Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
Errors in practice are rooted in errors in doctrine. And, by the providence of God, John Wycliffe, who began his work of reform by condemning the papacy’s secular and foreign control over the English people, was led to look deeper and to expose the corrupt doctrines of this false church. He was one who searched the Scriptures, and the more he did so the clearer he saw the corruption of the Romish Church. Probing deeper into the truth, he came to recognize that one of the fundamental false doctrines of the Romish Church was her perversion of the Lord’s Supper into the popish mass.
By condemning the popish mass, with its teaching of transubstantiation, Wycliffe was going after one of the central lies used by the false church to keep her grip upon the people. But he was also being used by God to bring to light and to restore to the church the comforting promise that is signified and sealed unto God’s people through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
It was in 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, that the Romish Church officially adopted the position known as transubstantiation, which teaches that the bread and wine actually change into the body and blood of Christ when the priest says the magic words, “This is my body.” Wycliffe, who lived a century and a half after this, courageously fought this error, and spoke of how foolish and evil it was to teach that the church actually creates Christ.
Wycliffe used a number of different arguments to expose the error to those in his day. He argued that it would be impossible for the church to create either the body Christ had before He died or the body that Christ now has in heaven.
Then how say the hypocrites that take on them to make our Lord’s body? Make they the glorified body? Either make they again the spiritual body which is risen from death to life? or make they the fleshly body as it was before He suffered death? And if they say also that they make the spiritual body of Christ, it may not be so, for what Christ said and did, He did as He was at supper before He suffered His passion…. And if they say that they make Christ’s body as it was before He had suffered His passion, then must they needs grant that Christ is to die yet.¹
In the same context, he argued that the words “This is my body” could not be the ones by which Christ’s body is created. The reason for this, he said, is that Christ broke the bread and distributed it before He spoke those words.
Furthermore, if they say that Christ made His body of bread, I ask, With what words made He it? Not with these words, “Hoc est corpus meum;” that is to say in English, “This is my body,” for they are the words of giving, and not of making, which He said after that He brake the bread; then parting it among His disciples and apostles.²
To point out the seriousness of this error, Wycliffe argued that if the priests can make Christ, then Christ really should worship the priests, since it is proper for one to worship his maker. He rebuked the Romish Church for acting as though they were God, and did not hesitate to point out that to desire to be worshiped as God is characteristic of Antichrist.
Wycliffe said about the popish mass what few will say today. Many who call themselves Reformed do not like Answer 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which calls the mass “an accursed idolatry.” Yet Wycliffe, who lived one and a half centuries before the Protestant Reformation, boldly taught this truth, even though he had reason to think that it might lead to his death at the hands of the pope’s executioners.
To explain the mass, the papists made use of an illustration involving candles. They said that just as one candle can light many candles without its own light being diminished, so the manhood of Christ can descend into each part of the host (i.e., the wafer) and yet not be diminished. To this argument Wycliffe responded that, just as when one candle lights many candles the result is that there are many lights, so if the priests were actually able to make God in the mass, the result would be that there would be many gods.³
The papists came up with another illustration to explain how Christ’s body can be in many places at one time without being separated into many pieces. They gave as an illustration the fact that one can take a mirror, break it into many pieces, and see his complete face in every piece, without his face being separated into many pieces. To this argument Wycliffe responded that what one sees in a mirror is not his physical face, but an image or figure of his face. Then Wycliffe applied this to the Lord’s Supper, and taught that what we see in the bread is not Christ’s physical body but a figure of Christ’s body.4
He rightly saw that the glorified body of the ascended Christ was no longer on earth, but was now in heaven. Therefore, God’s people must eat Christ spiritually, not physically, while they partake of the bread and wine and believe God’s gracious promise.
Wycliffe sought to explain what it means not only to eat the bread, but also to drink the wine. He compared Christ’s reference to the cup in the Lord’s Supper to His reference to the cup when He said, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). He argued that in both instances Christ was speaking not of a material cup, but of His suffering. To prove this he cited Christ’s reference to the cup of which both He and His disciples would partake. James and John had requested to sit on Christ’s right hand and on His left in His kingdom (Matt. 20:21). To this request Christ gave the following response:
22 …Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.
23 And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with….
This reference is said to show that the cup of which both Christ and His disciples partake is the cup of Christ’s sufferings. This means, taught Wycliffe, that those who spiritually partake of the cup in the Lord’s Supper are privileged to partake of the sufferings of Christ.
Wycliffe made a comparison between the Lord’s Supper and other sacraments, whether of the Old Testament or of the New. He pointed out that Scripture distinguishes the sacrament of circumcision from the real, spiritual circumcision (Rom. 2:28, 29), and the sacrament of baptism from the real, spiritual baptism (I Pet. 3:21). So, he said, this same idea must be applied to the Lord’s Supper, so that the physical partaking of the bread and wine is distinguished from the spiritual partaking of Christ’s body and blood. By the grace of God, through the study of the Holy Scriptures, Wycliffe was led to distinguish these two, and to restore to God’s people this truth of fundamental importance.
God used the false teaching of the Romish Church to prod Wycliffe to search the Scriptures, not only to refute this evil doctrine but also to set forth clearly some of the fundamental truths concerning the gracious gift that God has given to us in the Lord’s Supper. He saw and confessed that Christ’s glorified body is now in heaven and not on earth, and that believers eat Christ not physically but spiritually. A couple of centuries later, our Reformed fathers would take this truth and expand on it, to set forth in more detail the truth concerning this sacrament as it is explained for us in our Reformed confessions.
What a blessing it is to understand this truth, and receive the comfort of having our faith strengthened when we eat and drink Christ by faith while partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Let us remember the great darkness out of which God has delivered His people, and let us continue to heed those important words spoken to us in the reading of the Lord’s Supper Form right before we partake of the bread and wine:
That we may now be fed with the true heavenly bead, Christ Jesus, let us not cleave with our hearts unto the external bread and wine, but lift them up on high in heaven, where Christ Jesus is our Advocate at the right hand of His heavenly Father, whither all the articles of our faith lead us; not doubting but we shall as certainly be fed and refreshed in our souls through the working of the Holy Ghost, with His body and blood, as we receive the holy bread and wine in remembrance of Him.
1. “Wickliff’s Wicket: A Very Brief Definition of these Words, Hoc Est Corpus Meum (This is My Body),” in Writings of the Reverend and Learned John Wycliff (London: The Religious Tract Society), p. 159.
2. Ibid., pp. 159,160.
3. Ibid., p. 163.
4. Ibid., p. 163.