The Gospel Embodied: Luther’s Theology of the Lord’s Supper

Martin Luther sought above all to understand God’s self-revelation in the gospel, and how men and women are to grasp this revelation. In the gospel Luther discovered a God who comes to us. God condescends to us to meet us in our need as Savior and gives himself for us. Jesus Christ is God for us (Deus pro nobis) and our God (Deus noster).[1] The character of the God revealed to us through the self-offering of Jesus Christ (Deus oblatus) consists in free and unbounded giving. God desires nothing from us in return for the gifts of creation and redemption. Our only appropriate response is thanksgiving; in our expression of thanks we acknowledge that God is the merciful giver of every temporal and spiritual gift.
In this perspective, Luther understood the Lord’s Supper above all as a gift to be received from a gracious God. For this reason, he resolutely opposed the idea of the Mass as sacrifice (sacrificium, bonum opus, meritum), according to which Christ instituted the Mass as a means of atonement for the actual sins (venial and mortal) both of the living and the dead.[2] Luther did not see any basis for this idea in Scripture, which taught him that the suffering of Christ is an adequate sacrifice for all sins, original as well as actual. For Luther, the daily Masses in which the priests offer up the host amounted to an express denial of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, made once for all as a perfect atonement for sins (Heb. 9:12, 26).[3]
How then did Luther conceive of this gift as one to be received in the Lord’s Supper? Luther insisted that to observe the Lord’s Supper properly and to understand what it offers, one must above all comprehend the meaning of the words by which Christ instituted it. In these words, the very sum and substance of the Lord’s Supper consists:

Take and eat, this is my body, which is given for you. Take and drink of it, all of you, this is the cup of the new and eternal testament in my blood, which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.[4]

To explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper as divine gift, Luther singled out a term from these words of institution, and opposed it to the idea of sacrifice: God’s gift to us is testamentum; our gift to God is sacrificium. In Luther’s conception of the Lord’s Supper as divine gift the two are mutually exclusive. The concept of testamentum is central in Luther’s treatises on the Lord’s Supper, and therefore needs to be clarified.
A testament is a promise made by one about to die. In it the testator expresses how he wishes his property to be disposed after he dies and confirms these wishes by a seal. The property is the inheritance; those appointed by the testator to receive it after his death are the heirs.
Luther maintained that from the beginning of the world God has never dealt with men and women otherwise than through a promise. And all the promises God made from the beginning of the world foreshadow the testament of Christ and derive their value from it. The meaning and content of the promises made to Adam (Gen. 3:15), Noah (Gen. 9:12-17), Abraham (Gen. 22:18), Moses and the people of Israel (Deut. 18:18), and especially to David (II Sam, 7:12-16) are only disclosed in the most perfect promise of all, namely, that contained in the testament of Christ.
But a testament only goes into effect when the testator dies. The language of “promise” and “covenant” (testamentum) therefore implies that God would one day die. But it is impossible for God to die. The use of the idea and language of “testament” therefore comprehends both the incarnation and the death of Christ. In this testament forgiveness of sins and eternal life are freely promised; this is the inheritance bequeathed. The heirs appointed to it are all those who receive the promise in faith. This promise is confirmed by the very death of Christ; Christ gives his body and pours out his blood to certify it and leaves us both as signs under the elements of bread and wine.[5]
For this reason, Luther insisted that stress must be given to the hearing of the words of institution in faith. The words in the strict sense are the testament of Christ; the bread and the wine are the sacrament. Between words and sacrament Luther insisted on a sharp distinction. The sacrament is oriented to the promise given in the testament. In this regard, the words of institution are not merely to be understood as words of consecration; they are at the same time words of promise addressed to the congregation, which is thereby enabled to receive the gift of the Lord’s Supper in faith. Put otherwise, they are the words of proclamation announcing—as summa et compendium evangelii—the entire saving event. This is why Luther and the Reformers demanded that the words of institution be pronounced clearly and distinctly so as to be comprehensible to the people. This stress on the word of proclamation gave impetus to the demand for the use of the vernacular in liturgical practice.
Against Ulrich Zwingli and the radical Reformers, Luther later had to develop more explicitly the relationship between the content and effect of the words of institution. For Luther, the character of the Lord’s Supper as a gift really given and received depends on the affirmation that these words are not only the vehicle of the promise of the forgiveness of sins, but also that of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ. Luther’s insistence on a robust doctrine of real presence was of course epitomized at the Marburg Colloquy (1529). In his famous debate with Zwingli there, Luther wrote in chalk the words hoc est meum corpus (“This is my body”) on the table, which he pounded with his fist. Luther found the words of Christ so clearly and simply  stated that he was incredulous that his adversary could interpret them otherwise.[6] When Christ places before us the bread and says, “Take, eat, this is my body” and offers us the wine with the words, “Drink of it, all of you, this is my blood, which is poured out for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” Christ is truly offering to us his body and blood.
It is open to debate, however, whether Luther’s rejection of Zwingli’s memorialism would have extended to the more nuanced position of John Calvin and of many early Reformed confessions, in which a sacramental realism is unequivocally affirmed. In any event, Luther found it necessary to defend his doctrine of real presence to safeguard what he believed the church must affirm about the gospel: Atonement has once for all been accomplished through the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary for the forgiveness of sins, but it is offered in public proclamation and distributed to the believer again and again in the reception of the sacrament.
Christopher Dorn holds an M.Div from Western Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Marquette University. He resides in Holland, Michigan. He currently serves as chair of Holland’s Reformation 500 committee, and preaches regularly at First Presbyterian Church in Ionia and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Holland.


[1] Vilmos Vajta, Luther on Worship (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), 10.
[2] Cf. The Augsburg Confession (unaltered), 24.21.
[3] Cf. Luther’s Works, Volume 36, 311-328.
[4] Luther renders the words of institution generally after the manner of the Canon of the Mass, thus incorporating features from the several scriptural accounts: Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; and 1 Cor. 11:24-25. Cf. Luther’s Works, Volume 35, 82.
[5] Luther’s Works, Volume 36, 38-40
[6] Luther’s Works, Volume 36, 336; Cf. 37, 270


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