Lesson 8: The Sacrament of Holy Communion in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism

Holy CommunionUnderstanding Luther’s understanding of the Sacrament of the Altar has become more relevant recently as many churches engage in a largely unnoticed ecumenical movement toward full communion. The term is almost a play on words as it primarily means efforts to develop complete relationships. However, the first steps have been official statements that two denominations welcome each other’s members to their communion tables. This is usually accompanied with some intention about seeking unity in diversity without necessarily entering structural merger.

That is a significant move for Lutherans who are aware Luther himself made the sacrament a divisive issue. He refused unity with many other Protestant groups, because he felt they did not acknowledge Christ’s presence in the sacrament. At the same time, he rejected the Roman Catholic insistence that you had to accept a particular philosophical understanding of how this takes place.

Let me examine how Luther expressed his understanding in the catechism. Again you can read his full treatment online.

Right off the bat, Luther defines the Sacrament of the Altar as “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.” Clearly, he saw it as a means of grace, a way that God makes himself present among us.

He insists this depends on faith in God’s word, citing Jesus’ statements reported in three gospels and I Corinthians 11. His commentary constantly repeats itself when answering the questions posed in the catechism. For instance he answers, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?” with “Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.'”

He says practically the same thing in answer to “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?” except he continues, “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” Luther is trying to say the Word both promises and grants life and salvation.

His answer to “Who receives this sacrament worthily?” might offer us some direction toward contemporary goals of full communion. Perhaps the cruelest words spoken in a Christian church are those that deny this means of grace to attendees who do not belong to this particular community. Although Luther is rejecting the necessity of fasting and other forms of self denial, his words can easily be applied to preparation as membership in a particular church. He writes, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Here again, Luther seems at his best when he boils the Gospel down to the basics.

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  1. Kerry Walters says:

    Thanks for this explanation. And your final paragraph: perfect!

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