Eucharistic Sacrifice—Some Interim Agreement

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March 23, 2013 by Jesse Nigro


Eucharistic Sacrifice—Some Interim Agreement

growingintounion.jpgIt is all too easy to make a man of straw, and then cheerfully burn him. This has been done by protagonists on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide, and the present writers confess that they have not been innocent of it. They have in fact been at loggerheads on this very subject in their published writings (see E. L. Mascall, Corpus Christi (2nd edn, p. 96) and Michael Green’s paper “Christ’s Sacrifice and Ours” in Guidelines, pp. 89-117). We mention this to show that we initially set out from deeply divergent approaches to the subject of eucharistic sacrifice and were by no means enamoured of easy solutions.

We are not so naive as to suppose that we have solved these problems, which have divided the best minds in Christendom for centuries. But mutual discussion and respect have shown that what unites us in our understanding of the Eucharist is far more significant than what divides us. It has shown that neither of us wishes to unchurch the other, nor to go our seperate ways acting for all the world as if the other’s viewpoint did not exist or was not to be taken seriously. We have no intention of smoothing over difficulties and brushing real problems ender the carpet, though in common with many who have contibuted to the growing rapprochement between Catholic and Protestant Christians during recent years we have found that many of our difficulties are not real. For instance, some Evangelicals need to be reminded that Catholics do not believe that they reimmolate Christ in the Eucharist or that the Eucharist is identical with his offering on the cross. Similarly, some Catholic churchmen will be relieved to hear that Evangelicals are not crypto-Zwinglians who regard the Holy Communion as a bare remembrance of a far-off event!

Our claim is a modest one. We hope that we have indicated ways in which two very different Christians from very different backgrounds can unite in saying many of the same things about this subject. Not all Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals will be able to follow us in particular statements, perhaps, but it is our conviction that all ought to follow us in the determined attempt to understand Christians from a different tradition, respect them, and see how far we are, after all, seeking to say the same thing; where we are not, it may well be that our different emphases are trying to safeguard complementary aspects of Christian truth.

In the first place, we want to put it clearly on record that both our standpoints are rooted in Scripture. We are both shameless believes in such old-fashioned concepts as a transcendent Creator God who has revealed himself in history and supremely in the person of his Son. We believe in a real incarnation, a real atonement, an historic resurrection.

We also believe that man is made in the image of God and is called both to represent the Creator to the rest of the creation and to head up that creation’s allegiance to the Creator. In this sense man might be called the priest of nature.

However, we recognize that sin has broken the proper relations between man and God. Man out of touch with God no longer mirrors accurately the Creator’s glory to his creation, nor does he head up the creation’s worship. We take very seriously the fallenness of man, and we are convinced that not only can he not save himself but that the only contribution he can make to his own redemption is the sin from which he needs to be redeemed. Both of the traditions we represent are, in their different ways, highly suspicious of that very British heresy, Pelagianism; both of us, in our different formulations of it, are determined to safeguard the crow rights of the Redeemer. We further agree that Christ is the Word made flesh (John 1. 14), the last Adam, whose achievement it is to be the true head of humanity in contrast to Adam’s defection (Rom. 5. 12 ff; 1 Cor. 15. 21 ff). He brought restoration for ruin. He offered to the Father on the cross of Calvary “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world”, and, having entered into heaven in the strength of that sacrifice, he has an unchangeable priesthood (Heb. 7. 24 ff; 9. 24 ff). In him we have a High Priest who suits our need and is seated at the Father’s right hand, his work of reconciliation completed, “for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10. 14; cf. Heb. 8. 1; Eph. 1. 20 ff).

It is not too much to stress, therefore, that, whereas the priests under the Levitical system were temporary, ineffectual, repetitive, and figurative, Jesus Christ (both Priest and Sacrifice in the New Covenant) is eternal, sufficient, unique, and real. His, in the last analysis, is the only priesthood and sacrifice; there is no other.

How, then, and in what respects, does the Church share in Christ’s sacrifice? Is there a sense in which the Eucharist can be so described, by those who take the New Testament teaching as normative?

As we discussed these questions which have bedevilled this controversy. Here are some instances:

The Evangelical does not naturally speak about pleading the sacrifice of Christ, because he knows it is already accepted by a God who needs no persuasion to be gracious. The Catholic does naturally use the term, but means by it that Christ’s presence as the Lamb once slain in the midst of the throne is the silent plea for our acceptance. And with that sentiment his Evangelical friend can have no quarrel.

Similarly, Christ does not present his sacrifice, if by that is meant actively to offer to the Father the sacrifice of Calvary. He sits at the Father’s side, his work of atonement accomplished (Heb. 7. 24) and by his living presence in heaven is the pledge of our acceptance: for “he ever lives to make intercession [lit. to be in the midst] for us” (Heb. 7. 25). Thus he may rightly be said to present his sacrifice, and so indeed may we, if by this we mean that man’s hope of salvation is based squarely on that sacrifice once made and ever efficacious.

A further phrase which has caused great heartburnings is that of uniting our sufferings with those of Christ or joining our offerings to his. To the Evangelical this obscures the uniqueness of Jesus’ achievement. His offering is perfect; ours is not. His suffering removed the sin of the world; ours does not. But the Catholic certainly does not wish to equate the Redeemer with the redeemed; in using this language he is giving expression to the New Testament truth that we can do noting pleasing to God unless it is in Christ and with him. Of course, then, our offerings (imperfect as they are) and our sufferings (non-propitiatory as they are) must be joined with his. We are indeed partakers in Christ’s sacrifice, but partakers in the benefits which flow from that sacrifice, nor in the making of it. Nevertheless, Christians can make to God offerings which are acceptable in Christ. Man’s original filial response, lost in Adam, is restored in Christ, in whom we are incorporate (Gal. 4. 1 ff; cf. Rom. 8. 17; 1 Cor. 12. 12 ff). There is nothing improper in the idea of our offering to God, even though all we have comes from him in the first place, just as there is nothing improper (but, rather, delightful) in the gift of a child to his father out of money the father has given him.

This leads us to another deep-seated confusion, which, as before, is basically due to the ambiguities of language. Both Catholic and Evangelical want to do justice to the once-for-allness of the atonement and to the ongoing grace of God in the soul of man. We have traditionally done it by making opposite claims. The Evangelical has stoutly asserted that the Eucharist is not a sacrifice (or, at most, a responsive one), in order to safeguard the uniqueness of Calvary; the Catholic has asserted that the Eucharist is a sacrifice because it is integrally related to the sacrifice par excellence, the only sacrifice a Christian knows, namely that same cross and resurrection in all its uniqueness. It is a curious fact that both sides have tended to suspect the other of Pelagianism. The Evangelical has a shrewd suspicion that the Catholic has never understood the once-for-allness of the atonement and justification and is, therefore, always anxious to be making a sacrifice, and, because God is obviously satisfied with no other sacrifice than that of his Son, Catholics must needs try to offer that; does that not sniff of a doctrine of “works”? The Catholic, on the other hand, has no liking for has Evangelical brother’s reiteration of the distinction between “sacrifices propitiatory” and “other sacrifices” (to use Cranmer’s celebrated disjunction), for, when the Protestant asserts that the only sacrifice at the Eucharist is one of praise and thanksgiving, in response to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for us, this merely seems different from the sacrifice of Christ! We have both found it helpful to recall afresh that any genuine Christian understanding of the meaning of sacrifice must derive from what Jesus crucified and risen did for sinful men; and that any sense in which we use the word for Christian worship or service, praise or self-dedication, must be derived but not isolated from that supreme paradigm of sacrifice.

It is probably an indication of the failure of most of Christendom to grasp both in experience and doctrine the truth of the resurrection, that both sides in this controversy suspect the other of undue emphasis on the death of Christ. The Catholic cannot understand why the Evangelical is so determined to equate sacrifice with the death, as though a dead Christ was what he was determined at all costs to have. The Evangelical views with disquiet Catholic preoccupation with offering the sacrifice of Christ and speculation about some supposed self-immolation of Christ at the heavenly altar. Both positions are right in stressing the necessary link between Christ’s sin-offering and death. Both are liable to misunderstanding if the radiance of the risen Lord does not shine out through their worship.

The New Testament does not call the Eucharist a sacrifice, nor does it call its ministers sacrificing priests (hiereis), although there was every inducement both from Old Testament precedent and from pagan parallels to do so. The Epistle to the Hebrews might have made enormous play with both concepts, but significantly did not. We take this reserve on the part of the earliest Christians very seriously as a warning against the misunderstandings which can creep into the understanding of the Eucharist once sacrificial terminology is used.

However, it seems to us that if a Christian’s prayer, evangelism, almsgiving, and self-dedication can be called a sacrifice, as they are so called in the New Testament (Rom. 12. 1; Phil. 2. 17; 4. 18; Heb. 13. 15-16; 1 Pet. 2. 5), it is a legitimate term for the Eucharist, which is the supreme meeting-place of Christ and his people, the supreme emblem both of his grace and our response. The Eucharist, by Christ’s own “institution and promise” (Article 26), is integrally related to his sacrifice for us upon the cross; it is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death. It is therefore natural enough to apply to the sign the term appropriate to the thing signified; accordingly, there is even good sense in calling baptism a sacrifice, as George Every has shown in his book The Baptismal Sacrifice, because baptism no less than the Eucharist is grounded in the sacrifice of Christ. It was in this sense that the Passover was sometimes called a sacrifice in Israel. Both Eucharist and Passover, though not themselves expiatory sacrifices, nonetheless commemorate one and do so by divine appointment. Moreover, expiation apart, there is a further sense in which the Eucharist is a sacrifice. It is a counterpart both to the peace-offering and to the burnt-offering sacrifices of the Old Covenant. Like the former, it is a feast shared with the Lord. Like the latter, it is a pledge of our total devotion to the one who gave himself for us. And it was in this sense that the early Church began to speak of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. From the days of the Didache (at the end of the first century) onwards the Holy Communion was seen as the fulfillment of Malachi 1. 11, that a pure offering would be offered in every place among the Gentiles. Justin carefully explains to us what is meant. He tells us that, just as the leper, cleansed from his disease, offered the cereal offering (to which Malachi alludes) as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for his creative and redemptive work (Dialogue 41).

Sacrifice means offering. What, then, do we offer at the Eucharist? Christ offered himself on the cross in our stead and without our aid, and we certainly cannot repeat that offering. We do, on the other hand offer (to quote from ch. 3 above) “not merely ‘the fruit of our lips’; nor merely undefined ‘spiritual sacrifices’; not merely ourselves, considered apart from Christ; not even ourselves in Christ, if that is seen in separation from our feeding on Christ; but ourselves as reappropriated by Christ”.1 The sacrament which communicates to us afresh the benefits of Christ’s passion communicates to us no less immediately and certainly, both as redeemed individuals and as members of his redeemed body the Church, the demands which his passion makes upon us. And thus we are delivered from a purely individualistic understanding. We who offer ourselves by communicating have died and risen with Christ in our baptism (Rom. 6. 1 ff); and “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12. 5; cf. 1 Cor. 10. 15 ff; Eph. 5. 30). Therefore, in drinking from the one cup and eating the one bread of the Eucharist, we have koinonia (communion, participation) in the sacrificial blood of Christ and in his body. We are thus simultaneously the beneficiaries, communicating in his body given on the cross, and participating members of his body which is the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 10. 14-17, where both concepts of “body” are put in juxtaposition, as we have done here, in a eucharistic context). In the act of communicating, the Church, reintegrated and reappropriated by the one means of grace, is made a living sacrifice to God.

If these are the factors involved in the desire of many churchmen to call the Eucharist a sacrifice, then, so long as there is no suggestion that the sacrifice of the Eucharist supplements or repeats the once-for-all offering on Calvary, and so long as the distinction between the Savior and the saved is scrupulously safeguarded, Evangelicals and Catholics can say Amen.



8 January 1970



Essay “Eucharistic Sacrifice in the New Testament and the Early Fathers” in Eucharistic Sacrifice, ed. J. I. Packer. Church Book Room Press 1962.

Called to Serve (ch.7). Hodder and Stoughton 1964.

Essay “Christ’s Sacrifice and Ours” in Guidelines, ed. J. I. Packer. Falcon Books 1967.

Article “Christ’s Sacrifice and Ours” in One in Christ (Vol. IV, no. 3, 1968).


Corpus Christi: Essays on the Church and Eucharist. Longmanns, 2nd edn 1965.

Articles “Eucharistic Doctrine after Vatican II” in Church Quarterly Review (January and April 1968).

Other members of the team:


The New Communion Service—Reasons for Dissent. Church Book Room Press 1966 (reprinted as article in The Churchman, Summer 1966).

Joint Article (R. T. Beckwith) “‘This Bread and this Cup’: An Evangelical Rejoinder” in Theology (June 1967).

Editor Modern Anglican Liturgies (ch. 2). Oxford University Press 1968.


Editor of Eucharistic Sacrifice, Church Book Room Press 1962, and essay in this “Introduction: Lambeth 1958”.


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