Monergism of Grace and the Lord’s Supper

Monergism of Grace and the Lord’s Supper

Rev. John A. Frahm III

In our context “monergism” means the “sole working” of Christ in giving His gifts and fulfilling the promises of His institution of the Lord’s Supper of His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.   In the Lutheran Reformation the principles of “sola gratia” and “sola fide” as we summarize them today were not just abstractions or slogans but were concretely seen in Luther’s and other Lutherans’ reform of the historic liturgy and in the sacramental practices of the church.

In many ways, Luther’s maturing theological stance can be attributed to justification by grace alone working its way through all the articles of the faith, in the context of addressing pastoral concerns amid challenges on both war fronts with Rome and the Radical Protestants.

In Article XXIV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, summarized neatly by Melanchthon, we have the following statement that clearly articulates what is encapsulated in our recovered classical Lutheran term, ‘Divine Service’:

From the names of the Mass they derive arguments which do not require a long discussion. For even though the Mass be called a sacrifice, it does not follow that it must confer grace ex opere operato, or, when applied on behalf of others, merit for them the remission of sins, etc. 79] Leitourgia, they say, signifies a sacrifice, and the Greeks call the Mass, liturgy. Why do they here omit the old appellation synaxis, which shows that the Mass was formerly the communion of many?

But let us speak of the word liturgy. 80] This word does not properly signify a sacrifice, but rather the public ministry, and agrees aptly with our belief, namely, that one minister who consecrates tenders the body and blood of the Lord to the rest of the people, just as one minister who preaches tenders the Gospel to the people, as Paul says, 1 Cor. 4:1: Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God, i.e., of the Gospel and the Sacraments. And 2 Cor. 5:20: We are ambassadors for Christ, as 81] though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, Be ye reconciled to God. Thus the term leitourgia agrees aptly with the ministry.


Clearly the Lord’s Supper and the liturgy are shown to have a close connection with the office of the ministry, and this, points in the direction of the monergism of grace (Luke 22:27).   The church is composed of those who are given to speak and those who hear.   We live from what we receive.  To be a Christian is to be at the receiving end of the Lord’s mercies purchased by Christ’s death and packaged up for us in the holy Word and Sacraments.

These divine gifts are constitutive of the church and mark the church’s location in this world.   They are recognized as “most certainly true” since the Lord is the one doing them according to His mandate and promise.   There is He is among us as the one who serves until the very end of the age.    Finding our joy or certainty in anything else is to find doubt, darkness, and despair within ourselves and our deeds and our experiences.   As Luther borrows from St. Augustine, “tene certum, dimitte incertum” (cling to the certain, depart from the uncertain).

The Book of Concord begins the discussion of the office of the holy ministry, with a bridge from Article IV to Article V of the Augsburg Confession. The office of the ministry is established so that such justifying faith in Christ (by grace) may be created, conferred, and sustained through the spoken and sacramental Gospel.

In Article V of the Augustana and in the Smalcald Articles there is a condemnation of the Anabaptists and other schwärmer, who teach that the Holy Spirit works apart from the external Word and sacraments through our own preparations, thoughts, and works.   Their theological departures militate both against the monergism of grace as well as the certainty of the external Word into synergism of experientialism dubiously alleged to be the activity of the Holy Spirit.


In understanding the liturgy as the activity of the Lord bestowing the means of grace for the sake of faith in Christ, the Luther and the Confessions make clear that the nature of faith for salvation is utterly passive.   Not even the person of the clergyman is a cause of Christ giving what He gives but is simply the divinely chosen and designated instrument to be representative of Christ.   To be sure we are not free to simply set up

To be sure we are not free to simply set up sign-up sheet for liturgist of the week.   It is the Lord’s institution.   But it is as sure and certain as the Lord is in His doing of it for us and our salvation.  Luther remarks regarding the Lord’s Supper in his 1533 writing on the “Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests”:

So it is not our work or speaking but the command and ordinance of Christ which make the bread the body and the wine the blood, beginning with the first Lord’s Supper and continuing to the end of the world, and it is administered daily through our ministry or office [“The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests” (Luther’s Works – AE:38; p.199)].


If we do not tinker with the Lord’s institution we have certainty through it being all His doing.   If we depart into the darkness of tinkering that engenders doubt through human usurpation and re-engineering of the divine mysteries.    So long as what is done is according to the mandate and institution it is without doubt. “Offices and sacraments always remain in the church; persons are daily subject to change. As long as we call and induct into the offices persons who can administer them, then the offices will surely continue to be exercised” [(AE:38; p.201)].  Luther continues in the same passage:

When the pastor celebrates mass diligently, note this difference: Insofar as he observes the institution of Christ and also administers the sacrament to others, be assured that Christ’s body and blood are certainly there on account of Christ’s ordinance and not on account of the pastor’s work or holiness. Insofar, however, as he does not observe the ordinance and intention of Christ but changes and perverts them, it is not necessary for you to believe that it is Christ’s body and blood.


So in the Formula of Concord’s denial that, “No man’s word or work, be it the merit or speaking of the minister,” brings about the real presence is not to deny that the body and blood are, “distributed through our ministry and office” (cf. FC-SD, VII.74-77).    It is the Word of Jesus that comes to the elements of bread and wine, according to His institution kept whole, wherein we have divine monergism and certainty made clear.   Without the Verba Testamenti there is no Lord’s Supper.

In Formula of Concord – Solid Declaration, Article VII, the words are there in order to bless, change, consecrate the bread and wine. They are Christ’s words and He is speaking them through the mouth of His called and ordained man.

The words of Christ are directed toward the elements as consecratory words to be spoken or chanted “distinctly and clearly” (deutlich und klar) before the communicants, and most certainly not omitted, whispered, or otherwise obscured or made less prominent or made into a group consecration.

(An aside:   One wonders at the odd practice of entire congregations reading the Gospel lection in unison or choirs singing the consecration in place of the pastor – is our ecclesiology the Bride of Christ talking to herself?   I think not.   The predominance of lay readers serving calls for further reflection upon the office, the monergism of grace, the order of creation, etc.   Getting people “involved” in the chancel is hardly a Lutheran Reformation principle and shows a misunderstanding of the royal priesthood of baptized believers.)

The Words of Institution “are under no circumstances to be omitted.” More than this they are to be spoken or sung “clearly and distinctly before the people.” Through this, the bread and the wine are consecrated. Hence in the understanding of Formula of Concord-Solid Declaration VII and the Large Catechism, the Words of Institution are said simultaneously over the elements and before the people.

Therefore also, it is fair to say that they are given a certain reverent prominence.   They are both proclamation and consecration.   As such they are from Christ to the people, not from us to God.   The sacrificial in the context of the Lord’s Supper is in terms of reverence and the thanksgiving that goes before and after the Supper.

In the Gospels, the new things are what is given to the office to carry on. Not just anyone could have instituted the Lord’s Supper. Not just anyone has the authority to do as the Lord has done in the first Supper.   So what is carried on is not just approximating what we think might have been done in a typical Passover.   The old Passover is fulfilled.

What is carried on is what the Lord made of the fulfillment in the new institution – the Lord’s Supper.    “This do” is not merely imitation but is a specific mandate according to the Lord’s institution.   This is what gives us the certainty for faith since it is truly the Lord who is bestowing these gifts through His designated means.

Luther rebuts who would liturgically reverse the direction of the Words of Institution into something other than consecration and proclamation together:

This word is the whole gospel. You will observe and understand that it says nothing about a sacrifice or a good work but about a present and a gift, which Christ offers and gives to us, and which we should receive and with faith appropriate and hold fast. He tells you to take and keep, and would you make an offering of it and give it away? How can you say to God: “I will give You your word”? Neither can you say to another person: “I am offering God his Word on your behalf.” On the contrary, you should say: “Dear Lord, since you say that you freely give it to me, I receive it with gratitude and joy” [“The Adoration of the Sacrament” (Luther’s Works – AE:36; pp.288,289)].

The Lord’s Supper is Christ’s last will and testament in His blood.   It is not a synergistic deal but a monergistic bestowal of forgiveness, life and salvation effected through His death (see Hebrews 9).   The Lord has His say – distinctly and clearly.   Our say waits for when He has had His.   When it comes to priorities and what is   prominent in the Divine Service, it is the Lord’s speaking and doing that takes precedence.   Ours is to respond to His initiative.

We liturgy Him because He first liturgies us.   The problem of eucharistic prayers is not simply regarding the content of the prayer, but whether the Verba ought be directed back to God in a prayer. The problem is not solved with a linguistic argument for the proclamatory element of liturgical prayer (e.g., as some pastors “repreach” the sermon in the Prayer of the Church).

Prayers might come before or after but let the Words of our Lord remain from Him to us.   We might like to say “Lord, let us build three tabernacles” for Jesus and the saints, but the Lord interrupts and has His say.   Martin Chemnitz speaks to the matter stating in summary form:

And surely this blessing or consecration is not to be divided between the Word of God and words handed down by men. For it is not just any word, but the Word of God which is necessary for a sacrament. And to the Word of God, seeing it has been tried with fire, nothing is to be added (Prov. 30:6). And especially, nothing is to be added to the testament of the Son of God (Gal. 3:15-27). In short, Christ has commanded us to do in the action of the sacrament what He Himself did. He did not, however, perform a mute action, but spoke. And what He said is reported to us in Scripture, as much as the Holy Spirit judged to be necessary for us [Chemnitz. Examination of the Council of Trent: Volume II, p.226].


Chemnitz calls further attention, repeatedly, to the fact that Gregory the Great asserts that the apostles did not use the canonical prayer but only the Verba Testamenti next to the Lord’s Prayer. St. Gregory the Great writes in Epistle XII to John, Bishop of Syracuse, a passage also cited by Friedrich Lochner in Der Hauptgottesdienst, a liturgical classic for the early Missouri Synod:

[…] it was the custom of the apostles to consecrate the host oblation to (ad) that same prayer only. And it seemed to me very unsuitable that we should say over the oblation a prayer which a scholastic had composed, and should not say the very prayer which our Redeemer composed over His body and blood [Philip Schaff, ed. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church: Volume XIII. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989); p.9].


Hence we can see that our concern here is not only that the Divine Service is “theocentric” (God-centered) or “Christocentric” but that it is not a one-way street.   This is why Luther made the suggestion in the German Mass and Divine Service that the altar is pulled out from the wall so that it could be used from both sides to make the distinction between law and gospel and to accentuate the monergism of grace ceremonially in the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord comes to us and this is the divine initiative for faith’s creation and sustenance.    “Divine Service” is justification by grace alone said in a liturgical way.   In all times and places we are to pray, but when the Lord speaks we listen and wait our turn.   As Kenneth Korby notes:

… the Word God wants us to hear is his Word of promise for us, his determination to bless us with his pleasure by forgiving our sins.  With such promises Christ seeks to elicit our trust; from such trust that listens, prayer grows as conversation between the speaking God and the listening believer, and between the speaking believer and the listening God.   Prayer that is that kind of conversation must distinguish between God’s Word and man’s word.   To confuse those words mistakes the desires, longings, and aspirations of religion’s “I” with the Word of God.   Such confusion leads to an acoustical illusion:   what we hear is the echo of our own utterances.

What happens, for example, to the great emphasis that Holy Communion, Eucharist, is our prayer and offering to God?   We may be only victims of imprecise language.   If the entire worship service, in which the Lord’s Body and Blood are received is meant, that service includes proclamation, the word of forgiveness of sins, as well as praise, thanksgiving, prayer, and intercession.

But what of the heart of that service, the words of our Lord’s final will and testament, the heart of the Good News, where our living Lord gives us his very Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins?   Is that the word of the faithful to God?   Real confusion has been inserted if the cry of the faithful to the Lord cannot be distinguished from the faithful promises of the Lord to us.

Our prayer life is in trouble if we cannot make that distinction.   And the distinction is not the basis for precluding union between God and man; rather, the distinction is the basis of a genuine union of wills and lives [Kenneth F. Korby.  “Prayer:  Pre-Reformation to the Present” in John Gallen, ed. Christians at Prayer (Notre Dame.  University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), p.132].


Anamnesis” (remembrance) is not a ceremony added by the church for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but the consecration, distribution, and reception of the body and blood of Christ in faith, receiving the forgiveness of sins, are (collectively) the remembrance.   To be sure, we should not ordinarily do as sometimes observed, merely leaving the service of the Word and jumping rather mechanically to the Words of Institution.   We prepare and give thanks (preface, proper preface, Sanctus, Lord’s Prayer) but then the Lord has His say and we listen as His words bestow what they say.   Then we who partake of the body and blood of the Lord are to proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes as we are sent forth into our vocations, having been strengthened in faith toward God and in love toward our neighbor.

Nothing we add to the words of Jesus adds to the consecration or can become an effective means of the body and blood being given – not our thanksgiving nor invoking the Holy Spirit to come down and change the elements (epiclesis).   We confess the union of the Holy Spirit with the Word and as the One who proceeds from the Father and the Son.   And so we worry not about the Words of Institution being “naked” as some say, but rather we see them as distinct and clear words that proclaim and bestow what Jesus promised according to His institution.    May we by the Lord’s grace steward sola gratia in the Holy Supper of Christ.

Editor’s Note: The Office of the Holy Ministry image by Edward Riojas is available to purchase here.

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