Tender Mercy

Thomas Cranmer on the Lord’s Supper and Grace Alone

by Andrew Atherstone

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.

Cranmer hammered home this point at length in Book 5 of his treatise on A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Saviour Christ (1550). He also removed all visual symbolism that might portray the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice or an offering to God, revising not only the words of the liturgy but also the ritual. Stone altars were abolished by order of the Privy Council in 1550 and replaced by wooden tables, which were brought into the chancel or even into the body of the church, not railed off in a sanctuary. Bishop Ridley, who led the campaign against altars in the London diocese, explained:

For the use of an altar is to make sacrifice upon it; the use of a table is to serve for men to eat upon. Now, when we come unto the Lord’s board, what do we come for? To sacrifice Christ again, and to crucify him again, or to feed upon him that was once only crucified and offered up for us? If we come to feed upon him, spiritually to eat his body, and spiritually to drink his blood (which is the true use of the Lord’s Supper), then no man can deny but the form of a table is more meet for the Lord’s board, than the form of an altar.

The word “altar” is found nowhere in the liturgies or canons of the Church of England. Instead the Book of Common Prayer speaks of the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 10:21) or the Holy Table. Likewise eucharistic vestments, an echo of the Old Testament Aaronic priesthood, were abolished, as were ritual ablutions. The minister no longer faced east with his back to the people (the sacrificial position) but stood next to the table at the “north end.” All these changes in fashion and furniture were designed to convey the same theological message, that the Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice offered at an altar but a family meal served at a table.

The whole concept of “eucharistic sacrifice” was thus swept away, and in its place came new prayers which emphasised the grace and mercy of God. For example, Cranmer composed the “Prayer of Humble Access,” based on Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:28):

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy…

He also penned the following:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again…

Here Cranmer piles up synonyms or near synonyms, to hammer home his point: one oblation / once offered; full / perfect / sufficient; sacrifice / oblation / satisfaction. This repetition is deliberate, to make abundantly clear that the death of Jesus on the cross was a final and complete event, never to be repeated and entirely sufficient for our salvation. Nothing can be added. Nothing more is needed. No additional offering is possible.

The little word “there,” often overlooked, is important: “who made there.” This is a specific historical and geographical referent, pointing us back to Calvary. The sacrifice does not take place anywhere else, except on one cross, on one Friday afternoon about the year AD 30, on one hill outside Jerusalem. The declaration that it was “for the sins of the whole world” (see the parallel in Article 31) is not a strike at the doctrine of particular redemption (“limited atonement”), but is meant to teach us that the sacrifice of Christ is totally sufficient to cover every transgression, and cannot be supplemented. We are saved by grace alone through Jesus Christ alone! Hallelujah!

Salvation by faith alone

Another central plank in Cranmer’s Lord’s Supper liturgy is a shift in the focus of action, from the bread and wine to the heart of the believer. He firmly rejected the medieval doctrine of “transubstantiation” as without biblical warrant and as spiritually harmful for Christian disciples. Article 28 (Of the Lord’s Supper) of the Thirty-Nine Articles declares that transubstantiation “cannot be proved by holy Writ…it is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.” Instead the Article shifts the focus to the faith of the believer:

The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ. …The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith (emphasis added).

In other words, Christ is not corporally present in the sacramental bread and wine, but is spiritually present in the hearts of communicants who put their faith in Christ. As Richard Hooker wrote in his Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, “The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not therefore to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament.” This is a direct challenge to the doctrine of “real presence”—whether of the Roman (transubstantiation), Lutheran (consubstantiation), or Anglo-Catholic varieties—that Christ is somehow present in the bread and wine corporally or substantially or physically or objectively. On the contrary, Cranmer insists, Christ is received by faith alone.

The inevitable corollary is that those who take part in the Lord’s Supper, but lack Christian faith, do not receive Christ. This was startling to Roman and Lutheran ears, but is made explicit in Article 29:

The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather to their condemnation do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.

Expressed epigrammatically, Rome teaches that all receive Christ but not all benefit; the Church of England teaches that not all receive Christ, but those who do always benefit. Moreover, Christian believers can feed on Christ even if they do not receive the sacramental bread and wine. The Book of Common Prayer includes a short order of service for the Communion of the Sick, with a highly significant rubric. It explains that if the communicant is unable to receive the sacrament because of extreme illness or “any other just impediment” (“Nil By Mouth” in a hospital ward would be a modern example):

the Curate shall instruct him, that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore, he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his Soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.

These theological emphases are seen clearly throughout Cranmer’s liturgy for the Lord’s Supper liturgy. He laid special emphasis on salvation by faith alone, and the presence of Jesus Christ in the hearts of believers. His four favourite words are “faith,” “heart,” “remember,” and “thanksgiving,” which recur as repeated motifs. For example, the service order begins with the “Collect for Purity”: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open….Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit” (emphasis added). Then follows a recitation of the Ten Commandments, to which the congregation responds with the refrain, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law”; “Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee” (emphasis added). The state of our hearts is closely connected to the object of our thinking, and the liturgy repeatedly calls us to remember the cross. One of the exhortations before communion explains:

And to the end that we should always remember the exceeding great love of our Master, and only Saviour, Jesus Christ, thus dying for us, and the innumerable benefits which by his precious blood-shedding he hath obtained to us; he hath instituted and ordained holy mysteries, as pledges of his love, and for a continual remembrance of his death, to our great and endless comfort (emphasis added).

The Lord’s Supper is not for the continual repetition or re-enactment or re-presentation or re-offering of Christ’s death, but for the continual remembrance.

As communion comes closer, so the emphasis on repentance and faith is abundantly clear. We are exhorted to self-examination, repentance, and amendment of life, and instructed to receive the sacrament “with a true penitent heart and lively faith…repent you truly for your sins past; have a lively and steadfast faith in Christ our Saviour.” Then the minister adds:

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith…

This invitation to “draw near” is not merely a stage direction to approach the Lord’s Table (as it has often become in churches today). It is a spiritual injunction, to draw near to God, which is only possible with faith. It is a deliberate echo of the New Testament exhortation that because the blood of Jesus has opened a way into the holy presence of God, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). This point is reiterated in Cranmer’s words of distribution: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving,” and “Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” Here are Cranmer’s favourite four words, all jammed in together: “faith,” “heart,” “remember,” “thanksgiving.” Believers are reminded that they feed on Christ not in their mouths and stomachs, but in their hearts. Worthy reception is faith-filled and thankful, and calls to mind Christ’s death on the cross. We are saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Hallelujah!

A gift to the church

The Lord’s Supper, as laid down in the New Testament, is a wonderful gift to the church, designed to bring the gospel message into clear focus. Archbishop Cranmer therefore took liturgy seriously, because he took the gospel seriously. Rather than merely tweak the traditional prayers and rituals inherited from the patristic and medieval theologians, the Reformers offered a radically different vision. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone was their constant refrain and delight. Cranmer’s liturgy for the Lord’s Supper in the Book of Common Prayer is a brilliant model of gospel-focused, Christ-honouring, congregation-edifying liturgical reform.


For the full version of this essay, see Andrew Atherstone, “The Lord’s Supper and the Gospel of Salvation: Grace Alone and Faith Alone in the Book of Common Prayer,” in Feed My Sheep: The Anglican Ministry of Word and Sacrament ed. Lee Gatiss (Lost Coin, 2016), available from Church Society (churchsociety.org).

Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford