“Why were our reformers burned?” Reflections on the Lord’s Supper
Throughout Church history the Lord’s Supper has been celebrated as a sacred meal by churches of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians in every generation have rightly understood the gospel-centeredness of the meaning of the bread and the wine. Indeed, to distort the Lord’s Supper is to distort the gospel. We need look no further than the English reformers to discover a generation of Christians who refused to relinquish the biblical meaning of the Lord’s Supper, even at the expense of their own lives.
In his book, Five English Reformers, English Bishop J.C. Ryle posed this question: “Why were our reformers burned?” Writing approximately 300 years after the protestant reformation in England, Ryle strongly believed that his own generation needed to know why their protestant forefathers were willing to be burned at the stake. “Why were our reformers burned?” he asked. Ryle’s answer honed in on one fundamental issue: the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. According to Ryle, the English reformers were burned at the stake for refusing to accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of the real presence. The Roman Catholic Church demanded that all protestant clergy endorse and teach the doctrine of the real presence when practicing the Lord’s Supper. What was this doctrine known as the real presence? It was the teaching that the body and blood of Christ were really, corporally, literally, locally and materially present under the forms of bread and wine after the priest pronounced the words of consecration. In other words, the doctrine of the real presence meant that Christ’s body and blood were re-sacrificed on the altar every time the church partook of the Lord’s Table. If the reformers affirmed the real presence, they would live; if they denied it, they were burned.
The English reformers simply could not accept the doctrine of the real presence. They knew that by endorsing such a doctrine, the very gospel itself would be undermined and lost. For Christ need not be re-sacrificed. His blood shed on the cross was sufficient to make atonement for sin once and for all. According to Ryle,
Whatever men please to think or say, the Romish doctrine of the real presence, if pursued to its legitimate consequences, obscures every leading doctrine of the gospel, and damages and interferes with the whole system of Christ’s truth. Grant for a moment that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice, and not a sacrament—grant that every time the words of consecration are used the natural body and blood of Christ are present on the communion table under the forms of bread and wine—grant that everyone who eats that consecrated bread and drinks that consecrated does really eat and drink the natural body and blood of Christ—grant for moment these things, and the see what momentous consequences result from these premises. You spoil the blessed doctrine of Christ’s finished work when he died on the cross. A sacrifice that needs to be repeated is not a perfect and complete thing. You spoil the priestly office of Christ. If there are priests that can offer an acceptable sacrifice of God besides him, the great High Priest is robbed of his glory. You spoil the scriptural doctrine of the Christian ministry. You exalt sinful men into the position of mediators between God and man. You give to the sacramental elements of bread and wine an honour and veneration they were never meant to receive, and produce an idolatry to be abhorred of faithful Christians. Last but not least, you overthrow the true doctrine of Christ’s human nature. If the body born of the Virgin Mary can be in more places than one at the same time, it is not a body like our own, and Jesus was not ‘the second Adam’ in the truth of our nature . . . . Let this fact be deeply graven in our minds. Wherever the English language is spoken on the face of the globe this fact ought to be clearly understood by every Englishman who reads history. Rather than admit the doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s natural body and blood under the forms of bread and wine, the Reformers of the Church of England were content to be burned. (Ryle, Five English Reformers, 31–32).
And burned they were. Rather than spare their own lives by consenting to the doctrine of the real presence, the reformers kissed the stake in defense of the gospel. They recognized that any doctrine that posed a threat to the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice was a doctrine worth fighting to the death. Christ alone saves was the cry of these reformers, not Christ plus participation in the bread and wine. The reformers refused to capitulate. They preached the gospel of justification through faith alone, in Christ alone, by God’s grace alone. Because of this, they were burned.
As we come to the Lord’s Table this Lord’s day, let us also affirm the meaning of this sacred meal. The bread represents the body of Christ that was broken for us. The wine represents the blood of Christ that was shed for us. As we partake of this ordinance, we remember that our salvation is a free gift of grace given to us through faith in Christ. He alone is sufficient to save and his work is complete. The author of Hebrews tells us, “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high” (Heb 1:3b). We partake of the Lord’s Table to declare this gospel message. We partake of the table in communion with Christ not because he is present in or under the bread and wine, but because through faith we share in his fellowship through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.