Holy Communion in the Lutheran Tradition

By Jonathunder (Own work) [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons [http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEucharistELCA.JPG]

This post is a response to a question that could not possibly fit in a deeply nested comment. For the source of the discussion, please read this post on The Lonely Pilgrim. Though the original question was limited in scope, I have chosen instead to give as complete a summary of the Lutheran position on Communion as my ability allows.

Part I details the understanding of Holy Communion in the Lutheran tradition according to the Lutheran Confessions.

Part II details the understanding of Holy Communion in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

What did the original Lutheran reformers say about the nature of Communion?

The most  basic explanation is presented in the foundational Lutheran document, the Augsburg Confession, in Article X:

Holy Communion. Esperanto: Sankta komunio.
Holy Communion. Esperanto: Sankta komunio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Concerning the Lord’s Supper it is taught that the true body and blood of Christ are truly present under the form of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper and are distributed and received there. Rejected, therefore, is also the contrary teaching.”

This article was not disputed by the Confutation, the Roman Catholic response to the Augsburg Confession. Even in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, in which Philipp Melanchthon refutes other responses to the Confession, he writes that the only reason he spends any time on Article X is so that others who may read it may better understand that the Lutheran tradition is consistent with the position of the whole church. Aside from a disagreement over transubstantiation, the Lutheran theologians disagreed with Rome very little over the nature of communion. Instead, Lutheran theologians had to contend with other Reformation theologians who argued against the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. Lutheran theologians had to repeat the point over and over again:

“We maintain that the bread and the wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ and that they are not only offered to and received by upright Christians but also evil ones.”
Smalcald Articles III 6 §1

“What is the Sacrament of the Altar? Answer: It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink.”
Small Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §1-2

“1. We believe, teach, and confess that in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, truly distributed and received with the bread and wine.

“2. We believe, teach, and confess that the words of the testament of Christ are not to be understood in any other way than the way they literally sound, that is, not that the bread symbolizes the absent body and the wine the absent blood Christ, but that they are truly the true body and blood of Christ because of the sacramental union.”
Forumla of Concord, Epitome, Article VII §6-7

Everything that the Lutheran tradition teaches about Communion is based on this fundamental truth, which is why I have repeated it so clearly.

What does Communion do?

The Lutheran tradition holds that grace, forgiveness, and salvation comes through the Sacrament:

“What is the benefit of such eating and drinking? Answer: The words ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sins’ show us that forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament through these words, because where there is forgiveness of sin, there is also life and salvation.
Small Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §7-8

The arguments in the Book of Concord all take this fact for granted–the arguments that it presents to support this teaching are based on the fact that in Communion, Jesus Christ is fully present (see above). Because Christ is present, so is forgiveness. It does not seem to concern itself with why or how Christ’s body and blood effect forgiveness, only that Christ’s presence is necessary for it.

How is Communion distributed, and why?

The Lutheran theologians argued fervently that all Christians, clergy and laity, receive Communion in both kinds: that is, everyone should receive both the bread and the wine in the sacrament, every time:

“And we maintain that no one should distribute only one kind in the sacrament. Nor do we need the lofty learning which teaches us that there is as much under one kind as under both. This is how the sophists and the Council of Constance teach. Even if it were true that there is as much under one kind as under both, one kind is still not the complete order and institution as established and commanded by Christ. Especially do we condemn and curse in God’s name those who not only allow distribution of both kinds to be omitted but also dictatorially prohibit, condemn, and slander the distribution of both kinds as heresy. Thereby they set themselves against and above Christ, our Lord and God, etc.”
Smalcald Articles III 6 §2-4

It should be noted that much of what Lutheran theologians argued against in the Roman Catholic church were abuses. As a result, the arguments can only be understood properly in that context.

Lutherans today consistently hold that Christ is truly and fully present in each kind. What Luther himself argued against (he wrote the Smalcald Articles himself, which is why they are so “colorful”) was the teaching that, since Christ is present in each kind fully, only one kind should be given to the laity. A good teaching had been warped to create an abuse, and the best way to get rid of the abuse was to challenge and reform the teaching. Later theologians clarified this (while simultaneously asserting that Luther’s mouth was not “Word of God”, and that one person’s interpretation is not over the community’s).

Communion should also be offered as often as possible:

“However, you may say, ‘But the words are added, ‘as often as you do it’; so he compels no one, but leaves it to our free choice.’ Answer: That is precisely true, but it does not say that we should never partake of it. Indeed, precisely his words, ‘as often as you do it,’ imply that we should do it frequently.”
Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §471

Luther observed that many among the laity were choosing not to receive communion, either because they were afraid of taking it unworthily, or its opposite, that they felt they didn’t have to. Frequent distribution was a problem during the Reformation and in the recent past, but for different reasons, as will be seen.

As to giving Communion to the worthy and the unworthy:

“We believe, teach, and confess that not only those who truly believe and are worthy, but also the unworthy and unbelievers receive the true body and blood of Christ, though they do not receive life and comfort, but rather judgment and damnation, if they do not turn and repent.”

“We believe, teach, and confess that there is only one kind of unworthy guest, those who do not believe… We believe, teach, and confess that no genuine believers–no matter how weak–as long as they retain a living faith, receive the Holy Supper as condemnation. For Christ instituted this supper particularly for Christians who are weak in the faith but repentant, to comfort them and to strengthen their weak faith.

“We believe, teach, and confess that the entire worthiness of the guests at the table of his heavenly meal is and consists alone in the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ. We make his obedience and merit our own through true faith, concerning which we receive assurance through the sacrament. Worthiness consists in no way in our own virtues, or in internal or external preparations.”
Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article VII §16-20

The writers of the Formula were not writing at a time when there was widespread division between a multitude of denomiations, churches, and sects. Though the separation between the Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church had occured, the vision is still of one body of believers. Nevertheless, the Formula helped shape the modern Lutheran approach to Eucharistic hospitality, which I shall discuss later.

What “makes” Communion? From where does its power come?

For the Lutheran theologians, the sacrament was not the source of forgiveness, life, and salvation. The sacrament, like all sacraments, was a way through which forgiveness, life, and salvation came. Communion has no power on its own.

“Here, too, we do not want to quarrel and dispute with those who despise and desecrate this sacrament. Instead, as in the case of baptism, we shall first learn what is of greatest importance, namely, that the chief thing is God’s Word and ordinance or command. It was not dreamed up or invented by some mere human being but was instituted by Christ without anyone’s counsel or deliberation. Therefore, just as the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed retain their nature and value even if you never keep, pray, or believe them, so also does this blessed sacrament remain unimpaired and inviolate even if we use and handle it unworthily. Do you think God cares so much about our faith and conduct that he would permit them to affect his ordinance? No, all temporal things remain as God has created and ordered them, regardless of how we treat them.”
Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §4-6

Out of context, this sounds like an invitation to do whatever one wishes with the sacrament. This is not so. This is instead an introductory statement, which is later clarified, to emphasize that the power and validity of the sacrament is not in human hands or even in the doing of the sacrament. The power of the sacrament is with God.

For Communion, like all sacraments, is only valid because of God’s promise and God’s work in the sacrament, not the human doing of the act:

“So it is not our work or speaking but the command and ordinance of Christ that make the bread the body and the wine the blood…

“Likewise, ‘Here, too, if I were to say over all the bread there is, ‘This is the body of Christ,’ nothing would happen, but when we follow his institution and command in the Supper and say, ‘This is my body,’ then it is his body, not because of our speaking or our declarative word, but because of his command in which he has told us to speak and to do and has attached his own command and deed to our speaking.”
Forumla of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII §77-78

The Lutheran theologians firmly believed that the sacrament was only the sacrament when it was done properly and completely. The sacrament consisted of two parts–the original promise and power of God, and the complete act of the sacrament. This is why they rejected the adoration of the elements, which they considered to be an abuse:

“Likewise, we reject the teaching that the elements (the visible species, or form, of the consecrated bread and wine) should be adored. Of course, no one–except an Arian heretic–can or will deny that Christ himself, true God and truly human, who is truly and essentially present in the Supper when properly used, should be adored in spirit and truth in other places, but especially where his community is assembled.”
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII §126

“They [who teach transubstantation] assert that under this form of the bread… the body of Christ remains present, even apart from the administration of the Supper (for example, when the bread is enclosed in the tabernacle or is carried around in a spectacle and adored). But, as has been shown, above, nothing can be a sacrament apart from God’s command and the practice that he has ordained, as insituted in God’s Word.”
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII §108

It was considered an abuse because they felt it was being used against the people. A consecrated host, meant to be consumed by the people as part of an act of forgiveness, life, and salvation, was not being used in the manner for which God commanded it to be used. If it was not being used sacramentally, according to God’s command, offering grace as God promised, then it was not sacramental. “Eat” and “Drink” were the commands given for the sacrament, not “parade.”

This is why Lutherans do not generally reserve the sacramental elements. A reserved sacrament is not being used in accordance with God’s command. The exception to this is when the consecrated sacrament is being sent to those who could not physically join the community, as it is being explicitly and quickly used for its intended purpose.

Continued in Part II.


All citations from Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Featured image: EucharistELCA” by Jonathunder is licensed under GFDL 1.2.


7 thoughts on “Holy Communion in the Lutheran Tradition

  1. A very good and informative piece, and thank you very much for the time and effort and clarity that went into it. The more I learn about Lutheran theology — and about the Reformation itself, especially its early years — the more frustrated I get. As you acknowledge, many (if not most) of the things Luther and others were reacting against were acknowledged abuses in the Catholic Church. Change and reform take time. If Luther had been more patient, more willing to voice his concerns without denouncng the pope as the Antichrist, I’m not sure we would have such a consequential schism on our hands. Instead he opened the door for anybody who had a beef with anything in the Church — some of them not very stable (and I’m not sure Luther was the stablest individual) — to break with the Catholic Church or even from the churches that had already broken.

    It seems to me that so many of the doctrines and the complaints that started out as well-meaning with the generation that first proposed them, became with later traditions something ugly and a great loss to tradition and piety. This attack on the Eucharist being venerated even outside the Mass is a prime example. All the Elements that are adored have already been consecrated in Mass, of course. If we hold that even after Mass the consecrated Host remains the Body and Blood of Christ — and you must hold that if you propose to be able to take it to sick, to which the earliest tradition attests — then we don’t have any choice but to venerate it as the Body and Blood of our Lord. It’s contradictory to hold that after the liturgy it is no longer the Body and Blood — unless we’re taking it to the sick, in which case it still is.


    1. Reform does take time. But, Rome was not willing to do so. John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, when they attempted to convince the Church to reform, were declared heretics: Wycliffe’s body was exhumed and Hus was burned at the stake. Their reforms were ignored. The Council of Constance, which managed to end the Western Schism, failed to reform the grievous corruption in some of the Church’s practices. Erasmus is a notable exception–though he called for reform, he did so in a way that didn’t earn the anger of the Church; but, his calls for reform were ignored as well. It is clear that reform would not take place through the Pope or the Councils, since they never considered the attempts at reform valid; and even when they did, they were unable to do anything about them.

      Unfortunately, I think the time was right for something major to happen. The time of the Reformation was a turning point in history on multiple levels–political, societal, cultural, and religious factors all contributed to its occurence and spread. That Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli all sought strong reform independently of each other during this time is indicative of the need for reform and the conditions which allowed it to happen.

      Luther was given the same treatment as those who earlier attempted reforms: recant, or be excommunicated (and then killed). He was immediately ordered to be silenced when his theses and letter were received. I have little doubt that, if Luther and other reformers had stood down, the Church would have paid no more attention to reform. And then, maybe a few years later, maybe a few decades later, the situation would have erupted again. Luther was the first one that stood up and would not retract his teachings. But if he hadn’t, someone else would have. There would have been no reform in the Church if someone hadn’t.


      1. Wycliffe and Hus were both rabble-rousers who, rather than dealing with the Church, cultivated heresy in their own universities and backyards and gathered their followers for their own movements. And that’s what makes heresy dangerous — that it threatens to lead away great masses of people into error. And that’s why those people were persecuted. Your account makes it sound as if they were declared heretics from the moment they raised their voices against the status quo — but no. Hus’s teachings were first condemned by his own university in 1403 — only by Rome in 1407. He was warned to correct his errors, but he ignored these calls and even increased his attacks upon the papacy and the Church. It was only in 1412 that he was excommunicated — and yet his attacks only increased in virulence. Finally at Constance in 1415, he obstinately stood before the Council Fathers and refused to cooperate, and consequently was convicted of heresy. All of this took place at a particularly precarious time in the Church ecclesiastically and in Europe politically, in the midst of the Western Schism, under the threat of the unity of the Church disintegrating entirely and of all of Europe erupting into war. Hus was by no means a benign and innocent reformer, but a defiant, aggravating instigator of rebellion and discontent, attacking the Church where she hurt the most at the very time when she could afford it least. Even with Hus’s death, Bohemia was embroiled in useless civil wars for the next several decades. Is this kind of “reform” the Church needed?

        Likewise for Wycliffe — who, despite his attacks, was never condemned as a heretic or even defrocked during his lifetime. It was only at Constance that he was condemned, largely as a result of the controversy Hus had created following upon Wycliffe’s doctrines. Digging up a dead body and posthumously convicting a deceased individual of heresy is a completely symbolic gesture, and not the grave persecution Protestants pretend it was. Overall, these incidents exhibit a great deal of patience and forbearance — not the bloodthirsty and recalcitrant Church Protestants love to portray.

        The time was right for something major to happen — but what happened was instigated by an ill-tempered and impatient cleric who once again, stirred controversy in his own university, and to the pope’s patient queries, responded with attacks. He was not “immediately ordered to be silenced when his theses were received.” It was only three years after the theses that he received official papal censure or calls that he recant or be excommunicated. By working with the papacy rather than against it, he might have been an influential reformer within the Church, but instead, from the very start, he was adversarial and inflammatory. Calvin was eight years old in 1517 and didn’t do anything “independently.” A case could be made for Zwingli’s independence, but he made no attack upon the Church until after Luther launched the first volleys. In a situation that called for prudence and patience, Luther instead lit the powder keg.

        As we’ve discussed before, Luther’s early teachings — and even some of his later ones — could have been reconciled with Catholic doctrine. As you point out above, many Lutheran complaints were against abuses and not against the heart of the Christian faith. Reform didn’t have to lead to a disintegration of Christian unity.


        1. When Luther’s theses and letter were sent to the Archbishop, the Archbishop’s reply was to order Luther silenced. That order was never carried out, but from the beginning, when the theses were nothing more than academic debate topics, the hierarchy did not take them seriously.

          I don’t hold up Wycliffe or Hus as examples of the way reform should happen, merely as people who tried reform in the past.

          I disagree that Luther working with the papacy could have enacted reform (though, as the scenario never played out, one cannot know what result may have come). Even the Western Schism, an event as traumatic as the Reformation, was not catalyst enough for the Church to reform itself. The Council ended the papal schism, but could not end the abuses in the Church because the very people that make up the Councils (including the Pope) benefitted from those abuses and had no interest in correcting them. I still argue that, if not Luther, someone would have had to be the one to try and enact reforms. The closest person at the time who, while calling for reform, stayed on the good side of Rome, was Erasmus, and his ideas did not enact any change.


        2. Constance brought the papacy back from Avignon. That alone was a great leap forward. Reform doesn’t happen overnight. The Catholic Church is a slow and lumbering giant and change is difficult and painful. And generally, that’s a good thing. One doesn’t want a Church that’s swayed by whatever the prevailing cultural wind is.


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