Grammar is important, but it doesn’t determine your theology. Luther famously made this point in his dispute with Erasmus over free will: just because God commands you to do something (this is an imperative in grammar) doesn’t mean you have the power to do it. Grammar alone cannot establish the existence of free will.
With the distinction between law and gospel, this is important to recognize as well. When learning how to hear law and gospel, preachers and students of Scripture will often take a text and file it either as law or gospel. “You shall have no other gods” is a law statement. “Peace be with you” is a gospel statement. It’s helpful to do this when studying a text for writing a sermon, teaching a bible study, or comprehending Scripture as you read.
But grammar alone can’t tell you whether God is commanding or promising. There’s more to be considered. One thing is that law and gospel reside in their use: we have to consider how a text lands in one’s conscience. The Holy Spirit might use the story of Christ’s passion to convict the sinner; he might also use the same story to unburden the afflicted.
The church recalls Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper on this day of Holy Week.
When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, it’s especially clear that grammar alone doesn’t tell us everything about the law and gospel. The Ten Commandments are the briefest expression of the law (and the first one briefer still). But when it comes to Maundy (mandate) Thursday, we have a command which “mandates” the promise of the gospel: “take and eat,” “take and drink.” Christ also addresses the apostles, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” The church recalls Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper on this day of Holy Week.
Theologically, when Christ mandates the promise, he’s not just telling you to do something. He’s not even making a suggestion. Christ wants you to receive his gift. It’s for you, for the forgiveness of sins.
And, as Luther says in the Small Catechism if you believe these words, “given and shed for you,” then you are worthy and well-prepared. Only sinners are worthy of the Lord’s Supper, and if it’s the forgiveness of sins that you seek from Christ, then you qualify. Eat and drink your salvation!
By mandating the promise, Christ states something stronger than just an invitation. An inherited story (probably apocryphal) from the late Jim Nestingen illustrates this well. There was once a pastor serving a rural congregation in the Midwest. It had plenty of farmers. As Jim told it, one eccentric Norwegian bachelor farmer refused to take communion. In the old days, Lutherans didn’t administer the sacrament as often as we do today. And people often feared the unworthy reception of Christ’s body and blood (see 1 Cor. 11:29).
The pastor eventually gets irritated with the constant refusal. He knows that guilt keeps this man away. The pastor also knows that Christ isn’t just inviting sinners to his Supper as if it was only optional – something that might or might not happen based on what people decide to do.
So, one Sunday, the pastor distributes the sacrament. The bachelor farmer remains in the pew as usual. Now it’s time to try a different tactic. The pastor goes down into the congregation and stands before the farmer. He addresses the man by name and says, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” Now the pastor opens the man’s mouth and places the wafer on his tongue! Next, the same with the wine: “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”
Jesus mandates the promise of the gospel so that people actually hear it because they’d never believe it on their own.
Now come the tears – tears of joy at the great gift now received. What Jim was teaching with this story is that when Christ mandates the promise, he isn’t waiting for you to decide by free will to take him up on his kind offer of forgiveness. Jesus mandates the promise of the gospel so that people actually hear it because they’d never believe it on their own.
This is the importance of Maundy Thursday, the church’s recollection of the Last Supper. Christ gathers his apostles to serve them his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins – most of all, their own impending betrayal of Christ. But Jesus also commands them to “do this.” They must now say these words and distribute Christ’s body and blood for his remembrance. Indeed, Paul tells us that in the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the death of Christ until his return (1 Cor. 11:26).
Christ sends his servants to give you the promise. First, it was the apostles, the sent-ones. Now, it’s the pastoral office set apart to serve the gift. And if you have a good pastor, he will know that Christ isn’t just suggesting that you take the Lord’s Supper. Nor is he threatening you with the gift of his body and blood. Jesus is handing over the promise to the sinner, who has no choice in the matter. Christ arrives this Maundy Thursday – and whenever the sacrament is given – to deliver his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.