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Is Referring to the Lutheran Divine Service as a “Mass” a Wise Thing to Do?

June 25th, 2008
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Continuing a series of posts on some thoughts and concerns on matters of worship, forms, rites and rituals, I’d like now to address the issue of whether or not the word “Mass” is the best way for us to refer to the Divine Service, or the Service of Holy Communion. It has become, in some circles, nearly a de rigeur mark of a certain commitment to historic Lutheran worship forms to use the word “Mass.” Frankly I’ve noticed the term used in a sort of an “in the know” kind of way. It has become a way to distinguish the “us” from the “them” in certain segments of our Synod. That is unfortunate.

It is my contention that the word “Mass” has a huge amount of theological baggage associated with it that makes its use highly problematic, at best, and, at worst, extremely hazardous to including good and proper understandings of the nature, and purpose, of the Divine Service. Appealing to its use in the Augsburg Confession and Apology, as if that simply settle the question, fails to take into account the nature and context of the AC and Ap.

Rev. Daniel Preus, head of the Luther Academy, and former First Vice-President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod wrote the following article that appeared in LOGIA magazine. I’m reproducing it here because I believe Rev. Preus really goes to the heart and core of the concerns inherent in using the word “Mass” to refer to the service of Holy Communion.

Luther and the Mass

Justification and the Joint

Daniel Preus

APPEARS, [this article appeared in 2001], about two years will have passed since the signing by Rome and various
Lutherans of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Few
ecumenical events in recent church history have received the attention that the
adoption of this document has produced. Supporters continue to laud the
Joint Declaration as a major ecumenical break-through. Detractors remain
no less adamant that the Joint Declaration represents no progress at
all, indeed, that it is a compromise or even a concession of the worst kind.
Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments supporting the latter view is that
made by the Department of Systematic Theology of Concordia Theological
Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana in the April 1998 issue of the Concordia
Theological Quarterly
. In response to a preliminary form of the Joint
, it quotes from the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Gift of
n paper, another document produced through the dialogue process,

spells out “diverse understandings of merit, reward,
purgatory, and indulgences, Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in
the life of salvation, and the possibility of salvation for those who have not
been evangelized” .For Lutherans it is nonsense to speak of consensus on
justification if these issues remain unsettled.1

One more “diverse understanding”
needs to be added to the above list: that concerning the mass. In fact, nowhere
else is a “diverse understanding” more dearly evident than in the positions of
Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the Lord’s Supper. Nowhere is the central
article of the Christian faith more powerfully impacted than in this
difference. And nowhere is this difference more thoroughly described than in
the writings of Martin Luther.

When Luther began to assail the mass as
sacrifice, he attacked the same false soteriology that he had first condemned
in the indulgence controversy a few years earlier. For Luther, the same
principle was involved in both battles, “What he objects to is the claim that
Christ is at our disposal to be made into an object that can be presented to
God in order to gain his favors. It is that which damages both the sovereignty
of Christ and the complete character of his work on the cross.”2 As Luther saw it, the message proclaimed to
the sinner in the sacrament of the altar is the same message announced To him
by the gospel and declared to him by the keys. lt is the message of
forgiveness, freely offered and given by God and received by faith. Against the
heavenly prophets Luther wrote, “I will find in the sacrament or Gospel the
word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness
which was won on the cross.”3 The sacrament
offers to the sinner the body and blood of Christ and thereby acts as
absolution. The body and blood of the Savior, given for the sins of the world,
are received by the sinner together with the forgiveness that Christ purchased
by his death. The sacrament of the altar therefore, is not merely a divine
mandate given by Jesus as a memorial. It is not simply a token of his love. It
is the gospel itself. The Lord’s Supper offers and bestows precisely that which
the gospel gives: the forgiveness of sins. Luther writes:

What is the whole Gospel, but an explanation of this
testament? Christ has gathered up the whole Gospel in a short summary with the
words of this testament or sacrament. For the Gospel is nothing but a
proclamation of God’s grace and of the forgiveness of all sins, granted us
through the sufferings of Christ. . . . And this same thing as we have seen, is
contained in the words of this testament.4

Thus Henry Hamann indicates that the Smalcald Articles view the
sacraments “not only to be compatible with the central teaching of
justification by faith, but to be that central teaching itself in another

There is nothing in the
sacrament of the altar that is not gospel. According to Luther it is the nature
of the antichrist to rage against the gospel, and his raging is more than
evident in his perversion of the sacrament. Even those moderately acquainted
with Luther’s views know that he considered the pope to be the antichrist. To
no small extent, this identification is due to the Roman doctrine of the mass.
The pope altered the very nature of the Lord’s Supper. Under antichrist, it is
no longer as a sacrament that bestows forgiveness; it is rather a sacrifice and
a good work by means of which the antichrist and his followers deceive
everybody. To turn the sacrament into a sacrifice is to pervert it utterly; it
is to change grace to works and Gospel to law. “Just as you cannot make out of
the Gospel a sacrifice or a work, so you cannot make a sacrifice or a work out
of this sacrament; for this sacrament is the Gospel.”6

The doctrine of justification was at
the heart of Luther’s conflict with the papacy, and eventually the mass to
become central to this conflict. As Wissløff points out, Luther did not
attack the mass until his reforming efforts had been under way for some time.
At one time, he confessed, he would have carried wood to burn someone heretical
enough to attack the mass. Eventually however, he came to view the mass as the
very worst of all papal heresies, as he discovered that “nothing less than the
very essence of the Gospel was at stake.”7

The doctrine of justification was at
heart of Luther’s conflict with the papacy,
and eventually the mass
had to become
central to this conflict

Luther’s most strenuous objection was to the concept
of mass as sacrifice. The Roman teaching that in the mass the priest offers a
sacrifice and thus appeases God’s anger denies the efficacy of Christ’s atoning
work. The papal mass is therefore a persistent, daily attack on the article of
justification. It is an unremitting assault on the gospel and on the
sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. It completely distorts the nature of
Christianity changing it from a religion of grace to one of works. In his
Admonition Concerning the Sacrament (1530), Luther summarized his

They made the sacrament which they should accept from
God, namely, the body and blood of Christ, into a sacrifice and have offered it
to the selfsame God… Furthermore, they do not regard Christ’s body and blood
as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, but as a sacrifice of works in which they do
not thank God for His grace, but obtain merits for themselves and others and
first and foremost, secure grace. Thus Christ has not won grace for us, but we
want to win grace ourselves through our works by offering to God His Son’s body
and blood. This is the true and chief abomination and the basis of all
blasphemy in the papacy.8

has Satan achieved this perversion of the sacrament within the papal church? He
has done it by hiding the word that is the bearer of Christ and salvation. For
Luther, it is the word of Christ that causes the sacrament to be what it is.
There is no sacrament apart from the word.

Because it is not contrary to Scripture or faith that
Christ’s words, as we understand them, give Christ’s body at the first
celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we see no reason why this should be contrary
to Scripture and faith at other celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.9

In his Small Catechism Luther
stressed that God’s word is the effective cause of all that the sacrament does.
In answer to the question, “How can bodily eating and drinking produce such
great effects?” the Catechism responds,

The eating and drinking do not in themselves produce
them, but the words “for you” and “for the forgiveness of sin.” These words,
when accompanied by the bodily eating and drinking, are the chief thing in the
sacrament, and he who believes these words has what they say and declare: the
forgiveness of sins (SC vi, 8; Tappert, 352).

But that which is
the chief thing in the sacrament has been obscured by the mass. Luther

But see what they have made of the mass! In the first
place, they have hidden these words of the testament and have taught that they
are not to be spoken to the laity, that these are secret words to be spoken
only by the priest. Has not the devil here in a masterly way stolen from us the
chief thing in the mass and put it to silence?10

The silencing of the words of
institution and the concept of the mass as sacrifice go hand in hand. As
Wissløff points out, when the words are neglected, that which the word
promises is forgotten, and

When the promise of the Word is forgotten, faith which
lives solely by the promise dies. And when faith dies, all sorts of works enter
in instead. If the Word is not given the role of sole authority, human ideas
will promptly come in to occupy its place. And since faith is the only thing
that can correspond to the Word, these human ideas will automatically lead to

Thus the theft of
the word from the sacrament necessarily results in the introduction of
works-righteousness and paves the way for an understanding of the sacrament as
sacrifice. But the pope and his bishops have stolen not only the words of the
sacrament. They have also kept for themselves the bread and the wine. The wine
was withheld in the context of the worship service, and both elements in the
case of private masses. For this reason, they are the “greatest thieves of God
and robbers of the church.”12 For since the
sacrament of the altar is itself the gospel, the robbery is much more serious
than simply depriving the laity of one or even both elements in the Lord’s
Supper. If they are deprived of the body and blood of Christ, they are deprived
of salvation itself.

What kind of peddling is this, yes, what thievery and
robbery when I am robbed of the body and blood of Christ which by right ought
to be given to me freely, and when in exchange for my money and goods, I am
offered the sacrifice and work of a godless, miserable man? I would call that
robbing me of my nourishment and, moreover, selling refuse for money. Yes, it
means robbing me of the kingdom of heaven, and in exchange for my money,
selling me the fire of hell, which unfortunately I had previously earned
without money and possessed because of my sin.13

The plundering of God’s church
by the priests who through their celebration of the mass deprive the sheep of
nourishment and life is so contrary to the nature of the sacrament and the
calling of a true pastor that Luther questioned the authenticity of both the
mass and the mass priests. If it is the duty of the priest to sacrifice, then
his office is not pastor, but an office that rejects the gospel, denies Christ,
and angers God. It must be so if his office is one that intends to sacrifice
and preach works instead of offering and preaching forgiveness in the

Thus Luther did not equate the office of priest with that of
pastor. Luther perceived that the pope possesses his own priesthood. He spoke
of a “holy popish priesthood,” a “papal priesthood,” and “the pope’s
pseudo-priesthood.” In his assessment of the papal mass, Luther did speak about
priests, but he viewed them as “mass priests.”14 They are “godless priests” and the “devil’s
priesthood.”15 Never did Luther refer to
them as priests of Christ, much less as pastors. For pastors feed the flock of
Christ; the mass priests starve the sheep.

Luther often denied that the
popish priests hold any Christian office, but his challenge to their possession
of a Christian priestly office is most often found in his writings that deal
with the mass. The sacrifice of the mass is an attack on the only priestly
sacrifice that can ever have any merit before God, that of the great High
Priest himself. The very term “priest” replaced that of “minister” in order
that the concept of sacrifice might be reinforced in the papal mass.16 The title “priest” is not an appropriate
one to describe him who holds the pastoral office and should be used only in
reference to a Christian.

Luther saw the pope’s priesthood as
completely inimical to the Christian priesthood of believers.

So you see that Christ’s priesthood has less chance of
existing with the pope’s pseudo-priesthood than death has with life or heaven
with hell. Verily, verily, the pope is a regent of Christ: he has driven out
Christ and expelled him and put himself in Christ’s place as a ruler, and
instead of the priesthood of the Spirit, he has set up a childish and grotesque

Since the pope’s
priesthood has nothing to do with Christ, much less with the office of a
Christian minister, Luther denied that the consecration or ordination of such
priests has any validity in the church of Christ. The pastoral office offers
and bestows the gospel through preaching. Ordination should “consist of, and be
understood as, calling to and entrusting with the office of the ministry.”18 Those priests, however, who are consecrated
only to offer the sacrifice of the mass perform none of the duties of the
office of the ministry.

They do not preach. They do not baptize. They do not
administer the sacrament. They do not absolve. They do not pray (except to
intone badly and hiss the words of the Psalter). They do not exercise the
office of the care of souls, nor do they do anything with the dying; rather,
they are a useless, lazy, idle crowd who alone, as they suppose, handle the
sacrament and sell it as a sacrifice and good work.19

Luther wondered what kind of
priesthood it is that performs none of the duties of a pastor and even “forbids
public preaching in the church and parish ministry . . . without a special new
order and call.” As far as Luther was concerned, consecration to such a
priesthood has nothing in common with “ordination or a call to the public
Christian office of preaching and the parish ministry.”20 Such a priesthood has no authorization from
the Scriptures and is therefore a perverted priesthood, instituted not by
Christ, but by antichrist. Wissløff summarizes Luther’s view of this
papal “ministry.”

The sacrifice of the mass is viewed from the standpoint
of preaching. It does not speak of grace and faith, but of works and merit. The
only priestly ministry the New Testament knows anything about is the ministry
of the Spirit. But the ministry of the priest in the mass has to be
characterized as one of the letter, of the law, of works. Therefore it is a
“ministerium perditionis.” “Therefore as the priesthood is, so is the
sacrifice, so is the ministering. The priest, the law, the work – all are
nothing but the laws of Satan.”21

As the priesthood is, so is
the sacrifice.” Just as the pope’s priests are in no sense the priests of
Christ, so the pope’s mass should not be identified with that sacrament
instituted by Jesus. Luther attacked with vehemence especially the private
mass. The sacraments are the possession of the church, not the possession of
the priests. Therefore “no sacrament can be performed by an individual alone.”
“[A]ll masses without communicants should be completely abolished,”22 for “every private mass is an
abomination.”23 So foreign is the concept
of a private mass to Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper that Luther
questioned more than once in The Private Mass and the Consecration of
(1533) whether Christ’s body and blood are even present in such a
mass. Reflecting upon the private masses that he himself celebrated, he
confessed, “I, who was an arch papist and a more zealous reader of masses than
they all are now, said mass for over fifteen years and do not know yet whether
I received the sacrament in the mass or not.” Since in private masses “they
remove the essential ordinance and institution of Christ’ and produce their own
ordinance,” and it is therefore uncertain whether the body and blood of Christ
are even present in such masses, Christians should never believe that “Christ’s
body and blood are present; for faith should be sure of its affairs and have a
sure basis concerning which one must not and should not be in doubt.”24 Since faith cannot possibly be nourished by
such an uncertain act, and since these doubtful masses have no basis in
Scripture, it would be far better for the church if they would all be

Luther did not equate the office of
with that of pastor

But Luther’s condemnation of the mass was not limited
to the private mass. He viewed the mass itself as a “papistic idol.” When he
wrote, “This is the true and chief abomination and the basis of all blasphemy
in the papacy,”25 he spoke not of the
private mass alone. It is the mass itself that is the greatest of all
abominations, whether it take place privately or publicly.

How then did
Luther distinguish between the mass and the sacrament of the altar? In his
first attacks on the papist abuses of the Lord’s Supper, Luther used the terms
“mass” and “sacrament of the altar” interchangeably. In The Babylonian
Captivity of the Church
(1520), for example, he wrote, “Let this stand,
therefore, as our first and infallible proposition – the mass or Sacrament of
the Altar is Christ’s testament, which he left behind him at his death to be
distributed among his believers.”26 In
1530, when the Augsburg Confession and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession
were written, Melanchthon used the word “mass” as a synonym for the Lord’s
Supper,27 and Luther subscribed to both
confessions. In the same year, in his Admonition Concerning the
, Luther himself used the term “mass” as a synonym for

By 1533, however, Luther came to
conclusion that “mass” should no
longer be used in reference to
sacrament of the altar

By 1533, however, Luther came to the conclusion that
“mass” should no longer be used in reference to the sacrament of the altar.
Luther’s Letter Concerning His Book on the Private Mass is very
illuminating in regard to his distinction between the two. In this letter
Luther provided a definition of the term “mass” that clearly drives a wedge
between mass and sacrament. According to Luther, “mass” refers

to what the priest does alone at the altar, to which no
ordinary Christian or layman adds anything. For they indeed know that no layman
or ordinary Christian can celebrate mass and they will not allow it. Nor do
they allow it to be or to be called a mass when a layman receives the
sacrament; but they . . . alone celebrate mass; all other Christians simply
receive the sacrament and do not celebrate mass.29

The word “mass,” Luther
believed, should be defined as the sacrifice that the priest offers for sin. It
should never be used to speak of that sacrament which grants to believers the
body and blood of Christ and the forgiveness of sins. He spoke of the time when
he himself could not differentiate between the two:

For me mass and sacrament at the altar were one and the
same thing, as they were at that time for all of us. Yet they are not one and
the same thing. It is the mass when I sacrifice the sacrament to God for my
sins and the sins of others as a work performed by human beings (whether they
be evil or godly) . . . it is the sacrament when I receive from the priest the
body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine.30

Luther was convinced that the
use of the terms “mass” and “sacrament” interchangeably has resulted in great
confusion, and that the only way to provide a clear understanding of the nature
of the Lord’s Supper is to stop calling it the mass. “Indeed, I wish and would
very much like to see and hear that the two words ‘mass’ and ‘sacrament’ would
be understood as being as different as darkness and light, yes, as different as
devil and God.”31 Again Luther prayed,

May God grant to all devout Christians such hearts that
when they hear the word “mass,” they might be frightened and make the sign of
the cross as though it were the devil’s abomination; on the other hand, when
they hear the word “sacrament” or “Lord’s Supper” they might dance for pure

Lutherans tempted
to use “mass” as a synonym for the Lord’s Supper should take seriously Luther’s
observations on the difference between “mass” and “sacrament.” The same
confusion may very well result today when a term frequently used in reference
to a sacrificial act performed by a priest is used carelessly by Lutherans in
reference to the Lord’s Supper. It is not without justification that a charge
of “Roman Catholic” is brought against those who refer to the Lord’s Supper as
“the mass.” Luther’s own example after 1533 and that of the orthodox
theologians such as Chemnitz who followed him ought to be instructive in this
regard. They do not use the term “mass” to speak of the Lord’s Supper. It is
ill advised for Lutherans to do so today. Confusion will almost necessarily
result unless Rome reforms its doctrine on the mass, which is hardly likely.
Luther conceded that if the papists adhere to the ordinance of Christ in their
celebration of the sacrament; the body and blood of Christ are truly present
and received.33 On the other hand, the
mass, which is celebrated by the priest at the same time that the sacrament is
administered, is a misuse of the sacrament and an abomination. Luther

I am not contending against the sacrament, but against
the mass, and would like to separate the sacrament from the mass so that the
mass might perish and the sacrament alone, without the mass, might be preserved
in its honor and according to the ordinance of our dear Lord Jesus Christ.34

In 1537, when Luther’s
Smalcald Articles appeared, he continued to view sacrament and mass as inimical
to each other. Mass and sacrament are so opposed to each other that Luther
dealt with them under two different headings. Furthermore, when speaking of the
Lord’s Supper in the article on the mass, he used the word “sacrament”; the
word “mass:’ on the other band, means sacrifice (SA ii ii). Nor was Luther
referring alone to the private masses in his condemnation of the mass, although
it is clear that because of their proliferation, they come in for a great deal
of criticism. His remarks introducing the article on the mass indicate that his
major concern was with the mass as sacrifice. The mass is considered the
“greatest and most horrible abomination” not because it is done in private, but
because it runs “into direct and violent conflict with this fundamental article
[of justification].” The mass is a papal idolatry because it is considered a
sacrifice that delivers from sin, whereas only the Lamb of God can do this.
Therefore it is an abomination whenever a mass takes place, be it public or
private. It is little wonder then that Luther concluded, “The Mass is
unnecessary and so it can be omitted without danger” (SA ii ii, 3). In fact, he
wrote, “Let the people be told openly that the Mass, as trumpery can be omitted
without sin, that no one will be damned for not observing it, and that one can
be saved in a better way without the Mass” (SA ii ii, 5; Tappert, 293). The
better way to which Luther refers is that sacrament which has been instituted
by Christ; the Lord’s Supper.

It is clear also in Luther’s Letter
Concerning His Book on the Private Mass
that he included both private and
public masses in his condemnation of the mass. He confessed his anger at the
papists for the way in which they have woven together so inseparably the
sacrament and the mass that when the Christians receive it at Easter time “the
common man is unable to distinguish between the mass and the sacrament.”35

As Luther viewed it, the one
responsible for this weaving together of the mass and the sacrament is none
other than Satan himself.

Such sacrificing and reception of the sacrament the
devil has mingled together so inseparably in the mass, even as dishonest
innkeepers mix water and wine with one another and as deceitful minters mix
silver and brass. There is need here of an acute tester and of a hot fire
(which is the word of God, Psalm 17 [3 ff.]) so that they might again be
separated from one another.36

Through his antichrist, the devil has substituted a sacrifice for Christ’s
sacrament and introduced an idol into God’s temple, as Daniel prophesied
(Daniel 11 [37 ff.]). Just as the devil has constructed his own chapel next to
the church of God, so he has imitated also God’s sacrament and established the
mass as its substitute. And just as the church of antichrist is a hypocritical
and false church, so his mass is an idol and an abomination. For since the
false church of antichrist attacks the church of Christ by robbing it of the
gospel, the false “sacrament” of antichrist must also deprive the church of her
inheritance, robbing her of Christ’s body and blood and the forgiveness of her
sins, offering a human work and sacrifice in its place. The mass may indeed
feed the pope’s “army and men of war,”37
but it is no meal for the church of Christ, which lives and is nourished by the

The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was not simply an ancillary
issue when considering Luther’s understanding of the nature of Antichrist and
the eschatological struggle of the church. When the mass poses as a legitimate
observance of the sacrament of the altar, Christ, the only Savior, is replaced
with an idol, and it is always the removal of Christ’s cross that antichrist
seeks. He has accomplished this goal in the sacrifice of the mass, substituting
works for grace. When mass and sacrament meet, two completely different
soteriologies confront each other. When mass and sacrament actually take place
concurrently, as they do when mass is offered during the celebration of the
Lord’s Supper itself, the struggle between the true and the false church
becomes a particularly grievous one. At one and the same time, at one and the
same place, Christ with his body and blood offers grace and salvation, and
antichrist with his sacrifice of works proffers death and perdition. Every mass
is an assault on the atonement of Christ, proclaiming it insufficient; indeed
irrelevant. Thus the battle between Christ and antichrist rages nowhere more
intensely than in the struggle between sacrament and mass when two conflicting
soteriologies confront each other, one of grace and one of works.

It is
because Luther saw the contention between the mass and the sacrament as a
struggle between two mutually exclusive soteriologies, and therefore, the site
of battle between the true church and the false church, that he viewed the mass
as crucial to the survival of the papal office. Since the mass is a denial of
the atonement, its loss would have a profoundly significant impact upon the
office of the antichrist, whose chief objective is to suppress the gospel and
destroy faith in Christ. Just as Luther believed that the entire gospel is
encompassed within the sacrament of the altar, so he viewed the sacrifice of
the mass as, “the basis of all blasphemy in the papacy.”38 Every celebration of the mass is a
proclamation of the central doctrine of the antichrist, that is, salvation by
works. To remove the mass would be to topple antichrist from his throne.
Therefore, said Luther, it is not possible for the papists to yield on the
article of the mass. “The papists are well aware that if the mass falls, the
papacy will fall with it” (SA ii ii, 10; Tappert, 294).

The mass is a papal idolatry because
it is
considered a sacrifice that
delivers from sin

Already in 1522, foreshadowing his later distinction
between the words “mass” and “sacrament,” Luther recognized how essential the
mass is to papal soteriology. He declared in a treatise against Henry VIII:
“After the mass has fallen, I believe that we will have triumphed over the
entire papacy. For upon the mass, as upon a rock, the entire papacy is
founded.”39 In 1524 Luther confessed that
he had even been tempted to interpret the words of institution symbolically in
order deal a greater blow to the papacy.40

Luther’s view that the mass is critical to the survival of the office
of the Antichrist never changed. In 1534 he said of the papists,

However, they indeed perceive that the Reformation is
about to become too powerful now that the chief article and the true
cornerstone of the papal church, the holy mass, is also being attacked. This is
going to be too much for them. At this point-and it is time-they really have to
shout, lie, murder and resort to all kinds of insults and abuses in order that
their one rock of consolation and chief fortress might not fall.41

Since the mass is essential to
the soteriology and survival of the papacy it would be absolutely ruinous to
retain it in the Christian church. The sacrifice of the mass contains precisely
those elements that bind consciences to a false worship of God and hinder them
from attaining to faith’s only true worship of God.42 As far as Luther was concerned, there can
be no compromise between those who wish to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and
those who desire the sacrifice of the mass.

It is as Campegio said in Augsburg he would suffer
himself to be torn to pieces before he would give up the mass. So by God’s
help, I would suffer myself to be burned to ashes before I would allow a
celebrant of the mass and what he does to be considered equal or superior to my
Savior, Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we are and remain eternally divided and
opposed the one to the other (SA ii ii, 10; Tappert, 294).

A true
pastor feeds the sheep; he offers to the congregation Christ’s body and blood
and the forgiveness of sins, their true inheritance, in the sacrament of the
altar. The pope and his priests, on the other hand, either rob the people
outright of their inheritance, as in the private mass and by withholding the
host, or they so intermingle mass with sacrament that the common people cannot
perceive that their inheritance is there. The pope is therefore no pastor, nor
are his bishops and mass-priests pastors. Pastors “pasture”; they feed and
guide and protect the flock. The pope and his papists, in Luther’s view, are
wolves and arsonists who ravage the flock and burn down the church.

At the heart of Luther’s assessment of
papacy as the antichrist lies the
sacrifice of the mass

Thus, Luther’s view that the pope was to be identified
as antichrist was formed not only by those passages of Scripture that deal with
the coming antichrist and with a description of his kingdom. It was also shaped
substantially by the teaching of justification that permeates Scripture.
Certainly it is the specific passages that predict the coming “man of sin” and
describe his activity that bring to attention the existence of this
eschatological figure. But for Luther it was the Scripture’s message of
justification and his recognition that the pope lives to destroy this doctrine,
and thus to destroy Christianity, that was instrumental in causing Luther to
see that the pope is indeed this antichrist. And at the heart of Luther’s
assessment of the papacy as the antichrist lies the sacrifice of the mass.

If, as indicated earlier, the sacraments are the central teaching of
justification by faith, and if the Lord’s Supper is the gospel, it is surely
disingenuous for Lutherans to declare convergence with Roman Catholics on the
article of justification without even mentioning the Lord’s Supper. Yet this is
precisely what the Joint Declaration does. Though the document contains
a number of references to baptism, it makes no mention of the Lord’s Supper
whatsoever, except obliquely when it concedes the need for further
clarification on a number of topics such as “the relationship between the Word
of God and church doctrine, as well as ecclesiology; ecclesial authority,
church unity, ministry; the sacraments, and the relationship between
justification and social ethics.”43

To avoid completely discussion of a locus that is absolutely
central to the theology of both Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and particularly
to their understanding of the article of justification, can hardly create
confidence in the integrity of the participants. Or is it possible that
Lutherans and Roman Catholics have come closer together during recent years in
their understanding of the sacrament of the altar?

Mass as sacrifice is
certainly evident in the canons of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). “If anyone
says that in the Mass there is not offered to God a true and proper sacrifice,
or that to be offered is nothing but that Christ is given to us to eat, let him
be anathema” “If anyone says that the Mass is merely a sacrifice of praise and
thanksgiving, or a bare commemoration of the sacrifice performed on the cross,
not however a propitiatory sacrifice, or that it benefits him only who eats and
that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins,
punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities, let him be anathema.”44 Rome has not recanted the canons of the
Council of Trent. What Rome affirmed shortly after Luther’s death is her
official doctrine still today

But can one really say that Rome’s
position has not changed in light of the fact that today in Roman Catholic
churches the sacrament can be received in both kinds and Christ’s words of
institution will be heard in the native tongue of the communicant? Yes! On the
nature of the mass as sacrifice Rome’s position has not changed. The
Catechism of the Catholic Church is replete with affirmations of the
mass as sacrifice. According to this book of instruction, commissioned and
approved by Pope John Paul II, in the eucharist the church “presents to the
Father the offering of his Son which reconciles us with him.” “As often as the
sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is
celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.” “The
Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it represents (makes present) the
sacrifice of the cross ” 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.” Particularly
forceful in view of Luther’s condemnation of the “mass priests” is the
following citation:

Through the ministry of priests the spiritual sacrifice
of the faithful is completed in union with the sacrifice of Christ, the only
Mediator, which in the Eucharist is offered through the priests’ hands in the
name of the whole Church in an unbloody and sacramental manner until the Lord
himself comes.

The connection between the mass and purgatory is
also made clear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as an
implicit denial of the full sufficiency of Jesus’ atonement. “The Eucharistic
sacrifice is also offered for the faithful departed who ‘have died in
Christ but are not yet wholly purified’ so that they may be able to enter into
the light and peace of Christ.”45

Luther abhorred the mass as sacrifice precisely because it denied the
sufficiency of Christ’s atonement and thus robbed sinners of comfort. That mass
and sacrament would be observed together he saw as tragic because sinners were
confined and left in doubt as to the inheritance that was theirs in the
sacrament. Such confusion is truly a tragedy because the Christian’s
inheritance in the Lord’s Supper is the forgiveness of sins-and where there is
forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. But as in Luther’s day
this inheritance was denied by the teaching on the mass, so today also the
teaching on the mass deprives Christians of the true comfort the Lord’s Supper
is meant to give.

Is the Lord’s Supper sacrifice or sacrament?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church “The Mass is at the
same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of
the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s
body and blood.” The eschatological battle that Luther saw when sacrament and
sacrifice contended with each other, when grace and works faced off against
each other continues today in the Roman mass. “The altar around which
the Church is gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist represents the two
aspects of the same mystery: the altar of the sacrifice and the table of the

Luther abhorred the mass as
precisely because it denied the
sufficiency of Christ’s

It is difficult to look seriously at the official
teachings of the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church and come to the
conclusion that the formulators of the Joint Declaration have attempted
to be honest with their respective churches. To declare convergence on the
article of justification when there are “diverse understandings of merit,
reward, purgatory, and indulgences, Marian devotion and the assistance of the
saints in the life of salvation, and the possibility of salvation for those who
have not been evangelized”47 is indeed
nonsense. To speak of consensus on the doctrine of justification and ignore the
soteriological conflict between the Roman mass and the Lord’s Supper is to make
a mockery of the meaning of consensus.

One can hardly escape the
conclusion that the signers of the Joint Declaration are more interested
in the illusion of peace and harmony than they are in the truth. In his Preface
to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Philip Melanchthon stated that he
wrote it

to testify to all nations that we hold to the Gospel of
Christ correctly and faithfully. We take no pleasure in discord, nor are we
indifferent to our danger, its extent is evident from the bitter hatred
inflaming our opponents. But we cannot surrender truth that is so clear and
necessary for the church (AC Pref. 15 – 16; Tappert, 99).

Lutherans will never take pleasure in discord. But neither will they surrender
truth that is so clear and necessary for the church. If the Lutheran Church
today wishes to hold to the gospel of Christ correctly and faithfully, she
cannot afford to ignore actual differences in doctrine, especially when those
differences impinge so directly on the gospel itself. The Roman and Lutheran
teachings on the Lord’s Supper not only divide us in our understanding of the
sacrament of the altar. They represent two differing soteriologies, and no less
in our day than in Luther’s. It is difficult to know what long-term effect the
Joint Declaration will have on Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches. One
thing is sure we have no consensus now on the doctrine of justification, nor
will there ever be consensus as long as the Roman mass remains a sacrifice.

Daniel Preus is a contributing
editor for Logia. Formerly director of the Concordia Historical
Institute, he is First Vice President of the Lutheran Church–Missouri


1. Department of Systematic Theology, “Joint Lutheran/Roman
Catholic Declaration of Justification A Respons.” Concordia Theological
62 (April 1998): 94.

2. Marc
Lienhard, Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ: Stages and Themes of the
Reformer’s Christology
(Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982), 128.

3. AE 40: 214.

AE 35: 106.

5. H. P. Hamann, “The Smalcald
Articles as a Systematic Theology: A Comparison with the Augsburg Confession,”
Concordia Theological Quarterly 52 (January 1988): 40.

6. AE 36: 288, 289.

7. Carl
Wissløff, The Gift of Communion: Luther’s Controversy with Rome on
Eucharistic Sacrifice
(Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964), 5,
10; H. G. Haile, Luther: An Experiment in Biography, (Garden City, New
York: Doubleday and Co., 1980), 250.

8. AE

9. Werner Elert, The Structure of
(St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977) 304.

10. AE 35: 90.

Wissløff, 42.

12. AE 38: 159.

13. Ibid. 160.

14. AE
36:203,178. Luther frequently uses the term “mass priests” in his treatise
The Misuses of the Mass.

15. Ibid, 183,

16. Ibid, 173.

17. Ibid, 203.

18. AE

19. Ibid, 179.

20.Ibid. 176 – 177.

Wissløff, 87-88.

22. AE 49: 206.

23. AE 50: 131.

24. AE 38: 156, 158, 163, 227,194,163.

25. AE 49: 263; 38: 188.

26. AE 36: 37.

Triglotta, 65-69, 383 – 419.

28. AE 38:

29. Ibid, 226.

30. Ibid, 227.

31. Ibid,

32. Ibid, 227.

33. Ibid, 225.

34. Ibid,
226 – 227.

35. AE 38: 227. See also Luther’s
Admonition Concerning the Sacrament, p. 120 of this volume, where Luther
spoke of both the sacrifice of the priest and the sacrament of the ordinary
Christian as “both one and the same sacrament.”

36. Ibid, 227.

37. Ibid,

38. Ibid. 118.

39. St. Louis ed., 19:346. The translation is the

40. Hermann Sasse, This is my
(Adelaide, South Australia: Lutheran Publishing House, 1977), 64.

41. AE 38: 232.

42. Wissløff, 18.

43. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of
, 5. 43. Subsequent references will be abbreviated “Joint

44. Martin Chemnitz,
Examination of the Council of Trent, trans. Fred Kramer (St. Louis:
Concordia Publishing House, 1978), 2:440.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Image, Doubleday, 1995), 378
(1354); 380 (1364, 1366); 381 (1367); 382 (1369, 1371).

46. Ibid, 386 (1382); 387 (1383).

47. Concordia Theological Quarterly 62 (April
1998): 94.

Reprinted from
Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology ,
Reformation 2001. You can subscribe to Logia by calling (605)

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  1. Christine
    June 26th, 2008 at 06:41 | #1

    Pastor McCain, thanks for the wonderful Bach playlist! I’m enjoying every bit of it.
    If I recall correctly, the priestly Greek and Latin terms “sacerdos” and “hiereus” are never used in the New Testament to designate a Christan pastor.
    It was a far stretch from “presbuteros” to “priestly” but as the mass began to take the shape of a sacrifice it was a logical evolution in the Roman (and Greek) worlds.
    Lutherans are so blessed to have the full treasures of the Gospel in the Sacrament of the Altar.

  2. June 26th, 2008 at 10:26 | #2

    The term Mass is not one that I regularly use but here on the East Coast there are number of former Roman Catholics in my congregation. When they use the term Mass I do not instinctively correct them and in fact in the conversation I may reflectively use the term Mass as well.
    In the adult instruction class as we talk about the Lord’s Supper and the Divine Service we will talk about the differences they notice in the service and purposes of the Divine Service. By a happy inconsistency I find they often through the power of the Word of God have a more correct understanding of the Lord’s Supper than I would have expected considering their Roman Catholic background.

  3. Anonymous
    June 26th, 2008 at 10:28 | #3

    Klemet Preus in his book, The Fire and the Staff, Lutheran Thelogy and Pracitce, CPH,2004, page,402,says,”No wonder Luther opposed the Mass. To this day Lutherans have wisely chosen not to use the word Mass for fear people will be subjected again to the Christ-denying spiritual and theological atrocities encountered by the early Lutherans. So the abolition of the Mass was never debated. The Mass had to go.” I enjoy your blog Rev. McCain. I always learn something interesting. Diane

  4. June 30th, 2008 at 00:38 | #4

    Christine wrote:
    “If I recall correctly, the priestly Greek and Latin terms “sacerdos” and “hiereus” are never used in the New Testament to designate a Christan pastor.”
    Actually, that is not so. In Romans 15:16 the Apostle Paul refers to his ministry as a priestly duty. The NIV best captures (for once) the Greek word St. Paul chose: hierourgounta, a participial form of hierourgeō. The word means, according to Strong’s Concordance, “to minister in the manner of a priest, minister in a priestly service.”
    So, if we are merely speaking of whether the use of the term priest for a minister has NT backing, then we must answer in the affirmative. Of course, I’m sure we will all quibble about whether this sort of language should be dominant or not among Christians nowadays. Yet the Holy Spirit seems to allow it, or rather (given Lutheran belief in plenary inspiration) the Holy Spirit intentionally chose this term to describe the ministry entrusted to St. Paul. On top of that, we ought to remember that what is contained in Romans is considered by most to be the regular, main body of his preaching, and not a follow-up letter to address other critical issues in light of that main preaching.
    Regarding the Vulgate, since it was brought up, it uses the term sanctificans here for hierourgounta, which the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition translates “sanctifying”. Here the focus is more on the effect of the priestly duty, and less on the priestly nature of the ministering activities.

  5. July 2nd, 2008 at 08:08 | #5

    I prefer Kittel’s, this is what he says in the passage you quoted Rom 15:16…
    “Paul calls his service of the gospel a cultic ministry. As Christ’s minister he brings the Gentiles as an acceptable offering. He protects the metaphor from cultic misunderstanding by showing that the true sacrifice, sanctified by the Spirit, is the offering of life in obedience.”
    This “priestly” duty or simply a holy service is different from the Jewish cultic type of priestly duty. Paul’s “priestly” duty is to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles and to bring the Gentile’s obedience to God. There is no sacrifice as such that is offered or mediated by this “priest” ala Roman or Jewish type.

  6. Christine
    July 2nd, 2008 at 14:58 | #6

    There is no sacrifice as such that is offered or mediated by this “priest” ala Roman or Jewish type.
    Thanks, LPC. That’s what I meant but didn’t state very clearly. The priestly ministry referred to in Romans does not involve cultic sacrifice as ancient Israel, Rome and Greece understood it. Also, to refer to the current priestly function in the Roman church as a “presbyterial” ministry doesn’t make sense.

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