The Sacrament, Part 4: Water Alone?

In my last post, I discussed an argument in favor of needing to partake of both the bread and water during a sacrament service as opposed to only partaking of the water. This post is essentially a continuation of that same discussion, this time discussing arguments in favor of partaking only the water, so I recommend reviewing the first part of the discussion before proceeding on.

To understand the argument that it’s okay to just partake of the water during the sacrament, it is beneficial to look back to arguments that took place during the Reformation. The Roman Catholic church had come to believe in a doctrine known as transubstantiation, wherein the emblems of the Eucharist miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Catholics also taught that the Eucharist was a sacrifice—the same sacrifice Christ offered on the cross—and was offered for the sins of the living and the dead. Thus, their celebration of the Mass had become an encounter with Christ through a repetition of the sacrifice offered on the cross. Martin Luther took a somewhat different approach, rejecting the idea that Mass was a sacrifice and also rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation. At the same time, he still taught that the Eucharistic bread and wine did have the presence of the Lord’s body and blood, but not in the literal sense of becoming his body and blood. Rather, Christ was present in the bread and wine in a more spiritual sense. Thus, even though Luther broke with the Catholic church in many ways, his approach to the Eucharist was not entirely different.


Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms

A Swiss contemporary of Luther by the name of Huldrych Zwingli, however, took a more radical approach to reevaluating the Eucharist. When the scriptures state that Christ said “this is my body”, Zwingli argued that rather than being taken literally, it should be read to mean “this signifies my body.” Looking back at the origin of the word sacrament (a word that, to most Christians, holds a meaning similar to how we use the word ordinance), Zwingli discovered that the Catholic church had borrowed the term from the Roman army, where it meant a soldier’s oath. This idea of a sacrament being an oath was tied to the concept of a covenant in his mind. Thus, to Zwingli the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was only a symbol—a communal pledge as Christians and an expression the believer’s faith in Christ rather than a magic talisman of Christ’s body. As one historian summarized, “For Zwingli, therefore, the sacraments shifted in meaning from something which God did for humanity, to something which humanity did for God.”[1] This belief led to deep and bitter disagreements between Zwingli and Luther.

John Calvin strove to find a middle ground between the two earlier reformers, though his own views were known to shift on the matter. In one of his approaches to the Eucharist, he worked to make a firm distinction between the ‘sign’ and ‘reality’ in the sacraments. In this way, the Eucharistic emblems were a visible sign of a sacred thing. The Catholic church had confused the reality and the sign, offering worship to the signs of the bread and wine in the Eucharist that was really due to Christ, the reality behind the signs. Luther, in Calvin’s thought, had likewise attributed to much to the signs of the Eucharist, things that were only true of the reality behind them. Zwingli, on the other hand, had gone too far the other way, separating the sign and the reality too much in the sacraments. As summarized, Calvin’s view was that: “In the Eucharist, God does not come down to us to sit on a table; but through the sign of the breaking of bread and taking of wine, he draws us up to join him in Heaven.”[2] The Eucharist continues an ongoing mystical union with Christ initiated with baptism and effected by means of the Holy Spirit.

unknown artist; The Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformers

Where do Latter-day Saint beliefs lie in relation to these viewpoints? Certainly, the viewpoints proposed by the Catholic Church and Martin Luther are rejected. President Brigham Young stated that: “The Mother Church of the Christian world believes that the bread becomes the actual flesh of Jesus, and that the wine becomes his blood; this is preposterous to me. It is bread, and it is wine; but both are blessed to the souls of those who partake thereof.”[3] This seems to put us somewhere more between the viewpoints of Calvin and Zwingli shown above, and it is possible to argue that our viewpoint is closer to one or the other.

Certainly, there is much in Calvin’s views of the Eucharist discussed above that resounds with Latter-day Saints. Those who partake of the sacrament and live by the covenants made there are promised the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. President Brigham Young once stated that: “If bread and wine are blessed, dedicated, and sanctified, through the sincerity and faith of the people of God, then the Spirit of the Lord, through the promise, rests upon the individuals who thus keep His commandments, and are diligent in obeying the ordinances.”[4] Terryl Givens—a notable Latter-day Saint theologian—interpreted this to mean that “early Mormons … saw [the sacrament]—in Protestant terms—as a channel of grace. As Young explained the ordinance, it was a vehicle for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to participants.”[5] This certainly seems to tie into Calvin’s theology in many ways, with the idea that the sacrament helps form a mystical union with Christ through the Holy Spirit. While symbolic, it is also not merely a symbol but a means for God to bless us with His Spirit.

There are arguments, however, that can put Latter-day Saint theology closer in line with Zwingli’s understanding. Emphasizing the covenants found in the sacrament prayers fits in with his view of a communal pledge when participating in the sacrament. The ordinance helps us remember those covenants and live by them on a regular basis. A close reading of the scriptures indicates that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit associated with the sacrament doesn’t result directly from the ordinance, but from keeping the covenants we make during the sacrament. For example, when the resurrected Christ taught the Nephites about the sacrament, he told them that they break and bless bread “in remembrance of my body” and as “a testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me.” It is, however, only “if ye do always remember me” that “ye shall have my Spirit to be with you” (3 Nephi 18:7). His instructions for the wine were similar (see 3 Nephi 18:11). Likewise, the sacrament prayers found in the Book of Mormon list the covenants associated with each and states that participants keep these covenants so “that they may always have his Spirit to be with them” (Moroni 4:3; Moroni 5:2). Thus, it can be argued that the sacrament is not a direct channel of grace, but a symbolic means of pointing us towards the type of life that open our lives to grace.

Similar statements can be found in the teachings of modern apostles. For example, President Spencer W. Kimball held that: “The sacrament … [serves to] keep us reminded of our covenants, that we will remember the sacrifice, that we are willing to take upon us the name of Christ, and that we will remember him and keep his commandments.”[6] The ordinance, in other words, exists primarily to remind us of covenants, Christ’s Atonement, and our commitment to keep the commandments. President Kimball also stated: “That is the real purpose of the sacrament, to keep us from forgetting, to help us to remember.”[7] Thus, for one president of the Church, the sacrament held value in helping us remember Christ and our covenants above all else.

One of the most important discussions of the sacrament in recent years was by Elder David A. Bednar. While he does maintain that “the ordinances of salvation and exaltation” are “authorized channels through which the blessings and powers of heaven can flow into our individual lives” and thus “are far more than rituals or symbolic performances,” his approach to the sacrament was much more circumspect than that of other ordinances in this regard. In discussing the sacrament, he stated that: “The act of partaking of the sacrament, in and of itself, does not remit sins. But as we prepare conscientiously and participate in this holy ordinance with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then the promise is that we may always have the Spirit of the Lord to be with us.”[8] The sacrament doesn’t directly give us a remission of sins, but provides a way for us to focus our energies on being in a state where we can have the Spirit constantly in our lives.

What I’m getting at with this is that if you look at the sacrament as a reminder or a symbol to turn your thoughts to Christ, then it may not be too terrible if you miss the bread but still have the water. Each token of the sacrament can stand alone as an opportunity to remember Christ, think of your covenants, and reflect on your life and changes you need to make. From this perspective, those thoughts and the corresponding actions in your daily life are the way in which the sacrament has power for individuals who participate. We have already received an initial remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost through the baptism and confirmation ordinances. Further remission of sins comes through sincere repentance and the ongoing presence of the Holy Ghost in our lives, which the sacrament prayers make contingent on remembering Christ, taking his name upon us, and keeping His commandments. All of this can be done even if you miss the bread occasionally but still take advantage of the sacrament time with the water.

There is always danger, of course, in pushing this argument too far. That is why I suspect that this argument will not sit too well with many Latter-day Saints. For example, if it’s the case, do we really need to partake of the sacrament as long as we make the effort to keep the covenants of the sacrament? Similarly, why do we really need the ordinance at all if it’s so closely tied to the same covenants and promised blessings as baptism and confirmation? We’ve already made them, and just need to remember them. On the other end of the spectrum, if the sacrament exists as a symbol of our commitment and a reminder of Christ, are we really taking it seriously if we show up too late to take the bread? What type of commitment does that show? Can we fully benefit from the ordinance at that point?

These questions are valid concerns. Just because the sacrament might be a symbol, however, doesn’t mean that it’s not a commandment. Jesus still commanded his disciples to “this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) and that “except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6:54). We need the constant reminder in our lives and the opportunity to show that we love and will serve the Lord. Because of that, we should make every effort to arrive in time to contemplate and prepare to partake of both emblems of the sacrament. A habit of arriving late enough to miss one or both parts of the sacrament on a regular basis does show a certain lack of respect for the ordinance and what it achieves in our lives. What I am addressing here, however, is what might be okay if, on a rare occasion, you arrive after the bread has been passed.

As indicated in my previous post, then, how permissible it is to take only the water depends on how you view the sacrament. If you view it as a means of dispensing grace that is required on a regular basis for salvation, then it is can be concluded that you should only take the sacrament with both the bread and water. If you view it strictly as a reminder and a symbol of our covenants and commitments, then it can be concluded that you can take only the water. It is possible to argue in favor of either viewpoint in Latter-day Saint theology, though I recognize that likely those arguing in either direction will likely feel strongly about their point of view. In either case, however, it is preferable to make the effort to be there for both the bread and the water.


[1] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (p. 620-621). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (pp. 635-636). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Discourses of Brigham Young, 172.

[4] The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. Richard S. Van Wagoner (Salt Lake City, UT: Smith-Petit Foundation, 2009), 2:729.

[5] Terryl L. Givens, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis (Oxford: Oxford Univesrity Press, 2017), 204.

[6] 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), 226.

[7] Kimball and Kimball, 112.

[8] David A. Bednar, “Always Retain a Remission of Your Sins.”


  1. david matthews · · Reply

    Chad, I came across your site and comments on the Sacrament while searching for a story from close to 40 years ago that I believe President Kimball related. I cannot find a reference or transcript of the story. However, several friends and acquaintances have said that they remember that particular story. It refers to a sacrament meeting where Pres. Kimball did not partake of the Sacramental bread because he had not paid attention during the sacramental prayer due to some birds and their songs from outside the chapel. I believe, if I recall correctly, that he did not partake of the water since he had not partaken of the bread. After surprising the congregation with his actions, Pres. Kimball address the congregation and explained how important it was for him that we focus on the prayer before partaking and thus performing the ordinance.
    This may be pertinent in your musings as it appears Pres. Kimball taught a lesson regarding the taking of the emblems without proper preparation and focus.
    Please let me know if you can help me find a reference. I would very much like to clarify my recollection of the story/talk.

  2. David,
    That would be a great source to have for the subject of the post. Thank you for bringing it up. I haven’t been able to find it either so far, but will keep an eye out for it.

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