Martin Luther, Communion and the blood of Christ

Martin Luther, Communion and the blood of Christ


In 1520 there was one catholic (universal) church. One hundred years later half of Europe was involved in independent, national churches. This was an epoch change in Christian history.

2017 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Protestant Reformation initiated by German monk Martin Luther. Luther’s 1517 protest sparked a complete reformation of morals and doctrine, and a return to the key teachings of the primitive apostolic church.

The Reformers’ theology is often summarised as the five solas of the Reformation—five Latin phrases that summarise the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity. The five solas are: Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)—the Bible alone is our highest authority; Sola Fide (faith alone)—we  are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ; Sola Gratia (grace alone)—we are saved by the grace of God alone; Solus Christus (Christ alone)—Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Saviour and King; and Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone)—we live for the glory of God alone.

As Baptists, we have as much to celebrate as anyone in this work of God bringing the church back to its first love.

The truth the church forgot

The communion table reminds us that where sin abounded, grace did much more abound, and the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s son, cleanses us from all sin. May God keep us ever mindful of that, just as Jesus intended when he instituted this memorial feast. Because if we ever neglect this truth, we can stray far wide of the mark.

Sadly, his church has not always remembered it. For hundreds of years in the middle ages, the church forgot it, and instead taught that pardon and salvation was earned through penance and good works rather than freely received by grace, through faith, in the shed blood and substitutionary death of Christ. 

In the sixteenth century, things got much worse. Some of you have visited St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and marvelled at its magnificence.  It was very expensive to build and to decorate (people like Michelangelo, Bernini and others don’t come cheap!) and in the early sixteenth century, Pope Leo X’s biggest problem was how to fund the project (it took more than one hundred years to build). But he found the ideal solution. He would sell pardons for sin: sins past, present and future.  And since all had sinned and many wanted to, there had to be a big market for his product.

Pope Leo X was not just entrepreneurial, he was a ‘think big’ man and he believed in keeping up with technology. The printing press had just been invented so he paid printers to print huge quantities of ‘Pardon Certificates’. These were nothing less than a licence to sin with impunity, dignified with the euphemism ‘indulgences’.

Then he developed a big franchise scheme. He appointed travelling salesmen, usually monks, to travel all over Europe selling his indulgences on a commission basis (usually on a fifty-fifty basis). The most (in)famous of these was a man called Johann Tetzel. He held the franchise for what we now call Germany. Tetzel was an aggressive salesman, and soon the money was rolling in as he sold these indulgences for cold hard cash. He may have been the first man in history to use commercial jingles: “As soon as the coin in the coffers rings, the soul from purgatory’s fire springs” (at least that’s the English version).

The concept had big appeal. You could buy your indulgence today, then go out and paint the town red! You could really live it up, making sure you got your money’s worth, with a full pardon guaranteed on Papal authority.

The trouble was that everywhere Tetzel and his like went, a crime wave always followed: drunkenness, debauchery, petty crime and some not so petty. The church had forgotten the significance of the communion table. It had well and truly lost its way.

Martin Luther

In the providence of God, along came a godly German monk named Martin Luther. Under the wise guidance of his spiritual confessor, Luther began to study the scriptures seriously. Here, especially in Romans, he discovered the truth of justification through faith in Christ alone, and so he found peace with God.

His Superior, seeing Luther had a fine mind for studying scripture, had him appointed as Professor of Biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg. Luther demurred, but was reminded of his vow of obedience and so ended up lecturing students, especially on Romans and Galatians.

Nowhere in all of scripture is the doctrine of salvation, and justification by faith, more clearly spelt out than in the first eight chapters of Romans. Luther understood those chapters thoroughly. He also knew the truth of Peter’s words, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Luther’s ninety-five theses

Luther knew that pardon and forgiveness could never be earned, much less bought! It came only by grace, through faith, in the shed blood of Christ. So, as Tetzel and his crime wave came ever closer, Luther’s conscience was scandalised. He wrote his famous ninety-five theses (propositions for debate) exposing the heresy of indulgences, and nailed these to the door of Wittenberg cathedral. 

The theses were written in Latin, the language of international scholarship, challenging all comers to debate them. They were soon secretly copied, translated, printed and distributed all over Christendom. It was this courageous act that sparked the Protestant reformation, and changed forever the history of Europe and western civilisation.

The church had forgotten the truth central to The Lord’s table; that only God can forgive sin, and only by grace, through faith in the shed blood of Christ. Luther rediscovered this in scripture, and recalled the church to the truth of justification by faith in the sacrificial work of Christ.


It cost Luther, of course. His stand against indulgences had financial, as well as theological, implications for the Pope. Anything that threatened Leo X’s revenue stream (regardless of theology) had to be opposed, and he soon went after Luther with a vengeance! Luther was tried as a heretic, convicted and excommunicated. He was declared an outlaw with a price on his head. Anyone could kill him on sight! He would certainly have been executed, but for a friendly German Prince who sent troops to take him into protective custody and hid him for a year in the prince’s castle. There Luther made a magnificent German translation of the New Testament. It did for German what the Authorised Version did for the English language.

At his trial, the prosecutor had demanded Luther retract his writings and recant.  His reply still stands as a monument to evangelical courage. Luther (reportedly) answered, “My conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot, and will not, retract a word. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”

Luther took his stand on the word of God, which, as we know, says much about forgiveness through the shed blood of Christ. Someone has said, “Cut the bible anywhere, and it bleeds.”

There isn’t space to examine that teaching in detail here. Suffice to remind ourselves again that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11) and “without the shedding of [Jesus’] blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).


Story:  F.W.[Jim] Shortcliffe

Introduction: Myk Habets

Jim is a retired tertiary educator who worships at Orewa Baptist Church, Auckland.

Myk is Dean of Faculty at Carey Baptist College

Photo credit: Kleinbild/


Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

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