This morning we begin to consider the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper or what they call “the Mass.” I have been preaching sermons that are somewhat longer than my norm during this series because the subjects being considered are so vast and because I did not want to say so little as either to seem to misrepresent the Catholic position or provide an inadequate response to it. But the Mass or Eucharist is so a large subject that I realized I could not do this justice in but one sermon. If I tried, I was bound to confuse, to misrepresent, and to say too little to be really useful.
So, this morning I want to consider from the Bible general perspectives that ought to control our thinking about the place of the Lord’s Supper in the life, the worship, and the salvation of God’s people. Next Sunday, Lord willing, we will consider the particular claims of the Roman Church for the Eucharist and the place that they assign to it in the way of salvation.
I want to begin by saying that, I believe very firmly, that at this point there is a great deal that we can ignore. One of the problems the ordinary Christian faces in attempting to satisfy himself or herself as to the proper way of thinking about the Lord’s Supper, its manner of working, and its efficacy, what it produces in a believer’s life, is that the history of debate on these questions in the church is very complex and confusing. I daresay that even the bright seminarian, who studies the various controversies and learns the competing vocabularies with which various groups speak about the Supper and its way of working, hardly understands what he is talking about when he discusses these questions.
It is a very difficult part of theology that takes us into a set of very complicated questions, most of which are never discussed directly in the Bible. The terminology is mysterious, interpretations of that terminology abound, scholars continue to argue today as to what a particular church father or Protestant reformer actually thought about the Lord’s Supper, and ordinary Christians are supposed, somehow, to make sense of this?
You cannot discuss the Supper in this detail without raising the most complicated historical and theological issues, but you can be sure the ordinary Christian does not need to become expert in such issues in order to understand the Supper in a biblical form. The Bible was not written for theologians but for believers, and the Lord’s Supper was appointed not to give theologians something to debate but as a meal to feed the children of God!
We can safely leave much of the controversy to one side. And I say that because I am sure that if only certain basic biblical perspectives were maintained in regard to the worship of the Lord’s Supper, these other questions and debates would become more interesting than important and would not stand in the way of believers receiving the blessing of the Supper as our Savior intended when he instituted this sacrament the night of his betrayal.
So let us begin, this morning, with some fundamental perspectives.
- The first is that biblical religion, biblical Christianity is sacramental.
However one defines that term, precisely, we understand that from the very beginning, God has communicated his favor and blessing to his people and they have sought him and his blessings through rites and ceremonies which God designed and appointed to convey spiritual effects. We find animal sacrifices and other sacrifices stretching back to the very headwaters of human life in the world and to the very headwaters of the salvation of sinners in the world. We find them in some form, apparently in Gen. 3 immediately after the fall, when the Lord himself kills the animals so that he might clothe his people, and we find them certainly a part of the worship of Cain and Abel in Gen. 4. We have circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant as early as Gen. 17 and Passover instituted as an annual feast in the early chapters of Exodus. Leviticus is full of the various sacrifices of Israelite worship by which God’s redeeming grace was communicated to his people and by which they were to be renewed in faith, hope, love, and joy, i.e. in their relationship with him. They were called signs and seals and were said in many different ways to mark, to cultivate, to express, to sustain, and to communicate the relationship of love and grace that existed between God and believers in the covenant that God had made with his people.
You see, that relationship itself is invisible and inaudible, it cannot be experienced by the senses, though God has made us sensual creatures. And so God has given it a sensible form, a form that can both appeal to our sensual nature and link that nature to the invisible world of the spirit where God is known, touched, heard, and tasted. That intersection between the invisible world and the visible is what we mean by the sacramental character of our faith. It is all the ways in which our faith is embodied, sensualized, for the sake of beings such as ourselves who must know God but cannot see him, must respond to God but cannot hear him. In the larger sense it is the book we have been given to read, the voice of ministers by which God chooses to speak to us, the taste of bread and wine, the sight and feel of pure water on the head, and so on. So, from the beginning onwards, true faith has always been, has needed to be sacramental.
In the NT the specific rites of the Israelite church, the sacraments per se, were transformed into the rites of the International and largely Gentile church, namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper. What is unmistakable is that God’s grace and our faith are practiced, nurtured, expressed, preserved, and communicated “sacramentally,” by means of these rites that God appointed for the use of his people.
It is true that there is not a great deal of comment about the Lord’s Supper in the NT, nothing like as much as there is concerning the sacrifices and feasts of OT worship, but there is enough to demonstrate that believing life and worship in the new epoch bears the same sacramental character that it always had in the old.
It is my private opinion that this fact has been but dimly seen by our American evangelical and our own American Reformed Christianity for too a long time. I have hopes that the challenge of Roman Catholicism being felt again in our day may serve the very happy purpose of causing us to think more carefully and deeply about the place of the Lord’s Supper in our common life. For, clearly, no one took the Lord’s Supper four times a year in apostolic Christianity or for centuries thereafter, as I did in the churches in which I was raised. Biblical Christianity is much more sacramental than that!
- The second fundamental perspective we bring to this question of the place of the Lord’s Supper in the Christian faith and life is that its role is “instrumental,” it is only a means by which God’s grace operates, it is not the grace itself, and it is only one of a number of such instruments that God uses by which to dispense his grace and his salvation to his people. What is more, among the “instruments” of divine grace, it belongs in the second tier, not the first.
What I mean by all of that is this. Faith is also an instrument. Faith does not save us in the sense that it was not our faith that was crucified for us, it was not faith that rose to life again, it is not faith that sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts to make us new in Christ Jesus. Faith is the instrument by which we lay hold of those blessings, of that salvation that God has chosen to give us, that Christ has purchased for us with his own blood, and that the Holy Spirit is sent to work in our hearts and lives. Faith (trust) is simply the way that has been appointed for us to be united to Christ; Christ is the one who gives us the blessings of his salvation. We don’t have Christ because of our faith, we have faith because of Christ. And so the love of God, the working of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and all the rest. Faith is the instrument, the means God has chosen by which to put his salvation, which he has accomplished through his Son into our hands. He gives us faith as the means by which he gives us Christ.
Well the Lord’s Supper is, in a similar way, an instrument, a means by which God works his salvation in us, preserves it, applies it, communicates it, expresses it, and cultivates it. But it is one step further removed from the actual salvation itself. For, one must have faith for the Supper to serve his salvation in any way. The Lord’s Supper certainly doesn’t save anyone by itself, without faith it is powerless to do anyone any good at all, but, by God’s grace, in God’s hands, and accompanied on our part by faith, it becomes a means of our blessing and of our communion with God.
We know this is so for several reasons written large over the Bible from beginning to end.
- One is that the same things that are said about the Lord’s Supper, the same role that is ascribed to it, is ascribed to other things as well. The Word of God — whether the reading of it or the preaching of it, baptism, prayer, Christian fellowship, the rest of Christian worship, even the life of obedience — all of these things are also said to be both a means by which God communicates to us his salvation and himself and the means by which we practice, preserve, express, and deepen our communion with Him. All of these things are said to be the means by which our sins are forgiven, our hearts are made clean, our faith is preserved and strengthened, Christ is brought near, God’s blessings are obtained, and so on. Indeed, there is considerably more attention paid in the Bible to some of these other means than to the Lord’s Supper or the sacraments in general. In Paul it is preaching that “saves” much more than the Lord’s Supper. In the entire Bible it is a willing submission of one’s life to God in obedience that “saves” more than the sacrifices. It is, for example, the man who calls the Sabbath his delight who will ride on the high places and feed on the inheritance of his father Jacob.
It is for this reason that we cannot agree with Scott Hahn, the former PCA minister, now a Roman Catholic, who says in one of his lectures on the Eucharist that it is “the very center of the Faith.” That is to say too much, more than the Bible ever says or implies. It is certainly striking, for example, that while the role of prayer and of the Word of God are front and center in Paul’s “pastoral epistles,” those letters full of general instructions for the life of the church and prescriptions for her health and spiritual safety, the Lord’s Supper is not mentioned at all. Public worship is alluded to in respect to corporate prayer and the preaching of the Word but nothing specifically is said of the Eucharist. The same may be said, in fact, of most of the books of the New Testament.
We may not draw from that the conclusion that the Lord’s Supper is of little consequence, for the Bible teaches us otherwise, but we would be hard pressed to prove that the Eucharist is “the very center of the Faith.” Rather, it shares an important role in the life of faith and the communication of God’s grace with several other equally important means. As an aside, I will say at this point, that the wresting of the Eucharist from its biblical place among the several means of grace and elevating it above these other divinely appointed helps to faith, explains why the Word of God has never played the same role in Catholic faith and living that it has in Protestant Christianity, and, to be candid, why for the generality of Catholics the life of prayer, prayer as it is defined and described in the Bible as earnest and familiar talking with God, has not either. That has been a terrible loss to Catholic Christians and they have paid a high price for it. And, it is not too much to say that the greater presence of the Bible in Catholic life since Vatican II in the early 1960s has had a profound effect on many Catholics in just the way in which they think about these “other” parts of the Christian faith.
- Another proof of this secondary place of the sacrament in the salvation of God’s people is that the Scriptures always emphatically represents the role of the sacrament as secondary to faith and repentance and dependent upon them. When for example David says to God in his great penitential psalm:
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and
a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
He is not saying that the sacrament has no use or value, only that its place is after faith and repentance. The sacrament — whether sacrifice or the Lord’s Supper — does not create faith, it depends upon faith for its virtue and efficacy and significance.
After King Saul sinned against God by sparing the choice flocks of the Amalekites, the flocks he had been ordered by God to destroy and then compounded the sin by telling the lie that he had spared the animals in order to sacrifice them to God, Samuel said to Saul:
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. [1 Sam. 15:22]
The sacrament is useful only as an expression of a faithful, obedient heart. It cannot make up for the lack of faith or obedience and it does not create faith or obedience, rather it depends upon them.
The Spirit of God by the new birth creates faith in a soul. Faith makes the Lord’s Supper a true instrument of communion with God. But you cannot reverse that order. The Supper cannot create faith and it cannot be an instrument of true communion without faith. The sacrament is dependent, not independent in its working. With faith the Lord’s Supper is very useful, without it, it is worse than useless! That is why, as we said last week, the Bible never tells a believer to look to such things as the Lord’s Supper for the assurance of his salvation, as if the Lord’s Supper by itself, or participation in the worship of the church by itself meant anything or proved anything.
It is possible to say, in a fashion true to Holy Scripture, that the Lord’s Supper “saves” or “has saving power.” But you could say that only in the same way you would say that about the Word of God, baptism, prayer, obedience, and the Christian fellowship of love — which the Bible says covers a multitude of sins. All of these things are “saving” in the sense that God uses them to work out our salvation, to communicate and preserve it. But none of these things is the ground or the reason or the basis of our salvation. That is God’s love, Christ’s redemption, and the Holy Spirit’s work within us. Another way of putting it is that it is possible to be saved without the Lord’s Supper so long as one is united with Christ. Little covenant children, some godly Quakers, and the like. But it is in no way possible to be saved with the Lord’s Supper without a real union with Christ!
- The third fundamental perspective to bring to thinking about the Lord’s Supper is that the error of confusing sacramental participation with salvation is the great mistake to which sacramental religion is subject and to which the sinful heart always tends.
In a sense, this is to say the same thing we just said, but in another way. Just as faith without works is dead, so the Lord’s Supper without living faith and living good works is dead. The sacrament is the expression of a living, working faith in Jesus Christ or it is nothing.
The reason I felt it right to make this a separate point is because this is the chief and most emphatic teaching about the sacraments given in the Bible. We might well suppose that God having appointed the sacraments to express, to nurture, and to communicate his saving relationship to us and our dependence upon him, to embody his relationship to us and our knowledge of him, the invisible God, the Bible would spend most of its energy telling us what to think about the sacraments, but, in fact, it says more and with a greater passion about what not to think about them. You might have thought the Bible would spend most of its time telling us what the sacraments are for, but, in fact, it gives more attention to warning us what they are not for!
The great writing prophets of the OT are always hammering away at this point. Isaiah begins with this: a warning against what Isaiah sees as the monstrous idea that a mere outward participation in the sacrifices and other acts of worship without a true and living faith in God and love for him and his law will avail to remove guilt, take away sins, and keep one in God’s good graces.
“The multitude of your sacrifices — what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings… I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! I cannot bear your evil assemblies.” (So we read in Isaiah 1.)
Why? Because they had not real faith in God nor any intention of submitting their lives to his rule. They thought that in the temple of God they could purchase for themselves the freedom to live as they pleased. Jeremiah has sermons devoted to the same message; so does Hosea; so does Amos; so does Malachi. And the NT is no sooner well and truly underway when the same message has to be preached again: by Paul to the Corinthians, by the author of the letter to the Hebrews, and by John to the church in Laodicea.
Indeed, you read these prophets and apostles heap scorn on the sacraments of the church — they are speaking of them divorced from Christ and used without faith — “weak and beggarly” the author of Hebrews calls them, completely unable to remove guilt or cleanse the conscience, he says — and it startles you. Some liberal scholarship actually concluded earlier in the century that the prophets were against the sacrifices they spoke of them so harshly. But, all they were saying was, that without living faith in Christ and love for him and hunger for his nearness, his work within you as the motive and the principle of their use, these things not only do not help you with God, they make matters worse, for, of course, he can see into the heart and spy out the hypocrisy of someone who on Sunday is paying a bit of attention to God so that God will leave him alone the rest of the week.
Now, it is hardly the Roman Catholics alone who are susceptible to this tendency to replace a living, personal faith in Christ and following him with attendance upon the Lord’s Supper. Everyone is susceptible to this error, which is why the Bible warns against it so often.
Let me conclude this introduction this way. Taking the Bible as a whole, it is a certainty that the Christian church was bound to struggle all its life with this tendency to replace Christ himself with the sacramental action. To turn the sacramental rituals of the Bible into a ritualism that replaced a personal relationship of faith and love with Christ with a set of outward performances supposed to placate God. Israel did this over and again in her life. She returned to this error right after returning from exile in Babylon. Jesus protested against this error in his preaching in his day. And no sooner had the church begun its outward expansion under the apostles when this same ritualism began to surface in the new churches: Paul had to address it in Corinth and in Galatia, and the letter to the Hebrews is really a long sermon on the mistake of confusing Christ with the rituals he appointed, of allowing Christian ritual to become a ritualism.
So, it is surely not at all surprising that we should find the church after some centuries succumbing to this same temptation in some comprehensive way. The great problem, the great scandal of Roman Catholic Christianity in regard to the Mass or the Eucharist, then, is precisely its historic failure to take with real seriousness this temptation to ritualism against which the Bible warns us so repetitively, so emphatically, so urgently. It simply didn’t put up the fight Isaiah did, and Amos, and Paul!
Indeed, I will go so far as to say that if the Roman Catholic church, in its history, had made a great practice of teaching its people that the Eucharist and the other rites of the church would do a worshipper no good at all, would, in fact be a positive offense to God, if that worshipper did not have a true faith in Christ, a real relationship with the living Christ, loving him and demonstrating that love with his faithful and obedient life, his devotion, his prayer, his submission to God’s Word and Law, I say, if the Roman Catholic church had preached that message with some passion there never would have been a Protestant Reformation. All of the questions that have been raised about the real presence — how is Christ present in the Supper? — or the efficacy of the sacrament, exactly how it works and what it does — all of this would have been discussed within the church. But what the Reformers encountered was a church that was teaching its people to believe that ritual acts by themselves availed to make peace with God, exactly what the Bible warns us not to believe, never to think! And, in the centuries since, the Roman Catholic church has utterly failed to convince biblically minded Christians that it does not still encourage its people in the same fatal error.
Let the Roman Catholic church stand up and say that no Mass, no Eucharist does a church member any good, rather it stores up for them the wrath of God, unless in that man or woman’s participation a true faith in Christ is being expressed, unless in that worship a true love for God that will show itself in a life of Christian devotion, obedience, and service to God and man is being offered up to heaven, and unless in that worship a true hunger for Christ himself in the soul is being brought to the table of the Lord. Let them shout that message from the rooftops of their churches as Isaiah did and Amos and Paul. Let them warn their people that there is and can be no hope of heaven and eternal life based on the Eucharist or baptism or attendance at church. Those things are but ways in which a true faith in Christ, a true submission to him, a true hunger and thirst for his rule in our lives, and a true longing to be with him can be expressed, sought, and fulfilled. Let them preach that! Then Protestants and Catholics will have something to talk about indeed!