(78) Q. Do the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ?
A. No. Just as the water of baptism is not changed into Christ’s blood and does not itself wash away sins but is simply a divine sign and assurance of these things, so too the holy bread of the Lord’s Supper does not become the body of Christ itself,even though it is called the body of Christin keeping with the nature and language of sacraments.
(79) Q. Why then does Christ call the bread his body and the cup his blood, or the new covenant in his blood, and Paul use the words, a participation in Christ’s body and blood?
A. Christ has good reason for these words. He wants to teach us that just as bread and wine nourish the temporal life, so too his crucified body and poured-out blood are the true food and drink of our souls for eternal life.But more important, he wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge, that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work, share in his true body and blood as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in his remembrance,and that all of his suffering and obedience are as definitely ours as if we personally had suffered and made satisfaction for our sins.
(80) Q. How does the Lord’s Supper differ from the Roman Catholic Mass?
A. The Lord’s Supper declares to us that all our sins are completely forgiven through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all.It also declares to us that the Holy Spirit grafts us into Christ,who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Fatherwhere he wants us to worship him.But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have their sins forgiven through the suffering of Christ unless Christ is still offered for them daily by the priests. It also teaches that Christ is bodily present under the form of bread and wine where Christ is therefore to be worshiped. Thus the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry.[i]
For more than a millennium many church people have believed that the consecrated bread and wine of Lord’s Supper miraculously changed into Christ’s body and blood. The reformed confessions deny this supposed change of substance, or transubstantiation. The Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice in which “Christ is offered … daily by the priests” but a commemoration of the “one sacrifice of Jesus Christ which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all” (Q&A 80).
Our lesson reveals the historic controversy over the differences between the Lord’s Supper and the Catholic Mass. But understanding the controversy can edify us today.
The Bread and Cup Do Not Become Christ
Martin Luther, like many churchmen before him, thought it essential to take literally Jesus’s saying: “This is my body … this is my blood” when referring to the bread and cup (Matt. 26:26–28). But sometimes the best way of honoring Scripture is to take it seriously, not literally. We don’t tear out our eyes in our fight against sin (Mark 9:47). Why would we insist that in the Supper the bread and wine change substances when the Bible says nothing like that about the water of baptism? Christ cleanses his bride with the washing of the word (Eph. 5:26) and Spirit (Titus 3:15), not by using baptismal water as a host. So too, the Spirit cancels our sins by applying the benefits of Jesus’s broken body and shed blood, not by making us physically eat and drink them. The church father John Chrysostom noted that Jesus too ate the elements after they were consecrated, preventing any cannibalistic misconceptions.[ii]
Jesus’s use of symbolic language is true to “the nature and language of sacraments.” For example, Paul says that the rock from which the Israelites drank in the wilderness was Christ. He’s telling the truth; Jesus nourished his wandering Old Testament people. But Paul isn’t speaking literally. The rock was a “spiritual rock” (1 Cor. 10:3, 4). Similarly Jesus calls himself the bread of life (John 6:35), the light of the world (John 8:12), the door of the sheep (John 10:7, 9), and the true vine (John 15:1). He’s none of those things, literally. But those statements teach real truths about him.By using the symbols of bread and wine, Scripture focuses on Christ’s gracious action in the Sacraments, not his physical presence in the elements.[iii]
But if this is so, why does Christ sound like he’s being literal?
Christ Reveals Himself in the Bread and Cup
By speaking as he does, Jesus reveals to us at least three deep truths.
Christ teaches us that his body and blood truly nourish us.
Christ did not err in calling the bread his body and the cup his blood. He could have said, “These elements symbolize me.” But his language is better by being stronger. When we celebrate communion, we remember with Luther-like tenacity Jesus’s words: “This is my body; this is my blood.” The strong words and their tangible hosts impress us profoundly. We need Jesus because he offered himself on the altar of God’s justice. We need his life—his body, blood, and soul—to give us life. Jesus is as accessible to us as the benefits of bread and wine.
Christ shows us how to come to him.
We don’t gain Christ by approaching a table where a priest has brought him down to a table. Listen to the Council of Nicea (325): “Let us not childishly cleave to the bread and wine set before us, but let us, lifting our minds to heaven by faith, consider that on that holy table is placed the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world, who offered himself as a sacrifice without being slain by the priests.”[iv] We receive heaven’s bread as we receive the atoning Lamb, the supporting vine, the enlightening light, and the guiding shepherd—by faith alone.
Christ assures believers that we have his righteousness.
The Lord’s Supper is not first “the believer’s act of remembering, testifying, and recommitment.”[iv] “The Supper is a gift; it does not merely remind us of a gift.”[vi] In the meal Jesus says, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19). The Supper “declares to us that all our sins are completely forgiven through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ” (Q&A 80). The Roman Catholic Mass claims to be “a propitiatory sacrifice [which] ought … to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities.[vii] But there is no longer a sacrificing priesthood; the sacrifice is finished (Heb. 7:26–27). “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all” (Heb. 10:10, 12). Jesus promised blessed satisfaction to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:6). Through the elements Christ swears that “He has become to our hungry and thirsty souls the true food and drink of life eternal.”[viii]
Understanding the connection between the sign and the substance of the Supper isn’t merely an academic squabble. Benefiting from the Supper requires more than chewing and swallowing. It requires believing. In this way, the Supper is a “participation in” Christ’s body and blood (1 Cor. 10:16); what is eaten by faith “is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood.”[ix] In this meal receive your God.
[i] Q&A 80 is found in Lord’s Day 30 but thematically seems to fit better in Lord’s Day 29.
[ii] Ursinus, Commentary, 393.
[iii] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 810.
[iv] Ursinus, Commentary, 404.
[v] Horton, The Christian Faith, 811.
[vi] John Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.6.
[vii] General Council of Trent, Session 22, Chapter 9, Canon 3.
[viii] “Celebration of the Lord’s Supper – Form 1,” https://formsandprayers.com/liturgical-form/#9.
[ix] Belgic Confession, 35.
This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.