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John 6:43-59

We are picking up this morning where we left off last Lord’s Day morning. In last Sunday’s introduction to our consideration of the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the Mass, we said that if only Christians would hold fast to certain fundamental perspectives and emphases of Holy Scripture we could not go far wrong, however much we might continue to debate certain questions and theories. We mentioned three such fundamental perspectives. The first was that biblical Christianity is sacramental, that God does communicate his favor, blessing, and grace through such things as the Lord’s Supper. True faith is practiced, nurtured, expressed, and communicated in this way and lays hold of Christ and his blessings in this way. The second was that the role of such rites and activities is instrumental and, even, secondarily instrumental. That is the Lord’s Supper is a means God employs, along with other means, to work his saving grace in those who are being saved, but, it depends upon faith for its virtue and efficacy. The third was that the error of confusing sacramental participation — in this case participation in the Lord’s Supper — with salvation itself is the great mistake to which sacramental religion is always subject and to which the sinful heart always tends. That is why disabusing people of a confidence in the rites and ceremonies of the church themselves, as if mere participation in them would keep them in God’s good graces, is one of the major themes of both OT and NT preaching.

Now, as you may know, there are two major, fundamental objections that Protestant and, especially, Reformed Christianity has with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, or Mass. There are many things that are entirely unobjectionable. Because of the origin of this rite in the biblical account of the last supper and the practice of early Christianity, all Christian churches have much in common in their celebration. Bread and wine are used according to Christ’s appointment. The words of institution as Jesus and then Paul gave them in the NT are spoken. There is a prayer offered by the minister or priest. The elements are distributed to the congregation in some way and the members of the church partake by eating the bread and drinking the wine. The elements turn our attention to Christ our sacrifice. And so on.

Indeed, if you read Thomas Howard’s account of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the Mass, an account I found both beautiful and wonderfully suggestive and illuminating, you would find very little objectionable. In fact, you might discover some things that you like very much that are missing from the typically spartan Protestant liturgy of the Lord’s Supper.

For example, on a minor point, but not insignificant one, I liked very much his reflection on the Catholic name for the Supper, “the Mass.” It is generally supposed, as you may know, that the term “Mass” as a name for the Eucharistic service originated in the phrase with which the liturgy of the Supper concluded in earlier centuries of the church: “Ite, missa est.” “Go, it is finished.” Here is Thomas Howard [On Being Catholic, 89-90]

“Go. That would seem to strike a somewhat peremptory note. Can we not tarry here in the presence of the Divine Love? Must we now go out into the world, back to monotony, routine, stress, and fatigue? Yes, says the Church (and Yes, says the Divine Love). The whole point of what you have been doing here just now is that you be nourished and thus fortified by the sacrament. Besides this, by the whole liturgy you have had your vision clarified…. So when we refer to the Church’s worship as the Mass, we remind ourselves that from it we must ‘go’ — out, now, into the routines of the day, fortified by what we have received here and instructed, by every gesture, response, and act, in the ways of that Kingdom of which we are citizens.” “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” as the Anglicans say.

Well, we do not call our worship at the Lord’s Table “the Mass,” but what believing Protestant Christian does not immediately recognize the truth of that and want his or her worship always to be that and to have that effect. Yes, for us too, there is, there must be at the end a “Go, it is finished.”

But, somewhat typically, Thomas Howard passes over the great issues that divided Christianity at the Reformation and that have been forever the offense that Protestants find in the Roman Catholic Mass. If you read his two chapters on the Mass you might not know there were such controversies, but, of course, there are. There are two in particular. The first is the real presence — that is the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, that at the consecration of the elements the bread and wine become really, physically the body and blood of Jesus — and the second flows from that, that the Mass, or the Eucharist is actually a sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Here, for example, is the statement of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: ‘The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.’ ‘In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner.”

That is, Christ is actually, physically present in the mass, in the bread and wine, and he is offered up to God to take away our sins in that sacrifice that is made every time the Eucharist is celebrated, God’s wrath is appeased, guilt is removed, and sins forgiven. These are things Protestants do not believe to be true and do believe to represent a serious corruption of the gospel as it is revealed in Holy Scripture.

This was a key issue in the time of the Reformation. One’s standing either with or against the Roman church was, in many cases, defined by whether he joined in the rejection of these two doctrines of transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the mass.

I just got in the mail this week a major new biography of Thomas Cranmer, by an Oxford University historian. Cranmer, as you may remember, was one of the architects of the Reformation of the English church in the 16th century, the principle author of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and, finally, one of the martyrs of the Reformation under Mary Tudor, the infamous “Bloody Mary.” When Mary came to power after the death of the Protestant King, Edward VI, Cranmer, still the Archbishop of Canterbury, was arrested, along with Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, who would also be burned in due time. Then, in a formal proceeding, in the University Church in Oxford, they were in turn presented with three questions about the mass, questions which if answered in the negative, would prove them heretics and justify their execution:

  1. Was the natural body of Christ really in the elements by virtue of the words spoken by the priest?
  2. Did any other substance remain after the words of consecration?
  3. Was there a propitiatory sacrifice [that is, a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God] in the mass for the sins of the quick and the dead? [MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 564]

You remember the remarkable end of that story. How in the last days of his life, under great pressure and having been made to witness the agony through which Ridley had passed when he was burnt and the flames were slow in killing him, Crammer recanted and signed his name to documents in which he repudiated his Protestant doctrines and pledged his allegiance to the Pope and to the Roman doctrine of the Mass. And, because his recantation was so abject and so complete, he was given the opportunity, the morning of his death, to address a great congregation assembled for the occasion in the University Church. The authorities were willing to have him do so, for they had a prepared text of his remarks!

The great church, you can imagine, was stirred and excited by what was happening — the execution of the long-serving and so influential Archbishop of the English church, an event that represented an extraordinary revolution in the affairs of the nation. There were Protestants there and Roman Catholics. Now, I want to let the biographer tell the tale, and I will read it in some completeness precisely because we do need in our a-theological, undoctrinal day to remember that these very issues we are discussing so calmly once convulsed the church and the nations, wise men saw how profoundly different the views of the faith were that were represented in these different doctrines and practices. They saw these questions as raising immense issues bearing on one’s salvation and loyalty to Christ. I wish I had time to introduce Cranmer to you, so that you might love him and admire him — for all that he did and gave to the church, for his genius, for his life as a Christian, a friend, a family man, and also that you might pity him for all that he had suffered and for the sins by which he stumbled and over which he so terribly grieved in his last hours. But, we must hurry on.

[Cranmer] opened by asking the spectators to pray to God for forgiveness of his sins, but mysteriously added that ‘yet one thing grieveth my conscience more than all the rest, whereof, God willing, I intend to speak more hereafter’. The speech proceeded conventionally; even on this last day of his life, Cranmer was still exercising his literary skill in the composition of his prayers. One curiosity occurred early on: Cranmer had been due to recite the Angelus after the Lord’s Prayer, but it did not appear. Still, by itself, that need not especially worry the authorities: perhaps this omission of the angelic salutation to Our Lady was an oversight. There followed exhortations to three forms of love: of God, Crown, and neighbour. These ended with an elaborated plea to the rich to avoid covetousness. It was far from a formal recitation; Cranmer bowed low when he mentioned the King and Queen, and his tears welled up again when he spoke of the contemporary situation, in which the poor were starving as food prices soared. After a recitation of the creed, and his affirmation of the basics of the faith…he finally embarked on explaining ‘the great thing, which so much troubleth my conscience’. The authorities had the text, so they knew what was coming: a denunciation…of his ‘untrue books and writings, contrary to the truth of God’s word,’ which…he had explained as ‘the books which I wrote against the sacrament of the altar [since] the death of King Henry the eight’; there would then follow a declaration of his belief in transubstantiation. But suddenly they realized that this was not what they were hearing. The ‘writing’, which Cranmer had said was written contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death’, consisted of ‘all such bills and papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation’ [the act, a few weeks before, by which he had been divested of his office as Archbishop and priest].


Commotion (joy and rage) was breaking out in the church; yet through the hubbub, Cranmer preserved in shouting; it was vital to get two more messages across. He was deadly pale, but a surge of energy had taken away his tears. ‘As for the Pope, I refuse him…with all his false doctrine…and as for the sacrament, I believe as I have taught in my book…’ He was pulled from his stage…and hurried out to the stake.

You remember that immortal scene with which this grand drama closed.

The crowd arrived at the place where Latimer and Ridley had suffered six months before. Fire was put to the wood.  In the flames, Cranmer achieved a final serenity; and he fulfilled the promise which he had made in his last shouts in the church: ‘forasmuch as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished there-for.’ He stretched it out into the heart of the fire, for all the spectators to see. He repeated while he could ‘his unworthy right hand’, ‘this hand hath offended’, and also while he could, the dying words of the first martyr, Stephen, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…’ It was said that in the ashes of the fire his heart was found unburnt, and the [rival] Catholic [history of the event] could do no more to destroy the story than to suggest that its condition was thanks to some form of heart disease. [McCulloch, 603-604]

Now, you listen to the Catholics on the Eucharist and they are very decided that the Lord’s Supper of the Protestants is an empty rite, reduced to nothing that matters very much. It’s just a remembrance of something past, a symbol. Whereas they claim actually to feed on the body and blood of Jesus himself and, by so doing, to receive the forgiveness of their sins and the abeyance of the penalty those sins deserve. Theirs is a rite of power and effect, the Protestant rite is of such little consequence, they point out, that it was largely displaced by the sermon and no wonder that so many Protestants have, through the centuries, come to the Supper only very infrequently. [That charge, of course, many Protestants would agree is well-taken, but they would be quick to point out that for centuries on end, the Roman practice was very infrequent communion, and that the church insisted on no more than once per year.]

But, you listen to the story of Cranmer’s death and you realize at once that something very momentous, something very sacred and very precious, something touching the very heart of the gospel is at stake here. Cranmer certainly thought the issue of the Lord’s Supper was one of tremendous consequence! He died for his repudiation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the sacrament.

No matter how long the sermon, I could not do justice to these great questions and bring out the arguments that have been made on both sides. But I can give you a summary that indicates where the very heart of the dispute is located and why we Protestants cannot go along with the Roman Catholic church and cannot accept that their view of the Supper is either faithful to the Scripture or consistent with the gospel of salvation in Christ.

We read these few verses from John 6. We did so because they are the verses upon which the Roman Catholic church almost entirely bases its doctrine of transubstantiation, that the bread and wine become actually and physically the body and blood of Christ so that Christ’s body is actually on the altar being sacrificed, just as really as he was sacrificed on the cross, but in a different manner.

But, surely, you see the problem with this. The Lord Jesus doesn’t say that he is talking about a sacrament that he would later institute or that the eating and drinking he is speaking of is a sacramental eating and drinking, or, still more, the Lord doesn’t he say anything about bread and wine becoming his body and blood by the utterance of a priest. Nothing here at all about that! What is more, it is clear enough how these words of our Lord, striking and potent as they are, function in his address to the Jews.

The Jews found Jesus statement in v. 51 offensive and had begun to grumble. In v. 53 Jesus went on to say that they must also drink his blood, which made matters worse, for the law of Moses forbade the drinking of blood, and even the eating of meat with the blood still in it. [Carson, John, 296] In the Bible, of course, blood in such contexts refers not to life but to violent death, especially life that is ended sacrificially, life that is killed for the purpose of making a sacrifice. The point is unmistakably a reference to Christ’s cross, to the sacrifice of himself, his own life, that he would offer for the sins of his people. But what of the eating and drinking? It is a metaphor as the Lord himself indicates here. Compare v. 54 with v. 40. They are almost precise parallels. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood…” is parallel to “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him…” The one is the same as the other in regard to the result: in each case, “he shall have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.” The one is a metaphorical way of saying the other. This is why Augustine wrote in his commentary on this passage, a statement very damaging to any claim that the early church generally understood that the bread and wine became the actual, physical body and blood of Christ, Augustine said, “Believe and you have eaten.” What is more, the language is so unqualified in both cases that, if Jesus is really referring to transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass, he would seem to be teaching that simply to take the Mass would be to gain salvation, which even Catholic theology does not teach. No one denies that v. 40 should be taken absolutely. Anyone who believes in Christ shall have everlasting life. Why not v. 54, then? Anyone who eats his flesh and drinks his blood shall have everlasting life! What is more, what he says here, is clearly, in the context, already true. As in v. 56. It was already so as Jesus spoke these words, that those who ate his flesh and drank his blood were abiding in him and he in them. Nothing suggests that what he means will only be true after he has instituted the Lord’s Supper. In fact, taking John and the NT together, there is no way, finally and substantially, that we eat and drink Jesus Christ that David and Abraham did not also who also believed in him, loved and walked with him, and were saved by him, and given an inheritance among those whom he will raise up at the last day.

Jesus is talking about his sacrifice for sin and the believer’s confidence in that sacrifice. He is talking not first about the Eucharist but about that to which the Lord’s Supper points. He is talking not about sacramental participation, but about a living faith in Christ in the first place.

And the same is true when we turn to the Catholic idea of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper as an actual sacrifice of Christ that continues his work of redemption — which is how Vatican II put it. [J.R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, 165]

The entire emphasis of Holy Scripture falls on the “once-for-all” character of Christ’s redemption.

“Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people…” [9:27-28]

Four times in Hebrews it is said that Christ offered up himself as a sacrifice once for all and so accomplished redemption once for all! He took away our sins! In fact, in Hebrews this sacrifice once-for-all is made a demonstration of the perfection of Christ’s work and why it is so superior to the sacrifices that were required in the Law of God given to Moses. They had to be offered over and over again, says the author of that letter in 10:1-4, which proves the point: they could not in any ultimate way take away sins. They had their use as pointers to the true, the real, the once-for-all redemption the Messiah would bring, but sacrifices that have to be offered repeatedly are precisely not like his sacrifice. Indeed, the Lord’s Supper is exactly like those ancient sacrifices in that same way and it is for that reason why we can never confuse the Lord’s Supper with the Cross or participation in the Lord’s Supper, with participation in Christ. It is only if we are joined to Christ in his once-for-all death and resurrection that we have hope of the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life.

And there is the issue. Try as Catholic apologists might, and they try very hard indeed, especially the new converts to Rome from our Reformed and Evangelical churches, you cannot construe the Lord’s Supper as a continuing sacrifice of Jesus Christ without colliding with what seems to be the most straight-forward and emphatic teaching of the Bible that his sacrifice was once-for-all and, by it, he took the sins of his people away once and for all so that no further sacrifice is needed. And, that being so, you cannot construe the Lord’s Supper as a continuing sacrifice without altering in fundamental ways the nature of the believer’s relationship to Christ and to Christ’s salvation. Given the teaching of the Bible about the once-and-for all sacrifice of Jesus, any such teaching as that of transfiguration and the sacrifice of the Mass must result in ritualism, the substitution of participation in rites for the actual faith of the soul in the person and work of Jesus Christ himself. That is everywhere the warning of the Bible.

The ardent Catholic protests that their view of the Eucharist doesn’t mean they believe less in Christ, why, they say, it means they believe in him more. They are depending upon him for their salvation week by week, upon his continuing sacrifice for sin. No, we say, it is not so. The Scripture says it is not so. The most devastating attacks on the supremacy of Christ in salvation, on the glory of the cross as the means of our salvation, are always the subtle reconfigurations that folk within the church itself propose. Gospel truth rests on a knife edge. It takes very little to make it topple to left or right. Why would Christ’s sacrifice have to be repeated and continued except his sacrifice on the cross was not sufficient and could not, by itself, take our sins away? But is that not exactly the theory of the Judaizers in Galatia. Christ’s cross, yes, of course, but also, in addition, my pious works for my peace with God.

Even to ask that question is to define the problem and the importance of the issue. We see the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass as an assault on the supremacy of Christ and the perfection of his work as our Redeemer. And, therefore, it is an assault on the Bible’s doctrine of justification by faith in Christ’s finished work and not by our works, however religious they might be.

All the rhetoric in the world cannot convince us that these ideas of a continuing sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood do not fundamentally misconstrue our redemption and mislay the emphasis that must be placed and then forever kept on the work Christ our Savior performed for us, when, without our involvement, encouragement, permission, or participation, he offered himself for our sins, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God.

I say again, why would Christ’s sacrifice have to be repeated and continued except that his death and resurrection — contrary to everything the Bible says, is an insufficient basis for our peace with God. And, then, that peace with God now rests, at least partly, on acts in which I have a part, a say, a place.

It was precisely against such a theory that Paul wrote in Galatians, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” The cross, period. Not the cross and, but the cross alone! Any “and” after cross, means that his once-for-all work has been diminished in a way that the Bible does not allow and, what is even more important, he has been diminished as the sole, the entire object of our faith. That is the issue. These are doctrines not taught in the Bible, that is clear to us and decisive as a reason for rejecting them, but these are doctrines — transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass — that dislocate our faith in Christ, place our interest and attention in some continuing works in which we are involved, works that must — the Scripture says — also place our attention less on him and his work for us and more on what we do, however much we may intend or claim to “do” what we do in his name.  And that, however Christian sounding, the Bible says, is a fatal step.

The history of Holy Scripture and of the Christian church is the history the church’s understanding of her relationship to God and the way of salvation being corrupted by theories and practices the Bible does not teach. This is the Protestant charge and complaint about the Roman Catholic Mass. It does not produce, it takes away from that view of Christ and the way of salvation taught in the Word of God. It cannot help but produce a ritualism that substitutes pious acts for the redemption of Christ. This is the testimony of multitudes of Christians who were raised in the Roman Catholic church and left it when they found true faith in Christ who redeemed them from their sin and guilt by the sacrifice of himself on the cross once-for-all.