The Art of Confessing the Sacrament

a look at Lutheran liturgical practice by James A. Frey

(This article was originally published in March of 2005)



It’s another one of those chicken and egg questions: What came first, bad doctrine or sloppy talk?  And as with most chicken and egg questions the answer is, it doesn’t matter.  Bad doctrine inevitably leads to sloppy talk, and sloppy talk inevitably leads to bad doctrine.


Because this is so, the art of confessing what one believes is an extremely difficult one. For not only must one say what is true, but he must say it in such a way that it cannot be misinterpreted.  And that is no easy task.  Indeed, it is one of the hardest aspects of the Holy Ministry in that it requires the minister not only to know the doctrine well but also to have a good command of the language.  Yet even then many will attempt to twist and turn his words around so that they say and assert what they want to hear and not what he intended to say.  We know how hard Jesus’ enemies tried to do this, and no servant is greater than his master.  If they misused and abused his words, then surely the enemies of Christ will attempt the same with the words of his ministers.


Thus it is as I said, the art of confession is an extremely difficult one, and yet one that the minister of Christ must learn to do to the best of his ability, since sloppy talk leads to bad doctrine.1 Nowhere has this proven to be more true than when it comes to the Holy Sacrament, which in a protestant country like America is constantly under attack. How we speak about it is a clear indication of what we believe about it, and what we believe about it is going to show itself clearly in how we speak about it.  The purpose of this article is to compare certain ways people today are speaking about the Sacrament to the way Luther and our Lutheran Confessions spoke.


“The consecrated elements are bread and wine.”


To speak like this is perhaps more a matter of carelessness than anything else.  For our Lord’s words as to what is distributed and received in the Holy Sacrament are simple and clear, “Take; eat; this is my body which is given for you…Take, drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”  (SC).  Thus in answer to the question: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar?” Dr. Luther rightly answers: “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself, for us Christians to eat and to drink” (SC).


The Lutherans did not have a problem with the Romanists on this,2 but with the Sacramentarians: with Zwingli, who saw the bread only as a picture of Christ’s body, and with Calvin, who spoke of Jesus’ spiritual presence at the Sacrament and not in such a way that we actually eat his true body and drink his true blood.  And not surprising, it is their spiritual descendants today who consistently speak of the consecrated elements as “bread” and “wine.”


Now this writer does not wish to be accused of denying the presence of bread and wine in the Sacrament.  And he readily admits that Blessed St. Paul at times spoke of the bread and the cup (1 Cor. 11:28), though he was careful to point out that they were in communion (koinonia) with Christ’s body and blood (1 Cor. 10:16).  So to flush out the crypto-Calvinists who had infiltrated the Church in Luther’s day one simple question was asked: “What is the minister holding in his hand?”  And if the person answered, “Bread,” then he was identified as a Calvinist and was promptly removed. 3


There’s the art of confessing in practice. It wasn’t enough just to say what is true, but it was to be said in such a way that it could not be misunderstood.  No Lutheran denies the presence of bread and wine in the Sacrament.  But confessional Lutherans realize that it is not the bread and wine that make this a Sacrament.  It is Christ’s true Body and true Blood distributed to us by the hand of his minister, for us Christians to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of sins, salvation and eternal life. Therefore, when speaking of what has been consecrated, we say it best when we stick to the simple words of our Lord, “This is my body… This cup is the New Testament in my blood.” 4




A favorite tactic today is to throw the invective “you’re setting a moment of presence.” Indeed, the Church of Rome, has gone so far as to fix the precise moment of this change, claiming that it happens after the “cor” in “Hoc est corpus meum.” Before that moment if the priest should not be able to complete the statement, it remains only bread and wine. But after he speaks that syllable, then the transubstantiation has taken place and what is on the Altar is now Christ’s body and blood.


Though some of them may deny this, receptionists also tend to fix a moment for the Sacramental Union.  Together with their father Melanchthon, they narrow down the presence to the communicant’s reception of the elements, and eliminate the consecration as the means through which Christ effects the Real Presence, reasoning that there is no sacrament outside of its use. 5


Historically Lutherans have not concerned themselves with fixing a moment, for to do so is to fall into the trap of trying to logically explain the inexplicable.  Instead, listen to what our confessions have to say on this matter:


For the true and almighty words of Jesus Christ, which he spoke in the first institution of the Supper, were not only effective in the first Supper; they remain so. They retain their validity and power and are still effective, so that in all places in which the Supper is observed according to Christ’s institution and his words are used, the body and blood of Christ are truly present, distributed and received on the basis of the power and might of the very same words that Christ spoke in the first Supper.  (Emphasis added) 6


And quoting Luther they say,


This command and institution of his has the power to accomplish this, that we do not distribute and receive simple bread and wine but his body and blood, as his words indicate: ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’” (Emphasis added) 7


Once more,


In the administration of the Holy Supper, the Words of Institution are to be clearly and plainly spoken or sung in the congregation, and in no case are to be omitted… so that the elements of bread and wine are sanctified and consecrated in this holy practice whereby Christ’s body and blood are offered to us to eat and to drink, as Paul says (1 Cor. 10:16): ‘The cup of blessing that we bless…’ This of course takes place in no other way than through the repetition and recitation of the Words of Institution. (Emphasis added) 8


To sum this up, while Lutherans refuse to fix a moment as to when the Union takes place - and even believe it foolish to do so - nevertheless, we believe, teach and confess that because Christ does not and cannot lie, when he through the voice of his minister says, “This is my body,” then it is his body.  We don’t know how; we don’t know when.  We just know and believe that it is.


Perhaps this would be a good time also to discuss the question of the reliquiae, what to do with the body and blood that are left over.  Are we to just throw them back in with the unconsecrated, as if they are no longer Christ’s body and blood? 


Why the obsession with fixing moments?  Just as our Lord was silent as to when the Sacramental Union takes place, so he is silent as to when, or even if, it ever ends.  Those who deny this statement I challenge to show me where he does.


What I can relate to you is how Dr. Luther dealt with one Simon Wolferinus, who, being a disciple of Melanchthon, was found mixing the consecrated with the unconsecrated.  It is reported that such a practice caused Luther “great grief” and that he labeled it “a scandal.”  Finally, he felt compelled to ask this man if he wanted to be considered a Zwinglian and even suggested that he was perhaps afflicted with the insanity of Zwingli.  And what did the great Reformer instruct in regard to the reliquiae?  “Therefore see to it that if anything is left over of the sacrament, either some communicants or the priest himself and his assistants receive it, so that it is not only a curate or someone else who drinks what is left over in the chalice, but he gives it to the others who were also participants in the body of Christ.” 9


What of shut-ins?  Can they be regarded as part of these “others” who are to consume the reliquiae?  I see no reason why not.  Indeed, this would include them in the Service that they are not physically able to attend and quite frankly is to me much more in accord with what Luther proclaimed as an appropriate practice than simply putting them back in with the unconsecrated, which Luther clearly saw as encroaching Zwinglianism.


The Distribution Formula


For all my life the churches of which I have been a member, have used for their distribution formula the Words of Institution, and yet a study of this practice reveals that  it is of relatively recent origin, and that it originated in the Union Churches of Germany!  Indeed, it became a compromise to the members of these churches, as the Reformed could take these words in light of their false interpretation of them - that Jesus is spiritually present, and the Lutherans in light of their literal meaning: “This is Christ’s body and blood.”


But once again, I direct you to the art of confessing: that one must not only say what is right but say it in such a way that it cannot be misinterpreted.  For that very reason we at St. Paul’s Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Belleville observe, and most appropriately so I believe, the old formula of distribution that was in use in Luther’s day and is still in use throughout most of Christendom today.  It is as follows: 


The Pastor holds the consecrated Host before the communicant’s eyes and says: “The Body of Christ.”


The communicant may respond as a confession of faith: “Amen.”


The pastor then puts it into his mouth, saying: “Given for you.”


After which he holds the consecrated Cup before his eyes and says: “The Blood of Christ.”


Again, the communicant may respond in agreement: “Amen.”


The pastor puts it to his mouth, saying: “Shed for you.”


Let’s face it. No Zwinglian or Calvinist can accept such a formula, for it states in such a way that cannot be misinterpreted what is distributed in this Sacrament, the body and blood of Christ given and shed for you.


Women Communing Women???


It’s a question that is being asked by some within the WELS, and how it is being answered makes me wonder if we are not leaving the door open for women pastors in the future. Here’s what Blessed Dr. Luther had to say about this and about passages like 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2,


For to the pastor is committed the pulpit, baptism, the sacrament (of the Altar), and he is charged with the care of souls… A parish pastor can claim that he possesses the office of the ministry, baptism, the sacrament, the care of souls, and is commissioned, publicly and legally.  Therefore the people should go to him for these things. (Emphasis added)  10




The church is recognized externally by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices that it is to administer. There must be bishops, pastors, or preachers, who publicly and privately give, administer, and use the aforementioned four things (preaching, baptism, communion, the keys) or holy possessions in behalf of and in the name of the church, or rather by reason of their institution by Christ, as St. Paul states in Ephesians 4(:8), “He received gifts among men…” – his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some teachers and governors, etc.  The people as a whole cannot do these things, but must entrust or have them entrusted to one person. Otherwise, what would happen if everyone wanted to speak or administer, and no one wanted to give way to the other? It must be entrusted to one person, and he alone should be allowed to preach, to baptize, to absolve, and to administer the sacraments… 11


And what of women? The blessed Reformer continues:


But in the congregations or churches where there is a ministry women are to be silent and not preach (1 Tim. 2:12).  Otherwise they may pray, sing, praise and say “Amen,” and read at home, teach each other, exhort, comfort and interpret the Scriptures as best they can. 12


And even more succinctly:


It is, however, true that the Holy Spirit has excepted women, children, and incompetent people from this function, but chooses (except in emergencies) only competent males to fill this office, as one reads here and there in the epistles of St. Paul that a bishop must be pious, able to teach, and the husband of one wife - and in 1 Corinthians 14:34 he says, ‘The women should keep silence in the churches.”  In summary, it must be a competent and chosen man.  Children, women, and other persons are not qualified for this office, even though they are able to hear God’s word, to receive baptism, the sacrament, absolution, and are also true, holy Christians, as St. Peter says (1 Peter 3:7).  Even nature and God’s creation makes this distinction, implying that women (much less children or fools) cannot and shall not occupy positions of sovereignty, as experience also suggests and as Moses says in Genesis 3 (:16), “You shall be subject to man.”  The gospel, however, does not abrogate this natural law, but confirms it as the ordinance and creation of God.13


And lest you write all this off as a man who couldn’t fully rid himself of his papistic past or whose writings are not confessional, I conclude with this simple statement from our confessions:


Because Dr. Luther must deservedly be regarded as the foremost teacher of the churches that subscribe to the Augsburg Confession, since his entire teaching in sum and content was set down in the articles of the Augsburg Confession and presented to Emperor Charles V, the actual intention and meaning of the Augsburg Confession should not and cannot be derived more properly and better from any other place than from Dr. Luther’s doctrinal and polemical writings. (Once more, emphasis mine) 14


Something to think about, seriously.   §


The Reverend James A. Frey is pastor of St. Paul Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan.




1 This is the very reason why in writing a sermon the minister must direct the greatest amount of his time and effort on the substance of his sermon and not the style.  No one denies that a cleverly turned phrase or interesting illustration can grab the hearers’ attention, but the Holy Spirit humbles the proud sinner and leads the humble sinner to Christ through what is said, not how it is said (Romans 10:17).  Thus the correct substance is much more important than a clever style.

To be sure Luther did not agree with the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation “silly sophistry”, a false and foolish way to explain the mystery of the Sacramental union.  But his issue with Rome was not centered on this- as he once commented that he would rather drink blood with the pope than wine with the Zwinglian- but rather with the Mass as an unbloody sacrifice.

3 This question can still be asked of ministers today- indeed, should be. When a visitor desires to receive the sacrament in another congregation, it is appropriate for the minister to examine him with a few simple questions, right? But I say it is just as appropriate for the visitor to question the pastor and to ask, “What is it that you are holding in your hand?”  And just as a faithful Lutheran pastor should never let a person commune at his Altar who denies the Real Presence, so a faithful Christian should never commune at the Altar of a pastor who answers, “Bread!”  Dr. Luther writes: ... Therefore, this is my honest advice, for which before God I am held accountable both to you in Frankfurt and wherever else: whoever has public knowledge that his pastor teaches Zwinglianly, he should avoid him and rather go without the Sacrament all his life long rather than receive it from him – yes, even be ready to die on this account and suffer everything before that. If his pastor is one of the double-tongued sort who mouths it out that in the Sacrament the body and blood of Christ are present and true, and yet who prompts an uneasiness that he is selling something in a sack and means something other than what the words say, you should go to him, be free to inquire of him, and have him say quite plainly what it is he gives out to you with his hands and what you receive with your mouth [So gehe oder sende frei zu ihm, und lass dir deutlich heraus sagen, was das sei, das er dir mit seinen Händen reicht, und du mit deinem Munde empfähest]. What one believes or does not believe in the heart can wait for another time. One should put to him the straight question: “What is held here in hand and mouth?” (Martin Luther, An Open Letter to Those in Frankfort on the Main [1533], Concordia Journal 16:4 [October 1990], pp. 337-38 [WA 30, III, 558-571]).

4 Dr. Chemnitz writes: The words of the Supper are known, plain, and clear in their natural and true sense. When I ask, “What is present in the Lord’s Supper & offered by the hand of the minister and received by the mouth of those who use it? Is it only bread and wine?” He, who is Truth itself, answers: “This is My body; this is My blood.” Thus Paul says, 1 Co 10:16, that a breaking and communion, that is, distribution and partaking or receiving takes place in the Lord’s Supper, and that it takes place by outward eating and drinking with the mouth, for he says, “Eat and drink.” Now, if I ask: “What is distributed and received when the bread is distributed and received in the Lord’s Supper?” Paul answers that it is koinonia, that is, distribution and reception of Christ’s body, etc. ... If, then, you want to know from Christ Himself, who instituted this Supper, who is Truth itself, and whom the Father commended to us from heaven to hear, what it is that is present in the Supper in, with, and under the bread and wine, and that is offered by the hand of the minister and received by the mouth of the body, He answers expressly, clearly, and plainly: This is My body, which is given for you; this is My blood, which is shed for you. (Martin Chemnitz, Ministry, Word, and Sacraments [St Louis: CPH, 1981], pp. 123-24)

5 The FC states: “Nothing has the character of a sacrament apart from the use (usus) instituted by Christ or the divinely instituted action (actio).  (That is, when Christ’s institution is not observed as he established it, there is no sacrament.)”  SD, art. VII, pg. 608.  But one must understand this was written against the Corpus Christi festivals, not to state when the Sacramental Union takes place: in other words, what is now Christ’s body and blood is not to be paraded through the streets but to be a proper sacrament is to be distributed to the communicant for eating and drinking, as the words of Christ declare.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid, pg. 607/

8 Ibid.

9 The Lord’s Supper in the Theology of Martin Chemnitz, p.139.

10 AE: vol. 40, pgs. 384-385, 391

11 AE, vol. 41, pg. 154

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid, pgs. 154-155.

14 SD, art. VII, pg. 600