Luther explicating his understanding of worthiness in regard to receiving the sacrament came in March of 1521 when he wrote a “Sermon on the Worthy Reception of the Sacrament.”[ix] He began by stating that those who are living openly in sin shall not receive the sacrament.[x] He then proceeded to the two main points in his sermon (to which he returns throughout): 1) No one should come to the sacrament because he feels compelled to by law or command; 2) Only he or she who feels a great hunger and thirst for God’s grace should come to the sacrament.
Hunger and thirst, not compulsion, are necessary for a worthy reception of the body and blood of Christ. “There must be hunger and thirst for this food and drink; otherwise harm is sure to follow.”[xi] The beginning of such hunger leading to a worthy reception is “[t]o know and understand your sin and to be willing to get rid of such vice and evil and to long to become pure, modest, gentle, mild, humble, believing, loving, etc.”[xii]
Those who trust in their own worthiness should avoid coming to the sacrament. Here Luther combines a rejection of a false humility when approaching the sacrament with faith in Christ’s words. The focus is shifted away from the worthiness of the believer and instead to that which he believes: Christ and his words, most notably his words instituting the sacrament. “[E]very Christian should have these words close to himself and put his mind on them above all others.”[xiii] This is an obvious echo of Luther’s understanding of faith itself, here applied to a worthy reception of the sacrament of the altar, which centers a person’s gravity away from herself and on to another, namely Christ.
Luther is adamant that in order to receive the sacrament worthily we should never rely upon our own diligence or effort, work or prayers, fasting or other outward preparations, but instead should rely solely upon “the truth of the divine words.”[xiv] When we are driven to our own purity we are led down the wrong path, made shy and timid, and the sacrament is reduced from being a sweet and blessed thing to a “frightful and hazardous act.”[xv] Luther quips, “If you do not want to come to the sacrament until you are perfectly clean and whole, it would be better for you to remain away entirely,”[xvi] words echoed in his Large Catechism: “If you choose to fix your eye on how good and pure you are, to wait until nothing torments you, you will never go.”[xvii] Instead of a misguided purity, what is necessary is trust in the perfection of God’s righteousness, not our own.
Luther concludes his sermon by writing that “[t]he only question is whether you thoroughly recognize and feel your labor and your burden and that you yourself fervently desire to be relieved of these. Then you are indeed worthy of the sacrament. If you believe, the sacrament gives you everything you need.”[xviii] One should not commune in either open sin or under compulsion, but instead a worthy recipient of our Lord’s body and blood in the sacrament is that person burdened by their sin and hungering for God’s grace. In other words: the worthy recipient is that person who clings to Christ alone with faith alone.
Martin H. Kamaidan
Saved by Grace