord’s Supper, then it is of the greatest importance to us that we preserve this sacrament as Christ gave it to us. It is important that we say about it what is according to Scripture; it is important that we do not ascribe to it what Scripture does not ascribe to it; etc. To illustrate: A savage from some uncivilized place might, if he should observe a skillful surgeon at work, regard the surgeon as unduly fastidious and even foolish in requiring that all his equipment be thoroughly sterilized; to him all this emphasis on cleanliness may seem as foolishness. But the surgeon knows the dangers of infection, and so he sterilizes his equipment. Likewise, someone who does not understand what the Lord’s Supper is, that it actually is a means of grace, that it actually does offer and convey the forgiveness of sins, may regard it as foolish when he sees someone being so careful to preserve this sacrament as Jesus instituted it. But one who believes in the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace will regard it as necessary to preserve and use the sacrament according to Christ’s own institution.
Besides this, we will regard it with equal disapproval when someone seeks to add “means of grace” to those given us by the Lord Himself. E.g., when the papists add to the Lord’s list of sacrament and make the claim that they convey God’s grace to the recipient, then this is as dangerous as when someone else despises Baptism or the Lord’s Supper. For in both cases human institutions and opinions are being lifted up above the will and institution of God.
Thus it should also be clear that orthodox Lutherans regard church work as essentially nothing more nor less than the spreading of the Means of Grace. For, if we truly believe that through the Gospel and the Sacraments the Lord actually reaches out to sinful men and forgives their sins and comforts them; that through these He actually makes and keeps mortal men as His own children, heirs of eternal life; that through these means the Holy Spirit operates among us, in our time, with the same power and fullness as He did in the days of the apostles; if a person believes this, as, indeed, he should, according to the Scriptures, then he will have little trouble in deciding what church work is and that there should be a great deal of it. Nor will he have trouble convincing himself of the need for the right kind of church work, work concerned with the spreading of the Means of Grace; for all around himself he will see people living without the Means of Grace — without the Gospel at home and in church, without Baptism for themselves and their children, without the Lord’s Supper as God’s personal and faith-strengthening pledge of the forgiveness of sins.
More pointedly, we in this synodical convention should have little trouble in deciding what we are to do as a synod, and that there is a great deal of it to do. As a synod, e.g., we need to sponsor education in which the Means of Grace are evident and are used. We need to support the work of missions for the spreading of the Means of Grace. We need to be engaged in the right kind of youth work, the right kind of publishing, the right kind of charity work, etc., etc., so that in many ways, with all possible zeal, we may spread the Means of Grace — the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
This is Scriptural, and this is Lutheran.
II. The Essence of the Lord’s Supper
In order to understand rightly how the Lord’s Supper operates as a means of grace, we need to be very clear as to the nature and the essence of the Lord’s Supper — what it is. It is evident that in the Lord’s Supper we are dealing with something which the Lord Himself has given us. This is no mere church custom but an institution of the Lord Himself. This is solemnly attested to by the fact that its celebration by Jesus recorded in no less than four places in the Scriptures — in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and then again in the 1st Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, the 11th chapter. And St. Paul himself echoes Jesus’ words when he says: “This do in remembrance of Me.” The early Christians heard and understood those words; along with Baptism, the Lord’s Supper was in use among the first Christians (1 Cor. 10,16–22; 11,17–34).
In this divine institution Jesus has given us His body and blood together with the bread and wine; this is the simple, Scriptural fact. It is simple; though beyond our understanding, it is simple enough for one to recognize that in the Lord’s Supper Jesus states that He is giving us His body and blood. And it is Scriptural; Jesus says: “This is My body”; and, “Drink ye all of it; this cup is the new testament in My blood.” So the definition in our Catechism is a rather good one: “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.”
But this simple and Scriptural fact has been a battleground for many centuries in the Christian churches. We do not propose to enter into all the arguments and discussions that have been held about this; but in a paper of this sort we ought at least to take note of the fact that among those bearing the name “Christian,” the Lord’s Supper is understood and used in various ways. And let us note at the outset that the ways in which the Lord’s Supper is understood and used reveal many other things, too; e.g., a person’s attitude toward the Lord’s Supper will reveal his attitude toward the work of Christ; it will reveal his attitude toward the Word of God; it will reveal the part which he allows his human reason to play in formulating his faith. Let us briefly take note of the three main streams of doctrine regarding the Lord’s Supper and then ask: Which of them most clearly flows from Scripture itself? Which of them most clearly exalts the work of Christ as the one redeemer?
The recent passing of Pope John XXIII (the Second) will serve to remind us of the fact that about 500,000,000 Roman Catholics believe that in the Lord’s Supper the priest as the agent of God changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ By virtue of his ordination, so it is taught, the priest has a power which other Christians do not have, and he is thus made able to “call down Christ upon the altar.” This is called the doctrine of “transubstantiation,” and it is so thoroughly believed that Catholics are taught to kneel before the bread and wine as if Christ were visibly present.
Another widely held belief about the Lord’s supper, which we usually refer to as the “Reformed” view, is that in the Lord’s Supper Christ’s body and blood are never truly present at all; that the bread and wine are at most but symbols of the body and blood of Christ. Ulrich Zwingli taught this doctrine, and it was developed and spread by John Calvin. And generally speaking, it is adhered to by all Christian denominations except Lutheran and Catholic.
The Roman doctrine that the bread and wine are changed into Christ’s body and blood, that bread and wine are no longer present at all, falls as soon as you realize and accept the fact that the Scripture, the same Scripture which teaches Jesus’ institution, speaks of bread and wine as being present, before, during, and after the celebration of the Sacrament. Clearly, it was bread that Jesus held in His hand when He said: “This is My body”; it was wine that He was offering when He said, “This is My blood.” And in St. Paul’s earnest exhortation in 1 Cor. 11, he says: “Whosoever shall eat this bread and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” In these and in other instances the Scriptures clearly teach that there are four elements present in the Supper — the bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ. Moreover, Christ is present with His body and blood in the bread and wine, as the words declare, not by virtue of a priestly pronouncement, but by virtue of Jesus’ own institution, which avails until the end of time.
And the Reformed view simply will not stand the light of the Word of God either; for when all the explaining has been done, Jesus’ Word is still there — “This is My Body — this is My blood.” And the verse quoted above, St. Paul’s exhortation, would make no sense whatever if it were not for the fact that Christ’s body and blood are present in the Sacrament. If there were time, we could go into all the details in Reformed arguments concerning the word “is,” how it is supposed to mean “represents,” etc. Here we shall not do that but shall say only this much: The word “is” never means “represents”; to seek to make it mean “represents” in the accounts of the Lord’s Supper in the Bible takes a great deal of skillful manipulating of language, and it fails for all the skill. For Christ’s words are still there.
To revert to our questions, then — in which of these three doctrines regarding the Lord’s Supper does the word of the Bible stand forth clearly — the one that says: Bread and wine alone; body and blood alone; body and blood together with the bread and wine? Which ones make human reason the decisive factor in determining what the doctrine is; and which one lets human reason take a back seat while faith grasps what the simple words of Scripture teach, mysterious or not? “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?” 1 Corinthians 10:16. It is obvious that the most simple, the most clearly demonstrated teaching of the Bible in regard to the Lord’s Supper is this: Together with the bread, Jesus gives us His body; together with the wine He gives us His blood. That there are mysteries here is not doubted; that Scripture does not even seek to explain the mystery is also not doubted. But it remains clear that Jesus did take some bread of which He said: “This is My body;” and that He did distribute some wine, of which He said: “This is My blood.”
And which of these three doctrines most clearly emphasizes the complete work of Christ? Can it be this one that says: Christ is repeatedly offered as a sacrifice by the priest each time he celebrates the Supper? What shall we do with verses like these: “By one offering He (Christ) hath perfected forever them that are sanctified”? “This He did once, when He offered up Himself”? “Now where remission of sins is, there remaineth no more offering for sin”? Scripture teaches that Christ, in life and death offered Himself for us. Can it then be Scriptural to teach that in the Lord’s Supper (Mass) a human being can reoffer, resacrifice Christ for the sins of the living and the dead? Is this not, rather, a very emphatic denial of the completeness of Christ’s redemption? Is not the Roman doctrine regarding the Lord’s Supper a very dramatic way of teaching the people that they must not believe that Christ has atoned for all their sins? It is necessary for Christ to be resacrificed, so they say. Moreover, the doctrine of purgatory plays in here. Purgatory is supposed to be the place where a Christian goes for whose sin temporal punishment has not been fully paid, and the priest is supposed to be able to help him through purgatory by saying masses for him; Christ is being resaerificed, for dead as well as living, and a dead person’s stay in purgatory can be appreciably shortened by the saying of masses. The more you think of it, the more you see that the Roman doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, which teaches that the priest “calls Christ down upon the altar,” is completely opposed to the doctrine of complete salvation in Christ and His one sacrifice.
And what does the Reformed celebration of the Lord’s Supper emphasize? It emphasizes man’s remembering; even as the Reformed tend to make of Baptism something that man does, so they tend to make of the Lord’s Supper something that man does also. It is a memorial meal only. As one eats and drinks the bread and wine, one is to remember how Christ gave His body and blood. Listen to Luther here again: “I hope it is not necessary to say much as to what the remembrance of Christ might be. In other places we have often and amply explained this term. It is not such a contemplation of the suffering as some practice, hoping by such a good work to render service to God and to obtain grace by occupying themselves in sorrowing over the bitter sufferings of Christ, etc. The remembrance of Christ rather consists in teaching and believing the power and fruit of His suffering; accordingly, that our works and merit are worthless, that the free will is dead and lost, that on the contrary, we are absolved from our sin and become righteous solely through Christ’s suffering and death; hence that the remembrance consists in teaching or recalling the grace of God in Christ and not in a work done by us.” (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 3, F. Pieper, p. 111)
The traditional Lutheran doctrine — that Christ is present with His body and blood in the bread and wine as the words declare — gives all glory to Christ. For in teaching that Jesus actually offers His body and blood to the communicant, we arc teaching that person to believe that Christ has fully atoned for his sin. And in allowing the words of Christ to stand, however great the mystery they raise, we are allowing Christ to be Lord and Master and are not lifting our reason above Him and deciding which of His miracles we can accept and which we must reject.
“God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,” 1 Cor. 1,27. These words have a special application to the Sacraments. Baptism seems like such a small thing — a bit of water and a few words. The Lord’s Supper can appear to be a small and even an irritating thing, too. But do you not suppose that the Lord chose both the essence and the manner of the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper, as a way of demonstrating that the essential thing about being a Christian is faith? In a way, it reminds one of the astounding experience which the prophet Elijah once had, at the time when he ran away from his work and from his duties in Israel. You recall the story: “And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” I Kings 19,11 and 12. It was the still small voice that brought the power of God. And thus also in the Sacrament there is not great worldly show, nothing that would catch the eye or tickle the ear. There’s just a little bread and a little wine; and the only way in which you can find more there — the body and blood of Christ — is to look with faith at what Jesus says of it.
And do you not believe that the reason on account of which the Lord’s Supper has become such a battleground is the fact that people bring to it their preconceived notions of what it ought to be, of how the Lord ought to deal with man? Thus, whatever a person”s intention with regard to the Lord’s Supper may be, it becomes a kind of touchstone; it reveals the attitude, the approach that a person has to Christianity; for its essence remains hidden to all except those who approach it with faith.
Thus it comes about that when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated among us, we repeat the words of Scripture in connection with our use of the bread and wine. In this way we indicate that the bread and wine here used are not to be used in an ordinary way but in a sacramental way, according to Christ’s Words. And it is these words of Christ which make the Sacrament a means of grace. It is hardly possible to emphasize this too strongly. For it should be made and be kept clear that the essence of the Gospel and of Baptism and of the Lord’s Supper is all one; in every case we are dealing with God’s promises in Christ. Thus it is that while, indeed, Christ is present with His body and blood in the case of every communicant, yet the blessings of receiving this special gift are available only to him who comes by faith. Let this be very clear among us: It is Christ’s word and promise that makes the Sacrament what it is, and it is faith and faith alone that can receive this benefit. There is no such thing as an “automatic” blessing received from going to the Lord’s Supper; the benefit does not come just because a person receives the Sacrament. To illustrate: If George Washington could return to this earth and could be shown the switch to an electric light and be told that if he would operate the switch the room would be flooded with light, he might very well doubt what he heard; but if he should push the switch, the light would come on, whether he had believed that it would or not. The Lord’s Supper does not operate that way, for the benefit of the Lord’s Supper is to be found in the word of Christ connected with the Lord’s Supper, and the one thing that can take the blessing from Christ’s words and promises is faith, nothing else.
Of that we shall have more to say; just now we are seeking to make this clear: In the Lord’s Supper Christ is present in the bread and wine, as the words say; and these words of His are the powerful thing in the Sacrament.
III. How the Lord’s Supper Serves as a Means of Grace
In the first section of this essay we briefly considered the Scriptural doctrine regarding the Means of Grace in general; in the second section we briefly considered the nature or essence of one of these means, viz., the Lord’s Supper. In this section we wish to outline briefly the Scriptural teaching with regard to the fact that the Lord’s Supper is, indeed, a means of grace and how it so functions. No better introduction to this topic could be given than to quote the following from Pieper, page 373:
“The function of the Lord’s Supper is the remission of sins. … This purpose of the Lord’s Supper is ascertained not by deduction from extraneous passages of Holy Writ or by theological conclusions, but from the words of institution themselves, where it is clearly stated … When Christ adds, ‘which is given for you’, to the words: ‘This is My body’, and adds, ‘which is shed for you for the remission of sins’, to the words: ‘This is My blood’, His purpose was to call forth in the mind of His communicants at all succeeding administrations of the Lord’s Supper to the Last Day this conviction, that because of the propitiatory death of Christ they have a gracious God, that is, have remission of sins. Other meaning these words absolutely cannot have.”
Now if this should sound as though we were saying that the benefit of using the Lord’s Supper with true faith is the same as the benefit of being baptized; or if it should sound as though we were saying that the benefit of rightly using the Lord’s Supper is the same as believing the Gospel, then we have made our point; for this is exactly what we mean to say, and this is the manner in which the Supper serves as a means of grace.
We are aware, of course, that not all accept this statement. Some will say, as the Reformed and others do: But the Lord’s Supper does not actually convey forgiveness of sins; it only reminds us of how Christ won the forgiveness of our sins; He gave His body and blood for us. To this we answer: Precisely because the Lord’s Supper does show us how Christ won our forgiveness, therefore it does convey that forgiveness. Here again it is like the preaching of the Gospel; someone might say that the Gospel cannot convey forgiveness; all it can do is to tell us how Christ won our forgiveness; and yet we all know that in the telling of how Christ won our forgiveness the Holy Ghost is operating through that telling and actually leading us to and strengthening us in faith in that forgiveness. Likewise, when a person goes to the Lord’s Supper and hears Christ’s words: “This is My body, given for you; this is My blood, shed for you for the remission of sins,” the Holy Spirit is certainly operating through that promise of Jesus. In fact, to suggest that the Holy Spirit is not operating through that promise of Jesus is rather frightening, when you think of it. To separate God’s grace from Christ’s words in the Sacrament “for you … for the remission of your sins” — is to do a dangerous thing. No, it ought to be clear that where Christ’s Gospel promise is, there the Holy Spirit is operating; there grace is being offered; there forgiveness is being conveyed.
Having said this, we must hasten to add a corollary idea that was mentioned in the previous section of this paper, and that is this: The benefit of the Lord’s Supper is received through faith, even as the benefit of the reading or the preaching of the Gospel is received by faith. It is not as though going to the Sacrament in any frame of mind, with any faith at all, or no faith at all, would produce the benefit of the Lord’s Supper. And then we would surely be dealing wrongfully with your little children in withholding the Sacrament from them; then we ought to copy the papists and administer the Lord’s Supper to our little children. But because the benefits of the Lord’s Supper are received by a conscious exercise of faith, therefore we give this Sacrament only to those who can themselves understand the need for such faith.
This is Scriptural, viz., “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup.” Clearly, these words imply that a communicant is to be able to understand the nature of the Lord’s Supper and of his own attitude toward it. Clearly also, these words, in the connection in which they are found, right after St. Paul’s repetition of the Words of Institution have to do with a person’s faith in the words of the Institution, not some of these words, but all of them. These words, “Let a man examine himself” surely imply that a person is to see whether he believes that Christ is present in the Supper with His body and blood, as the words declare. And just as definitely, a person is to examine himself with respect to the promise that Jesus there makes “given and shed for you for the remission of sins.” For the Words of Institution make it clear that Christ is conferring His body and blood upon us in order to assure us of the forgiveness of sins.
When we thus emphasize that the benefit of the Lord’s Supper is the strengthening of faith in the forgiveness of sins and that, thus, it has the same effect as Baptism and the preaching of the Gospel, someone may say that there is needless repetition here; someone may feel like suggesting that the preaching of the Gospel is enough, or that Baptism is enough, that surely, a person will never need the Lord’s Supper. To this we answer, first: The Lord Jesus in His wisdom says, “This do”; and for the believer in Jesus that settles it; if Jesus desires it, then it shall be done. Moreover, to quote from Pieper again (page 114):
“Both Scripture and experience teach that men who feel the weight of their sins find nothing harder to believe than the forgiveness of their sins. Hence repetition of the assurance of the forgiveness of sins in various ways through the means of grace meets a practical need of Christians. This need, too, Luther pointed out in the Smalcald Articles: ‘The Gospel not merely in one way gives us counsel and aid against sin; for God is superabundantly rich (and liberal) in His grace (and goodness). First, through the spoken “Word by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world; which is the peculiar office of the Gospel. Secondly, through Baptism. Thirdly, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar (Trigl. 4tll, Part III, Art. IV)”
So while, in a sense, the Lord’s Supper is repetition, it is not mere repetition; it is a repetition with a difference and with emphasis.
The difference lies in this: While in the hearing of the Gospel an outright unbeliever could receive benefit, since through this first hearing the Holy Ghost might begin the work of conversion, in the Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, an unbeliever could receive nothing but harm by partaking of it. For the function of the Lord’s Supper, if we understand 1 Cor. 11 aright, is to strengthen an already existing faith; the hearing of the Gospel may both strengthen a faith already existing and create faith where none has existed. That is the difference. But this difference is not of importance to one who is already a believer in Christ; both the Lord’s Supper and the Gospel are there to offer again and again the forgiveness of sins, to convey again and again that forgiveness of sins, for in both cases the promises of Christ are being fed to an already-existing faith, buttressing and making it firmer.
And the special emphasis of the Lord’s Supper is surely obvious, for in the Sacrament the receiving of the bread and wine, and thus also the body and blood of Christ, is an individual and personal thing. No one can receive the bread and wine for you, in the last sense, not even together with you. You take that bit of bread and that sip of >vine quite alone. It is as though Jesus were gently pulling you into a corner all alone and saying to you: “I am your Savior; I give you this forgiveness; I make this peace between God and you.” The special emphasis of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace, then, is the fact that it is a highly personal, a highly individual thing.
When the Lord’s Supper is thus viewed, one will understand that it is not mere repetition; it does, indeed, bring a repetition of the Lord’s promises, but it does so in a most emphatic and highly personal way.
Thus it should also be clear that a person who wishes to use the Lord’s Supper aright should approach it as that which it is — a means of grace. It is not a mere form, not a mere ritual; it is not a mere evidence of being a Christian; it is not merely a fine old custom signifying close fellowship with God and with fellow Christians. It is first of all a means of grace; God is conferring His grace for the forgiveness of sins in Christ through this Sacrament and sealing it with the Real Presence. Therefore the communicant will wish to follow the divine counsel of St. Paul and examine himself according to the Commandments; and he will examine his faith as to what the Lord Jesus Himself says about the Sacrament.
From what has been thus far said about the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace it should be clear that the Lord’s Supper does offer and seal to us the forgiveness of sins. But in order to seek to make the matter still plainer, let us devote a little space to stating what we do not ascribe to the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace; what we do not say about it.
First, as was stated before, the Lord’s Supper is not an “automatic” thing; that is, it does not convey forgiveness to a person just because he partakes of the Supper, without, or with faith, without an awareness of the nature of the Supper.
Second, it does not convey forgiveness only up to a certain time; that is, receiving the Lord’s Supper does not mean that your sins are forgiven up to the time you receive it but no further. It is a fine thing to receive the Lord’s Supper on one’s sick bed or death bed; but this should not be interpreted to mean that if a person could receive the Sacrament with his last breath, he would surely be saved because he has had no further opportunity to sin. No, receiving the Lord’s Supper is meant to strengthen faith in the forgiveness of sin, all one’s sin. The Lord’s Supper, you might say, simply serves to re-emphasize the covenant which God made with us in Baptism, and there is no time limit on that; it is for all eternity.
Third, the Lord’s Supper does not offer a different kind of forgiveness from that in the Gospel or in Baptism, perhaps a deeper, a more complete and permanent kind; not at all. God does not have different kinds or grades of forgiveness. The promise, e.g., which he makes to a child in Baptism is essentially the same as that which He makes to an adult in the Lord’s Supper.
Fourth, the chief function of the Lord’s Supper is not to indicate fellowship in faith with those with whom we commune. Indeed, it does do this; when two Christians commune together they are giving the highest testimony to their unity of faith. But this is not the chief point about the Lord’s Supper. The chief thing in the Lord’s Supper is what Christ is doing there, not in what man is doing. To this writer it seems that we are sometimes in danger of emphasizing our correct doctrine of “Close Communion” to the point where we lay chief emphasis on what we, we sinners, do in going to the Lord’s Supper. We sometimes, it would seem, are in danger of doing to the Lord’s Supper what many Reformed have done to Baptism; they speak of Baptism as something that man does to indicate his loyalty to God, etc., when they ought to be emphasizing what God does in Baptism to forgive sins and establish His covenant with us. Likewise we can very easily, it would seem, speak so much about the testimony to the unity of faith proclaimed by joint communion that we lose the emphasis on the main thing — the forgiveness and assurance which God conveys through this Sacrament. The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, and saving grace comes from God, not from man.
Fifth, because the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace it is not meant for a special class of believers. Beyond the requirement that a communicant be able to examine himself, Scripture does not specify that the Lord’s Supper shall be reserved to a certain group of Christians only, perhaps to those who have made special progress in the fight against sin. Merely a remembering of our terms should make that plain; the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, forgiving and saving grace from God in Christ; and we all need that. In fact, the more you are aware of your sin, the more you are in need of the Sacrament; Christ came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; and He invites those who labor and are heavy laden under sin to come to Him for rest. And in the Sacrament such a person surely finds Christ with His most intimate and soul-saving assurance and promise.
Sixth, because the Lord’s Supper is a divinely instituted means of grace, it does not at all depend for its power upon the circumstances with which we surround our celebration of it. That is, the fine communion orders of service which have been developed, the excellent communion hymns, the devotional surroundings in our churches, etc., etc. — these, useful as they are, are not the central thing, not the thing which makes the Lord’s Supper a means of grace. It is the word and promise of Christ in the Sacrament that makes it a means of grace. This is a fact most likely admitted by all but little understood by most people, until, perhaps, a time comes in their life or that of a loved one when the Sacrament must be celebrated in the poorest of surroundings with the fewest of words and the least of liturgical detail.
Seventh, because the Lord’s Supper is a divinely instituted means of grace, it is not something which a mature Christian should despise by disuse or too little use. One might say: I received forgiveness of sins in my Baptism, and this has been strengthened and nourished by the Gospel which I have since learned; therefore I do not need the Lord’s Supper. Such a thing might, indeed, be said by an immature Christian, one who still needs to learn how the Christian reacts to God’s offer of grace, or one whose reason still tries to rule him when it comes to accepting the words of Christ. But a mature Christian will not wish to be caught saying: “I do not need the Lord’s Supper.” For in saying that he is lifting himself up above Jesus, who said: “This do in remembrance of Me.” — To those who might he so inclined we would make the suggestion that he go into the quiet of his room and read those simple but powerful words contained in Luther’s “Christian Questions,” printed at the end of our Catechism. Here let us quote only the last one. The question is asked: “What shall a person do if he … feel no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament?”, and the answer is given:
“To such a person no better advice can be given than this, that first, he put his hand into his bosom and feel whether he still have flesh and blood and that he by all means believe what the Scriptures say of it.”
You are no holy angel; you still have that sinful and sinning flesh of yours. Don’t you need every assurance of grace you can get?
“Second, that he look around to see whether he still be in the world and keep in mind that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as Scripture says.”
You are not in heaven as yet; you’re in a world full of sin and threats to your salvation. And you don’t need every assurance of grace you can get?
“Thirdly, that he remember that he will be troubled by the devil also, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace within or without, as Scripture testifies.”
The devil is still operating, the same Satan who caused Adam’s fall; he is dogging your steps in the hope that he can make you fall permanently away from God. And you don’t need every assurance of grace you can
No, the big thing in the Lord’s Supper is the word and promise of Christ. And the benefit of it is the renewed assurance of the forgiveness of sin. And the title for it, the ringing, soul-filling name for it is: Means of Grace. Grace — this is the thing we need, we poor stumbling sinners. If this grace comes through Baptism — welcome; if it comes through the preaching of the Gospel — welcome; if it comes in the intimate dignity of the Lord’s Supper — welcome. Grace — this is what we need, and it is here in the Lord’s Supper, too.
IV. Some Practical Applications of the Fact That the Lord’s Supper Is a Means of Grace
In this, the final section of this short paper on the “Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace,” we propose to discuss briefly various items in relation to the Supper and our celebration of it. First consider the communion hymns found in our hymnals. There is a great deal of soul-edifying material here, presented, usually, in beautiful and clear form. Perhaps many of us cheat ourselves and our congregations by using only one or two communion hymns; perhaps we ought to learn and use more of them. For this Means of Grace, the Lord’s Supper, is like the preached Gospel — it profits from many-sided and varied presentations. Permit a few quotations from communion hymns which speak of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace.
O wondrous food of blessing,
O cup that heals our woes.
My Lord, Thou here hast led me
Within Thy holiest place,
And there Thyself hast fed me
With treasures of Thy grace. Hymnary 148, 1&2
O let Thy table honored be
And furnished well with worthy guests;
And may each soul salvation see
That here its sacred pledges tastes. Hymnary 153, 3
Thy Supper in this vale of tears
Refreshes me and stills my fears. Hymnal 306, 6
Approach ye then with faithful hearts sincere,
And take the pledges of salvation here. Hymnal 307, 3
The chastened peace of sin forgiven,
The filial joy of heirs of heaven
Grant as we share this wondrous food,
Thy body broken and Thy blood.
Our trembling hearts cleave to Thy Word;
All Thou hast said Thou dost afford;
All that Thou art we here receive,
And all we are to Thee we give. Hymnal 314, 2&3
Let these few stanzas suffice as evidence of the truth of this statement: Our communion hymns do treat the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace; the one who sings our communion hymns will find himself asking God to forgive his sins, to strengthen his faith in the forgiveness of sins through the Lord’s Supper.
Our communion liturgies, or orders of service, also deal in this way with the Lord’s Supper. E.g., in the order found in the Hymnary, the minister says these words to the communicants:
“… you should … believe that Jesus Christ bestows upon you His body and blood to confirm unto you the remission of all your sins.”
This statement very clearly and emphatically asserts that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, serving, as it does, to “confirm … the remission of … sins.” And in the words which the minister says to the communicants after the reception of the Sacrament, this is stated:
“Our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ, who hath now bestowed upon you His holy body and blood, whereby He hath made full satisfaction for all your sins, strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto life everlasting.’
These words say this to the communicant: You have now received the body and blood of Christ; this body and this blood were given and shed to make satisfaction for your sins; this reception of the sacrament will now serve to strengthen your faith in the forgiveness of sins unto everlasting life. — And the Collect of Thanksgiving asks God
“… to strengthen us through the same (viz., body and blood in the sacrament) in faith towards Thee.”
Faith in the Savior is the thing that forgives sin; and here the prayer is that the Lord’s Supper will strengthen this saving faith.
In the Hymnal, in the Common Order, the minister says these words as he distributes the bread and wine:
“Take, eat; this is the true body of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, given into death for your sins. May this strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto life everlasting. — Take, drink; this is the true blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, shed for you for the remission of sins. May this strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto life everlasting.”
These words say to the communicant: You are receiving the body and blood of Christ. This will strengthen you in the faith that brings life everlasting. And, of course, the faith that brings life everlasting is faith in the forgiveness of sins through Christ the Savior. — The Collect of Thanksgiving uses the same words as in the previous order of service.
Besides all this, both orders, of course, use the Words of Institution, where the words, “given and shed for you” are clearly said.
From all these things it should be clear that our communion orders of service treat the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace; the whole approach is this: We go to the Lord’s Supper in order to receive repeated and emphatic assurance of the forgiveness of sins. Coming to it in faith, we ask God to increase our faith. We cry with the man in the Bible: “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief”; and with the disciples: “Lord, increase our faith.”
• • • •
Likewise our Catechism treats the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. When the question is asked: What is the benefit of such eating and drinking?, this answer is made: It is shown us by these words, etc. Here you see how our Catechism emphasizes the Gospel; the Lord’s Supper does what it does — conveys forgiveness of sins — because it so emphatically offers Christ’s Gospel promise, “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.” So, if someone should say: The Lord’s Supper cannot offer forgiveness, life, and salvation, for it is Jesus who does that, then we gladly answer: Of course, it is Jesus who does that; and the Lord’s Supper in an emphatic way brings us just that promise — that Christ did all these things for us. Therefore the Lord’s Supper is one of God’s ways of giving us these things, even as Baptism and the Gospel are.
• • • •
We teach that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, not the means of grace; that is, we do not say that a person cannot be saved without it. If there is a person who by reason of his immature understanding of the Sacrament or for some other reason does not go to the Lord’s Supper but who, at the same time, does believe that Jesus Christ is his Savior, that person has forgiveness of sins. There is no such thing as an absolute need of the Lord’s Supper; you cannot say that everyone who fails to use it is rejecting Christ. It should be said, though, that the person who fails to use the Lord’s Supper is disobeying the Lord in whom he says that he believes; it should also be said that this person, for whatever cause, is following his reason instead of the will of Christ. So, while all patience needs to be used with a person who is confused about his need for the Sacrament, yet such patience should have as its aim this, that the person concerned may still learn to view the Lord’s Supper as his Savior views it.
• • • •
Since the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, it should be celebrated frequently by our congregations. No one can make a rule as to how often our churches should celebrate the Lord’s Supper; this will vary with circumstances. But one can certainly agree with Pieper when he says:
“We may well call the more or less frequent use of the Lord’s Supper one of the thermometers of the spiritual life of a congregation” (page 393).
It is a sad thing when our churches celebrate Communion so infrequently as to give their members very few opportunities during the year to commune. It is still worse when the members fail to make use of the opportunities presented. No doubt such people should again read the words of the Christian Questions, especially No. 20, mentioned above. For when one understands that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, that it is God who is conferring this blessing upon him, then he will wish to receive it.
• • • •
Because the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, it should be used also by those Christians in special need of the assurance of God’s grace. E.g., when one is ill, or about to undergo an operation, it surely is in place that a Christian call upon his pastor for the Lord’s Supper. A right understanding of the Supper will not lead us to regard such a communion as a kind of “last rites” observance, like Extreme Unction among the papists; rather, it will lead us to regard it as a special emphasis upon the love of God in Christ, a special reception of His grace, a special comfort and consolation in the hour of trial. Perhaps we could make more such use of the Lord’s Supper.
• • • •
Because the Lord’s Supper is a divinely instituted means of grace, our congregations will wish to celebrate it with due dignity and beauty. We did not say “elaborateness;” we said, “beauty and dignity.” The manner in which the pastor functions at the alter; the manner in which the communicants conduct themselves during communion; the atmosphere created by the congregation in the pews; the music, etc., etc., all these are of importance insofar as they enable the communicants reverently and devoutly to receive the Sacrament. Very few rules and commandments are needed here; simple good order should prevail. What is needed most is a devotional attitude on the part of all concerned, and out of that right attitude the right atmosphere will come.
• • • •
The practice of “announcing” or “registering” before Holy Communion should also be done with the fact in mind that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. The manner and method of receiving communion announcements should be such as to encourage poor sinners to come to this means of grace for added strength and encouragement.
Finally, the preaching, both in the regular sermons and in the confessional addresses, should be so conceived and preached as to convey clearly the fact that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. The preaching should emphasize the blessings to be received — the assurance of forgiveness, the encouragement to Christian living, etc. While a timely warning against the misuse of the sacrament may be in place, yet the emphasis must always be on the grace of God, the forgiveness received in Christ, the encouragement to Christian living, and the hope of eternal life.
• • • •
And this is the spirit in which this little paper has been presented; we have approached the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace, not as a thing to be borne, as it were, because it cannot be avoided, since Christians have always celebrated the Lord’s Supper and, therefore, we, too, likely have to celebrate it. Rather, we have sought to say this: In the Lord’s Supper Christ gives us His body and blood in a mysterious way, a way that will escape us as long as we are in this world. He gives them to us as pledges of the fact that He has already forgiven our sins. He says, “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins,” and thus He strengthens our faith in Him as our Savior. Faith in Him as our Savior brings forgiveness of sins. And it also gives strength and encouragement for living a Christian life. May this short review of these things give us all a more lively appreciation of the wealth of grace to be received in the Lord’s Supper so that we more frequently use it and benefit from it.