In this blog, we continue our exploration of the Lord's Supper from Luther's Small Catechism with the Third and Fourth Sections.
The Lord’s Supper, Third Section:
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? 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.”
My wife and I love coffee, yet we are different in two important ways. First, I drink far more than she does. I developed the habit at university, and it has been with me ever since. Second, I take it simple: coffee, cream, and a few pieces of ice so I can drink it without losing sensitivity in my tongue. My wife prefers coffee with adjectives like frozen, Frappuccino, and whipped cream. When running errands or taking a road trip, we regularly stop for coffee before starting the jaunt.
This stark difference in coffee preference offers a handy illustration related to the reception of Holy Communion. When I am driving, I endeavor, while not always perfectly, to keep my eyes on the road. Consequently, I reach for my coffee with a “blind eye” as we say; and I inadvertently draw my wife’s coffee to my lips. From the cup holder to my mouth, I am fully convinced that this cup contains coffee with cream and ice. Nonetheless, it’s my wife’s drink that I receive. In a similar way, those who receive the Lord’s Supper receive the true body and blood of Jesus Christ, regardless of their belief regarding it. The apostle Paul asserts this: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29). We must set aside any notion that our belief affects the presence of the Lord’s true body and blood. This is one of the reasons why Lutherans are so adamantly supportive of proper instruction prior to receiving the Lord’s Supper.
Notice the words above: “Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’” Reading these words, someone may mistakenly conclude that believing properly regarding the Lord’s Supper is the Christian’s part in the Sacrament. Remember that faith in Jesus Christ is a gift from God, rendered by His Holy Spirit in the Gospel, through the Word or Holy Baptism. If I recognize the body and blood of Jesus Christ, it is to the credit of the Holy Spirit. What a blessing to see the comprehensive love and work of God! Jesus instituted this Sacrament, suffered, died, and rose again. The Holy Spirit creates faith in the sinner’s heart to trust in Jesus and to receive the Savior’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. God acts and the Christian receives.
The Lord’s Supper, Fourth Section:
Because Christ is truly present in His body and blood in the Sacrament regardless of the faith of the recipient, it is incumbent upon the pastor and other spiritual leaders in the congregation to safeguard those to whom the Lord’s Supper will quite likely be harmful. The explanation to the Small Catechism denotes five groups:
Who receives this sacrament worthily? 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.”
But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words “for you” require all hearts to believe.
- Unbelievers and the unbaptized
- Those who are unable to examine themselves and discern the body and blood of Christ
- Christians of a different confession of faith
- Those living in unrepentant sin
- Those who are unforgiving and unwilling to reconcile with their neighbors
Regarding those who are unbelievers, those who commune meet God in His Son, Jesus. God is holy and will not tolerate sinners in His presence. The only way to come close to God safely is through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who trust in Jesus are justified, that is forgiven and made holy, before God through faith. They meet God in grace. Unbelievers who receive communion receive God in wrath. Relatedly, the unrepentant place themselves in danger when receiving the Lord’s Supper. Recall that repentance has two parts: to acknowledge one’s sinful state before God, and two, to cling to Christ alone for complete forgiveness. The unrepentant deny their sinful state before a righteous God and spurn God’s solution. Such persons should refrain from the Lord’s Supper until there is repentance, confession, and absolution.
Why the unbaptized? Recall that at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus charges the disciples to teach and to baptize (Matthew 28:19–20). Holy Baptism is an initiation into the family of God. In it, we receive faith in Jesus, forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and everlasting life. Also, it has long been the practice of the Lutheran Church to teach about Holy Communion in confirmation instruction, which is built on the foundation of Holy Baptism.
Those who cannot examine themselves and discern the body and blood of Christ include infants and small children, those who have not received instruction regarding the Lord’s Supper, the unconscious, and those suffering from profound cognitive disabilities. Some people may object, reasoning that if we baptize infants because the Sacrament is a work of the Holy Spirit and not the child, then why can’t we commune infants for the same reason? There are at least two reasons: (1) Those who receive the Lord’s Supper are to have instruction prior to the Sacrament. (2) One could question the wisdom of introducing alcohol or solid food to an infant or even the very young. While Holy Communion does forgive sins, it is not necessary for salvation in the same way that the Word and Holy Baptism are.
Regarding those from a different Christian confession, consider these thoughts: To receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ in Communion is an expression of unity or sameness in preaching and confession of faith. Receiving with those who do not share the same confession of faith can give the impression of sameness where none exists. This is not to suggest that non-Lutheran believers are not Christians and are not bound for heaven. Instead, maintaining this boundary honors God’s truth in His Word and offers a testimony to the world regarding correct doctrine. While there exists the risk of giving offense to Christians of different confessions, honoring God is paramount.
Those who withhold forgiveness or are unwilling to at least work toward reconciliation with their neighbors deny God’s command to do both: “But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). An unforgiving, unreconciling heart is one that denies the enormity of one’s own sin and ignores the mercy God showed to sinners through His Son, Jesus Christ. Such a state is at odds with God and not safe to receive Him in Jesus’ body and blood.
The boundaries described above are not intended to exclude but, rather, to keep safe those who might place themselves under judgment by receiving the Lord’s Supper. Boundaries are an act of love. Jesus redeemed the whole world. God’s desire is that all would come to faith and thereby receive Christ’s body and blood properly and healthfully. Praise be to God for providing such a gift to His Church.
Small Catechism quotations are from Luther’s Small Catechism © 1986 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Continue your exploration of the Lord’s Supper in Luther’s Small Catechism.