The Lord’s Supper and the perspicuity of Scripture: Why do Lutherans disagree with the symbolic view?

In spite of claims that the Scripture is so unclear that it needs an outside infallible interpreter, Martin Luther found some of its passages clear enough both to rely on them with complete confidence for eternal life and to shed light on many passages that are otherwise less clear. Although many individual texts lack clarity in themselves, simple trust in the straightforward texts makes the doctrine taught by Scripture, including every article of faith, completely clear. Such texts are so lucid that they need no exegesis in the sense of clarification. No more open to different interpretations than ordinary human language, the clear passages make possible the understanding of many less clear passages, the unity of faith, and the rejection of false teaching. This is what it means for Scripture to interpret Scripture: many unclear passages of Scripture are clarified by passages of Scripture that need no clarification, neither from human interpreters, nor even from other Scripture. For example, the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand an unclear messianic prophecy without Philip’s interpretation, now recorded as perfectly clear Scripture that interprets the less clear prophecy (Acts 8:30-35). Many of those who deny this doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture claim that divisions among Protestants result from different interpretations of Scripture passages, …

More: The Lord’s Supper and the perspicuity of Scripture: If the Bible is perfectly clear, why do Protestants still disagree?

The Fourth Gospel on the real presence: Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood according to John

An initial reading of John 6:22-71 leaves the impression that through the living bread discourse, Jesus taught his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Lord’s Supper. This is not only the interpretation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but also that of orthodox theologians immediately following the time of the apostles and by some confessional Lutheran theologians today. (Except when explicitly indicating metaphorical, nonphysical eating and drinking, the words eat and drink will be used in the plain, oral sense, as Jesus meant them when he said, “Take, eat” and “Take, drink.”) This view will be vindicated by establishing these two teachings from the straightforward reading of the passage:

  1. John 6:51-58 speaks of the eating and drinking commanded in the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as opposed to merely metaphorical, non-physical eating and drinking.
  2. In this passage, the objects of eating and drinking, referred to as “true food” and “true drink,” are the literal body and blood of Jesus, not merely the sacramental symbols or spiritual benefits of his flesh and blood.

More: The eucharistic nature of John’s Bread of Life discourse: Jesus did not lie about eating his flesh and drinking his blood

The Lord’s Supper in the context of the Passover

On the night of his betrayal, the Lord instituted the Eucharist with the simple words, “Take, eat; this is my body… Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). A multitude of arguments have been employed against taking those words to mean that in the distribution of the bread and wine, he gave his disciples his body to eat and his blood to drink. Jesus could not possibly have done so while remaining truly human, according to Zwingli, Calvin, and a plethora of denominations following them. Other arguments are less philosophically sophisticated. Perhaps the most common seeks to cast doubt on a literal reading of the words of institution by pointing to figures of speech Jesus used, as when he said, “I am the door” and “I am the true vine.” This argument indeed proves that Jesus sometimes spoke metaphorically, as everyone already knows, but falls short of providing any evidence that he did so in his Last Supper. As relevant as such expressions may be to interpreting “I am the true bread” as non-Eucharistic, their structure is not sufficiently close to that of “This is my body” (Pieper 1953, vol. 3, 305-311) to take the argument as more than a rhetorical ploy. In fact, it has more force when reversed: there would be no need to use obviously metaphorical passages to bolster a claim that the words of institution are metaphorical if those words were just as clearly metaphorical. As much as these kinds of arguments are advanced in debate, the real reason for much of the opposition to a more straightforward reading of Christ’s words may lie elsewhere. Among Protestants, a particularly strong motive for taking the words of institution symbolically is the desire to distance themselves from Tridentine Catholicism, especially from its idea of sacrificing Christ in every mass. The doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body in the bread and his blood in the wine is seen as synonymous with the doctrine of the priest’s offering Christ as a sacrifice, even though the former does not imply the latter …

More: The Lord’s Supper as the true Passover meal: Proclaiming the Lamb’s death or the Christian’s faith?

Assurance of salvation, election, and the revealed will of God

A Puritan heritage

In response to an article maintaining that God made the covenant of grace only with the elect, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently asked how he could attain assurance of election given that “The identity of the elect is one of those hidden things that belong to the Lord. I’ve been working for seventy-five years to make my calling and election sure, but I haven’t arrived yet” (New Horizons, July 2005, p. 21, Letters). Although Scripture teaches unconditional election and total depravity, it does so in order to strengthen confidence in Christ alone for eternal life. Misuse of these doctrines can have the opposite effect, as when Puritans desperately looked for their own faith, sanctification, or work of the Spirit within as evidence that they had been chosen. For example, 2 Peter 1 is inadvertently wielded against apostolic teaching whenever interpreted to imply that a new convert cannot have full joy in believing the good news until diligently assuring himself of his election by asking questions like, “Have I really added self-control to my knowledge?” or “Have I really added love to my brotherly kindness?” As even Calvin taught (on 1 John 3:19; 4:17), God does not give subjective signs of salvation as the foundation of assurance, which rests on the objective promise of the gospel, but as added confirmation. In Word and Sacrament, the Son of Man sincerely offers the free water of life to all who thirst, longing for them to simply accept his invitation (Matthew 23:37; John 7:37-38; 1 Timothy 2:1-6). He certainly will not turn away anyone who relies on his shed blood for the forgiveness of sins.*

If you have been baptized, you have been baptized into Christ’s death 

Even long before the Puritans, it seemed reasonable that confidence of salvation would result from progress in sanctification (Romans 6:1-2). Paul reversed the order: he urged those baptized into Christ to walk in the Spirit by depending on the already accomplished crucifixion of their flesh with its desires (Galatians 3:26-29; 5:16-24). Indeed, to assure the members of the Roman congregation of their identity in Christ, Paul pointed them to their baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). The idea is not that baptism saves apart from faith any more than the gospel saves apart from faith, but rather that faith relies on baptism as the Spirit’s work of uniting the believer to Christ (Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12). Characteristically, Paul argued deductively (Romans 6:1-14):

  1. We who have received Christian baptism have been united with the death and burial of Christ.
  2. Since the slaves of sin, who belong to this age, were put to death in baptism, we have been freed from every obligation to serve sin.
  3. Those united with Christ’s death and burial have already been united with his resurrection, to culminate in the resurrection of the body in age to come.
  4. Because we are now alive from the dead, we are to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness.

Such dependence on baptism seems strange to those taught to see it as a human work, but Paul presented baptism as God’s gift of grace, as the tool he used to bring freedom from the curse of the law (Romans 6:14). Luther contrasted this objective certainty of baptism with the doubts that arise from probing into the secret things that belong to God:

As far as we are concerned, we now have God’s Word, and so we ought not have any doubt about our salvation. It’s in this way that we should dispute about predestination, for it has already been settled: I have been baptized and I have the Word, and so I have no doubt about my salvation as long as I continue to cling to the Word. When we take our eyes off Christ we come upon predestination and start to dispute. Our Lord God says, Why don’t you believe me? Yet you hear me when I say that you are beloved by me and your sins are forgiven.’ This is our nature, that we are always running away from the Word.**

Luther echoed the good news proclaimed by Peter, who encouraged suffering believers by assuring them that they had been born again by the preached Word, that they had been saved by a visible Word, baptism (1 Peter 1:23-25; 3:21). Regeneration by water and the Spirit is certain precisely because it rests on the will of the truthful and loving God, not on anything in people (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8). Yes, the hidden things do belong to the Lord alone, “but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

* A shorter version of this paragraph appeared as a Letter in the October 2005 issue of New Horizons, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Another Letter in the same issue shows how the doctrine of limited atonement undermines the assurance of consistent Calvinists: “… I’m not sure of my calling and election (2 Pet. 1:10). It seems to me that believing and knowing on the basis of God’s Word that Jesus died to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21; John 6:44, 65) is not the same as believing and knowing on the basis of some subjective decision, feeling, or act that he died to save me” (emphasis original). I hope to write more on this soon. [The planned paper was added on October 20, 2005.]

** Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 54: Luther’s Works, vol. 54: Table Talk (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Vol. 54, Page 57-58). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. Emphasis added.

P. S. (added 10/30/05) In spite of its use of Lutheran terminology, the Federal Vision, inasmuch as it limits the atonement, offers no objective assurance of salvation.

Christ’s spoken and visible words give life

In 1531, the first Protestants clarified some fundamental similarities between the preached word of God and the sacraments, the rites instituted by Christ:

Through the Word and the rite God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith, as Paul says (Rom. 10:17), “Faith comes from what is heard.” As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament “the visible Word,” for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect. (Tappert, 2000a)

The Lord’s Supper was called the visible word, used in contrast to audible word by Augustine in an age of general illiteracy, when words were only written to be read out loud. However, in today’s culture of silent reading, visible word may convey no more than written word, whereas the concept of nonverbal communication, conveying thought by means other than words heard or read, is quite familiar.

More: Ways the Son of Man calls forth life: Seeking the kingdom of God in word and sacrament

The words of institution in context and the impossibility of the real presence in the Lord’s supper

If Jesus simply meant the bread was in some sense like his body and the wine like his blood, his words were somewhat less clear than under a more literal reading. However, Jesus often used figurative and even cryptic speech in other contexts. While it is improbable that his words of institution were more cryptic than those instituting the original Passover, it’s not impossible. The alternative, that his human flesh and blood were in, with, and under the bread and wine, is simply impossible, for it violates all our thoughts of what it means to be human. Sherlock Holmes observed, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Eliminating the impossible real presence would then leave us with the improbable truth of symbolism to be deciphered.

After all, Jesus was a Rabbi giving a farewell address to his disciples. So perhaps it would be natural to make the words by which he instituted the supper for remembering him more symbolic, as most sects do. In that case, we would expect him to cryptically institute a new Passover meal before expecting him to promise the impossible, the true presence of his human body and blood with the bread and wine to orally eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. A cryptic memorial meal, while initially improbable, sounds very reasonable, very acceptable, very predictable.

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Christ did not legislate on church and ministry

As Christ did not come bringing law but rather grace and truth (John 1:17), expositions of New Testament teaching should never sound like legal arguments (see August Pieper’s “Are There Legal Regulations in the New Testament?”). Unfortunately, New Testament injunctions are routinely interpreted practically as if they were new laws.

This is seen in attempts of some Lutherans to demonstrate the presence of words of institution for the pastoral office in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20 and parallel passages). This paper by Pastor Preus will serve as an example. The paper does have some interesting history, and its negative assessment of the traditional argument for restricting public ministry to that office is quite revealing. While that argument is presented by some members of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, its agreement with Walther is questionable. In fact, on examination, the Scriptural foundation of that argument is surprisingly weak.

Since the similarly restrictive position expressed in the paper and in the one reviewed earlier is not supported by any clear Scripture, it is at best a human opinion. For that reason alone, Christians must firmly resist all restrictions it imposes on divine calls to the public ministry, the service of proclaiming the gospel on behalf of the church. For example, believers remain free to appoint non-pastors to teach the word of God on their behalf. The church is free to regard them as called by God, for they are Christ’s gifts to people as surely as pastors are.

In the same way, there is no need to find Scripture with examples of worshiping on Wednesday instead of Saturday or Sunday to know that Sabbatarian is a human opinion at best. It is convenient that we have Colossians 2:16, but the recipients of the letter should have refused to have had their conscience bound as a matter of the principle that doctrine is determined by the light of God’s word without mixtures of human opinion.

If specific counterexamples can be found against a human opinion, so much the better, but they are really not necessary for seeing that none carries any legitimate authority to interpret God’s word. In the case of restrictive opinions on the ministry, there are several counterexamples, as will be seen in the 2005 ministry statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), a church in full doctrinal agreement with Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).

The position of the Preus paper is particularly susceptible to a counterexample that the more traditional restrictive position is not. What makes Preus’s position unique if not novel is its basis on the assumption that Jesus instituted the pastoral office after his resurrection—the office that Scripture says was held by both Judas and his replacement. The office held by the apostles was theirs to use in their previous commissions to give peace by proclaiming the nearness of “the kingdom of God” (e.g., Luke 10:1-12). According to the Synoptic Gospels, “the gospel of the kingdom” of God was announced even before the apostles understood that Jesus must die and rise again.

The institution of the sacraments did not create the pastoral office. Rather, since the sacraments are visual proclamations of the gospel of the kingdom, those already commissioned to proclaim that gospel were commanded to administer the sacraments as they were instituted. While they did receive the words instituting Trinitarian baptism in the Great Commission, they had baptized earlier (John 4:2) and had heard the words instituting the Lord’s Supper.

A decisive refutation of the idea that Jesus instituted the pastoral office in the Great Commission is that the office was already held by the apostles before the words were spoken. The office conferred on Judas prior to the Great Commission was filled by Matthias after the Great Commission—the very same office (Acts 1:20, 25). Since Matthias held the pastoral office, Judas did, too. It could not possibly have been instituted by words spoken after his death.

In short, the opinion expressed in the Preus paper restricts the church, the royal priesthood of believers, in ways that Scripture does not. Worse, its regulations are based on the reconstructed account that Jesus instituted the pastoral office after his resurrection, a narrative exposed as fictional by Scripture’s saying that the office held by Judas was filled by his successor.

Then what words instituted the pastoral office? The question presupposes that, since it is of divine origin, the office have been clearly instituted by recorded words of Jesus, in analogy with the sacraments, words in some passage regulating the pastoral office beyond the divine call described in Mark 3:13-19. However, what we actually find in Scripture is that “The divine institution of this preaching and teaching office is not located in just one particular passage. Rather, throughout the New Testament, a divine ordering, establishment, and institution of the preaching and teaching office is indicated and presupposed (John 20:21-23, John 21:15ff, Matthew 28:18-20 [NKJV], Matthew 9:36-38, Ephesians 4:11-12, 1 Peter 5:1-4, Acts 20:28, 1 Corinthians 4:1; see also Treatise 10)” (The Public Ministry of the Word, ELS).

Why is there no passage with the Ten Commandments of church and ministry? Simply because Jesus did not come to burden us with new laws but rather to redeem us from the curse of the law. The redeemed do not break the Second Commandment by misusing God’s name but rather proclaim the only name by which we may be saved (Acts 4:12).

While the good news of the Savior’s deeds to rescue us from the darkness is pure gospel, the command to proclaim those deeds (1 Peter 2:9), that is, to openly use God’s name to “pray, praise, and give thanks,” is pure law. To confuse the two can be disastrous for anyone who has not fully complied with the Second Commandment.

Since believers often fail to proclaim the deeds of the Savior who called out of darkness (1 Peter 2:9), passages scattered across the New Testament command them to do so as appropriate in their various circumstances. Those commands are exhortations to keep the Second Commandment in specific settings, not absolute, universal laws added to the Ten Commandments. For the example of the diverse forms of the pastoral office, “The church is commanded to appoint ministers who will preside over the churches (2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:5, …)” (The Public Ministry of the Word, ELS).

That is the public ministry in the narrow sense. In the wide sense, “Authorization to exercise a limited part of the Public Ministry of the Word does not imply authorization to exercise all or other parts of it (1 Corinthians 12:5, 28, Romans 12:6-8, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8, 5:17)” (The Public Ministry of the Word, ELS). The ELS cited those passages as counterexamples to the opinion that believers may not authorize anyone but pastors of local churches to proclaim the gospel on their behalf. Not stated by any clear passages of Scripture, restrictions of this kind must not be allowed to hinder the proclamation of the gospel. The church militant does not have to fight Satan with one arm tied behind its back. No, believers are free to authorize professors and lay teachers to announce the good news on their behalf. “The word of God is not bound” (2 Timothy 2:9).

The sporadic distribution of passages on church and ministry confirms that none is intended as the institution of the ministry and that none adds new law to the Ten Commandments. Accordingly, the ministry has been long known in its seed form of telling the Gentile nations what God has done to save his people (1 Peter 2:9):

Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! (Psa. 105:1-2, ESV)

And with joy you will draw water out of the springs of salvation. And you will say in that day: Sing hymns to the Lord; call his name out loud; declare his glorious deeds among the nations; remember them, because his name has been exalted. Sing hymns to the name of the Lord, for he has done exalted things; declare these things in all the earth. (Is. 12:3-5, NETS)

Set free from sin, believers must carry out the Second Commandment with wisdom, in accordance with the revealed will of God and unhindered by human regulations taught as doctrines. After all, believers have the keys and priesthood of the kingdom—like the gifts from the Spirit—for the good of their neighbors, not themselves.

26 July 2014. Revised on 7 November 2014. Link to  August Pieper’s “Are There Legal Regulations in the New Testament?” updated on 3 July 2016.

Sanctification beyond baptism?

Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, p. 268:

A Christian believer never develops beyond baptism, as long as he or she lives, no matter how much one has grown, no matter how much one has learned, and no matter what changes one has experienced. For in baptism one already has everything that comes with the name of God. That ship is unsinkable.

In short, the “Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism” (Sanctification by the gospel).

Sanctification by the gospel

Luther’s Large Catechism clearly places sanctification under the second and third articles of the Creed, which it presents as a statement of the gospel, not the law. (It instead presents the law in terms of the Ten Commandments.) In excluding the law from sanctification, Luther faithfully followed St. Paul (Galatians 3). 

To put it another way, the Spirit sanctifies and renews us through the gospel, not through any third use of the law. That does not deny the importance of the law in informing (third use), condemning, and compelling Christians who would otherwise sinfully follow man-made works as if they were good, as Article VI of the Formula of Concord says. 

Does a lack of sanctification directly result from a denial of the third use of the law or from a lack of exhortations in sermons to obey the law? No, sanctification comes only by the gospel, not also by the law.

That said, the law in its second use does work sanctification indirectly by bringing about repentance, that is, by preparing the Christian to return to baptism (gospel). That is the entire Christian life, as Luther said: “a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism” (Large Catechism). In other words,

For what is our prayer but a confession that we neither have nor do what we ought and a plea for grace and a happy conscience? This kind of confession should and must take place incessantly as long as we live. For this is the essence of a genuinely Christian life, to acknowledge that we are sinners and to pray for grace. [Martin Luther, Preface to the Large Catechism, 1529 revised edition. Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.]

Every day is an Easter

Daily death and resurrection

As Luther said so well, the Christian life consists entirely in the daily return to baptism: “a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism.” The Large Catechism, one of Luther’s most carefully prepared works, explains this classic Lutheran description of the Christian life:

These two parts, to be sunk under the water and drawn out again, signify the power and operation of Baptism, which is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued. For this must be practised without ceasing, that we ever keep purging away whatever is of the old Adam, and that that which belongs to the new man come forth. But what is the old man? It is that which is born in us from Adam, angry, hateful, envious, unchaste, stingy, lazy, haughty, yea, unbelieving, infected with all vices, and having by nature nothing good in it. Now, when we are come into the kingdom of Christ, these things must daily decrease, that the longer we live we become more gentle, more patient, more meek, and ever withdraw more and more from unbelief, avarice, hatred, envy, haughtiness.

This daily baptism is not merely symbolic but rather an actual death and resurrection, as witnessed  by Article V of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:

. . . there is first terror and anxiety in the conscience. Thus contrition and faith go side by side. One is putting off the body of sins; the other is the rising again through faith. Neither ought these words, mortification, quickening, putting off the body of sins, rising again, to be understood in a Platonic way, concerning a feigned change; but mortification signifies true terrors, such as those of the dying, which nature could not sustain unless it were supported by faith. So he names that as the putting off of the body of sins which we ordinarily call contrition, because in these griefs the natural concupiscence is purged away. And quickening ought not to be understood as a Platonic fancy, but as consolation which truly sustains life that is escaping in contrition. Here, therefore, are two parts: contrition and faith. For as conscience cannot be pacified except by faith, therefore faith alone quickens, according to the declaration, Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17: The just shall live by faith.

Luther’s Large Catechism continues:

This is the true use of Baptism among Christians, as signified by baptizing with water. Where this, therefore, is not practised, but the old man is left unbridled, so as to continually become stronger, that is not using Baptism, but striving against Baptism. For those who are without Christ cannot but daily become worse, according to the proverb which expresses the truth, “Worse and worse–the longer, the worse.” If a year ago one was proud and avaricious, then he is much prouder and more avaricious this year, so that the vice grows and increases with him from his youth up. A young child has no special vice; but when it grows up, it becomes unchaste and impure, and when it reaches maturity, real vices begin to prevail the longer, the more. Therefore the old man goes unrestrained in his nature if he is not checked and suppressed by the power of Baptism. On the other hand, where men have become Christians, he daily decreases until he finally perishes. That is truly to be buried in Baptism, and daily to come forth again. Therefore the external sign is appointed not only for a powerful effect, but also for a signification. Where, therefore, faith flourishes with its fruits, there it has no empty signification, but the work [of mortifying the flesh] accompanies it; but where faith is wanting, it remains a mere unfruitful sign. And here you see that Baptism, both in its power and signification, comprehends also the third Sacrament, which has been called repentance, as it is really nothing else than Baptism. For what else is repentance but an earnest attack upon the old man [that his lusts be restrained] and entering upon a new life? Therefore, if you live in repentance, you walk in Baptism, which not only signifies such a new life, but also produces, begins, and exercises it. For therein are given grace, the Spirit, and power to suppress the old man, so that the new man may come forth and become strong.

In summary, “Ethical progress is only possible by returning to Baptism” (Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith, Chapter 5, Kindle location 779 of 1207). This spiritual growth or “ethical progress” is received only by faith in the gospel. Baptism and the other means of grace restore God’s image by communicating the gospel.