Given For You: A Brief Explanation of the Sacramental Union in Lutheran Theology

 For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh Justin Martyr, Apology 1, LXVI

Introduction

The Lord’s supper is a Lutheran doctrine that is often misrepresented, if not completely caricatured. It has been called Transubstantiation at worst and Consubstantiation at best. In this post I hope to set the record straight by giving a brief explanation of this most important Lutheran doctrine. Let us begin by defining the terms we have just stated.

Defining the Terms

There are three prevailing views when discussing the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper: Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, and Sacramental Union.

Transubstantiation

In the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the bread and the wine become the actual body and blood of the Lord. The prefix trans means on or to the other side, suggesting that the elements themselves change. The participant then, is no longer receiving bread and wine but the body and blood of the Lord. While there is no apparent physical change in the appearance of the elements, the person chews and eats the flesh and blood of Christ. This has been called Capernaitic by some. Lutherans reject Transubstantiation based on illocal presence, which will be discussed a little later on.

Consubstantiation

This view suggests that the body and blood of Christ coexists con (alongside or with) the bread and the wine. While the participant receives the body and blood, they are also receiving the elements of the bread and wine, as well. Lutherans have been accused for decades of holding to consubstantiation, even though it has been explicitly denied by Lutheran authors over and over. I admit that it is a more accurate view than transubstantiation but nonetheless, it lacks a proper explanation of what Lutherans believe. Lutheran theology distinguishes between local and illocal presence, discussed below.

Sacramental uniton

Sacramental Union probably best describes the Lutheran view of the Eucharist. In it, the participant receives the elements of bread and wine while at the same time participating in the body and blood of Christ illocally, that is Christ is truly present in the Supper in a manner that is undetectable to the human senses. Just as the Book of Concord states,

Now, what is the Sacrament of the Altar? Answer: It is the true body and blood of the Lord Christ, in and under the bread and wine, which we Christians are commanded by Christ’s word to eat and drink.

LArge Catechism, VIII (emphasis are mine)

Notice the words in bold, in and under. This represents what Lutherans call the illocal presence of Christ or the Communication of His attributes. This means that while Christ is truly present in the Sacrament, He is not physically present, that is, in a transubstantial way. We receive the true body and true blood of Christ but He is present illocally rather than locally. In means that the body and blood are truly present within the elements. Under means that the body and blood do not change the elements and that they cannot be detected with the senses (i.e., illocal presence). Some theologians have added the word with to communicate that we truly do partake of the body and blood of the Lord, being illocally present.

The Solid Declaration clarifies this in defining the union between the humanity and deity of Christ:

We believe, teach, and confess that, although the Son of God is a separate, distinct, and complete divine person in and of himself and thus was truly, essentially, and fully God with the Father and the Holy Spirit from eternity, nonetheless at the same time, when the fullness of time had come [Gal. 4:4*], he assumed human nature into the unity of his person, not in such a way that there were two persons or two Christs, but that Christ Jesus was in one person at the same time true and eternal God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and a true human being, born of the most blessed Virgin Mary…We believe, teach, and confess that there are now in this one, inseparable person of Christ two distinct natures, the divine, from eternity, and the human, which was assumed into the union of the person of God’s Son in time. These two natures can never more be separated nor mixed together with each other, nor can one be transformed into the other…We also believe, teach, and confess that as these two natures remain unmixed in their nature and essence and never cease to exist, each therefore also retains its natural, essential characteristics and will not lay them aside ever in all eternity, nor will the essential characteristics of either nature ever become the essential characteristics of the other. Therefore, we believe, teach, and confess that to be almighty, eternal, infinite, and present everywhere at the same time naturally (that is, to be present in and of itself as a characteristic of this particular nature and its natural essence), and to know all things, are essential characteristics of the divine nature, which will never in all eternity become essential characteristics of the human nature

Solid Declaration, VIII, 6-9 (Emphasis are mine)

Luther sought to reform the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper from Roman Catholicism. By defining the terms the way he did, he kept his flock from being charged as cannibals, much like the early Christians were charged. But he also retained the purity of the Supper without commingling and confusing the deity and humanity of Christ and having the charge of the heresy of Nestortianism thrown upon him.

Concluding Thoughts

The Lutheran doctrine of the Sacramental Union between the body and blood of Christ and the elements of bread and wine remain the best explanation for the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. It is well-attested to in church history, defined greater by the authors of Concord, and demonstrated in its language that Christ can truly communicate His attributes as Deity however He desires. Perhaps we shall some day embark on a polemical trail of this doctrine, but for now we should simply be content with Christ’s own words, “This is my body [and blood] given for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength: 5 Reasons I Am (joy)Fully Lutheran

In March of 2022, I was confirmed in the Lutheran church of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). I started studying Lutheranism in late 2018 or early 2019 when I was challenged on some of my commonly held beliefs, particularly that of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For the first time, I read Lutheran authors in their own words rather than through the filtered lenses of other authors that critiqued them. What I found was a simplicity in the way they interpreted Scripture, the main principle being that the plain reading of the text was to be taken as the meaning. As I opened myself up to this idea, my presuppositions of Reformed Theology began to crumble and the old arguments I had always used against certain Lutheran doctrines made less sense than ever before.

But it wasn’t until around September of 2020 that I visited my first Lutheran church, an LCMS (Luther Church of the Missouri Synod) congregation. I was a little put off by it because it seemed a little too “Roman Catholic” to me. I had never been exposed to a liturgical service before this. However, I continued to attend and dive into Lutheranism. Eventually, I wound up and became a member of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Chesapeake, Virginia. It is no secret that I thoroughly enjoy Lutheran theology. And below, you will find my top five reasons why.

1. Pastoral concern for the conscience

Photo courtesy of Simon Claessen

We sin everyday. Sometimes, we blow it really bad. We feel alone, in the dark, depressed, no hope in sight. One of the things emphasized in Lutheran theology is the care of the conscience. Pastors are prepared to help the sinner see and understand that the gospel is not just for the lost. It is for believers, too! It has been stated Luther once said that he felt the need to preach the gospel to himself everyday because he sinned everyday. Lutheran pastors help the wayward, sin-sick conscience by continually pointing them to the objective reality of the atonement. Christ really died for them, saved them, and will keep them in the faith. It is a wonderful breath of fresh air to feel the relief of forgiveness and there is absolutely nothing like hearing out loud the words, “Your sins are forgiven.”

2. The Liturgy

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines liturgy as, a form or formulary according to which public religious worship, especially Christian worship, is conducted

The Liturgy is so much more than this. It is ordered and structured with purpose. But it was also patterned after the temple worship in Jerusalem.

While some chide the liturgy as “boring” it is the very normality and pattern that make it so beautiful. The liturgy follows the church year calendar and has its worship settings around the seasons of the year. It ensures several things stay on track during the service. And most importantly it keeps the pastor from going off on a tangent preaching his own ideas. Instead, he is presented with several Scriptural passages that fit the particular church season and chooses one to bring the sermon to the congregation.

For this reason, the liturgy has been accused of stifling the creativity of the pastor and not allowing the Holy Spirit to use the pastor’s natural gifts. But the liturgy was set in place to ensure two things: the pure proclamation of the gospel and the sacraments presented to the congregation.

3. Participatory Worship

Modern Evangelical church services have been boiled down to an emotional experience, for the most part. Phrases such as “You can really feel the presence of the Holy Spirit,” and “Fill us with your glory/show us your glory” have almost become the slogans of worship services. What exactly does it mean to “feel” the Holy Spirit or to see His glory? If your worship experience has been dependent upon emotional sways, you will always be seeking to answer this question.

True worship starts with the notion that we do not enter into the Lord’s House to give anything to Him but simply to receive His gifts to us. Emotion is good but it is the promise that is the foundation. And these gifts are His promises contained in His word. In participatory worship, when we recite the creeds, confessions, receive the sacraments, and responsively read Scripture, we are receiving promises made to us. This is one of the reasons why Scripture reading is so important within a Lutheran service. Old Testament, New Testament, Gospel readings all remind us of God’s faithfulness. Receiving the Lord’s Supper along with the words, “Take, eat, this is my body…this is my blood given for you for the forgiveness of sins,” reminds and gives us surety of forgiveness, not based upon our participation but based solely on the promise of Christ.

4. Extra Nos

Extra Nos is the Latin phrase for Outside of us. It is intended to communicate that our justification comes from some other source that is not within us, namely, Jesus Christ. Today’s church culture seems to be saturated with some form of self-centered justification. Whether it is some type of emotionalism or asceticism, it has permeated our worship services. Even solid gospel-preaching churches have fallen prey to this beast with a continual emphasis on self-examination of ones sanctification. Many pastors tend to over emphasize the sanctification process. When week in and week out, it is preached that you should be at a “certain level” of Christianity because you’ve been saved for X amount of years, your focus begins to shift inward instead of outward. This shift begins to cause doubt, fear, and depression. You begin to think, “I should be further along, more holy. Am I really saved at all?”

Extra Nos is the solution to this doubt. Our standing before God is based solely on the atoning work of Jesus. I don’t downplay the importance of living a holy and sanctified life. But truthfully, Christian sanctification, if we’re honest, resembles a rollercoaster much more than a straight line upwards.

We all have our highs and lows and the entire point of the gospel is that we can’t be sanctified or holy without the Spirit of God. When we begin to feel depressed about our sanctification, we must learn to look extra nos and see the wonderful, completed work of our Savior. It is the only sure remedy to drive out all doubt and fear.

5. Law/Gospel Distinction

Of all Lutheran doctrines, I would consider this one of the most important ones. The way we read snd interpret Scripture will depend on how well we can distinguish between Law and Gospel. This is also the doctrine that trips most Christians up and causes them to doubt their salvation. The Bible is divided into these two great sections. Everything we read in it will fall into one of these two categories. Let me take a minute to explain:

The Law makes demands of us. It tells what we must do to obtain God’s favor and what we must do to avoid His wrath. It threatens us with punishment severe for our disobedience and rebellion of the high Kingly commands. In short, it leaves a longing in us and shows us that the only true way to please God is through sinless perfection. This is the first and foremost use of the Law. It drives us into despair and causes us to seek a perfection not found within.

The Gospel, on the other hand, are promises made to us which are obtained by faith. They are not conditioned upon our pleasing God or living up to certain expectations that we know are impossible. Instead, God has given them to us in Christ. Salvation, justification, eternal life; these are all part of God’s gospel promises. We don’t seek to earn them through good behavior or going an entire week without cussing some one out that cut us off in traffic. Instead, all the promises of God find their Yes in him (2Corinthians 1:20). They are all given to us based upon Jesus’ perfect work, not ours.

One final caution about Law/Gospel distinction: It is crucial to understand that not everything in the Old Testament is Law and not everything in the New Testament is Gospel. Many stories in the Old Testament can be considered gospel promises, such as that of Abraham, Naaman, Ruth, and others. The New Testament is replete with threatenings for those who do not seek shelter within the Gospel promises. They will be judged under the Law since they refused to obtain God’s non-Law promises through faith. It is not simply that God desires to punish these individuals. It is a matter of justice in which God cannot leave sin unpunished. Because we could not obtain these gospel promises through the Law, He has graciously provided it through His Son.

Concluding Thoughts

I believe Lutheran theology is the most accurate expression of Scripture. While I could give more reasons that I am Lutheran, the above five points are probably my top reasons. Within Lutheran theology, I found a beautiful yet traditional, a faithful yet confronting theology that addresses both the soul and intellect of the entire person. If you wish to learn a little more about who we are and our confessions, please check out this link. God’s peace be with you.