The Reformation and the Lord’s Supper in Worship (12e)

Previous article in this series: March 15, 2017, p. 277.


Public, corporate worship is a covenantal assembly in which God the Sovereign enters into a holy dialogue with His people at His command and under the government of His will. We have seen that God has commanded that the sacraments be used as a part of this dialogue. God speaks in the sacraments, and we respond. We have seen how our Reformed fathers captured this notion of the holy dialogue of worship in the Reformed Forms for Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We have seen that the unique way He speaks to us in the sacraments requires a certain type of response.

In this article and the next I would like to focus on the Lord’s Supper specifically, and point out that the Lord’s Supper in the dialogue of worship was not always understood the way we have described it. In the Middle Ages the understanding of the Lord’s Supper deformed into something pagan and wicked, and in the Romish church it remains in that deformed state today. Led by Lord’s Days 29 and 30 of the Heidelberg Catechism, I want us to see how important the Reformation of the sixteenth century was, not only for the restoration of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper generally, but also for the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in worship.

An Element From Man’s Side?

The effect of the Reformation on the Lord’s Supper in worship can be seen by observing the way the Roman Catholic Church viewed the Lord’s Supper in worship before the Reformation, and the way she still views it. First of all, it is worth pointing out that long before the Reformation, the church had understood that worship was a holy meeting of God and His covenant people. That reality had lived in the consciousness of the New Testament church going all the way back to the time of our Lord.1 Ever since Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” the church knew this about corporate worship. Ever since Christ’s appearances on the Lord’s Day as the disciples were gathered in the upper room for worship, the church understood public corporate worship was a covenantal meeting between God in Christ and His people.

However, as the church of the Middle Ages began to identify herself more and more by the traditions of men rather than God’s Word, she viewed worship increasingly as a meeting not so much where God graciously speaks and His people respond, but where God’s people come to speak and give to God, and where God might say a few things in response to man.

The worship service became a time when the members would come together to appease God by what they did. The service was a time to buy God off, where they could appease His wrath. And so the parts of the service where God spoke to them, which were supposed to be the heart of the service, began to die off. The preaching began to fall away more and more. The messages got shorter and shorter. The Word of God was read in the service in a language that the people could not understand. The point was not that as the sovereign God He condescended to His elect people in grace to speak to them in His law and gospel. The people were not to come as children beckoned to the family gathering by the sovereign voice of Father. Rather, they were to come more or less as pagans to appease their deity.

And so it did not matter if the Word was read in a language the people could not understand. There was no need for sermons to edify the people of God. That was not the point. Even the reading of Scripture was more a work to appease God—to merit from Him. The people were there simply to show they were offering the appeasement.

Especially they were there to appease God by offering to Him a sacrifice—the sacrifice of Jesus’ own body and blood as an atonement for sin. In the Roman Catholic Church, the teaching became and still is that the Romish priest has the power to call the actual body and blood of Jesus down from heaven and change the bread and wine into the physical body and blood of Christ. What is more, the teaching is that, after the priest does that, in a ceremony that is nowhere to be found in Scripture, he re-sacrifices Christ who has now come down upon the altar at the word of the priest. And that re-sacrificing of Christ pays for the continued sins of the people. So the priest holds up the bread and wine that he thinks is Jesus Himself, as though he were offering it on behalf of the people to God to appease His wrath for sin. At the same time, the people bow down to the bread and wine and worship it, for they believe it to be the very body and blood of Christ.

That became the heart of the appeasement. And, therefore, this distorted view of the Lord’s Supper came to be the center of the appeasement service. The Lord’s Supper was no longer an element where God speaks to His people. But it became an element in which the people, through the mediation of the priest, offered this re-sacrificed Jesus to God to appease His wrath for sin. It was man’s work to pay for his sins, and so the Lord’s Supper became an element mainly from man’s side, giving a sacrifice to God.

This teaching affected the whole way the worship place was set up. The table became an altar for the making of real physical sacrifices. And it stood not on the ground level by the people, as though God was condescending to His people, but on the highest level of the stage and back against the wall, because what was happening on it was not from God to us, but from us to God. When the Lord’s Supper was performed, the priest did not stand facing the people as though He represented God giving His grace to His people. But God, as it were, stood at the altar with His back to the congregation, for the priest was representing the people offering a sacrifice to God.

The partaking of the elements was not that important, because it was about offering to God, not God giving to us. In fact, throughout history there were many times where Rome did not even give the elements to the people. And at other times, she only gave one of the elements. The sacrament was not viewed as an element so much from God’s side to us, but from our side to Him. What mattered was that you were offering this sacrifice to God to atone for your sins. That is why in the Roman Catholic Church you do not go to worship, you go to mass—to offer the sacrifice for your sins to God.

Doctrine Affects Practice

Why did the Lord’s Supper in worship devolve into this? The central reason is that Rome teaches, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, “the living and dead [dead believers also need their sins paid for, according to Rome, because they are being punished in purgatory], have not the pardon of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is also daily offered for them by the priests.” The heart of Roman Catholic doctrine is a denial of the gospel found in Scripture, the gospel of the once-for-all atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. The heart of the Roman Catholic message is that atonement has not been fully made. It must continually be made for you. The cross of Christ 2,000 years ago was effective, but only as it is repeated again and again for redemption. When Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished,” it was finished maybe for the moment; but then you continued to sin, and so you need the sacrificial act repeated over again.

And the message is, you are dependent upon Rome’s priests to make that atonement anew for your sin. No one else on earth has the power to call down Christ out of heaven and re-sacrifice Him as a non-bloody sacrifice for what you have done. To whom will the omnipotent Christ submit but to the voice of Rome’s priests! They alone have this power to make Him leave His exaltation and come again into His humiliation thousands of times. As the most updated version of the Roman Catholic Catechism says, “As often as the sacrifice of the cross…is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.”2 This teaching is the reason why this change in worship took place.

In addition, the answer to the question why Rome views worship this way and the Lord’s Supper in worship this way is that Rome teaches not only that the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross is not enough to atone for sin, but also that our own meritorious works make us worthy before God. And this fits together. According to Rome, in the worship service, God is not giving to us in the Lord’s Supper but we are offering something to Him; we are even offering Christ Himself to God as a sacrifice, as our meritorious act. In the biblical understanding, however, we do not offer Christ to God as a sacrifice; God offers Christ to Himself. In the Romish understanding, God does not give Christ as a sacrifice for sin to His people; the people give Christ to God as a sacrifice for sin. And we are meriting by our offering of Christ through the priest on the altar as sacrifice for sin. The worship offering is from our side and we are earning.

Next time we will observe how the Reformation righted the ship.

1 It lived in the consciousness of the church going all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. I limit myself to the New Testament church here.

2 Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori: Liguori Publications, 1994), 343.