A look at history by

Gary Ray Branscome


“Those who know God accept what we [the inspired writers of Scripture] say; those who are not of God will not accept what we say. That is how we can distinguish the spirit of truth from the spirit of error,” (1John 4:6).


In 1529, in the German City of Marburg, Martin Luther met with the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli in order to see if they could come to an agreement. At that meeting fourteen points of doctrine were discussed, and they could agree on all but one; the meaning of Christ’s words, "Take eat this is my body" (1 Corinthians 11:24). On September 12th 2017 that meeting was dramatized in a PBS documentary. However, when it comes to the question of why Luther could not agree with Zwingli, I believe that the people making that documentary totally missed the point.

In that documentary it was said that Zwingli believed that the bread and wine used in the Lord’s Supper represent Christ’s body and blood, while Luther believed that Christ’s body and blood had to be present in some way. And, that is true. However, that is a very shallow description of their disagreement, which totally misses the point as to why Luther believed what he believed and why he could not agree with Zwingli.

When Zwingli said that the bread (in the Lord’s Supper), “is not really Christ’s body, it just represents Christ’s body,” Luther did not object to the claim that the bread represented Christ’s body, but to the, words, “It is not really Christ’s body”. That was the real point of contention! Zwingli was contradicting Christ. In other words, Christ said, “This is My body” and Zwingli replied, “It is not really His body”. That is what Luther objected to, and that is why Luther simply quoted Christ’s words (“This is My body”) and made it clear that he was not going to budge from what they said.


Luther is often portrayed as being hard-headed, but I disagree. The reason Luther and Zwingli could not agree was not because they each had a different interpretation, but because Luther wanted to teach what Christ said, while Zwingli wanted to teach his own opinion. In other words, Luther saw it as man’s word verses God’s Word. Since Christ said, “This is My body,” Luther believed that we should teach, “This is Christ’s body”. Zwingli, in contrast, refused to accept what Christ said. Yet most people today have a very hard time understanding why Luther disagreed so strongly. From Luther’s point of view, he could not change what Christ said, so he had to teach, “Take eat, this is Christ’s body”. Zwingli, on the other hand, just brushed aside what Christ said with the words, “It isn’t really His body”.


          At this point, let me address the commonly held assumption that Luther could not agree with Zwingli because Luther did not believe that the bread and wine represent Christ’s body and blood. A look at what Luther actually said will reveal that that is not true.


Concerning baptism Luther said: “The first thing in baptism to be considered is the divine promise, which says: "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved… The second part of baptism is the sign, or sacrament, which is that immersion into water from this also it derives its name… signs are added to the divine promises to represent that which the words signify… so it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in the word of promise, to which baptism is added. This faith justifies, and fulfils that which baptism signifies.” (From “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” by Martin Luther, 1520)


Some may wonder what a quote about baptism has to with the Lord’s Supper. However, in the words just quoted notice the phrase, “the sign or sacrament”. Now relate that phrase to the following quote. “In every promise of God two things are set before us, the word and the sign. The word we are to understand as being the testament, and the sign as being the sacrament; thus, in the Lord’s Supper, the word of Christ is the testament, the bread and wine are the sacrament [i.e. sign]. (From “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” by Martin Luther, 1520)


In both of those quotes Luther describes the outward ceremonies of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as signs. In other words, Luther believed that the bread and wine were signs. And, in both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper the ceremonies testify to God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ. Now, consider this quote from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:


"The promise of the New Testament is the promise of the forgiveness of sins, as the text says, “this is my body, which is given for you”; “this is the cup of the new testament with my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 22:19, Matt. 26:28) Therefore the Word offers forgiveness of sins, while the ceremony is a sort of picture or “seal,” as Paul calls it (Rom. 4:11), showing forth the promise." (The Book of Concord, Tappert edition, page 262.)


          Those quotes make it clear that Luther regarded the bread and wine used in the Lord’s Supper, as a picture, seal or sign of what is promised. Therefore, let us consider what is being promised. Christ said, of the bread, “This is my body which is given for you,” and said of the cup, this is… “My blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:19-20). In reading those words, ask yourself: Where was Christ’s body given for you? And, where was Christ’s blood shed for you? And, the answer is, on the cross. Christ’s body and blood were “given” and “shed” for us on the cross as the atonement for our sin. Therefore, there is no difference between saying that “Christ’s body and blood were given and shed for us,” and saying that “Christ died for our sin”. Both statements are referring to His death on the cross, and both statements mean the same thing!

          Once that is understood, it should be obvious that in the eyes of God there is no difference between believing that you are saved because you have received Christ’s death on the cross as the atonement for your sin; and believing that you are saved because you have received the body and blood that Christ gave/shed on the cross as the atonement for your sin. That is the “good news” that His “Supper” was intended to proclaim. And, that is why it is important for those who come to the Lord's Supper believe the words that Christ spoke when He instituted it (1Cor. 11:29-30). That being understood, here is something else that Luther said:


"I have rightly said then, that the whole virtue of the Lord’s Supper consists in those words of Christ, in which He testifies that remission is granted to all who believe that His body is given and His blood shed for them." (From “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” by Martin Luther, 1520)


          That being understood, the real reason why Luther could not agree with Zwingli was this: Christ’s Words, “This is my body which is given for you,” and “This is… My blood, which is shed for you,” are a proclamation of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 11:24, Luke 22:19-20). And, by contradicting them Zwingli was making those words of no effect (Mark 7:13).

          Of course some people think that is no big deal. They think that those who need to hear the gospel will get it from many of the other passages that assure us of forgiveness in Christ. And, Luther did not disagree with that. However, that is no justification for making the Word of God of no effect, for all who make the Word of God of no effect are in rebellion against God, and hinder the work of salvation (Mark 7:13). Here is another quote from Luther:


"In the Lord’s Supper, the word of Christ is the testament, the bread and wine are the sacrament. And as there is greater power in the word than in the sign, so is there greater power in the testament than in the sacrament. A man can have and use the word or testament without the sign or sacrament. 'Believe,' says Augustine, 'and you have eaten;' but in what do we believe except in the word of Him who promises? Thus I can have the Lord’s Supper daily, nay hourly; since, as often as I will, I can set before myself the words of Christ, and nourish and strengthen my faith in them; and this is in very truth the spiritual eating and drinking." (From “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” by Martin Luther, 1520)


What Luther believed about the Lord’s Supper is complicated by the fact that some of Luther's statements sound like he believed that flesh was actually being eaten. However, the words just quoted make it clear that such was not the case. His statements about flesh being present were intended to defend Christ’s words, not explain them, and are more representative of his polemical style than his serious doctrinal views.


The Fruits of Zwingli’s Rebellion


          Luther’s real gripe with Zwingli had to do with this question. Does God want us to teach all of those doctrinal truths that are clearly and explicitly stated in His Word, or does He want us to decide which ones are to be believed and which ones are to be explained away?

          The answer to that question is of key importance, because every false prophet and cult leader will brush aside and explain away any explicit statements of Scripture that contradict their own opinions. They have no qualms about exalting man’s word over God’s Word. However, brushing aside the words of Scripture is not limited to cults.


          The words, “He [Christ] is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world,” clearly state a doctrinal truth that God wants His church to believe and teach (1John 2:2). Nevertheless, those who believe in “limited atonement” simply brush the words of Scripture aside, just as Zwingli did, oblivious to the fact that by doing so they are rebelling against God and making those words of God of no effect (Mark 7:13).


          The words, “Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation,” give us another doctrinal truth that God wants His church to believe and teach (1Peter 1:5). Nevertheless, those who believe that we must keep ourselves saved simply brush the words of Scripture aside, just as Zwingli did.

          The words, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway,” are a warning of the law (1Corinthians 9:27). Those who are unrepentant need to hear that warning, and God put that warning in His Word because He wants it to be taught. Yet those who believe that a person can live in sin and still be saved brush the words of Scripture aside, just as Zwingli did. [NOTE: God keeps us saved by keeping us repentant, not by letting us sin, 1John 5:18, Galatians 5:17.]


          The words, “No one can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost,” give us another doctrinal truth that God wants His church to believe and teach (1Corinthians 12:3). Yet those who claim that the Holy Spirit will be withdrawn from the world prior to a time of “great tribulation,” brush those words of Scripture aside, teaching instead that great multitudes will come to faith after the Holy Spirit has departed. [NOTE: Without the work of the Holy Spirit persecution would destroy faith, not create it.]

          The words, “Every one who looks to the Son, and believes on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up on the last day,” give us another doctrinal truth that God wants His church to believe and teach (John 6:40). Yet those who have decided that Christ will raise up believers before the last day simply brush the words of Scripture aside, just as Zwingli did.


          I once quoted the words, “In six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything that is in them,” to a man, only to have him say, “There are different opinions as to what those words mean” (Exodus 20:11). However, I had not said a thing about what those words mean, I had simply quoted them. Those words do not need to be interpreted; any child can tell you what they mean. They are perfectly clear! The only people who think that they need to be interpreted are those who refuse to accept what they say. Nevertheless, those who have the same spirit of error that Zwingli had, simply brush the words of Scripture aside whenever those words do not agree with their own opinions. Like Zwingli they exalt man’s word over God’s Word, and explain away any statement of Scripture that does fit with their own opinions. Moreover, having rejected what the Bible says in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, they seem willing to contradict anything else that the Bible says, and even explain away the Bible’s condemnation of murder (abortion) and homosexuality.




          The sum and substance of what I have said has to do with one question. Does God want us to teach what He said, or what we think? Luther stood firmly on the Word of God, and if you are one of those who think that Zwingli was right, consider this: Everyone who believes that Christ’s body was given for them (on the cross), and that His blood was shed for them (on the cross) so that they could have forgiveness, truly receives Christ’s body and blood, not as something physical but as the atonement for their sin.