Can Protestants be saved, given that they don’t have the Eucharist? In John 6:53-55, Jesus speaks about the Eucharist in a way that seems to suggest that, without it, you cannot be saved: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” So should we conclude from this that the Eucharist is strictly necessary for salvation?
No, say St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In his typical style, Aquinas makes a helpful distinction:
First, a thing may be necessary so that without it the end cannot be attained; thus food is necessary for human life. And this is simple necessity of end.
Secondly, a thing is said to be necessary, if, without it, the end cannot be attained so becomingly: thus a horse is necessary for a journey. But this is not simple necessity of end.
We use this second sense of “necessary” frequently, usually without thinking about it. If I say that you’ll need a plane if you’re going to get from City A to City B, that’s not strictly true: a very long car or boat ride might get you there, but it’ll be a lot more difficult, and there’s a greater likelihood of things going wrong and you not arriving at your destination safely. Or if your professor says that you need a particular book for his class, he’s probably not saying that you’ll automatically fail if you don’t have the book; he’s saying that you’ll be needlessly compromising your ability to succeed, increasingly your likelihood of failure.
It’s strictly necessary to get above an “F” to pass a course: it’s literally impossible to pass with an “F.” It’s not strictly necessary to study or to pay attention, etc., but we can still coherently say that you need to do these things. We’re just using the second meaning of “necessity.” So the Eucharist is “necessary” in this second sense, but not in the sense of strict necessity. After all, Aquinas points out that “children are saved by Baptism alone without the other sacraments.”
So that leaves us with two questions: first, what do we make of Our Lord’s words? And second, does this mean that we shouldn’t worry so much about the Eucharist?
St. Augustine answers the first of these questions, by explaining that it’s about the reality of the Eucharist:
And thus He would have this meat and drink to be understood as meaning the fellowship of His own body and members, which is the holy Church in his predestinated, and called, and justified, and glorified saints and believers. Of these, the first is already effected, namely, predestination; the second and third, that is, the vocation and justification, have taken place, are taking place, and will take place; but the fourth, namely, the glorifying, is at present in hope; but a thing future in realization. The sacrament of this thing, namely, of the unity of the body and blood of Christ, is prepared on the Lord’s table in some places daily, in some places at certain intervals of days, and from the Lord’s table it is taken, by some to life, by some to destruction: but the thing itself, of which it is the sacrament, is for every man to life, for no man to destruction, whosoever shall have been a partaker thereof.
In other words, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, and it’s fellowship in this Body of Christ that is salvific. It’s not the mere reception of the Eucharist itself. As St. Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, unworthy reception of the Eucharist is actually damnable:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
So it’s not the mere physical reception of the Sacrament that saves, or else those who received the Eucharist unworthily would be saved, not damned. And in fact, that sort of view of the Sacraments could make it possible to not believe in Jesus at all, not even be willing to receive Communion, and have someone save you by force-feeding you the Eucharist. Augustine argues that this is against the free nature of belief and of salvation: “A man can come to Church unwillingly, can approach the altar unwillingly, partake of the sacrament unwillingly: but he cannot believe unless he is willing. If we believed with the body, men might be made to believe against their will.”
And so Augustine will argue that “the sacrament is one thing, the virtue of the sacrament another,” and that “this is what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he that eats within, not without; who eats in his heart, not who presses with his teeth.” Aquinas agrees, arguing that Jesus’ words in John 6:53-55 “are to be understood of spiritual, and not of merely sacramental, eating.” It’s not enough to receive the Body of Christ in your mouth if you won’t receive Jesus in your heart. So when Jesus says that “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day,” He’s referring to those who receive Him in faith. Likewise, it’s this reception in faith that He’s referring to when He speaks of the necessity to “eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood.”
But notice that Augustine and Aquinas don’t go to the opposite extreme, of treating the Sacrament as merely irrelevant. As Aquinas says, it’s not enough to have “merely sacramental” eating, as if the Sacraments will save you apart from faith. But that doesn’t mean that this sacramental eating is irrelevant. Aquinas points out that “God does nothing without a purpose,” and all seven of the Sacraments instituted by Christ are given to us for good reason. Indeed, Aquinas argues that the Eucharist is the greatest of the seven Sacraments, “because it contains Christ Himself substantially” whereas the other Sacraments contain only “a certain instrumental power which is a share of Christ’s power.” Baptism saves us, and enables to receive the even-greater gift of Jesus Christ Himself, in the gift of the Eucharist. In this way, we can say both that the Eucharist is greater than Baptism, and that it’s less necessary for salvation.
Remember that the Eucharist and the other Sacraments are necessary in the second sense of necessary: that “without it, the end cannot be attained so becomingly.” Trying to get to Heaven without being able to receive absolution for your sins in Confession, or to be empowered with the gifts of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, or to be able to receive Jesus Christ Himself in the Eucharist (with all of the graces accompanying a worthy reception of the Eucharist) is like trying to pass the class without the necessary materials, or trying to cross the ocean without taking a plane. It’s not strictly impossible, but why make things needlessly harder for yourself? God has given us these great gifts for our benefit and for the ease of our salvation, so let’s delight in them, and share this Good News with those (even other Christians!) who may not know the full means of salvation that Jesus gives us each day.