Why the Sacrament?

For Christians, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was and is, in the words of one historian, “the central Christian ritual act.”[1] As Latter-day Saints, we participate in the breaking of bread and drinking of water on an almost weekly basis. Due to a few different reasons, I have been thinking about the sacrament a lot lately. So, I took the time to study the ordinance in greater depth, trying to understand why it’s so important and why we do it so often. During my study, I found several purposes for the sacrament and thought it might be worthwhile to share, since there were a few surprises (at least for me). First and foremost among those reasons is to remember Jesus Christ, but there is also looking forward to the Second Coming, focusing on how Christians can become one with God and with each other through Christ, and making or renewing covenants.

The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper exists to help us remember. Paul’s account of the Last Supper (the earliest record we have) recalls that when Jesus took bread, he blessed and broke it, then said: “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:23-26, emphasis added). The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) agree in basic details with Paul’s account, focusing on remembering. The Book of Mormon also agrees that the sacrament is done “in remembrance of the body of [God’s] son” and “in remembrance of the blood of [God’s] Son, which was shed for them.”[2] As President Spencer W. Kimball once said: “That is the real purpose of the sacrament, to keep us from forgetting, to help us to remember.”[3]

While the sacrament helps us remember the past, it also helps us to look forward to the future Second Coming of Christ. Paul’s account, cited above, concludes with the statement that: “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26, emphasis added). The gospels also briefly touch on this purpose, recording that Jesus said: “Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). President John Taylor taught this aspect of the sacrament more plainly when he said: “In the sacrament we … shadow forth the time when He will come again and when we shall meet and eat bread with Him in the kingdom of God.”[4] Thus, the sacrament is not only a time to look back, but to look forward.

While the sacrament of the Lord’s supper is an opportunity to remember and reflect on Christ, it is a chance to develop bonds of love with God and with each other. For example, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther wrote that:

Just as the bread is made out of many grains ground and mixed together, and out of the bodies of many grains there comes the body of one bread … and just as the drops of wine, in losing their own form, become the body of one common wine and drink – so it is and should be with us, if we use this sacrament properly. … Through the interchange of [Christ’s] blessings and our misfortunes, we become one loaf, one bread, one body, one drink, and have all things in common. … In this way we are changed into one another and are made into a community by love. Without love there can be no such change.[5]

The sacrament is a community event, where each one of us partakes of the same emblems in unity and become one through our life in Jesus Christ. President Joseph F. Smith added a dimension to this of becoming a covenant people through common obligations when he taught that: “We … partake of the Holy Sacrament together as brethren in the bonds of the covenant.”[6] Thus, the sacrament is a communal means of acknowledging the eternal life given through Christ and how Christians become one with each other through that life.

The sacrament is also an opportunity to testify of our commitment to God through covenants. When the resurrected Jesus visited the Nephites, he spoke of the sacrament as “a testimony” or a “witness” to God that they remembered him and were willing to do “that which I have commanded you” (3 Nephi 18:7, 10-11). Building on his teachings, the sacrament prayers in the Book of Mormon includes the covenants of the sacrament. With the bread, participants demonstrate that “they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him, and keep his commandments which he hath given them.” With the water, participants witness that they “do always remember him.” In return, both prayers promise that “they may always have his Spirit to be with them.”[7] By partaking of the sacrament, the Saints make these covenants with God.

In modern times, Church leaders have also included the idea of renewing covenants as a purpose of the sacrament. Beginning with Elder Bruce R. McConkie in particular, it has been noted that there is significant overlap in the covenants made during the sacrament and baptism. In the October 1950 General Conference, Elder McConkie stated that: “So important is this [baptismal] covenant in the eyes of the Lord that he has provided for us a means and a way to renew it often. The ordinance whereby we renew this covenant is the ordinance of the sacrament.”[8] This is one of the earliest times that the sacrament covenants were linked to the baptismal covenants, but the idea became central to Latter-day Saint understanding of the sacrament.

Within the last few years, however, general authorities have begun to note that taking this approach may cause a slight distortion of the doctrine. Elder Neil L. Andersen taught that: “The title ‘renewing our baptismal covenants’ is not found in the scriptures … and it can’t be the keynote of what we say about the sacrament. … The sacrament is a beautiful time to not just renew our baptismal covenant, but to commit to Him to renew all our covenants, and our promises, and to approach Him in a spiritual power that we did not have previously as we move forward.”[9] The sacrament is not only connected to baptism, but to all covenants that are necessary for our salvation.

Further insight into the relationship between the sacrament and baptism has come through Elder David A. Bednar. An idea associated with strongly connecting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to baptism is that the sacrament provides a weekly remission of sins comparable to being rebaptized on a regular basis. According to Elder Bednar, however, baptism provides an “initial cleansing of our soul from sin” and, combined with repentance, leads to receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is the agent by which we are purged or cleansed of our sins. Thus, “in the process of coming unto the Savior and spiritual rebirth, receiving the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost in our lives creates the possibility of an ongoing cleansing of our soul from sin.” The sacrament’s promise that we can always have the Holy Spirit with us means that “by the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost as our constant companion, we can always retain a remission of our sins.”[10] The technicality presented here (at least as I understand it) is that the sacrament, unlike baptism, does not directly provide a cleansing from sin. Both ordinances, however, do lead to the ongoing companionship of the Holy Ghost, which does provide a remission of sins.

Thus, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper serves many purposes in the lives of Latter-day Saints. It is an opportunity to look back and remember the sacrifice of the Savior and to look forward to His return. It is a time to reflect on the life given through Christ and the bonds with God and with fellow Saints that life engenders. It is also an opportunity to witness to God our commitment to Christ and the covenants we have made. The two big surprises for me in my study were that earlier Church leaders pointed out that the sacrament helps us look forward to the Second Coming of Christ and that renewing baptismal covenants is something that is a relatively modern idea associated with the ordinance. They’ve certainly given me more to think about as I participate in the sacrament.


[1] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (pp. 131-132). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Moroni 4:3; Moroni 5:2.

[3] Spencer W. Kimball and Edward L. Kimball (ed.), The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Twelfth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 112.

[4] Journal of Discourses, 14:185 (20 March 1870). See also JD 22:82-83 for a similar statement by Charles Penrose.

[5] Cited in Charlotte Methuen, Luther and Calvin: Religious Revolutionaries (p. 93). Lion Hudson. Kindle Edition. A similar symbolism is found in an early Christian book of instructions called the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or Didache. It recorded some of the sacrament prayers used at the time, and a part of the one for the bread was as follows:  “As this broken bread was once scattered on the mountains, and after it had been brought together became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth unto thy kingdom.” (Didache, Hoole translation, 9:3-4, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-hoole.html)

[6] Journal of Discourses 11:310.

[7] See Moroni 4-5.

[8] Bruce R. McConkie, “Children of the Covenant,” General Conference October, 1950.

[9] Neil L. Andersen, “Witnessing to Live the Commandments,” General Conference Leadership Training on the Sabbath Day Observance at Church (April 2015). Available to priesthood leaders. See also https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-changing-forms-of-the-latter-day-saint-sacrament/#sdfootnote40sym for a more detailed discussion of this issue.

[10] Elder David A. Benar, “Always Retain a Remission of Your Sins,” CR October 2016, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2016/04/always-retain-a-remission-of-your-sins?lang=eng

12 comments for “Why the Sacrament?

  1. “They’ve certainly given me more to think about as I participate in the sacrament.” While you imply that this is a good thing for you, I find this is contrary to my experience. At the risk of being heretical, as you lay out several permutations of the purpose of the sacrament (and, thank you!), I find that we’re not left with a unifying reason for taking the sacrament. It’s not that I don’t think there’s a reason for it (a good one, surely), but that as people add on to it’s purpose, it seems to be losing meaning for me. We’ve gone from the sacrament being a reminder, to a looking forward, to the renewing of baptismal covenants, to a renewing of all covenants, to a weekly remission of our sins… There’s a strong push to make the sacrament, perhaps, more than it was intended to be. Why can’t an ordinance intended to remind us about the atonement remain just that? It wasn’t even initially intended to happen every week. Obviously, this is common of so many other artifacts of our (or any) religion, but I still find it frustrating to navigate the perpetual “elevating” of Church practices. I observe this happening with other ordinances that are non-essential, non-saving, such as baby blessings, Patriarchal blessings, setting apart for callings, etc. And, this is actually starting to wreck the experience for me (but that surely says something about me).

  2. Turtle Named Mack, my thoughts might also just say something about me, haha. I like to have options when it comes to pondering on things. I do understand your concerns, though. I think the only points that can be taken from the scriptures are to remember (specifically the Atonement of Jesus Christ and his final hours in mortality) and to make covenants with God (or witness to Him our commitment to Christ). Looking forward to the Second Coming is a small stretch from the New Testament texts, but plausible to include. Renewing covenants of any sort, seeking unity, or receiving a remission of sins are things I can’t say that I see in the scriptures connected to the sacrament. That being said, there is a logical path of deduction to get to renewing covenants from what is said in the scriptures. I might say, though, that reflecting on our covenants and renewing our devotion might be a better way to talk about things than renewing covenants. Reflecting on our covenants can definitely be the result of reflecting on our commitment to Christ and what that means in our lives as we witness to God that we will remember Christ, take his name upon us, and keep his commandments.

    I actually see Elder Anderson’s and especially Elder Bednar’s remarks as efforts to reign in the more unscriptural assumptions about the sacrament (though Elder Anderson might have overshot in making it about renewing all of our covenants). As far as being every week or not, I might be mistaken, but I understand that it was a frequent part of early Christian meetings and partaking of it infrequently was a later Orthodox/Catholic innovation that carried over in varying degrees through the Reformation and into the early Latter Day Saint movement. That’s actually the topic of another post that I’ve been working on, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

  3. What do you make of Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 11:23 “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you”? Since Paul didn’t know Jesus in mortality, is this an admission that the sacrament was a ritual Paul began based on revelation and not a tradition passed down by the 12? Or was Paul simply infusing a pre-existing tradition with new, holy meaning?

  4. Great post.

    I think part of the reason to see sacrament as a renewal is the close relationship of the Nephite sacrament prayers to Alma’s baptizing in Mosiah 18 as well as the sermon in Alma 5. There’s a clear dependence there. These then get reworked by Christ in 3 Nephi 18 as well as possibly a reworking of Deut 5 and 29.

    In the 19th century rebaptism was common as was baptism for healing and other uses. This in turn has some echos of the pre-Christian immersions by Jews often called a mikvah. (Technically the mikvah is the font where one is immersed but it’s the term everyone uses) Jews would repeat these mikvahs to return one to purity. While McConkie writes his bit about renewal in 1950 although his father in law, Joseph Fielding Smith, was I think writing on it before him. His statements on rebaptism and sacrament as covenant renewal are in Doctrines of Salvation 424 and 429 — I know Doctrines of Salvation is published later but the talks are I believe from earlier)

    We see the deprecation of rebaptism with sacrament at the beginning of the century taking a lot of its role. Part of this development is the idea that we should only partake worthily, so partaking becomes a type of remembering and recommitting ourselves to our earlier made covenants. While not explicit that use goes back to that transitionary period at the beginning of the century. Say George Albert Smith’s sermon on sacrament, covenants and baptism (General Conference Report, 1908 pg 34-35) I’m pretty sure this all primarily happens under Heber J. Grant’s liturgical reforms. (That’s when baptism for health ends)

    As you note, Elder Andersen took some exception to McConkie’s rhetoric on renewal of covenants as non-scriptural. However I think that the Book of Mormon use of remembrance is also a kind of repetition. (As opposed to what was likely the Palestine prayer in Didiche 9 which is quite different – although remembrance is emphasized in 1 Cor 11:24-5 and Luke 22:19) While McConkie is a bit unscriptural from a certain perspective, in the Old Testament there is definitely the idea of renewing covenants with the same terms as making a covenant used (k?rat b?rît literally to cut a covenant) The idea, I believe, is that you’re covenanting to keep a covenant. Which sounds weird, but is actually akin to what remembering the covenant in the Old Testament gets at. The classic covenant renewal is Joshua 24. There remembering what the Lord did is a big part. Part of this covenant renewal there is also witnessing that you’ve chosen to serve God.

    So while the term renewal is perhaps a bit unscriptural, the idea of renewing covenants is very scriptural and often has strong elements similar to the Nephite prayers.

  5. Great thoughts, Clark. Thank you for sharing.

    Ryan, my feeling (based on some of my studies into Paul) is that 1 Cor. 11:23 is more an indication that Paul was passing on a Christian tradition that he had learned from his home community to the Corinthian community that he had founded. It is likely that the words used in the gospels and Paul’s letter were based on something said in Christian meetings when the sacrament was observed. Receiving it from the Lord may have been a figurative way to indicate that it was something passed down from the Lord to the apostles and then on to the Christian congregations that Paul was a part of. That’s what I make of it, at least.

  6. “Part of this development is the idea that we should only partake worthily”

    Clark, your comment jogged my memory. As a baby boomer growing up in the church during the 60s and early 70s I heard about being worthy to take the sacrament all the time. It was expressed in some way almost every Sunday and all lessons about the sacrament included a heavy dose of partaking worthily. But I can’t remember the last time this was expressed in any way now that I’m an adult. No one talks about taking the sacrament worthily anymore at my local level. Is that just my ward or is it a more general approach throughout the church?

  7. I am leery of “Why?” questions, even though I often appreciate the dialogue that often results — sometimes, “Why?” questions generate answers that I don’t fully endorse. For me, the “Why?” for the sacrament is because Jesus said, “This do in remembrance of me.” That is sufficient for me.

  8. Ugh. Blog ate my comment. Briefly, KLC I think it’s not as common. But if you do a search at lds.org for either worthy or worthily with sacrament you find a fair number of talks the last 10 years. But no where near as many as in the prior decades. So it’s still emphasized just not as much.

  9. I think it was Tad Callister who referred to mysteries as essentially spiritual principles with infinite depth. I like seeing the sacrament this way: many different good ways to understand it; God can continue teaching and inspiring His Saints through study, insights, and impressions. Some see it as simple, which is fine. Others can see great depth and complexity.

    Dallin Oaks recently referred to differences in shape and size of the pieces of bread as reflective of our own individuality and individual sins.

    Several sacrament hymns reference the Second Coming, such as “Jesus, Once of Humble Birth”, and “In Remembrance of Thy Suffering.”

    I like the idea that the sacrament can also represent the presence of God, or embracing Christ as the bread of life for us. As the earliest Christians took it and thought of His body, much of it may have involved recollections of what He had done in His body: teachings, healings, etc. For the Nephites the sacrament seemed to represent a spiritual climax in 3 Nephi.

  10. I’d agree that being worthy is not often talked about, primarily because we don’t want to make people feel bad, mixed in with the fact we probably haven’t taken it seriously enough in our own lives. Years later maybe many have collectively forgotten what Jesus said on the matter.

    For whoso eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul; therefore if ye know that a man is unworthy to eat and drink of my flesh and blood ye shall forbid him.

    Read the surrounding verses in 3rd Nephi 18 for added context and commandment.

  11. Growing up as a Millennial in Utah during the 90s and 2000s, my peers and I were aware and conscientious about needing to take the sacrament worthily, though I can’t say I remember a lot of specific talks or lessons focusing on the subject. It seemed, however, like a lot of us felt like there was no clear direction on what qualified as worthy. When we asked seminary teachers, local church teachers and leaders, etc. the most common answer I heard was to leave that up to the bishop to decide. Anyway, it is in the Gospel Principles manual that was used in the Church and in some of the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manuals (John Taylor comes to mind in particular), so the topic has still been around and included in lesson materials for Church, like Clark said.

  12. “What does it mean to partake of the sacrament worthily? Or how do we know if we are unworthy?
    If we desire to improve (which is to repent) and are not under priesthood restriction, then, in my opinion, we are worthy.”
    Elder John Groberg, 1989

    “When we take it upon ourselves to pass self-judgment and simply declare, “I am not worthy,” we build a barrier to progress and erect blockades that prevent our moving forward. We are not being fair when we judge ourselves. … It occurs to me that there are probably hundreds or even thousands who do not understand what worthiness is. Worthiness is a process, and perfection is an eternal trek.” Elder Marvin Ashton, 1989

    I’ll go with Groberg’s opinion as to the sacrament.

Comments are closed.