Reformation and Cross: It Is Finished

From Tyler Cowden, in recognition of Reformation Day…
At the time of writing, it is that season of the year again when many Reformed Christians call to mind their historical roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and hopefully continue to appreciate the real differences that divide the ideologies of the Roman Catholic Church and those of us who “protest” the official teachings and practices of Rome as being contrary to God’s revealed will in His written Word, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

While we love many of our friends who identify as Roman Catholic, and do not believe that any individual even within a gospel-compromising institution is beyond the pale of God’s ability to save, we affirm a certain system of doctrine which is fundamentally at odds with the official claims and teachings of Rome, and (despite attempts of some so-called evangelicals in recent decades) cannot be reconciled with them as they stand, for the sake of God’s glory and the good of human souls.

The material cause of the Protestant Reformation was sola fide, “justification by faith alone,” an essential element of the Protestant (and biblical) ordo salutis (order of salvation in a believer’s experience). But it is inextricably linked with an implicit but extraordinarily important difference between the historia salutis (history of salvation—that is, the accomplishment of redemption through the work of Christ in history, in His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session) as viewed by Rome and as viewed by historic Protestantism.

The consequences of these differing systems of the doctrine of salvation are highlighted in each group’s sacramental theology, and perhaps most clearly in the Lord’s Supper, or the “Eucharist.” Often when Reformed believers critique the Roman Catholic view of the Supper, they focus on the metaphysical theological issues of “substance,” as related to Christ’s two natures as the incarnate Son of God, attempting to show inconsistency between the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation and the historic Church creeds about the Person of Christ (which summarize scriptural teaching), particularly as regards His human nature.

The Roman Catholic Church (hereafter “RCC”) officially teaches that the Eucharist involves the literal transformation of the bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s actual body and blood, although the outward appearances (“accidents”) remain those of ordinary bread and wine. Note the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter “CCC,” quoted from the Vatican website):

The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation. –CCC, paragraph 1376

The point is often made that in view of the RCC’s own affirmation of the definition of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 regarding the person of Christ, which says that the properties of each of Christ’s two natures (human and divine) are preserved, and their difference not taken away, in the hypostatic union of the one, incarnate person of Christ, that the idea of transubstantiation detracts from Christ’s continuing true humanity.

True human beings are spatially located, and the man Jesus Christ is physically present in heaven until the end of the age according to Scripture. To be sure, heaven interlocks with the earthly sphere in important ways, and the Church is united to Jesus Christ—the whole Christ—by the Holy Spirit. But Scripture uniformly indicates that there is a sense in which “…heaven must receive [Christ] until the period of the restoration of all things…” (Acts 3:21, my emphasis). Only on the Last Day will Jesus Christ return to earth as the man He is, body and soul, in power and glory, to consummate His kingdom.

This is an important critique, with which I agree, and one which we Reformed would also aim (in a more muted way) at our Lutheran and some of our Anglican brothers and sisters. But I do not think it is the most important critique of the RCC’s take on the Lord’s Supper. Nor do I think it is the most apologetically powerful or convincing. After all, Catholic and Lutheran theologians alike can appeal to difficult-to-disprove apparent peculiarities of Jesus’ human nature after His resurrection (see the gospel accounts for hints of this).

But I think that the RCC’s understanding of the Supper regarding its relationship to the historia salutis is more important to focus on and refute than its view of issues about “substance” (as strange and foreign to ancient Jewish/biblical sacramental symbolism as those are). In fact what the RCC teaches about the Eucharist and how it relates to the accomplishment of redemption is much uglier, indeed blasphemous, and is the reason biblically-minded Christians should recoil in horror at the dogma.

The RCC officially teaches that at the heart of the event of the celebration of the Eucharist—that which makes a Roman Catholic service a “Mass”—is the idea that the Eucharist is a literal re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, as an offering to God. Note the wording well. It is not seen as a “representation” in the sense of mere figure or symbol, but as a real and literal re-presenting to God of the one sacrifice of Jesus, although in an “unbloody manner” (cf. CCC paragraph 1367), absurd as that idea is by itself.

See the explanations of the Catechism:
(Under “What Is This Sacrament Called?): The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Savior and includes the Church’s offering. –CCC, paragraph 1330

In the institution narrative, the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ’s body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all. –CCC, paragraph 1353
The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body. –CCC paragraph 1362a

In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them. –CCC paragraph 1363

In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present [sic] the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. “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.” –CCC paragraph 1364

The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, that is, of the work of salvation accomplished by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, a work made present by the liturgical action. –CCC paragraph 1409

Note carefully how even though, for example, in CCC 1363, concessive language of “in a certain way” and “present to the memory of believers” is used, the emphasis of the Catechism as a whole is clearly the literal making-present-again of the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is not, from the RCC’s perspective, that the Church “re-sacrifices” Christ every Eucharist, as some Protestants clumsily allege in their hasty critiques. Rather, it is that the liturgical action carried out in the celebration of the Eucharist is thought to make present again Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice.

However, as we will see shortly, this is no less a problem for a right understanding of Scripture’s teaching—and indeed the historic Christian Church’s teaching—regarding the person and finished work of Christ. The reason the difference between the Protestant view of the Lord’s Supper and the RCC’s view is so important is that it has direct connections with the ordo salutis—the individual believer’s experience of salvation—and therefore enormous implications for the doctrine of assurance.

The sacraments are an important place where ordo salutis and historia salutis meet and help interpret one another in the context of a church’s overall theology. And the RCC’s sacramentology ends up making a mockery of the biblical historia, and therefore also wrecks a proper understanding of ordo. How is this so?

To go about answering that let us first briefly review what the Council of Chalcedon decided about the person of Christ, as it is in fact recorded and affirmed in the CCC:

We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division or separation. the distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis. –CCC, paragraph 467

Moving beyond the mere definition, though, what is the reason for this concern of the early church (and of both the RCC and confessionally Reformed churches today)? It is that, as necessary as it was for our Mediator and Redeemer to be divine (in order for God to receive all glory for our salvation and perhaps also to provide a sacrifice of infinite worth to sufficiently pay for the sins of a great multitude of redeemed), it was necessary for Him to be truly human, because, as Gregory of Nazianzus famously stated in his polemic against the Apollinarians (those who denied that Jesus had a human soul), “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.”

If Christ is to corporately identify with, and indeed act as a substitute sacrifice for, His people, particularly on the cross, He must identify with and actually take upon Himself their essential human nature. In brief, while no one can make any sense out of plain statements of Scripture with regard to Jesus Christ as both true God and true man without confessing something like Chalcedon’s definition, it is equally true that without such a definition no one can make any sense out of the system of salvation presented in Scripture. In other words, effective, scriptural soteriology demands Chalcedonian Christology. The CCC itself speaks in this direction:

The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God, who “loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins”: “the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world”, and “he was revealed to take away sins.”

Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. We had lost the possession of the good; it was necessary for it to be given back to us. Closed in the darkness, it was necessary to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Saviour; prisoners, help; slaves, a liberator. Are these things minor or insignificant? Did they not move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since humanity was in so miserable and unhappy a state? –CCC paragraphs under 457, my emphases

So we readily see how transubstantiation may be in direct conflict with such an understanding of ancient Christology (which we believe is consonant with Scripture). But what is the connection of all this with the historia salutis and the idea of the Mass as a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice? The connection is with the other most obvious essential attribute of human nature, apart from the one considered in debates over transubstantiation…

In critiquing transubstantiation the human attribute in focus is that of finitude of spatial locality. Human beings are not omnipresent but localized in space. Even human souls/spirits are not omnipresent, even though non-physical; only God is absolutely unlimited by space in His essential divine nature. But in critiquing the alleged re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice in the Roman Catholic Eucharist, the human attribute in view is that of temporal finitude.

Human beings, made in God’s image, are historical creatures. In fact, all things God has created are bound by time. Only God is eternal. He condescends to interact with His creatures in time without ceasing to be who He is essentially as the eternal, “I AM,” self-existent God above time. But even in the union that exists between the people of God and Christ, by the Spirit, there is no evidence in Scripture (or in plain reason) that God will (or even could) make His creatures—even those redeemed in and by Christ—more (less?) than historical creatures.
Therefore, the entire created world is temporal/historical (in the sense of time-bound); all human beings are temporal; all human sin is temporal; the future judgment of the world in light of sin will be temporal. And therefore, as a matter of fact, all of God’s redemptive actions for the world and particularly for His people in Christ are temporal. To be sure, they have eternal (read: everlasting) implications. And this seems to be one concern of the CCC in the course of its discussion of the Sacrament, possibly underlying the confused insistence on the idea of the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist:

The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:

[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper “on the night when he was betrayed,” [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit. –CCC, paragraph 1366, my emphases; bracketed insertions original

However, this is an entirely unnecessary and indeed inappropriate line of thought, confusing and mixing the ordo salutis with the historia salutis. There are several reasons this mixture is both unnecessary and inappropriate.

First, as I have already begun to explain, temporal human beings who have become temporal sinners through the Fall (and continuing through temporal personal sin) need a temporal Mediator to do the temporal work on their behalf that Adam should have done in order to accomplish a temporal (in contrast to “timeless,” not to “everlasting”) salvation. Human plight needs human redemption. Historical darkness needs historical illumination.

Second, it is not necessary for a foundational redemptive event of history to be literally and repeatedly made present in order for its benefits to be applied to its subjects. The Exodus example given in the Catechism is actually a perfect example because a) the Exodus is the paradigmatic redemptive event in terms of which the New Covenant in Christ is consistently couched (as the “New Exodus” of an ultimate return from exile), and b) the Catechism itself more or less shyly admits that the actual Exodus can’t be understood to have been literally “made present” every time Passover was celebrated; rather, it says the Exodus events were in the Passover “made present to the memory of believers.”

A brief moment’s reflection makes this point rather obvious. The plagues on Egypt, the overthrow of Pharaoh’s army, the parting of the Red Sea, and Israel’s safe passage through it, were in no way literally “made present” again during Passover celebrations. Nevertheless, in observing Passover, believing Israelites were reminded, and indeed truly participated in the implications and effects of the Exodus, and they reaffirmed their identity as the special chosen people of God through that Old Testament sacrament. So it is today for the Church, in a biblical model of the Supper. To be sure, we have today the New Covenant advantage of the work of the Spirit uniting us to Christ, applying the benefits of His work to us in a uniquely personal , and in one sense, transcendent, way. But this leads to the third point…

All of the benefits of salvation flow through union with Christ—prospective union for Old Testament saints, existential and experiential union for the New Covenant Church (and also for the OT saints now, at long last). Scripture speaks of this in many ways, and it is true that one of the ways in which it speaks of this is in terms of the union of believers with Christ in His death and resurrection (see Romans 6 as the locus classicus). If what I have been saying about human temporality is true, how is this possible with regard to our union with Him in His death?

I believe it is demonstrably true that such language is in a sense metaphorical, and relates to (particularly Pauline) theology of the federal headship of Christ, who acts as our covenant representative. It would take extensive detailed exegesis of Romans 5 to prove this thoroughly, and space prevents that discussion here. But a more obvious point would be that as far as actual Christian experience goes, it is clear in the New Testament that we are united to the living Christ.

Christ, the man, has died once for all (in an emphatically past-tense way). And we are united to the one who has died, but who lives (emphatic present-tense) never to die again. A man cannot be dying, dead, and alive at the same time, and to connect this with the first point, Jesus is and forevermore will be a true human being who experiences the passage of time in His human nature just as any human would (and is no less also the eternal Son of God for it). And this is precisely the kind of union we need—union with the living Christ—in order to receive all the benefits related to eternal life in Christ.

Along similar lines, it may also be instructive to note here that even if a Roman Catholic apologist were to try to appeal to post-resurrection differences in the powers and abilities of Christ’s human nature, perhaps in order to justify transubstantiation or something, these unique, pneumatic, New-Creation capacities cannot be attributed to Christ’s pre-resurrection human nature, and therefore cannot be attributed to the Christ who died on the cross according to that human nature!

How clear, though, does this make the absolute necessity of Rome’s denial of the doctrine of assurance as the Reformers taught it (see the Council of Trent)! Sure, Rome professes a belief in the “finished,” “once-for-all” sacrifice of Christ, but she empties those qualifiers of all historical, Christological, and soteriological force through her insistence on the idea of “re-presentation” in the alleged “sacrifice” of the Mass. The logical result? (Don’t mistake Rome’s errors for a lack of relative consistency). There is no meaningful security for believers.
There is no guarantee that a Roman Catholic believer will go to sleep tonight without committing a mortal sin, losing his or her “justifying” grace that was thought to have been received in Baptism (and restored in Penance as necessary). There is no lasting fullness of cleansing that a Roman Catholic can expect when he or she draws near to the cross through the Eucharistic “sacrifice;” to remain in a state of grace will depend on his or her successive performance and “cooperation” with grace.

Therefore the faithful Catholic must continually go to the “cross” afresh regularly in the Eucharist (and in Penance, in cases of mortal sin), not just for spiritual nourishment, sanctification, and subjective assurance, but even for fundamental reestablishment of his or her connection with the atonement of Jesus Christ itself. How different from the scriptural perspective, in which it is said that “…by one [historical] offering He has perfected for all time those who are [lit. being] sanctified” (Heb. 10:14, my emphases and notes).
In an ironic twist, Roman Catholic sacramentology, which tends toward a “divinizing” or “eternalizing” of the historical event of the cross, ends up destroying the everlastingness of the application of the benefits of Christ to all those who draw near to Him. In one light, tragically, the Roman Catholic Christ is more akin to the cyclically-dying-and-rising gods of ancient pagan mythology than the biblical Christ of Chalcedon, or of the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2:5-11. And therefore it is difficult to see how it could be said that Christ’s cross-work is ever truly “finished” from a Roman Catholic perspective.

We are temporal beings, who have sinned in time, and will face (in one sense or another) the future final judgment of God in time. Therefore we need a Savior who truly enters history, as a truly temporal human being, undergoes a truly temporal judgment on our behalf, and rises up from the dead in history never to die again (and never to have His death “made present” again).

The Roman Catholic view of God’s provision of a Redeemer is no better (really much worse) than Barth’s “Christ” in the God’s-time-for-us “Geschichte.” We are ourselves in “historie” and so need a Christ of “historie.” It is no better than some early heretical or later liberal allegorical treatments of the Passion of our Lord. We are not “allegorical” or “symbolic” sinners; we are actual, literal sinners, in need of a literal cross and resurrection in our literal history. If I may be very bold, the Roman Catholic view of the Mass is functionally no better than the classic Islamic denial of Christ’s crucifixion altogether.

After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Rome says, “It is, in a way, finished…but in a way it continues.” Before Jesus even breathed His last on the tree, because He foreknew the certainty and everlasting efficacy of that punctiliar death soon to be upon Him, He said, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), simpliciter.

“Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:9-10, my emphases). Hallelujah!