What it means to be truly Lutheran: Lord’s Supper

Joel D. Otto

Teachings about the Lord’s Supper separate most of the various branches of Christianity. When true Lutherans accept this teaching of the Scriptures, they stand apart from other Christians.

Roman Catholicism confesses that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ when the priest speaks the words of institution. This becomes an unbloody sacrifice which the priest offers to earn “grace” from God. This “grace” is then distributed to the people to help them live more God-pleasing lives. Catholicism turns the sacrament from gospel into law. The unbloody sacrifice performed by the priest becomes a human work offered to God for sin.

Most other non-Lutheran churches deny that Christ’s body and blood are really present with the bread and wine. They might speak about a spiritual presence of Christ, but the bread and wine merely represent Christ’s body and blood. They do not believe that God gives any blessings in the Lord’s Supper. Rather, Christians observe the Lord’s Supper as an act of obedience to remember Christ and his death. This rejects the words of Jesus and turns the sacrament from gospel into law, from God’s gift into a human work of obedience.

True Lutherans teach what Jesus clearly said on the night he was betrayed. “This is my body. . . . This is my blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:26,28). We do not deny what Jesus said. We do not try to explain how Jesus can be present with his body and blood under bread and wine. Martin Luther wrote, “Why do we not put aside such curiosity and cling simply to the words of Christ, willing to remain in ignorance of what takes place here and content that the real body of Christ is present by virtue of the words?” (Luther’s Works Vol 36, p. 33).

We believe that Jesus’ body and blood are really and truly present in the Lord’s Supper. And we believe that Jesus is giving real and true spiritual gifts to us through this eating and drinking: forgiveness, life, and salvation. It is pure gospel for our comfort and spiritual strength. We simply hold to Jesus’ words. This is what true Lutherans do, as Luther emphasized in the Large Catechism. “We speak about the bread and wine that is Christ’s body and blood and has the words attached to it. That, we say, is truly the treasure—and nothing else—through which such forgiveness is gained. Now the only way this treasure is passed along and made our very own is in the words ‘Given . . . and shed for you.’ For in the words you have both truths, that it is Christ’s body and blood, and that it is yours as a treasure and gift.”

Questions to consider:

1. Read 1 Corinthians 10:16. Explain how this passage helps us come to a proper understanding of Jesus’ words of institution.

Jesus’ words in the Gospels are clear and simple: “This is my body.” Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:16 back up what Jesus said. The bread is “a participation in the body of Christ.” The cup is “a participation in the blood of Christ.” The Greek word translated “participation” is the same word we also translate as “fellowship.” Paul is saying that there is a union, a “communion,” between the bread and Christ’s body and the wine and Christ’s blood. There is a close association and connection between the earthly elements of the Lord’s Supper and Christ’s body and blood. Paul is saying the same thing as Jesus, just in different words. We really and truly receive Christ’s body and blood when we eat the bread and drink the wine in Holy Communion.

2. List at least five doctrines that are interconnected with the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

The following doctrines are interconnected with the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. One could perhaps think of others as well.

● The true nature of sin—we need the forgiveness Jesus gives in the Lord’s Supper

● Jesus’ incarnation—the reality of the incarnation is evident in the fact that Jesus is giving us his very body and blood; he became flesh and gives me his body and blood in the Sacrament.

● Jesus’ resurrection—if Jesus had not risen, he would not be able to continue giving us his body and blood

● Two natures of Christ—Jesus can be truly present in the Lord’s Supper with his body and his blood because his human nature has received the divine characteristics of omnipotence and omnipresence from his divine nature; he remains true God and true man in one person.

● Vicarious atonement—Jesus is the sacrifice in the place of all sinners; he is now giving me personally his body and blood which were sacrificed for me. This is also what we remember and proclaim as we receive the Lord’s Supper

● Justification—by giving us the price of our salvation, Jesus is forgiving my sins; he is applying what he did for the world to me individually

● Faith—we trust what Jesus promises in the Lord’s Supper; we trust his words when he says that his body and blood are truly present, that he gave his body and poured out his blood for us, and that he is giving us the forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper. We simply trust what we do not see because Jesus said so (Hebrews 11:1).

● Means of grace—through the Lord’s Supper, God gives us the forgiveness of sins; it is one of the ways that he gives us the blessings of the gospel

● Preservation of faith—through the Word of the gospel in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit strengthens faith

3. How does the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper help provide comfort to you when you receive the Sacrament?

Jesus is coming to me in a very personal and tangible way in the Lord’s Supper and giving me the price he paid for my sins. That price is his true body and his true blood, which he gave into death and poured out on the cross. That price is what won for me the forgiveness of sins, which he now actually gives to me through his Word and his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. I hear the words. I receive his body and blood under the bread and wine. This is not a mere symbol or representation. It is not another sacrifice for my sins—that Jesus did once and for all on Good Friday. Through this Sacrament, in a miraculous and supernatural way, Jesus is giving me—yes, me, a lost and condemned sinner who struggles daily with the temptations of Satan and the guilt of my sins and the desires of my flesh and the pressures of this sinful world—his very body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins.

Lord Jesus Christ, you have prepared

This feast for our salvation;

It is your body and your blood,

And at your invitation As weary souls, with sin oppressed,

We come to you for needed rest,

For comfort and for pardon (Christian Worship 312:1).

Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This is the eighth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after May 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

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