Did Justin Martyr Teach the Eucharist as a Propitiatory Sacrifice?

by Luke Wayne

In Roman Catholicism, the "Eucharist" is the partaking of the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. According to Roman Catholic theology, the bread and wine are the literal, physical body and blood of Christ which are presented through the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of those present. They believe that the priest literally calls Christ physically down from heaven and presents Him on the altar again as a sacrifice before God every time the congregation partakes of the Eucharist. (This teaching is analyzed in more detail in our article HERE.) To defend this perspective, many Roman Catholics will appeal to the second-century Christian philosopher, Justin Martyr, whom they claim taught the very same thing they do. By this, they hope to establish that their doctrine goes back to the earliest days of the church, which they argue must, by extension, make it an apostolic tradition. This argument is flawed on many levels.

The Apostolic Teaching

First and foremost, it is important to establish upfront that, even if Justin did teach the same thing that Roman Catholics believe today (which, as we will see, he did not,) it wouldn't matter. Justin is not an arbiter of some infallible, apostolic tradition that the Spirit never inspired the Apostles themselves to right down. Justin is a fallible man like you and me. He was a pagan philosopher who later converted to Christianity while remaining a professional philosopher and who often tried to harmonize Christian thought with what he saw as the best of Greco-Roman philosophy (while repudiating what he saw as the base elements of that philosophy as demonic). Ultimately, he was willing to suffer for his faith and was put to death for his confession of Christ, a thing to be honored and emulated, but none of this makes him an especially reliable witness of how the Apostles understood their own teaching and practice. If we want the Apostolic teaching, we can simply go back to the much earlier writings that contain their own words, i.e the New Testament itself!

The Book of Hebrews spends a lot of time showing both the connection and the distinction between the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifices of the old covenant system. The sacrificial system and the Levitical priesthood pointed to Jesus, but Jesus' once-for-all sacrifice is infinitely better for some crucial and relevant reasons.

"Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself," (Hebrews 7:25-29).

What makes Jesus a better high priest, in part, is that His offering was presented once for all and not day after day. He stands clean in the presence of the Father and intercedes for us forever on the basis of that one, finished sacrifice. It is this victorious finality that gives us the assurance He is, indeed, able to save us forever. The author further elaborates:

"For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year," (Hebrews 10:1-3).

The old sacrifices did not make one perfect. That is why they had to be offered again and again. If they had once and for all covered all your sins perfectly, that would be it! No additional offering would be needed! The very fact that the sacrifice must be presented again and again, year after year on the day of atonement testified to its inefficacy to truly, permanently free us from our sins. By contrast, we read:

 "Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified," (Hebrews 10:11-14).

Jesus' sacrifice does perfect those for whom it is offered and therefore does not need to be presented on the altar again and again, day after day. Jesus Himself need not come down bodily and lay on the altar again. No, He finished the work and has taken His seat at the right hand of God while His enemies are put under His feet. If Jesus' sacrifice were such that it did not perfect, that He had to come back to the altar again and again and offer the same sacrifice over and over, the sacrifice would be no different than those of the Old Testament! If Jesus needed to come down from heaven day after day so that He could be presented, body and blood, on the altar for the same congregation for whom He had already offered Himself before, He would be no different than the old high priests. Jesus' once-for-all sacrificial death on the cross propitiated and atoned for our sins perfectly. In no sense does He need to return and do it for us again. This is why Jesus cried out with His final breath, "It is finished!" (John 19:30). Paul also stresses this finality of perfect past completion when he writes things like:

"When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross," (Colossians 2:13-14).

So the idea that partaking of the bread and wine of the communion meal is really presenting Christ again on the altar in hopes of turning God's wrath away again and atoning anew for a fresh set of sins is entirely contrary to the New Testament teaching about the superiority and total sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice.

It should also be noted that partaking of the bread and wine is referred to as an act of remembrance (Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:24-25) and even proclamation (1 Corinthians 11:26) of the sacrificial death of Christ, but never as a sacrifice. The New Testament never makes or even alludes to that kind of claim. And even if it were called a sacrifice, that still wouldn't be enough to prove the Roman Catholic point! Other things that are referred to as sacrifices are called such by analogy and not in the sense of atonement or propitiation. For example, when Paul speaks regarding the Philippians' financial gift of support, he says:

"But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God," (Philippians 4:18).

Certainly, this language does not mean that money can buy off the wrath of God! Paul was not saying that by sending him some cash they had somehow atoned for their sins! No, it was a comparison to the sort of free-will offerings that were given in praise and thanksgiving to God and to honor and please Him. It was a way of saying, "you gave up a lot to support me and the gospel ministry. God sees that and is pleased in your humble offering of worship." So the mere language of "sacrifice" need not imply a propitiatory offering for the atonement of sins.

But did Justin Teach it?

So, though the Roman Catholic teaching is not biblical or apostolic, is it true that Justin Martyr taught the same thing? No. While Justin does refer to the partaking of bread and wine as a "sacrifice," a simple reading of his words shows that his meaning was entirely different. The references are in his work, "Dialogue with Trypho," where Justin presents a conversation between himself and a group of Jews, chiefly a man among them named Trypho. In this midst of this work, we read:

"'And the offering of fine flour, sirs,' I said, 'which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will. Hence God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve [prophets], as I said before, about the sacrifices at that time presented by you: ‘I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for, from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord: but ye profane it.’ [So] He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify His name, and that you profane [it]. The command of circumcision, again, bidding [them] always circumcise the children on the eighth day, was a type of the true circumcision, by which we are circumcised from deceit and iniquity through Him who rose from the dead on the first day after the Sabbath, [namely through] our Lord Jesus Christ. For the first day after the Sabbath, remaining the first of all the days, is called, however, the eighth, according to the number of all the days of the cycle, and [yet] remains the first," (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 41).

Justin quite imaginatively attempts to utilize Old Testament imagery as a prophetic foreshadowing of the details of Christian worship. As such, he sees the fact that Christians of all nations are worshiping God through the communion meal as a fulfillment of Malachi 1:11:

"'For from the rising of the sun even to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations,' says the Lord of hosts."

He also points to the fine flour offered as grain offerings in Leviticus 14, offered by former lepers who are declared clean. But these were not propitiatory sacrifices. Leviticus 14 clearly distinguishes the grain offering from the blood sacrifices which are given for sin and guilt. The grain offering in this passage is not a propitiatory or atoning sacrifice. Likewise in Malachi, the grain and incense offered by the nations are praise offerings in recognition of the greatness of the name of the LORD. None of these offerings are about propitiation for sin or turning away God's wrath. And Justin clearly knows this. Indeed, that is his point! Note again that while comparing the bread and wine to these grain offerings, Justin refers to the meal as:

"the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will."

It is an act of remembrance and thanksgiving. The only connection to atonement is that the thing being remembered and one of the things God is being thanked for is Jesus' finished work of redemption, which is referenced in the past tense as a thing already accomplished and for which they seek only to remember and give thanks. This is made even more clear later in the work, when Justin takes up the subject again:

"Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him. But He utterly rejects those presented by you and by those priests of yours, saying, ‘And I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands; for from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the Gentiles (He says); but ye profane it.’ Yet even now, in your love of contention, you assert that God does not accept the sacrifices of those who dwelt then in Jerusalem, and were called Israelites; but says that He is pleased with the prayers of the individuals of that nation then dispersed, and calls their prayers sacrifices. Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit. For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind, whose name the high priests of your nation and your teachers have caused to be profaned and blasphemed over all the earth. But these filthy garments, which have been put by you on all who have become Christians by the name of Jesus, God shows shall be taken away from us, when He shall raise all men from the dead, and appoint some to be incorruptible, immortal, and free from sorrow in the everlasting and imperishable kingdom; but shall send others away to the everlasting punishment of fire. But as to you and your teachers deceiving yourselves when you interpret what the Scripture says as referring to those of your nation then in dispersion, and maintain that their prayers and sacrifices offered in every place are pure and well-pleasing, learn that you are speaking falsely, and trying by all means to cheat yourselves: for, first of all, not even now does your nation extend from the rising to the setting of the sun, but there are nations among which none of your race ever dwelt. For there is not one single race of men, whether barbarians, or Greeks, or whatever they may be called, nomads, or vagrants, or herdsmen living in tents, among whom prayers and giving of thanks are not offered through the name of the crucified Jesus. And then, as the Scriptures show, at the time when Malachi wrote this, your dispersion over all the earth, which now exists, had not taken place," (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 117).

Here again, Justin makes it clear that he is talking about a sacrifice of praise. Indeed, pay careful attention to what he said:

"Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit. For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind."

Justin actually believes that prayer and thanksgiving is the true sacrifice. The act of partaking of the bread and the wine in remembrance becomes a sacrifice of praise in that it calls us to prayer and thanksgiving. It is the remembrance itself in thanks for what God has done that is the sacrifice. There is nothing here at all about Jesus' body and blood being presented again on the altar to atone anew for the sins of those present. There is not, indeed, the slightest hint of the Roman Catholic dogma of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice in the offering of Christ's body and blood. That is not at all what Justin meant in calling the bread and wine a sacrifice. All he meant was that it is the authentic manner of pleasing worship and is, in Justin's mind, the true, universal worship to which the Scriptures were typologically pointing in various places and in contrast to Jewish forms of worship that Justin rejected as a manmade refusal to accept that all things in Scripture were pointing to Christ. Whatever one may think of Justin's arguments and interpretive approach, they do not support later Roman Catholic doctrine.