The answer to this question should be a great concern to those who believe in the Gospel truth of justification by faith alone recovered and illuminated especially at the time of the Reformation. After all, justification by faith alone has reference to that in which we place our trust, and also the legal ground or basis for the justification of sinners. We must trust in a sacrifice as the basis for our justification. In particular, we trust in the one unique and completed sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross as the legal ground for the forgiveness of our sins. On the cross, Jesus Christ satisfied to the uttermost the justice of God which required that our sins be punished.
If that is the case, then we must not put our trust in any other sacrifice. Only because this sacrifice is perfectly sufficient and worthy, we can have peace in our consciences that we are right with God, and be free to serve Him in gratitude without the terrible expectation of everlasting punishment in hell for our sins. What are we to think then of Rome’s claim in its doctrine of the Mass that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice? Indeed, for Rome, what they call the “Eucharist” is the supreme and central object of their faith, toward which all other ecclesiastical ministries are directed:
The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.”1
In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith: “Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.”2
For Rome, the Lord’s Supper is a communion,3 a memorial of the cross,4 a thanksgiving5 and praise to God,6 a propitiatory sacrifice,7 and a substantial presence of Christ.8 Rome injects corrupt doctrines into the meaning of many of these terms, so that we could not even agree with what Rome teaches about the first two of this list,9 but it is the last two in particular that militate against justification by faith alone. Their doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the substance of the bread and wine become the substance of “the whole Christ”, by which they mean “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity”.10 To this, we respond that Christ ascended to heaven and is there to be worshipped by us (Phil. 3:20). There is no justification by faith in idols of bread and wine in the place of Christ who is in heaven. Notwithstanding that this absurdity involves those who participate in it in both gross blasphemy and idolatry, our main concern in this article is the claim that the Lord’s Supper is a propitiatory sacrifice.
By propitiatory, we mean a sacrifice which pays for sins so that God’s just wrath against us for our sins is appeased. There is no doubt that this is Rome’s view of the sacrifice of the Mass. First, they teach that the Mass is actually one and the same sacrifice as that offered by Christ on the cross. This is their grounds for concluding that it is propitiatory:
The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.”11
For Rome, in the Mass “the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present.”12 Furthermore, Rome offers this sacrifice for both the living and the dead, as an offering to supplicate God to forgive their sins.13 This offering has to be made over and over again, not only for the living, but also for the dead. The question arises then, if it is really the same sacrifice of Christ on the cross which is perfectly sufficient to pay for all our sins, why does it need offered again? Was there something lacking in Christ’s priesthood which is supplied by Rome’s priesthood? These are kind of arguments made in the letter to the Hebrews, helping early Jewish Christians understand why they do not need the sacrifices of bulls and goats:
And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
The apostolic doctrine is that if a priest has to offer the same sacrifices over and over again, then that proves that such sacrifices can never take away sins. Unlike the priests who had to offer daily sacrifices, Christ needed to offer up his sacrifice only once (Heb. 7:27). Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews argues:
For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. (Hebrews 9:24-28)
This illustrates an absurdity for us: If Christ had to be offered often, he would have been suffering since the beginning of the world. The apostolic doctrine is that Christ’s sacrifice cannot be offered without Christ’s suffering. The implication for Rome’s view then is that Christ continues to suffer today whenever the Mass is offered. But can there be any more suffering for Christ who has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, who said on the cross, “It is finished”? The writer to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s hypothetical continued suffering as an absurdity which proves that he does not offer Himself often.
He crowns his argument by appealing to the death and judgment of men. We do not die often, but once and then are judged finally. In the same way, “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.” If Christ had to be offered for sins often, He would also have to die often since death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). But He has risen from the dead, and defeated death so that he lives forever and cannot die (Rom. 6:9; Heb. 7:16, 25; Rev. 1:18). He has defeated death precisely because His offering for sin was entirely sufficient. His resurrection is also the hope of our resurrection, because we will be like Him (I John 3:2). If He could still suffer and die, so that He be offered again and again, then we too would have no hope in the resurrection but continued suffering and death (I Cor. 15:12-22). But the promise of God concerning our eternal hope is this:
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. (Revelation 21:3-5)
What comfort would it have been to the thief on the cross, when Christ said “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), if it meant continued suffering? Nevertheless, Rome holds her doctrine of the Mass, in contrast to this plain teaching of Scripture, and even claims that the early church fathers supported this view. The early church fathers may have differed on many things, but they did not differ in appealing to Scripture rather than the words of mere men as the final authority in controversy. Should we then simply respond by saying that those in the early church were fallible and should just be ignored?
Certainly we must insist, with them, that Scripture is the ultimate authority, and that is sufficient to counter Rome’s arguments. But our attitude towards other faithful members of the church, whether past or present, should never be simply to ignore them because they, like us, are fallible. That would betray a self-destructive pride and foolishness (I Pet. 5:5). Did God give His Spirit only to us, or also to others? Do we understand all things in Scripture perfectly, or did God also give valuable insights to others, which He did not give to us (Job 12:2)? Is there not safety in the multitude of counsellors (Prov. 11:14)? Should the eye say to the hand, I have no need of you (I Cor. 12:21)?
For Reformed Christians, this may never be our attitude. Scripture is our ultimate authority by which all men’s words must be judged, but that does not mean that we should dare simply to ignore the words of other church members. First of all, we should not dare because God has always taught the church by means of the preaching of His Word by men (Rom. 10:14-15; I Cor. 1:21; Eph. 4:11-16). Secondly, God has made the church a body, fitly framed together so that each part has need of the others (Rom. 12:3-8; I Cor. 12:8-31). Thirdly, we should prefer others above ourselves (Rom. 12:10; Phil. 2:3), being swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). Fourth, we, just as much as others, are fallible and need corrected by others bringing God’s Word to us (Prov. 15:10; Acts 18:24-26; Gal. 2:11-16).
We look at the faithful who have gone before us with indebtedness and honour, being grateful to God for them. They have helped us to understand the teaching of Scripture – especially against the many heresies which have arisen in the history of the church. They have shown us where to look in Scripture for the answers against these heresies, and how the truth ties together to expose the arguments of heretics. We cherish the ecumenical creeds of the early church. We cherish also their writings, though again only so far as they can be proven by Scripture, since they like us, are prone to err.
But we are ashamed of our errors, and the errors of others, and we do not boast in them or publicise them when we become aware of them (Prov. 12:6; I Pet. 4:8). We say things today which we regret and are embarrassed of in hindsight, and those in past also, along with many wonderful things, said foolish things which they now regret and are embarrassed of. We should be careful to esteem the words of others, and especially in particular our elders and our fathers in the faith (Lev. 19:32; Job 32:4; Isa. 3:5; I Tim. 5:1, 19). But as Shem and Japheth covered Noah, we too should cover their shameful errors, which we now by God’s grace may see more clearly, because we have learnt from them. Not like Ham who made known the shame of his father.
Rome seems to take delight in rummaging through the gold of the early church writings, to find all the dung and put it on prominent display. The appropriate attitude here is not to simply cast them all aside as if all they wrote was dung, but to honour them by taking their gold and showing that what Rome insists on is inconsistent with that. This was Calvin’s approach in dealing with Rome’s claims. First, he explained positively what Scripture teaches, then he showed their errors from Scripture, and then he defended the honour of the early church fathers who were being dragged through the mud by Rome. Only after positively explaining the Lord’s Supper in Chapter 17 of his Institutes, does Calvin begin to treat directly the subject of the papal Mass, which he terms a sacrilege14. After dealing Scripturally with the points raised here, and much more besides, he begins to examine whether Rome can make any appeal to the primitive church.
Besides, this perversity was unknown to the purer church. For however much the more shameless among our adversaries try to gloss this over, it is very certain that the whole of antiquity is against them, as we have previously demonstrated in other matters, and it may be more surely ascertained by an assiduous reading of the ancient writers.15
Before he continues he asks “how they can believe that God is pleased by this way of sacrificing, for which they have no command, and which they see cannot be proved by even one syllable of Scripture” and since “they cannot claim even an iota that supports their priesthood,” he asks, “Why, now, will not their sacrifices vanish, which cannot be offered without a priest?” For Calvin too, Scripture is the ultimate, and sufficient authority. But neither is Calvin ready to relinquish the church fathers:
If anyone thrusts forward detached sentences of the ancient writers from here and there, and argues from their authority that the sacrifice executed in the Supper is to be understood far otherwise than we explain it, our answer briefly is: if it is a question of approving a sham sacrifice such as the papists have contrived in the Mass, the ancient writers do not support such sacrilege at all. Indeed, they use the word “sacrifice”; but at the same time they explain that they mean nothing else than the remembrance of that one true sacrifice which Christ, our sole Priest (as they everywhere proclaim), made upon the cross.16
He then quotes Augustine and Fulgentius who both make the same comparison and contrast between the sacrifices of the Old Testament looking forward to the prophesied sacrifice of Christ, and the partaking of the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper remembering that sacrifice which has already been offered.17 Augustine refers to the Lord’s Supper as an offering, which Fulgentius qualifies as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.18 Calvin explains:
Augustine himself in many passages interprets it as nothing but a sacrifice of praise. Finally, in his writings you will repeatedly find that the Lord’s Supper is called a sacrifice for no other reason than that it is a memorial, an image, and a testimony of that singular, true, and unique sacrifice by which Christ has atoned for us.19
Calvin also points to a very deep and insightful theological argument made by Augustine, which really leaves no room for Rome’s priesthood, or any involvement of Christ’s sacrifice with the sacrifice they offer:
In a sacrifice four things are to be considered—to whom offered, by whom, what is offered, and for whom. Accordingly, that same one true Mediator, reconciling us to God through the sacrifice of peace, remains one with him to whom he has offered; has made those for whom he offered one in himself; is himself, both he who has offered and what he has offered, one.20
Astoundingly profound Christological doctrine! Christ’s sacrifice is so unique in that Christ offers Himself to God with whom He is one, and for us sinners who are made one in Him. How then could this unique sacrifice be offered by anyone other than Christ Himself? It would be to try to take the office of Mediator between God and man. No-one other than Christ has been given that office (I Tim. 2:5), and no-one else could possibly be qualified, since only Christ is both God and man in one divine Person. Little surprise that for Augustine it would be the “voice of Antichrist” to speak of anyone else as an intercessor between God and man.21
Having shown that these early church fathers themselves are sufficient to refute Rome’s doctrine of the Mass, when putting their gold, silver and precious stones on display, he concedes that there is also some wood, hay and stubble. Says Calvin:
… we do not deny that the sacrifice of Christ is so shown to us there that the spectacle of the cross is almost set before our eyes … [as in the preaching, cf. Gal. 3:1] But I observe that the ancient writers also misinterpreted this memorial in a way not consonant with the Lord’s institution, because their Supper displayed some appearance of repeated or at least renewed sacrifice.22
Calvin was not afraid to disagree with the early church writers, and where necessary to point out where he believed they had erred. Again he urges us to look instead to the “pure and simple ordinance” of the Lord’s Supper in Scripture alone.23 He insists however that their error was mitigated or restrained:
Certainly, since I see that they have kept a devout and orthodox sense of this whole mystery, and I do not find that they intended even in the slightest degree to detract from the Lord’s unique sacrifice, I cannot bring myself to condemn them for any impiety; still, I think they cannot be excused for having sinned somewhat in acting as they did.24
Specifically, he blames them for taking a “perverse anagogical interpretation” so that the Lord’s Supper was compared too closely with Old Testament sacrifices. Calvin remedies this by spending some time illustrating the proper contrast that should be made in light of Christ’s sacrifice now being accomplished. He then treats the important distinction between a propitiatory sacrifice and a sacrifice of praise or thanksgiving.
But although these [Old Testament sacrifices] were of various forms, still they can all be referred to two classes. For either an offering was made for sin by some kind of satisfaction, by which guilt was redeemed before God; or it was a symbol of divine worship and attestation of religion—sometimes, in the mode of supplication, to ask God’s favor; sometimes, of thanksgiving, to testify gratefulness of heart for benefits received; sometimes, of the exercise of simple piety, to renew the confirmation of the covenant.25
He explains that those sacrifices belonging to the first category, were not actually capable of atoning for sin, but only prefigured the sacrifice of Christ which only He could have offered. Calvin insists that the perfection of this offering, leaves no room for any other. He then applies this to the Mass as “a most wicked infamy and unbearable blasphemy” for anyone to suppose that pardon of sins is obtained by repeating the offering. In passing, he also takes aim at the avaricious practice of offering these Masses not for the whole church, but for those who pay with money.26
In modern Ireland today, this abominable practice is maintained. The recent scandal regarding the sale of Mass cards was not primarily to do with Rome’s wicked practices, but the practice of the retail sector, selling pre-signed Mass cards for Masses that were never actually offered, because in many cases the priests in question were dead or could not be found. In 2009, a new law was brought in to ban this practice, which in retrospect really just serves to strengthen Rome’s monopoly on the sale of Masses.27 Speaking personally, I would not appreciate receiving a card for a departed loved one which says that the faithful departed is burning in the fires of purgatory, and that Masses must be offered up continually in the vain hope that their sins may be paid for. What a weak and pitiful sacrifice it must be that offering it once is not enough! Of course, for the sake of appearances, they are careful no longer to speak of this transaction in terms of a sale, but as a voluntary donation. A donation for which there is a recommended amount and which secures that a Mass is offered for the donor. An exchange of a Mass for money, one might say, or a “sale” in other words. One may read the papal instructions on this practice and make one’s own conclusions.28 With the convenience of modern technology, one can now also much more easily purchase these Mass cards online, even in bulk.29 It’s not clearly advertised however how much sin €5 for one Mass is supposed to pay for.
Perhaps surprisingly, Calvin shows the shamefulness of the Mass, by showing how even by the standards of the pagans (Plato, in the Republic) paying for Masses as a mechanism to continue freely in sins is “brutish stupidity”. Yet, he says, the ease of purchasing Masses enables this, and this practice accounts for “the greatest part of masses.”30 Calvin continues his explanation of the distinction between sacrifices of propitiation and sacrifices of thanksgiving, by demonstration from Scripture. Stating that the sacrifice of thanksgiving includes “all the duties of love”, he expands:
Also included are all our prayers, praises, thanksgivings, and whatever we do in the worship of God. … This kind of sacrifice has nothing to do with appeasing God’s wrath … but is concerned solely with magnifying and exalting God. For it cannot be pleasing and acceptable to God, except from the hands of those whom he has reconciled to himself by other means, after they have received forgiveness of sins, and he has therefore absolved them from guilt.31
The argument is plain, God is not pleased with offerings of service which are stained by guilt and wickedness. Our works of gratitude cannot be acceptable as an offering of praise unless we are first cleansed by the offering of Christ to remove our guilt. He explains Malachi 1:11 in this light – the incense offered in every place is not the incense offered in Masses by Rome, but is the offering of ourselves in the New Testament age as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our reasonable worship (Rom. 12:1). As examples, he refers to the letter to the Hebrews in which doing good and sharing are called well-pleasing sacrifices (Heb. 13:16), and to the Philippians’ generosity to Paul as a fragrant sacrifice (Phil. 4:18). He adds to these examples from both Old and New Testament (Psalm 50:23, 51:19, 141:2; Hosea 14:2-3; Heb. 13:15) showing that all Christians have been made priests to offer this sacrifice of praise (I Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6).32
Finally Calvin concludes, “Satan never prepared a stronger engine to besiege and capture Christ’s Kingdom” and that the Mass, “from root to top, swarms with every sort of impiety, blasphemy, idolatry, and sacrilege.”33 Having understood this clearly, at least from this one consideration of Rome’s teaching of the Mass as a sacrifice, what should those who fear God do with respect to the Mass as it is practised everywhere throughout this nation? The apostle Paul gives us the very simplest admonition: “Flee from idolatry” (I Cor. 10:14, cf. I John 5:21). If we do not with all our energy denounce and abhor it, and bear witness against it, at least let us flee from it. Let us not look back towards it, or linger awhile for the sake of others near to us, since we know that God’s wrath burns against all idols and idolatry, and there is no respect of persons with God. “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32), as an example of those who do not wholeheartedly flee from what God has designated for destruction when His deliverance has been displayed (Num. 16:26; Rev. 18:4).
Calvin also had much to say about the right application of the Gospel with respect to the Mass. Some, under fear of persecution, thought that they could avoid causing offence to their neighbours if they at least attended, even if they did not believe in it or worship the “consecrated” breadwith their hearts. Calvin’s answer was very clear, worship is not only with the heart, but with all of our being.34
Now it cannot be denied, that the Mass is an idol set up in the temple of God. Therefore, whoever attends it, gives an example to the simple and ignorant that he holds it in reverence as good: and he is thus guilty before God of the ruin of the one whom he deceives in this manner … First, all servants of God will unquestionably require of a believer not only that he love and honour God in purity and innocence of heart, but also that he give witness to the love and honour that he bears Him inwardly by means of outward exercises. This witness consists of two points, namely confession with the mouth and outward worship, or ceremonies. … As to the second point, there is no doubt but that all ceremonies that involve manifest idolatry are contrary to the confession of a Christian. Therefore, bowing down before images, worshipping relics of saints, going on pilgrimages, bearing candles before idols, buying Masses or indulgences are all things which are wicked and displeasing to God. We must likewise abstain from all ceremonies which are connected with superstition and error, such as attending services which are performed for the dead, going to Masses, processions and other services which are done in the honour of saints, as is done today. For there is nothing there but what is profane and impure. The word of God is defrauded there; the prayers which are made there are not only foolish and inept, but full of blasphemies, and without anything which may be defended by the authority of the ancient church. For they have entirely overturned and destroyed what the fathers holily instituted and observed in the past.35
We belong to God both body and soul, and owe Him the sacrifice of praise with both body and soul. Calvin pointed to the example of Daniel’s friends.36 How easy it would have been for them to just bow with their bodies to the image of Nebuchadnezzar to satisfy him, yet they refused, determining even to burn in the fiery furnace if God did not deliver them! Not merely because it would be a poor witness to what they believed in their hearts, but because it would be offering worship to devils (I Cor. 10:20). Calvin casts down almost every equivocation and excuse one could imagine for attending the Mass in these writings. Calvin insisted that the sacrifice of thanksgiving required by God demands that we keep ourselves from any participation in such idolatry (I Cor. 10:21).
When a man understands the Gospel of our salvation by the one sufficient sacrifice of Christ, the only sacrifice which gives us confidence before God and delivers us from slavery to sin, he ought rather to suffer death than to offend God by attending such an abominable ceremony (Psalm 1:1, 26:4-5; II Cor. 6:17). This was a very real possibility in Calvin’s time, whereas in our country and time, the worst we can expect is some acquaintances and relatives are offended and perhaps give us the cold shoulder and refuse to speak to us or hear us. Let man be offended, but do not offend God by tolerating what He despises – a ceremony which aims to supplant the perfect sacrifice of His Son. Only by Christ’s offering of Himself can our consciences be cleansed. Only by His final and finished atoning sacrifice can we be justified before God through faith in Him. The only sacrifice which has paid for sins is the one which never needs to be offered again forever.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a3.htm (accessed 21st January, 2020).
Briefly, the Lord’s Supper ought to be a communion of believers, not only a select few, and not open to the unbelieving and impenitent, and not all who eat enter into communion with Christ, but only those who partake by faith (contra. Catechism, 1329). By “memorial,” they mean not just a “recollection [and proclamation] of past events” but also the same sacrifice being present again, and it being offered again (Catechism, 1362-1366).
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 1960 (The Westminster Press: Philadelphia).
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1437.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1438.
With perhaps greater clarity now, and better distinction from various errors, we (with Calvin), insist that this real partaking of Christ is only by the instrument of faith (John 6:51-58). The physical mouth and hands are of no profit to reach or assimilate Christ into us (John 6:63-64), only the mouth and hands of faith can avail to reach up to Christ in heaven and receive Him (John 6:27-40; Gal. 5:4-6), and that only because this faith is worked in our hearts by the Spirit of Christ who unites us to Him (Eph. 1:19, 2:8). Unlike others who “throw the baby out with the bath-water” when rejecting Rome (not properly discerning between the lies and the vestiges of truth upon which the lies are constructed to make them seem more plausible, persuasive, and historic), we insist that we must really partake of Christ, who is Himself the bread of life, and that Christ is really present at His table, not in substance, but by His Word and Spirit, in the preaching and in the hearts and communion of His people by the faith which works by love.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1438.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1439.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1439.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1439.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1439.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1439.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1439-40.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1441.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1442.
End to ‘bogus’ Mass cards, Michael Brennan, Irish Independent, https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/end-to-bogus-mass-cards-26513616.html (accessed online, 27th January 2020).
Mos iugiter decree, 1991, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_22021991_miug_it.html (accessed online, 27th January 2020).
Sympathy Cards – Sets, MSC Missions, https://www.mscmissions.ie/product-category/mass-cards/with-sympathy/sympathy-cards-sets/ (accessed online, 27th January 2020).
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1443.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1444.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1444-5.
Calvin, Institutes, p. 1445-6.
John Calvin, Come Out From Among Them, 2001 (Protestant Heritage Press: Dallas, TX).
Calvin, Come Out From Among Them, p. 41-2.
Calvin, Come Out From Among Them, p. 57-8, 136.