Regarding the Mass: H.C. Lord's Day 30

Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 30

Q 80. How does the Lord’s Supper differ from the Roman Catholic Mass? 
A 80. The Lord’s Supper declares to us that all our sins are completely forgiven through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all.  It also declares to us that the Holy Spirit grafts us into Christ, who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father where he wants us to worship him.

But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have their sins forgiven through the suffering of Christ unless Christ is still offered for them daily by the priests. It also teaches that Christ is bodily present under the form of bread and wine where Christ is therefore to be worshiped. Thus the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry.

Q 81. Who should come to the Lord’s table? 
A 81. Those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, but who nevertheless trust that their sins are pardoned and that their remaining weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to lead a better life.

Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves.

Q 82. Should those be admitted to the Lord’s Supper who show by what they profess and how they live that they are unbelieving and ungodly? 
A 82. No, that would dishonor God’s covenant and bring down God’s wrath upon the entire congregation. Therefore, according to the instruction of Christ and his apostles, the Christian church is duty-bound to exclude such people, by the official use of the keys of the kingdom, until they reform their lives.

On the whole, the Heidelberg Catechism does a good job of teaching and explaining the Christian faith, particularly a reformed understanding of it.  Unlike some documents and movements of that time (16th century A.D.), there is little in the way of condemnation of other modes of belief or what we would consider denominations.  In that day, there was considerable contempt and condemnation that was going around between the Reformed Protestants, the Lutheran Protestants, the Anabaptists, and the Catholic church.  None really had good things to say about the other.  Yet, in the midst of this, the Heidelberg Catechism offered nothing more than a teaching tool for why the Reformers believed what they did, largely staying away from pointed remarks against other Christians.

…That is… until now…

Lord’s Day 30 addresses specifically the Catholic practice of the Mass, something that has been the worship structure of the Roman Catholic church since its modern inception sometime in the early part of the last millennium.

Different than the worship structure of Protestant churches in general, the focal point of the Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, whereas Protestant churches see the focal point in the opening of God’s Word.  While there may be a short homily in a Catholic Mass, the main emphasis of worship is placed on the ritual celebration of communion.

While this is not necessarily a wrong emphasis, and many would argue the importance of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the danger (and reasoning for the Heidelberger’s speaking out on this point) comes largely from the reasoning of this emphasis.  As we talked about last week, the Roman Catholic church believes in the transubstantiation of the elements, the bread and the wine.  This means that bread (wafers) and cup (wine) are physically transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ.  So when they are taking communion, those attending the Catholic Mass are literally feasting on the body and blood of Christ.

There are a number of dangers here:

First, the Catholic theology suggests that the Mass and the celebration of the Eucharist participate in the “ongoing sacrifice” of Jesus on the cross.  By participating in it, we are taking part in this sacrifice that is drawn forward from the original moment to now.  Catholics do not believe that the Mass is a “re-sacrifice,” but the wording comes close to that.  1 Peter 3:18 says that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.”  Apart from the general verb tense that is used here, which is very clearly the past tense, it also points to the same language as is used in Hebrews 10, that Christ died once for all.  His sacrifice is not repeated nor is it ongoing, it happened and, as Jesus said, “It is finished.”  We don’t want to continue this work through the Eucharist or any other acts.  By thinking that we do, we add an element of “works righteousness” into the mix which, essentially, nullifies or minimizes Christ’s work on the cross.

Second, if the emphasis of worship is on the celebration of communion, and on the literal feasting on Christ’s body and blood, there may be an inadvertent teaching that this act is in itself a saving act.  There is nothing salvific about the sacraments; receiving them does not save us.  They are visible signs of God’s grace and through our participation in them we are proclaiming the Gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  Again, this can cause us to stray into a false belief in “works righteousness” or a belief that we are saved by the “work worked.”  That means that, through our participation in the sacrament and the receiving of Jesus literal body and blood, we too are saved despite where our hearts may be.  Clearly, this flies in the face of Scripture’s revelation of justification by faith.

Finally, there is a danger that comes in thinking that Christ’s literal body and blood are present in the celebration of the Eucharist.  If they were, it would be right that we would worship the elements as they appear, being that their presence would mean the incarnated presence of God’s Son, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, among us.  If this were the case, it would be right to worship them.  However, this literal reading of Scripture does not necessarily make sense as Jesus said he was many different physical things and we take none of them literal.  He is not a literal gate, a literal shepherd, or even a literal well of living water inside of us.  Instead, these are analogies of the impact of Jesus’ life, ministry, and presence in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  If then, we wrongly worship the bread and the wine as Jesus’ literal body and blood when they are not, we are committing a horrible idolatry at one of the most significant moments in worship.

I think it is important to note that, even here in the Heidelberg Catechism, and in our discussion today, we are asking important questions so that we can better understand the nature of our beliefs and worship.  This discussion is not meant to be a condemnation of our brothers and sisters in Christ, but rather a clarification of why those who are “reformed” believe the way that they do.  Scripture is very clear that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and that the only one who is in the position to judge us is Christ, He who went to the cross to die for our sins.  Let us remember that as we consider our hearts and that of others when we participate in the sacraments.  God the Father invites us to His table to commune with Him, despite our sinful selves, because we have been washed in the bloood of Jesus.  Let us, therefore, endevor to understand in the best possible way, the event we are participating in, and revel in the glorious mystery and beautiful grace that is present there as we encounter God anew at His Table.

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