In his short chapter “Of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper” in Table Talk, Martin Luther challenges the Roman Catholic view of how the sacrament (i.e. communion, Lord’s Supper, the Table) is administered. This short chapter does not tell us everything that Luther believed about the Lord’s Supper, but it points to his general convictions.
Luther’s Issue with the Church
The root of Luther’s critique of the administration of the Lord’s Supper in the Catholic Church is not in the administration of the sacrament itself. His critique is primarily concerned with the false authority that the church places on its bishops. For Luther, the root issue was apostolic succession. Apostles were elected by God, whereas bishops are appointed by man. Apostles never had “supremacy” over another and neither should priests, especially over the church and the sacrament.
As for the administration of the sacrament itself, Luther takes issue with “elevation,” at which point the body and blood of Christ is transubstantiated through the priests words hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”). Luther calls this doctrine “mere idolatry.” Luther still believed Christ’s presence is somehow in the elements, but not because of the priest’s words. It is rather through Christ’s word and institution that he is present in the bread and cup. Therefore, Luther fights against the meaning behind the practice, while not finding it necessary to change the tradition itself.
This immediately gets the modern evangelical’s blood boiling. Jesus literally in the bread and cup! No! It is true, for Luther does not dispute the fact that Christ is somehow present in the elements; it is simply not the priest’s words that cause Christ’s presence to be there. Luther believes that Jesus body and blood are in the “present administering, although they may be understood as fulfilled on the cross.”
Unlike the Catholic priests, who believed that the Lord’s Supper gave grace through performing the act, Luther held that it was for “the strengthening of our faith, not doubting that Christ’s body and blood were given and shed for us, and that our sins by Christ’s death certainly are forgiven.” In short, Luther believed that the fruit of the sacrament was the assurance of forgiveness. He did not believe the sacrament was the cause of grace.
Why does this matter for us today?
The contemporary evangelical will rightly fire back at Luther for his lack of haste to completely repudiate the doctrine of transubstantiation. At the same time, evangelicals can praise God that Luther resisted Rome’s claim to apostolic succession and supreme authority in faith and practice, as well as the Church’s insistence on grace/salvation through/by works. Still, evangelicals can view the Lord’s Supper, with Luther, as solely for sinners who are desperate for grace and find, at the Table, an opportunity to proclaim Jesus’ death for them once again—and continually until he returns (1 Cor. 11:26). Despite the fact that we do not hold to transubstantiation, we can, with Luther, wholeheartedly agree that the Supper is connected to ongoing covenant renewal in the gospel, providing a means of grace to reinforce repentance to and faith in Jesus.