Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2007, p. 78.
e have seen that the Lord’s Supper is a blessed ordinance established by Christ for His church, by which our salvation is signified and sealed to us through faith as we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ our Savior.
By this means of grace we are brought into the fellowship of God’s covenant life, to sit at feast with Him in Christ Jesus. In partaking of the bread and wine of the Lord’s table, we partake of a spiritual feast, eating not the physical body and blood of Christ, but nonetheless partaking of His body and blood spiritually, with the mouth of faith.
Having seen the error in Roman Catholic teaching concerning the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist as they refer to it, we need yet to give attention to that which Rome connects inseparably to the sacrament, namely, the Mass.
Evaluation of the Roman Catholic Mass
The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 30, Q & A 80, gives a careful evaluation of the Mass. It reads this way:
Q. 80. What difference is there between the Lord’s Supper and the popish Mass?
A. The Lord’s Supper testifies to us that we have a full pardon of all sin by the only sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which He Himself has once accomplished on the cross; and that we by the Holy Ghost are engrafted into Christ, who according to His human nature is now not on earth, but in heaven, at the right hand of God His Father, and will there be worshiped by us—but the Mass teaches that the living and dead have not the pardon of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is also daily offered for them by the priests; and further, that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and therefore is to be worshiped in them; so that the Mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.
This eightieth question and answer was not in the first edition of the Heidelberg Catechism.
It was not until the third edition that it was inserted in the complete form as we have it. That was not a long time after the first edition— less than two years. But it was an addition to the original Catechism—the only addition, I might add.
The reason is easily explained from the developments of church history.
In the years following the break with Roman Catholicism by the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church held a Council meeting in Trent, a city in northern Italy. That Council of Trent began in December of 1545 and, with several interruptions, was not complete until December of 1563.
From a doctrinal point of view it remains the most important Council in the history of Roman Catholicism, and clearly fixed her distinctive doctrine and practice over against the Protestant churches. The doctrinal decisions of the Council were divided into decrees, which contain the positive statement of Romish doctrinal positions, and brief canons, which condemn the dissenting Protestant doctrines with a sharp anathema, i.e., let them be accursed.
The doctrines of Rome adopted by the Council of Trent have not changed at all. There have been many changes in the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries and especially in recent decades. But Rome’s doctrinal positions have not changed at all, and there have been no concessions whatsoever to Protestant Christianity. The recent movement toward ecumenical talks and concessions has involved concession solely on the part of an apostatizing Protestantism.
The Council of Trent stated Romish doctrine with clarity and precision. There is no mistaking where she stands.
The Council was concluded in December 1563, a little more than a year after the Heidelberg Catechism was first written. Upon seeing the decisions of Trent, Elector Frederick III of the German Palatinate, who had commissioned the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, instructed that an article be written and inserted as a solemn protest against the idolatry of Rome as seen in their doctrine of the Mass. That is why Article 80 is included as it is, written by the same authors, Ursinus and Olevianus, and later adopted with the entire Catechism by most of the Reformed churches as their official confessional stand.
The Lord’s Supper, contrary to the Roman Catholic Mass, lays hold of the one finished sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The Reformed faith, true biblical Christianity, must object strenuously to the Mass of Roman Catholicism.
When you understand that “the Mass teaches that the living and dead have not the pardon of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is also daily offered for them by the priests; and further, that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and therefore is to be worshiped in them,” then you can see that the following language of the Catechism is none too severe, when it says, “that the Mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.” Strong language, to be sure; but true nonetheless. Let us consider it.
A Repeated Sacrifice
In the first place, the Mass is a denial of the one finished sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
At the basis of this whole Romish conception of the Lord’s Supper and the Mass lies their error of transubstantiation, which we considered earlier. According to their conception, at the word of the priest in consecrating the elements, the signs of bread and wine are changed into the physical body and blood of Christ. Therefore Christ is there on the altar, again physically, to be offered as a sacrifice for sins.
That sacrifice, according to Rome, is essential unto salvation. So essential is it, that Rome has priests. That is why Rome speaks not of the communion table, as do we. They have no concept of the table of the Lord as the table of the covenant. But Rome speaks of the altar. Rome calls its people to the altar. And through the church, that is, through the priest, Christ is offered even continually as a sacrifice for the sins of the people.
That is necessary, according to Rome. One of the purposes for which the Mass is offered is “to satisfy the justice of God for the sins committed against Him.”¹
Now, do not be deceived by them.
If you were to ask a member of the Romish clergy, “Do you believe that Christ alone saves His people,” he will say, “Sure; of course.” If you were to ask him, “Do you believe that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is sufficient for the atonement of sins,” he will answer, “We most certainly do.”
That is why you have to listen to the complete explanation that they give. They say and teach emphatically, even in their official catechisms, that unless the sacrifice of Christ is repeatedly offered in the Mass, the atonement of Christ cannot be applied to the sinner. That which Christ merited on the cross is applied only through the Mass. “On the cross Christ gained merit and satisfied for us, while in the Mass He applies to us the merits and satisfaction of His death on the cross.”²
Therefore, for the people of God, even for the dead, to receive the forgiveness of sins, it is necessary that the priest repeatedly offer Christ in an unbloody sacrifice in the Mass. There only do you have the application of what Christ gained for His people on Calvary. Only through the Mass can you have the forgiveness of sins.
The Mass is said for the living and for the dead, for those who come to the altar to receive the host, and for those that are in purgatory.
That is the repeated sacrifice of Christ offered in Roman Catholicism.
An Accursed Idolatry!
In the second place, the Mass is called by our Heidelberg Catechism “an accursed idolatry.” That is strong language indeed.
The Roman Catholic Church will most ardently, even angrily, deny this.
They will not deny that they worship the host, the elements of the sacrament. That is surely a matter of their doctrine. They teach that “Christ gives us His own body and blood in the Holy Eucharist…to remain ever on our altars as the proof of His love for us, and to be worshiped by us.”³
But, remember, to them they are worshipingChrist in those things. They will insist that they are not idolaters. After all, they know that God’s law forbids all idolatry.
If you grant that in the words of consecration the elements are changed—not spiritually, butphysically into the body and blood of Christ—if you grant that, then you have Christ, the physical Christ, before you on the altar. Then of course you may worship Him.
That is why, until Roman Catholics have seen the error of transubstantiation, they cannot possibly see their idolatry.
But idolatry is exactly what it is. For they worship not Christ, but the signs.
That is evident even from Old Testament history.
When Moses was in the Mount, receiving from the hand of God the two tables of the law, the people were at the base of the Mount worshiping the golden calf that Aaron had made. The people of Israel and Aaron certainly did not mean to worship that golden calf as such. Of course not. They were not so foolish. They looked upon that golden calf as the very embodiment of God, the image or representation of Jehovah. That is evident. For they said, “Behold thy God, which has delivered you out of the land of Egypt.”
That is exactly what the priest does when he offers Christ on the altar. “Behold the Christ that delivered you from your sin.” That is the same thing. And that is an accursed idolatry.
We must understand these things, not that we might gloat over against those who are in the bondage of Roman Catholicism. We have nothing about which to boast. If anything, we ought to be deeply humbled by the place God has given us in His church, which is established not upon tradition but upon the teachings of His Holy Scriptures.
But we must understand the errors of Roman Catholicism. Their errors in many ways are very attractive. We must not imagine that we are through dealing with Rome. The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest and most powerful church in what is called Christendom. When it comes to that which is called Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church is still by far the largest church in the world today. But its attraction is to be found exactly in its carnality.
It is so easy to make religion something merely outward. That is exactly what we want by nature, i.e., according to our sinful nature. It is so easy to eat bread and drink wine and to have the impression that by eating and drinking we are saved. That is easy. It is easy to think that just by coming to church occasionally and observing some outward elements of religion, all is well. That is easy. And so there are multitudes who want just such an easy religion. If only we can go to heaven someday by doing a few outwardly religious things now—that is a good insurance policy for the everlasting state, is it not?
Rome presents an easy religion. It really is. It is a religion of outward observances. So long as one is baptized, so long as he does not commit any gross sins, mortal sins, so long as he attends the Mass occasionally and partakes of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, grace is received.
There is an appeal in such a religion—to us too. If we can set aside the call to repentance and faith, if we can cast off the truth of Scripture for a religion of mere outward observances—especially if our whole family is involved in the same religion—that is a nice insurance policy for heaven. The trouble is, it is idolatry. It is cursed by God.
Christ’s Finished Sacrifice
Over against the error of Rome, the authoritative Scriptures teach that Christ’s sacrifice was once offered and completely accomplished its purpose. Faith in Christ makes us partakers of that one finished sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As the writer to the Hebrews explains very explicitly in Hebrews 9, Christ does not offer Himself often, “as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with the blood of others. For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” He appeared to put away sin by offering Himself once. And as if the truth could stand emphasis, the inspired writer adds in verse 28: “So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.”
In Hebrews 7 Christ is pointed to as the fulfillment of the priesthood. There is no priesthood any longer, except the priesthood of all believers, all who are in Christ. Hebrews 7:26, 27: “For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.”
¹ Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism (Paterson, New Jersey, St. Anthony Guild Press, 1941 and 1949), Lesson 27, p. 285.
² Ibid., p. 286.
³ Ibid., Lesson 26, pp. 280-281.