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Tender Mercy: Thomas Cranmer on the Lord’s Supper and Grace Alone, by Andrew Atherstone

In the new issue of Credo Magazine, “The English Reformation,” Andrew Atherstone has contributed an articled titled, “Tender Mercy: Thomas Cranmer on the Lord’s Supper and Grace Alone.” Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford. He is also the author of Reformation: Faith and Flames and Reformation: A World in Turmoil. Most recently, he edited Bishop J. C. Ryle’s Autobiography: The Early Years.

Here is the start of his article, “Tender Mercy”:

The martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was responsible for creating the Book of Common Prayer (1549, revised 1552), the historic Reformation prayers of the Church of England. His liturgy of the Lord’s Supper brings the gospel essentials into wonderfully clear focus with its emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This essay briefly summarizes Cranmer’s central priorities.

Salvation by grace alone through Christ alone

At the heart of the gospel message is the gift from God to a sinful world of his only Son, Jesus Christ, that all who put their faith in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). God gave his Son, and the Son gave his life in sacrificial blood-shedding at Calvary, to atone for the sins of humanity. So we are saved not by what we give to God, but by God giving to us. The Lord gives, we by grace receive, and the Lord’s Supper is designed to drive home that gospel truth to the hearts and minds of Christian believers.

Tragically, only a few centuries after the New Testament was written, this gospel order became confused and corrupted. The Lord’s Supper began to be spoken of not as a reminder of God’s offering to us, but as our offering to him. This mistake often appeared in the writings of the early church fathers, and after a millennium of development the doctrine of “eucharistic sacrifice” was firmly rooted in the church. It pervaded medieval theology and was defined in propitiatory terms by the Council of Trent in 1562, in its teaching on “the most holy sacrifice of the mass.” The consecrated wafer became known in the Western Church as the “host,” from the Latin hostia, a “sacrificial victim.” In a parallel development, the eucharistic prayer became known in the Eastern Church as the “anaphora,” from the Greek ἀναφερω, “to offer up a sacrifice.” In mainstream medieval theology, stretching back to the early church fathers, the direction of movement at the eucharist was upwards (from the people to God), not downwards (from God to the people).

But Archbishop Cranmer saw from the Scriptures that the doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice fatally undermines the New Testament emphasis on the sufficiency and finality of the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross—a historic, completed event to which nothing can be added. As the Book of Hebrews argues at length (especially chapters 9 and 10), the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary was a glorious and finished work, once for all, never to be repeated. Those trusting in Christ and his atoning death are assured of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and direct and permanent access to God’s holy presence. These blessings come not through what we offer to God, but what God offers to us through Jesus Christ.

This gospel emphasis is taught with crystal clarity in Cranmer’s 1547 homily on “Salvation of Mankind by Only Christ Our Saviour, From Sin and Death Everlasting”:

Justification is not the office of man but of God. For man cannot justify himself by his own works, neither in part nor in the whole, for that were the greatest arrogancy and presumption of man that antichrist could set up against God, to affirm that a man might by his own works take away and purge his own sins and so justify himself. But justification is the office of God only and is not a thing which we render unto him, but which we receive of him, not which we give to him but which we take of him by his free mercy and by the only merits of his most dearly beloved Son, our only redeemer, Saviour and justifier, Jesus Christ.

Grace, as Cranmer explained, is by definition an unmerited gift we receive from God. This was fundamental to his understanding of the gospel. Therefore at the Lord’s Supper (a gospel sacrament) we receive from God; we do not give to him. Properly understood, the direction of movement is not from humanity to God, but from God to humanity. All talk of the eucharist as an “oblation” (from the Latin oblatio, an offering) or a “sacrifice” from us to God is out of place. The death of Jesus is all-sufficient. …

Read the rest of “Tender Mercy” today!

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