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Is the Mass a True Sacrifice?

OBJECTOR: Doesn’t the Catholic Church teach that the Mass is a true sacrifice to God?

CATHOLIC: Yes. The Church has believed and taught this truth from the earliest of times, as the early Church Fathers testify, and the Council of Trent affirmed it absolutely.

OBJECTOR: Well, I find the whole idea preposterous—even dangerous, because it detracts from the unique sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Why would we need some additional sacrifice to Christ’s since he is “the Lamb of God who takes the sin of the world?” (John 1:29).

CATHOLIC: Perhaps it isn’t as preposterous as you think. After all, during the Old Covenant, Israel offered sacrifices as prescribed by God. And the fact that religions all over the world offer sacrifices suggests that the notion of sacrifice may be an essence of religious worship.

OBJECTOR: I’ll give you the Old Testament stuff. My objection has to do with the New Covenant and the sacrifice of Christ. It seems to me that any attempt to repeat the sacrifice of Christ is contrary to Scripture. Hebrews 10: 11–12 says, “Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” This contrasts the repetitions of Old Covenant sacrifices with the definitive sacrifice of Christ, who as the high priest offered the final sacrifice that alone can take away sins.

CATHOLIC: I agree. The Catholic Church teaches that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross is what takes away our sins. That’s why we say that the sacrifice of the Mass is the very same sacrifice as that of the cross. If the Mass were not the same as the cross, it could never take away sins.

OBJECTOR: You miss my point. The Mass is obviously something that is repeated many times.

CATHOLIC: Yes.

OBJECTOR: And Catholics claim that each and every Mass is the same sacrifice as Jesus’ death on the cross.

CATHOLIC: Yes—

OBJECTOR: But Hebrews 10:11–12 and other passages in the same letter show the contrast between the repeated sacrifices of the Old Covenant and the final sacrifice of Christ. Paul says that Christ, unlike the Old Testament priests, does not need to offer his sacrifice again. Your claim for the identity between the Mass and the cross makes it sound more like the Old Covenant sacrifices than Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary. Jesus’ sacrifice does not have to be repeated.

CATHOLIC: No, you’re confusing the accomplishment of redemption with the application of redemption. This is a distinction recognized by all Christian theologies that are well thought out. I’m sure you’ll agree that just because Christ died for all men doesn’t mean that all men will be saved. Furthermore, I’m sure you recognize the need for the objective death of Christ to be applied to the individual person by faith. Otherwise, what need would there be to believe in Christ?

OBJECTOR: Sure, I recognize the distinction. But it’s irrelevant to this discussion, because the Catholic Church claims the objective work of Christ is repeated in the Mass.

CATHOLIC: The Church claims that objective work of Christ is present in the Mass, not that it is repeated. Christ does not die again. That death happened once for all—it’s done, complete. This is what Paul is saying in Hebrews. But the application of that sacrificial death must be carried out in the world if men are to be saved. The Mass is the main means established by God for this application of forgiveness.

OBJECTOR: You’re still saying that the Church is repeating what Jesus did. And that is what the writer of Hebrews says is not true.

CATHOLIC: No, the Church is not saying that Jesus’ death is repeated in the sense that you mean. We repeat what Christ did at the Last Supper just as he commanded, “in memory” of him. But we don’t mean that Jesus dies again in the Mass—only that his death is present again there.

OBJECTOR: I’m not sure there’s a difference.

CATHOLIC: But there is. The Council of Trent said that the Mass is the same sacrifice of Calvary with only the manner of the offering being different. The substance—Christ—is same; the manner is different. If the Church were saying that Jesus dies again, as you claim, then it would have to be a bloody sacrifice, because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).

OBJECTOR: Look, Christ shed his blood on the cross. If the Eucharist contains Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, as you claim, then it would have to be a bloody sacrifice. It’s not. So the bread and wine can be only a memorial or commemoration of Christ’s death. Otherwise, I would expect the host to bleed, just as Jesus did. But now you’re saying that it is not necessary to have Jesus bleeding. That’s an inconsistency in your position.

CATHOLIC: It’s not inconsistent. Hmm . . . Let’s think about this a different way. Do you agree that the God-Man, Jesus Christ, possesses a body in heaven complete with his blood?

OBJECTOR: Yes, I believe that Jesus Christ is forever the unique God-Man. But he is in heaven after his Ascension. His body and blood are not on earth.

CATHOLIC: You might also agree that his blood in heaven is presented to God the Father as an acceptable sacrifice for our sins. This seems to be what Paul is teaching in several passages. For example, in Hebrews 9:12, he says that Christ “entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing eternal redemption.” Then 9:14 goes on to say that Christ “offered himself without blemish to God.” This is no doubt why it is possible for Paul to say in 10:19 that Christians can “have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus.” Now, if Christ’s body and blood in heaven can be applied to sinners on earth without repetition of his sacrificial death when they believe on him, why can’t he be present on earth in the Eucharist forgiving sins without any repetition of his death?

OBJECTOR: Your logic seems valid, but it depends crucially on your other dogma of transubstantiation. If transubstantiation isn’t true, then there’s no basis for your belief that the Eucharist contains the sacrificial death of Christ.

CATHOLIC: You’re right on. In fact, Charles Hodge, one of the greatest defenders of Calvinism in nineteenth century America, says exactly that.

OBJECTOR: Yeah, I’ve read Hodge. As I recall, he also points out that transubstantiation has as little support in Scripture as eucharistic sacrifice does. Transubstantiation was an attempt to use pagan Aristotelian philosophy in understanding the Lord’s Supper. We don’t need pagan philosophy to understand God’s truth in Scripture.

CATHOLIC: Right again. But you wouldn’t argue that God uses pastors and teachers to explain Scripture to us, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:11. The explanation known as transubstantiation does not depend on Aristotelian philosophy. It is an explanation of a profound mystery by using ordinary common sense. However, the Real Presence is too big a topic to discuss today—we’re running out of room. Maybe we can come back to it later.

OBJECTOR: Even if I take into account all that you say, I am still left with the unhappy thought that all this elaborate system which Catholicism believes detracts from the uniqueness of Jesus’ sacrificial death for us.

CATHOLIC: Look, even some Catholics have a hard time understanding the importance of the eucharistic sacrifice. Maybe I can state it more simply. Don’t you agree that if a man believes in Christ, he becomes a “new creation” in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17) and that he is forgiven of his sins?

OBJECTOR: Yes, but that—

CATHOLIC: Hold on. In your theology, wouldn’t you explain this truth by saying that the objective, historical death of Christ has been applied to the heart of the man who believes? Wouldn’t you deny that Jesus had to die again every time someone believes on him? Wouldn’t you say his death was accomplished once, but it’s applied many times?

OBJECTOR: Yes, that describes my belief.

CATHOLIC: Well, the Catholic dogma of the eucharistic sacrifice is saying the same thing, except there are concrete and tangible means by which that application of forgiveness takes place. It takes place, among other ways, through receiving the Eucharist, because the consecrated host contains all that Jesus Christ did. Since he died once to forgive sins, that forgiveness can be applied to all who come to him in the Eucharist.

OBJECTOR: Are you saying that it’s necessary to receive the Eucharist to be saved? The Bible says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Don’t you see how this elaborate ritual of the Catholic Church leads people astray from the simplicity of the Gospel?

CATHOLIC: Just because it takes some explaining doesn’t mean the ritual itself is elaborate. It’s really the essence of simplicity: Jesus saves. That’s it. The substance of the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, and a person must have that substance to be saved. We’re not saying that a person cannot have that same substance another way, but Jesus established that supper for the same reason as requiring faith—to apply the forgiveness of his death to sinners. The substance of the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, all of Jesus. The Catholic Church believes that his sacrifice of Calvary is present in every Mass because he is present at every Mass.

OBJECTOR: Jesus saves. At least we can agree on that.

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