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Hushing Christ’s Words of Institution: Then and Now

At the time of Luther, the practice of the Sacrament of the Altar by papists inflicted many abuses upon the laity. These included withholding the cup from the laity, selling masses, masses for the dead, and more.

The greatest abuse was warping the Sacrament from being a sacrament into being a sacrifice.[1] In a sacrifice, people offer something to God. In the case of the papists, it was the priests who sacrificed, and there was no role for the laity to either participate in the sacrifice or even hear or believe what was being said in the sacrifice. The sacrament was supposed to operate without the Word being spoken to the laity and without the hearing of faith by laity.

The Zwinglian error was essentially the same. While the Zwinglians thought they corrected the error of the papists by ridding the sacrament of the exclusive work by the priests, they simply substituted the work of this group of humans for that group of humans. Instead of the priests alone offering the sacrifice, the laity offered a sacrifice of memorializing Christ. To them, the bread and wine were not the true body and blood of Christ, but only memorials of his body and blood. They changed what “in remembrance of me” means. They made a work by the laity of memorializing Christ into the central, sacrificial reality.[2]

In the errors pressing in on Luther from both sides, what they both shared in common was making the sacrament a work and sacrifice of some class of humans. They differed only in which class of humans was to do a human work and what the work was. That was, however, only playing musical chairs, with humans and human works on all the chairs.[3] Neither side upheld the sacrament as the work of Christ for us, which we receive both by hearing and believing the Word, and by eating and drinking the true body and blood of Christ.

In contrast to those errors, Luther recovered what a sacrament is. In a sacrament, God promises forgiveness, life, and salvation, He attaches his Word to a visible sign, and makes the Word-and-sign actually deliver the promise. The sign is important, but:

  • Its importance depends upon the Word; and
  • Without the Word of promise, there is nothing for the people to hear and believe.

Without the Word of God, there is no work of God, and all that is left is some work of man, which is unavailing for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

The papist version of the human works error strips the Word and faith from the sacrament. This theological error produces a devilishly destructive error of practice: the priests mumbled,[4] whispered, or silently recited the Words of Institution of the Sacrament into the cup, purposely withholding the Word from the laity.[5] The papists literally, with their mouths, hushed the Words of Institution of the Sacrament.

O the pity of it! Under this captivity, they take every precaution that no layman should hear these words of Christ, as if they were too sacred to be delivered to the common people. So mad are we priests that we arrogantly claim that the so-called words of consecration may be said by ourselves alone, as secret words.[6]

Luther many times and in many ways said the Words of Institution are a complete Gospel. They say everything we need to know to awaken faith, strengthen confidence, and lovingly comfort troubled hearts and consciences. Therefore Luther:

anathematizes those “godless Masspriests” who, … by repeating [the Words of Institution] in a low voice, “have hidden them so secretly that you might think they wanted no Christian to know them.”[7]

So, when Luther gave instructions for the evangelical catholic administration of the Mass, he commanded that the Words of Institution be said so that everyone could hear them.

If, then these words are the gospel (i.e. justification) in a nutshell, then they must be proclaimed. Instead of a silent recitation, the words were to be intoned.[8]

But today, some Lutherans have their own way of hushing Jesus’ Words of Institution. According to prevailing theologians of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, John Reumann and Robert Jenson, we do not know:[9]

  • Whether Christ’s institution of the Sacrament was actually “on the night He was betrayed.”
  • Whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal so that Jesus could be seen as the Passover lamb that takes away the sin of the world.
  • Whether the Last Supper was one event or a composite of multiple events. Three events are given as probable. In some treatments, even post-resurrection events are folded into the composite.
  • What Jesus actually did during the institution of the Supper.

Others also say we don’t know:

  • Whether it was an actual event, or something created retrospectively by a subsequent theology of the cross.
  • Whether Jesus said, “Do this.” Instead, this is seen as being added to the text for liturgical necessity.
  • Whether all of the disciples drank of the cup, because it is too hard to believe, and it must be an embellishment by the evangelists.
  • Whether Jesus took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, since that might have been added to the text for the sake of liturgical parallelism.

By all this, the Sacrament is nothing more than table fellowship that Jesus practiced with sinners and disciples on multiple occasions, interrupted by the crucifixion, and resumed in the resurrection. As such, it is unrelated to the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Also by this, the body St. Paul admonishes us to discern is not the body of Christ, the man who hung on the cross. Instead, it is a humanist body of Christ, the church.

Some say the whole notion of Real Presence revealed in the Words of Institution is Paul’s concoction based on Hellenistic mysticism, so that the meal Paul describes is not the same as the evangelists describe or what Jesus actually did in the upper room. They say Paul dreamt up a parallel (Doppelganger) supper which cannot benefit us because Jesus never instituted it.

As bad as all that is, here is the main thing: They say we do not know what Jesus actually said. (John R. Stephenson, The Lord’s Supper (St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 2003), pp. 28 et. seq.)

This is the sure mark of the Devil, who began his transactions with humans by challenging, “Has God indeed said,” (Genesis 3:1), and continued on the same course when he challenged the baptismal Word of the Father to Christ. When Christ was baptized, the Father said, “You are my beloved Son,” (Mark 1:11) and immediately (Mark 1:12), in the wilderness, Satan challenged that Word, saying, “If you are the Son” (Matthew 1:3). The Devil does this to us too, challenging the Word we received in our baptisms, that we are adopted as sons of God, brothers of Christ, and joint heirs with Christ of eternal life. He does it by hushing the Words of Institution of the Sacrament to attack our faith that Christ gives us his true blood to drink and with his blood, what it was shed for, the remission of our sins.

By an elaborate scheme of higher criticism of Scripture and other haughty academic devices, those so-called Lutheran theologians have, in their own way, done like the papists. They have, with their own tactic, hushed Christ’s Words of Institution of the Sacrament.

Which is worse, to retain the exact Words of Christ, but withhold them from the people by whispering, or to tell the Words to the people saying, we don’t know if this is what Jesus said, or if He ever said anything like it at all? One is no better than the other.

From Genesis 3:15 onward, the Holy Spirit by the mouths of the prophets repeatedly foretold of the coming of the Savior. He foretold that there would be a New Testament. (Jeremiah 31:31-34Hebrews 8:8-12). Finally, in the fullness of time, Christ in the upper room said, “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” (Luke 22:20)[10] Was God so haphazard and negligent in his prophesies and fulfillment that Christ had not chosen carefully his words in advance. In the fullness of time, after centuries of desire and expectation, did Jesus just wing-it off the cuff, impromptu? Did he not take care to say everything He meant to say exactly as He meant to say it? Did He never quite get around to actually giving us the New Testament, even though that was why He came?

Luther’s treatment of the Words of Institution and his practice of giving the Words to the people are completely unlike either of those abominations, the abomination of papist withholding of the Words and the abomination of pseudo-Lutheran erasure of the Words. Rather, he strips down his sources for what doctrine to believe about the Sacrament and what way to minister to the people by the Sacrament to the very Words of Institution and those Words alone. He divided all passages of Scripture that possibly are about the Sacrament into two groups:

  • The Words of Institution themselves alone; and
  • All other passages that might foreshadow, reflect upon, or be allusions to the Sacrament.

Without rejecting the usefulness of the second group of passages as supplements, illustrations, and allusions after the right doctrine of the Sacrament is established, he excluded them from having any part in originally establishing the doctrine of the Sacrament.[11] He realized the right doctrine of the Sacrament and the right administration of the Sacrament entirely from the Words of Institution alone.[12]

Further, he delved deeply and thoroughly into each and every word of the Words of Institution, treating every word as a vein out of which much ore could be mined, and treating none of the Words as incidental, surplus, or insignificantly spoken.[13]

Then, he commanded that the Words of Institution be said aloud for the people to hear, as a brief but complete sermon of the Gospel, to be heard and believed with the hearing of faith. In this, the Mass rightly is retained among us, as bread and wine made the true body and blood of Christ by his Word, a sacrament in which Christ works for us, and neither priest or laity works.

While I am greatly in support of the One Year Lectionary, still, if a pastor were to preach for a whole year on nothing but the Words of Institution, there would be enough there in those Words to use all the preaching time. The hearers would know everything they need for forgiveness, life, and salvation, and to discern the true body and blood of Christ in worthy reception of the Sacrament.


[1] “2.37 The third captivity of this sacrament is that most wicked abuse of all, in consequence of which there is today no more generally accepted and firmly believed opinion in the Church than this – that the mass is a good work and a sacrifice. This abuse has brought an endless host of others in its wake, so that the faith of this sacrament has become utterly extinct.” Dr. Martin Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church 1520, Project Wittenberg text, Robert E. Smith, Wesley R. Smith, and Lucas C. Smith, eds.

[2] Jonathan D. Trigg, “Disputes on Baptism and the Eucharist, 1521-1532” in Martin Luther: A Christian Between Reforms and Modernity (1517-2017), Alberto Melloni, ed., (Boston: De Gruyter 2017), vol. 1, p. 306.

[3] “Luther saw his opponents’ denial of the real presence as implying a view of the Lord’s Supper that made it a human act, constituted in terms of human remembering, contemplation, and believing, which effectively played that same cruel trick as had the Church of Rome with the mass understood as sacrifice – it destroyed the sacrament as a means of grace, and replaced divine action with human.” Trigg, op.cit., p. 308.

[4] “This focus on God’s promise also leads Luther to criticize … the practice of the priests ‘mumbling’ the words of institution into the cup (because it prevents the heirs from hearing what is promised to them in the will).” Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomir Batka, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 324 , citing The Lord’s Supper, A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass (WA 6:353-378; LW 35.79-112).

[5] “To convert the gift of God’s love into an offering made to him is an offense, and it is associated with the concealment, suppression, or mumbling of the words of institution.” Trigg, op. cit., p. 302.

[6] Dr. Martin Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church 1520, Project Wittenberg text, Robert E. Smith, Wesley R. Smith, and Lucas C. Smith, eds., ¶ 2.53.

[7] F. R. Webber, Studies in the Liturgy (Erie, Pennsylvania: Ashby Printing Company, 1938) (quoting Friedrich Heiler, The Spirit of Worship), p. 135.

[8] Spinks, Bryan. Luther’s Liturgical Criteria and His Reform of the Canon of the Mass (Bramcote, Notts.: Grove, 1982), p. 34.

[9] John R. Stephenson, The Lord’s Supper (St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 2003), pp. 28-30.

[10] “2.47 Thus, in order to raise up Adam after the fall, God gave him this promise, addressing the serpent: “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and you seed and her seed. She shall crush your head, and you will lie in wait for her heel.” In this word of promise Adam, with his descendants, was carried as it were in God’s arms, and by faith in it he was preserved, patiently waiting for the woman who should crush the serpent’s head, as God had promised. And in that faith and expectation he died, not knowing when or in what form she would come, yet never doubting that she would come. For such a promise, being the truth of God, preserves, even in hell, those who believe it and wait for it. After this came another promise, made to Noah – to last until the time of Abraham – when a rainbow was set as a sign in the clouds, by faith in which Noah and his descendants found a gracious God. After that He promised Abraham that all nations should be blessed in his seed. This is Abraham’s arms, in which his posterity was carried. Then to Moses and the children of Israel, and especially to David, He gave the plain promise of Christ, thereby at last making clear what was meant by the ancient promise to them.

“2.48 So it came finally to the most complete promise of the new testament, in which with plain words life and salvation are freely promised, and granted to such as believe the promise. He distinguished this testament by a particular mark from the old, calling it the “new testament.” For the old testament, which He gave by Moses, was a promise not of remission of sins or of eternal things, but of temporal things – namely, the land of Canaan – by which no man was renewed in his spirit, to lay hold of the heavenly inheritance. Therefore it was also necessary that irrational beasts should be slain, as types of Christ, that by their blood the testament might be confirmed. So the testament was like the blood, and the promise like the sacrifice. But here He says: “The new testament in my blood” – not in another’s, but in His own. By this blood grace is promised, through the Spirit, for the remission of sins, that we may obtain the inheritance.

“2.49 The mass, according to its substance, is, therefore, nothing else than the words of Christ mentioned above – “Take and eat.” It is as if He said: “Behold, condemned, sinful man, in the pure and unmerited love with which I love you, and by the will of the Father of all mercies, I promise you in these words, even though you do not desire or deserve them, the forgiveness of all your sins and life everlasting. And, so that you may be most certainly assured of this my irrevocable promise, I give my body and shed my blood, thus by my very death confirming this promise, and leaving my body and blood to you as a sign and memorial of this same promise. As often, therefore, as you partake of them, remember me, and praise, magnify, and give thanks for my love and bounty for you.” Dr. Martin Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church 1520, Project Wittenberg text, Robert E. Smith, Wesley R. Smith, and Lucas C. Smith, eds.

[11] Stephenson, op.cit., pp. 39-40.

For example, “2.3 IN THE FIRST PLACE, John 6 is to be entirely excluded from this discussion, since it does not refer in a single syllable to the sacrament.” Dr. Martin Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church 1520, Project Wittenberg text, Robert E. Smith, Wesley R. Smith, and Lucas C. Smith, eds.

“2.39 IN THE FIRST PLACE, in order to grasp safely and fortunately a true and unbiased knowledge of this sacrament, we must above all else be careful to put aside whatever has been added by the zeal and devotion of men to the original, simple institution of this sacrament – such things as vestments, ornaments, chants, prayers, organs, candles, and the whole pageantry of outward things. We must turn our eyes and hearts simply to the institution of Christ and to this alone, and put nothing before us but the very word of Christ by which He instituted this sacrament, made it perfect, and committed it to us. For in that word, and in that word alone, reside the power, the nature, and the whole substance of the mass. All else is the work of man, added to the word of Christ. And the mass can be held and remain a mass just as well without it.” Dr. Martin Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church 1520, Project Wittenberg text, Robert E. Smith, Wesley R. Smith, and Lucas C. Smith, eds.

[12] “There is an intense concentration on just a few words of Scripture: on the words of promise attached to the signs. This is where Luther can allow no compromise.” Trigg, op. cit.

[13] “2.41 … In these words nothing is omitted that concerns the completeness, the use and the blessing of this sacrament and nothing is included that is superfluous and not necessary for us to know.” Dr. Martin Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church 1520, Project Wittenberg text, Robert E. Smith, Wesley R. Smith, and Lucas C. Smith, eds.