The Lutheran Difference: Bread, Wine, and “Is”

This week, we’re going to move on from baptism to talk about the other Lutheran Sacrament, namely that of Holy Communion. Remember, Lutherans consider something a sacrament if it has the following three things:

  1. God says, “Do this.”
  2. God says, “When you do this, you will receive the forgiveness of your sins.”
  3. There is a physical object of some kind used as part of this rite.

We can see these three things in the Words of Institution. Jesus says for us to “Do this in remembrance of Him” (more on what that means next week). We believe that when Jesus talks of forgiveness of sins in like Matthew 26:28 and Luke 22:20, He means that we receive that forgiveness through communion. And of course, there’s the bread and wine.

But what exactly is happening in Holy Communion? This has been debated for the past couple of centuries with a lot of different theories being floated by different denominations and groups. And there’s really only one way to sum it up. I can never quite get over who I have to quote to make this point, though…



As President Clinton once put it, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

I know, silly joke, but there’s a great bit of truth to it. When instituting Holy Communion, Jesus said these words: “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” So what did He mean when He said that about the bread and wine?

Well, back in the day (and still today), Roman Catholics took these sayings hyper-literally. Catholics believe in something called transubstantiation, which means that, during the Mass, the bread and wine are transformed into only Christ’s body and blood. While the elements may retain the outward appearance of bread and wine, they’re not bread and wine anymore. “Is” means “is.”

Now during the heyday of the Reformation, some folks flat-out rejected this notion. When I was in the Seminary, my professors explained it this way: the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation didn’t make sense intellectually. How could Christ’s literal body and blood be in two places at once? For example, suppose you have two congregations starting a Mass at the exact same time. Their services run at the same rate, so that means the two congregations wind up celebrating the Eucharist at the same time. How can Christ’s body and blood be at the two congregations at the same time? Or how can Christ’s body occupy the same space as the bread at the same time? This understanding doesn’t make logical sense.

So these folks (like Zwingli and Calvin) decided that “is” must mean “symbolizes.” The bread and wine only represent the body and blood. That’s it. For some Christian denominations, communion is little more than a memorial meal, a way to just bring to mind what Jesus did for us. The way a friend of mine put it, for some Christians, communion is little more than just raising a glass of grape juice to the memory of a dead friend.

So where do Lutherans fall into all of this? We’re in between the two positions. To us, the Catholics don’t have it quite right. The bread and wine are obviously still bread and wine. But at the same time, Jesus says that the bread is His body and the wine is His blood. For Lutherans, “is” means “equal sign.” It is His body. It is His blood.

In other words, we don’t see this as an either/or sort of thing. We see it as a both/and. Jesus’ body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. And those logic puzzles that Zwingli and company liked so much? Let’s not forget that this is Jesus’ post-resurrection body we’re talking about, the body that could miraculously appear in locked rooms.

When Jesus says “is,” we Lutherans try to take Him at His Word. It may seem odd to think that we understand communion to be eating and drinking Jesus’ very body and blood, but that’s the way it is.

Once again, I want to remind everyone that these posts are not meant to persuade or convince anyone that Lutherans are right and non-Lutherans are wrong. If you disagree with me, that’s fine. This is just what we believe: Jesus gives us His body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. This isn’t just a symbolic gesture. Something real and meaningful is happening.

And that comes out further when we consider what the word “remembrance” means in the context of Passover. But that’s next week.

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  1. I am excited to read the next installment as this has been a topic I’ve been wrestling with for some time and find that very often in church practice the topic of communion ends up far removed from the Passover. Jesus is our passover lamb and we are spared the curse of death through his sacrifice. Do you see a difference in the “is” for how the elements in the Passover were used by Jesus to point to his position as the Messiah as opposed to how they were used symbolically in the first Passover and in later memorial observations of the feast?

  2. Hey John.

    As a Baptist Bible College student I was taught that Communion is only symbolic and Luther couldn’t quite pull himself away from the Catholic worldview, which is why he came up with the halfway view of consubstantiation.

    Well, I think the Lutheran stance of infant baptism shows signs of Luther’s Catholic heritage (I already commented there) but the older I get, the more convinced I am that Luther was right on the money with consubstantiation.

    If Christ is the one in whom all things consist (Col. 1:17) how in the world can he NOT be in the elements of communion in a special way?

    (Did you know Anglicans also hold to consubstantiation? They do…)

    FYI. 🙂

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