The topic of the Lord’s supper has been a controversial one. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and even some protestants have understood celebrations of the Lord’s Supper to be, in some sense, a sacrament wherein the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ. Other protestants have argued that there is no basis for this reading in the New Testament. While the difference between these two views is significant, the more heated, and important, debate is focused on the view that the elements become the body and blood of Christ in order to be a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins of those who take part. In contrast, protestants (including many who do in fact believe that in some sense the wine and bread becomes Christ’s blood and body in the supper) believe that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is a once-for-all sacrifice that completely saves His people, forgiving them of their sins, when they turn to Him. To begin, we should look at what the Lord’s Supper was in its original historical context.
The Lord’s Supper as a Passover
To understand what the Lord’s Supper is, it helps to go back to its origin. So often, we as Christians divorce our beliefs from their Jewish context, assuming that Jesus brought something completely new and distinct from His Jewish background. While He did most certainly innovate, we shouldn’t over-emphasize this truth. There is far more continuity than discontinuity with what God had revealed to Israel before.
John Zizioulas, the Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon, focuses on the discontinuity to emphasize the Lord’s Supper as something completely new. He sets the groundwork for this by contrasting the Jewish and the Greek views of truth:
“It is usually felt that the principal characteristic of Hebrew thinking as opposed to that of the Greeks resides in the Jews’ interest in history. The ‘signs’ which the Jews seek, says St Paul, are precisely the manifestations of God’s presence and his activity in history… The Greek mind, for its part, seeks truth in a way which transcends history” (Zizioulas, Being As Communion, p. 68, 1985, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York).
Zizioulas then argues that Christ as truth corresponds to and even transcends both views. He does so through the eucharist. For Zizioulas, the eucharist exemplifies Christ as historical as well as ontological truth. The eucharist points to God’s saving work in history, while connecting believers through all ages and places to this salvation event.
However, the concept of a historical salvation event that transcends time was not new with the incarnation, but simply poured out in its fullness. When a Jew kept the Passover, he was told that the Passover seder in some sense brought the participant back to the first Passover, so that God’s saving action in history could be demonstrated to have been for all of Israel.
This concept is still found in contemporary Haggadahs (guidebooks to keeping the Passover seder):
“In every generation it is one’s duty to regard himself as though he personally had gone out from Egypt… It was not only our fathers whom the Holy One redeemed from slavery; we, too, were redeemed with them” (p. 45, The Family Haggadah, Rabbi Nosson Scherman trans., Mesorah Publications ltd., 2006).
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but HASHEM our God took us from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (p. 27).
This is what communion is for the church– a celebration in the present that links all Christians throughout time, connecting us back to the sacrifice of Christ in history which reflects God’s purpose in salvation from all eternity.
This similarity is not simply coincidental, because the Lord’s Supper was in fact a Passover meal which took the Passover symbols and imbued them with additional meaning which had not been understood before. Jesus was our Passover lamb, and His sacrifice in history connects all of those whom He died for, constituting the church. Our celebration of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of this truth, just as Passover reminded the Jews of the same (though not fully explicated) truth– that God saves His people through the sacrifice of the unblemished lamb.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church would acknowledge much of what is stated above, but includes additional information which more fully reflects the Roman Catholic view of the Lord’s Supper. To begin with, it deals with the Catholic Church’s teaching that the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood through the work of a priest:
“As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out” (CCC, 1364).
It then goes on to explain how this aforementioned redemption is carried out through our observance of the Lord’s Supper:
“[Christ left his church the visible sacrifice of the eucharist] by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit” (CCC, 1366).
In other words, the eucharist is offered continuously, until the end of the world, for the purpose of providing forgiveness for the sins we commit that Christ’s bloody sacrifice did not cover, and indeed cannot cover, unless we continue to take communion. Forgiveness is not accomplished by faith in Christ, but faith plus receiving communion– and even that must be done regularly to be efficacious and cover the sins we continue to commit. This bit-by-bit salvation may not even be accomplished at death, as 1371 of the CCC clearly teaches (“The Eucharistic sacrifice is also offered for the faithful departed who ‘have died in Christ but are not yet wholly purified,’ so that they may be able to enter into the light and peace of Christ”).
But if the eucharist takes its cue from the Passover, and the Passover celebration does not require that the unleavened bread change substance to become the bread from the first Passover in order for Jews to be associated with God’s saving work in Egypt, why should the communion elements become the literal body and blood of Christ? Of course, many protestants have argued that Christ is in some way contained in the wine and bread of communion, or is in some way more strongly present in the sacrament (in a similar way that Jesus claims His presence is more strongly there when two or more Christians are gathered). However, Roman Catholics have insisted upon the transubstantiation of the elements into the body and blood of Christ as a means of handing out bits of grace at a time, which strongly undermines the finished, once-for-all, work of Christ on the cross.
Offered Once to Bear the Sins for Many
While the Catholic Catechism pays lip service to the concept in Hebrews that Christ died “once for all,” it shoe horns in the concept of the eucharist as “re-presenting” the sacrifice of Christ so that new sins can be forgiven every time one goes to mass. The result is that one does not have total peace with God, and if someone dies with un-atoned-for sin on their account, they will have to have it expiated in purgatory. The distinction that the Catholic Church attempts to make is that while Christ’s sacrifice was made once for all (He is not continually crucified), it must be applied over and over again, never completely forgiving the one who draws near until Christ comes in judgment and purges sin from His people. While this is a clever way of trying to get around the concepts that the author of Hebrews uses to describe the atonement, one has to wonder why he would have used such strong language about “once for all” and the like if in the back of his mind he knew that sins had to be regularly atoned through taking the Lord’s Supper in mass or else paid for in purgatory.
Note the contrast that the author of Hebrews makes between Christ’s once-for-all atonement, and what the temple priests did every day–
Hebrews 7:27 NET
“He has no need to do every day what those priests do, to offer sacrifices first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people, since he did this in offering himself once for all.”
Jesus does not need to offer a sacrifice every day, but the sacrifice was completed once for all. This verse focuses explicitly on Jesus not having to offer a sacrifice again and again because once was enough, but this is later followed to its logical end- that the one sacrifice need only be applied to the sinner once for all – as the author’s argument builds.
Hebrews 9:24-28 NET
“For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with hands – the representation of the true sanctuary – but into heaven itself, and he appears now in God’s presence for us. And he did not enter to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the sanctuary year after year with blood that is not his own, for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the consummation of the ages to put away sin by his sacrifice. And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment, so also, after Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many, to those who eagerly await him he will appear a second time, not to bear sin but to bring salvation.”
There are two important contrasts in the previous passage. The first is between the sacrifices of the temple which never made full atonement and the sacrifice of Christ which “put away” sin once for all. The second contrast is between Christ’s two comings. In the first he bore the sins of many, and as a result of this first coming, those who wait for His appearance do not wait for Him to bear sins again but to bring His kingdom and to completely destroy death.
Hebrews 10:1-3, 10, 17-18 NET
“For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship. For otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers would have been purified once for all and so have no further consciousness of sin? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year. By his will we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Then he says, ‘Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no longer.’ Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
This is what the author of Hebrews has been building up to, and this is his strongest statement against what later proto-catholic theology would devise. The sacrifices of the priest did not “perfect” those who drew near to worship. If they did, they would not need to be offered again and again. Instead, the temple had a continual sacrifice to remind the people that their sin had not been fully dealt with. They must continue to come to the temple in order to receive new grace and forgiveness for new sins committed. This is where the rubber hits the road. The Catholic can claim that Jesus’ sacrifice was once-for-all, but their view of the Lord’s Supper entails exactly what the author of Hebrews is saying Jesus came to destroy. Jesus is sacrificed once-for-all, and the result of this is that our sins are atoned once-for-all. If there is forgiveness, these is no need to present a new offering.
The Lord’s Supper is important because of what it teaches us about Christ’s atonement for us. It reminds us that God had from the foundation of the world set out to redeem His people from sin and death. To claim that keeping the Lord’s Supper doesn’t offer additional forgiveness of sins is not to undermine the importance of the Lord’s Supper, but to magnify the God who saved us completely. Jesus told us to keep the supper “in remembrance” of him, because, as the author of Hebrews states, since Christ there is no longer “a reminder of sins.” As the author of Hebrews also states in this section, “for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14 ESV). We are perfected in Christ, even before we are sanctified. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that we, being one body existing at different times and places, have been completely redeemed by our God.