One of the most basic aspects of Christian worship is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Churches of various denominational affiliations observe this ordinance. It isn’t unique to Baptists or Anglicans or Methodists. What is distinct, however, about a Reformed and confessional view of this sacrament? What do Presbyterians believe about this ordinance that is different from those in other denominations? To answer this question, I invite you to investigate three aspects of this sacrament with me in order to gain a fuller and deeper understanding of what happens when we sit at the Lord’s Table with our brothers and sisters and proclaim Jesus’ death until he comes.
The Elements of Communion
First, we need to focus on the elements of communion—bread and wine. These physical components are sensible signs; that is, they appeal to our senses (touch, taste, smell), and remind us of spiritual truths. The bread represents Jesus’ body (Matt. 26:26). Communion, therefore, directs our attention to the incarnation—the profound mystery that, in Christ, God became man, a true man, a human with a body and soul like you and me. The wine represents Jesus’ blood (Matt. 26:27–28), the blood of the new covenant, the means by which the covenant was secured and sealed for us. When we celebrate this sacrament, therefore, we recall the awful–yet–glorious truth that the Savior’s life ended in death, a sacrificial death on the cross for our sins.
When we describe the elements of communion, it is important for us to use words like represent or symbolize to distinguish the Reformed view from that of Roman Catholicism, which teaches that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus, and Lutheranism, which teaches that the physical body and blood of the Savior are present in, with, and under the elements. When Christ instituted this ordinance and said, “This is my body…this is my blood,” he clearly did not mean for his disciples to take those words in an overly literalistic way. As he sat before them and handed them the bread and wine; his body was intact and his blood flowed through his veins. The components of this meal signify his body and blood in much the same manner as the bitter herbs of the Passover meal, which the disciples had just celebrated, symbolized the harsh toil Israel had experienced in Egypt. The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) summarizes this point by stating that the bread and wine “are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before” (29.5).
The Presence of Christ
The symbolic nature of these elements does not mean, however, that Christ is absent and merely represented in the sacrament. The Lord Jesus is spiritually and really present when believers celebrate communion. The spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper is part and parcel of His promise to be with His people wherever they may be. When assembled for the work of the church, even though only two or three are present, He will be in their midst (Matt. 18:20). Indeed, Jesus’ presence will be with His people until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, Christ dwells within His people (Gal. 2:20; cf. 1 Pet. 1:11). This spiritual presence of Christ is not, however, any less real to the believer. Jesus’ presence isn’t just a theological concept, a thought that is with us for as long as we think it. The Lord is really with His people. Perhaps the best way to understand the real presence of Christ is to look at the third aspect of this sacrament.
The Participation of Believers
What actually happens when a Christian takes the Lord’s Supper? We can summarize the answer with two biblical terms: memory and communion. On the evening before His crucifixion, when Jesus gave the bread and wine to his disciples, He said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). This statement has led some branches of Christianity to identify this sacrament merely as a memorial. The scriptural concept of memory, however, is far richer than simple mental recall. I may remember that George Washington was born on February 22, but that memory is nothing more than information that passes through my brain. A particular event occurred on a particular day. In the Bible, however, memory is a deliberate, thoughtful, and meditative act of faith. For example, the Ten Commandments require us to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (Ex. 20:8). But Sabbath memory includes much more than, “Is it Sunday already?” To remember the Sabbath is to consider the Lord’s Day and its theological significance (e.g., creation and resurrection). This act of memory goes further, however, because the element of obedience (keep it holy) means that I must, by faith, accept the sacred meaning of the day and live in accordance with it.
When we remember Christ in His Supper, we do not just recollect the story we read in the Bible. We think about the significance of His death. We believe with renewed faith that His body was broken for us and His blood shed for us. When that occurs, we are actively receiving grace from God, grace which grants us the forgiveness we need as well as the spiritual sustenance and strength to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Rom. 6:11).
The second important term is communion. We call this sacrament communion because it is the means by which we actually participate in the reality of Christ’s presence to receive God’s grace in Him. The apostle Paul wrote, “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” (1 Cor. 10:16)? The term communion or participation (the Greek word is koinonia) signifies what occurs when we, with believing memory, eat the bread and drink the wine at the Lord’s Table. We participate or share in the benefits of Jesus’ body and blood. These benefits are truly and really present to us by faith because the Holy Spirit uses the physical elements to enliven our faith and engage our souls with the risen Christ.
The Westminster Confession aptly summarizes this point as follows:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses (29.7).
To “feed upon Christ” is essential for the believer’s walk with Christ. Just as physical food nourishes and sustains our bodies for daily activity, the spiritual food offered to us in the Lord’s Supper provides grace to face trials and temptations. When we direct our faith to the One offered to us in the sacrament, then we receive from Him the virtue and value of His sin–defeating sacrifice.
That I on earth can partake of and participate in the exalted Savior in heaven is a mystery, but that does not make it any less a reality. The bread and the cup are the means to engage our souls with the living Christ. Taste, therefore, and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8)!