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Common Theology

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  • Josh Gurango

Christ's Edifying Presence in the Lord's Supper

Updated: Feb 21


Many churches in the 21st century hardly ever talk about the Lord’s Supper. They may practice it, but often, it is seen as an extra-curricular activity that happens occasionally at the end of a worship service. In a lot of these instances, there is not much exposition on relevant texts concerning the body and blood of Christ, and anyone at all who happens to be present and claims to believe in Jesus (as judged by their own selves) is welcome to eat the bread and drink from the cup. Some have even relegated the administration of the Supper to just about anyone in the church who wants to lead a small group and do it at their own time, separate from the rest of the congregation. On the other hand, there are also churches today that dedicate more than just a few minutes of the congregation's time on a Sunday for the sake of partaking in the Lord’s Supper. It is seen as one of the central activities in the life of the local church and is first and foremost for the benefit of its members. Visitors who wish to partake must in some way be vouched for as baptised believers who come from a Gospel-preaching local church. Why is there such a big difference in practice between these examples? These practical differences arise from a theological issue which was once a huge concern within Protestantism. Although many (if not most) churches fall somewhere in between, these two ends of the spectrum are reflective of either forgetting or preserving the doctrine of the means of grace and the issue of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.


Defining the Means of Grace


Before we discuss the means, we must understand grace. The grace which we are speaking of is the unmerited favor of God which has been procured for us by Christ through His death, resurrection, and ascension and is communicated to us in time using God’s ordained means. As Bavinck puts it, Christ alone “is and remains the acquisitor as well as the distributor of grace.”[1] We receive grace not just at the moment we are justified by faith, but all throughout our Christian life. It is by the grace of God that our faith is strengthened, and we are sanctified. This is why Paul can definitively say to the Ephesian believers that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3), yet later on pray “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being…that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:16, 19b). The way that God accomplishes this strengthening of His saints is through the ordinary means of grace, which can be defined as: the “delivery systems God has instituted to bring grace – that is, spiritual power, spiritual change, spiritual help, spiritual fortitude, spiritual blessings – to needy souls on the earth.”[2]


Reformed churches have historically held to a strong belief in the means of grace, as seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith:


The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.[3]


The Lord Jesus Christ has chosen the ministry of Word and Sacrament as His means of accomplishing His purposes for His Church. Both the Westminster and London Baptist Confessions use the terms “ordinance” and “sacrament”. Both terms are referring to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To call these “ordinances” refers to the fact that they have been specifically ordained by Christ. The word “sacrament”, on the other hand, simply means “to consecrate” or “make holy”.[4] In this context, theologians use the word to describe “a visible sign of a sacred thing” or “a visible form of an invisible grace”.[5] Baptism being a sign of our union with Christ and His death and resurrection, and the Lord’s Supper being a sign of our continuing communion with Him. Baptists often used the word “ordinance” not to deny the concept of “sacrament”, but to emphasize its divine origin. As signs, they point us to spiritual, unseen realities which we enjoy as Spirit-indwelt believers. As means of grace, these sacraments are used by God to effect change in us.


The Word as a Means of Grace


Both Word and Sacrament are means of grace. Word ministry (together with prayer) was the apostles’ primary concern:


But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4)


It is through spirit-empowered Word ministry that sinners are brought from death to life:


since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for

“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 3:23-25)


Saving faith itself is produced through Word ministry:


So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)


According to the context of Romans 10, the Word is meant to be preached:


How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)


This does not mean that one cannot be saved through simply reading the Bible. This does indeed happen. But ordinarily, God has called people to preach His Word, and it is in this ministry of preaching that God promises to work by His Spirit. Biblical preaching is not only to go out of the church (evangelistically) but to the church for edification.


preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2)


Not only does salvation come to us through the Word, we are sanctified through it as well. Jesus prays to the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). According to our Lord, the Word is the ordinary means which God uses to communicate grace, impart life, and grant faith to sinners. From the initial moment of saving faith onward, the Word of God is vital for the increasing and strengthening of the faith of God’s people. To pursue sanctification apart from the Word of God is baseless, for Christ has already ordained the Word for this very purpose.


The Sacraments as Means of Grace


For many, the word "sacrament" carries a lot of negative baggage from Roman Catholicism. Rome teaches that the sacraments in and of themselves literally convey grace. In their view, Baptism regenerates man ex opere operato (from the work worked) and the Eucharist raises his spiritual life to a higher level. In case you didn't already know, the Roman belief is that when you are baptised, regardless of actual faith in Christ, you are regenerated and cleansed from the stain of original sin. It is the beginning of salvation. This plays well into their system’s elevation of man’s role in salvation. Here's what the Council of Trent (Rome's Counter-Reformation) Session 7, Canon 8 has to say:


If any one says, that by the said sacraments of the New Law grace is not conferred through the act performed, but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices for the obtaining of grace; let him be anathema.


Needless to say, the Reformed churches categorically denied that sacraments in and of themselves do anything to a person. Their answer to this was to say that the means of grace (Latin: media gratiae) are the vehicles by which God’s extraordinary grace is delivered to His people ordinarily through His ordained means – namely, the Word, the Sacraments, and prayer – for the purpose of saving and strengthening them by the discretion and power of the Holy Spirit. The Baptist Catechism, Question 98, agrees with the Westminster Shorter Catechism when it says that the two ordinances “become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.” They don’t save people and are not effectual for those who have no faith in Christ. Just like the Word of God preached, Christ must bless the work if it is to be of any value. People can listen to sound preaching all day long, but if the Spirit is not at work in their hearts, there will be no change in them whatsoever. In the same way, people can eat the bread and drink the wine, but if the Spirit is not at work in their hearts, it is nothing but a small meal.


The emphasis is placed not on any inherent power in the physical elements or mere acts, but on the power of the Word of God preached alongside it, explaining and expounding the significance of the sacraments, and the sovereign operation of the Holy Spirit in using the physical elements and acts to direct the spiritual eyes and ears of God's people towards Christ and strengthen their faith. This is why it was always common practice to preach a sermon of some sorts when a minister administered Baptism or the Supper. Many hymnals also reveal that songs were sung specifically for the observation of the sacraments. It is the Word of God that gives significance to the water, bread, and cup, and it is the Spirit of God that uses these elements to point the believer to Christ for sanctification.


What Happens in the Lord's Supper


It is not rare to find churches that understand Baptism to be a sign of a person's initiation into union with Christ. Don't get me wrong, churches in the 21st century could certainly use a more robust doctrine of Baptism as a means of grace. But more often, we forget that the Lord's Supper is also a sign. It is a sign of our continuing communion with Christ. As the 17th century Baptists confessed:


The supper of the Lord Jesus was instituted by him the same night he was betrayed. It is to be observed in his churches to the end of the age as a perpetual remembrance and display of the sacrifice of himself in his death. It is given for the confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits of Christ’s death, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, and their further engagement in and to all the duties they owe him. The supper is to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Christ and each other. (LBCF 30.1)


But at the time of the Reformation, there were disputes regarding the subject of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper. Lutherans disagreed with Rome’s concept of transubstantiation but affirmed that the body and blood of Christ are actually present in the bread and wine. In simple terms, transubstantiation means that while the elements look like bread and wine, they no longer are, for they have become Christ’s body and blood, while Lutheranism understands that the elements are both bread and wine, and the body and blood of Christ, all at the same time. Lutherans believe that there is a mystical union between the physical elements and the body and blood of Christ, and that “the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed to those who eat the Supper of the Lord.”[6]


Zwingli, a contemporary of Luther, denied the idea of any mystical union and rejected the concept of Christ’s real presence in the Supper. He held a different view of the sacraments altogether. For Zwingli, “the idea that the sacraments carry any salvific efficacy in themselves is a return to Judaism’s ceremonial washings that lead to the purchase of salvation”, thus the sacraments only serve “as a public testimony of a previous grace”[7]. At this point, many modern evangelicals (especially modern Baptists, as opposed to Reformed/Particular Baptists) would tend to agree. The commonly held belief today is that Baptism is simply an outward declaration of an inward spiritual reality that has already taken place, while the Lord’s Supper is a continuous reminder of what Christ has done for us on the cross. The latter has even been called the “Zwinglian/Baptist[8] view of the Supper as a memorial meal”[9].


So, is Christ really present in the Supper? If so, in what way?


Let's turn to one of the most relevant texts concerning this discussion:


14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Corinthians 10:14-22)


In this passage, Paul warns the Corinthians about the danger and destructive nature of idolatry. Back in chapter 8, Paul already addressed the fact that idols are not actually anything in themselves since there is only one God. Still, Christians should not have anything to do with Paganism and her idolatry. Instead we must “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14). Paul then uses the example of the Lord’s Supper to show that “participating in a religious meal involves more than just partaking of the elements of the meal. When a believer partakes of the bread and the wine there is a very real fellowship and association (communion) with Jesus Christ.”[10]


Verse 16 explains that when we bless the cup and break the bread in the Supper, there is participation between us and the blood and body of Christ. The Greek word used for “participation” is the word koinonia, a word that might be familiar to us since it is commonly translated as “fellowship”. The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG) gives the following definitions for koinonia: close association involving mutual interests, sharing, association, communion, fellowship, close relationship, and participation. In the Supper, we are made sharers of the body and blood of Christ in the same way that Old Covenant Israelites “who eat the sacrifices” are “participants in the altar” (1 Cor. 10:18). The point being, there are real spiritual realities taking place when Christians partake in the Lord’s Supper. In parallel to that, there are real evil powers at work when people partake in Pagan rituals. Therefore, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21).


It seems that “koinonia in 1 Corinthians 10:16 expresses a vertical, top-down reality, a reality connected to ‘the blood’ and ‘the body of Christ’. Paul’s emphasis is not that believers are together when they partake of the Lord’s Supper (though that is true), it is that koinonia constitutes some sort of relationship with ‘the blood’ and ‘the body of Christ’”[11]. Since we believe that the resurrected Christ is alive today, then this communion with Him must be real. “According to Calvin, Christ’s human body is locally present in heaven, but it does not have to descend in order for believers to truly partake of it because the Holy Spirit effects communion. The Holy Spirit is the bond of the believer’s union with Christ. Therefore that which the minister does on the earthly plane, the Holy Spirit accomplishes on the spiritual plane. In other words, those who partake of the bread and wine in faith are also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, being nourished by the body and blood of Christ.” [12] As one commentator puts it, “the fact that Paul here refers to the sharing of the cup and the bread as a ‘communion’ of the blood and body of Christ proves that the Lord’s Supper is something more than a memorial meal. For the believer shares in all the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice as he partakes of the tokens by which it is recalled but not re-enacted. The bread and wine are vehicles of the presence of Christ.”[13]


The Lord’s Supper offers real, present communion with our risen Savior.


The Supper is for Believers Only


Worthy recipients who outwardly partake of the visible elements in this ordinance also by faith inwardly receive and feed on Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death. They do so really and truly, yet not physically and bodily but spiritually. The body and blood of Christ are not present bodily or physically in the ordinance but spiritually to the faith of believers, just as the elements themselves are present to their outward senses. (LBCF 30.7)


Any church that cares about its members could certainly benefit from a more theologically rich understanding of the sacraments. Perhaps one of the most basic things we need to make sure our church understands about the Supper is the fact that it is strictly for believers only. Paul even reminds professing Christians to "examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Cor. 11:28). The Lord is not pleased when those who are caught in unrepentant sin thoughtlessly approach the Table, and Christians would do well to help one another make sure this doesn't happen. Communion presupposes that you know who the believers in your congregation are. It assumes that you know they are not living in scandalous sin. It highlights the importance of being a member of a local church and exalts the fellowships that believers get to enjoy which the rest of the world doesn’t.


Closed communion (the view that only baptised believers in good-standing with the local church can partake in the Supper) can also be profoundly evangelistic. Some Reformed churches have an entire service dedicated to the Supper, and invite would-be members and regular attendees to observe. This creates a deep longing in those who have come to understand the Gospel of grace to commit themselves to the local church and approach the Table. It also protects the body of Christ. When a person is in unrepentant sin, and is disciplined by the church, he must be barred from the Table. It is a visible sign to all members that this congregation will not allow sin to infect the rest of the body. It is an expression of Godly love towards the sinner, as it is meant to lead him to repentance.


Christ's Edifying Presence in the Lord's Supper


“I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29)


For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)


What could be greater than this promise? If this doesn’t compel us to enjoy the Lord’s Supper (however we are able to in our own contexts), nothing else will.


Some who hear about these historic practices are excited to apply them in their own contexts. But one must remember that correct practice without correct doctrine is mere moralism. We must be careful not to embrace these traditional exercises just for the sake of being like our Reformed forefathers or jumping into some sort of New Calvinist fad. The theology of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace wherein Christ is truly present must first permeate our minds and hearts in order for the application of it to be truly grace-filled, Christ-centered, and God-exalting. Let us take to heart Hercules Collins’ pastoral counsel from his Orthodox Catechism:


Q.79 How are you in the Lord’s Supper admonished and warranted that you are a partaker of that only sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross and of all His benefits?


A: Because Christ has commanded me and all the faithful to eat of this bread broken and to drink of this cup distributed in remembrance of Him. With this He has joined the promise that His body was as certainly broken and offered for me upon the cross and His blood shed for me as I behold with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken to me and the cup communicated to me. Further, my soul is no less assuredly fed to everlasting life with His body, which was crucified for me, and His blood, which was shed for me, than I receive and taste by the mouth of my body the bread and wine, the signs of the body and blood of the Lord, received at the hand of the minister.


If we are convinced of Christ's spiritual presence in the Supper, may nothing keep us from committing ourselves to our local churches, and enjoying this meal with our beloved brothers and sisters in the presence of the Lord Jesus Himself.

[1] H. Bavinck, J. Bolt, and J. Vriend. Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 448.


[2] R. C. Barcellos. The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2013), 56.


[3] D. Lang The Westminster Confession of Faith, Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, Inc., 2006), paragraph 2556.


[4] “Sacraments.” Theopedia, https://www.theopedia.com/sacraments.


[5] R. D. Moore, I. J. Hesselink, D. P. Scaer, and T. Balma. Understanding Four Views on the Lord's Supper (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 180.


[6] Lang, David. The Augsburg Confession, Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, Inc., 2006), paragraph 286.


[7] Wax, Trevin. Luther vs. Zwingli 3: Zwingli on the Lord’s Supper. The Gospel Coalition. February 12, 2008. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/luther-vs-zwingli-3-zwingli-on-the-lords-supper/


[8] This is unfortunate, as historic Particular Baptists (and today’s Reformed Baptists) believed in the Reformed view of Christ’s spiritual presence in the Supper.


[9] Moore, Russel D., Hesselink, John, Scaer, David, and Baima, Thomas. Understanding Four Views on the Lord's Supper (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 92.


[10] Beeke, Joel R. The Reformation Heritage Study Bible; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), paragraph 24903.


[11] Barcellos, Richard C. The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2013), 115-116.


[12] Mathison, Keith. Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Ligonier Ministries, Inc. November 1, 2006. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/calvins-doctrine-lords-supper/


[13] Wilson, Geoffrey B. 1 Corinthians: A Digest of Reformed Comment (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 147.


 

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