This is the second of a series of blog posts on the Lord’s Supper, using the book “The Lord’s Supper” by Dr. Robert Letham.
In my last post on this subject, I wrote that the Lord’s Supper is a “big deal” for Christians. This is because, according to Scripture, it is not only commanded by Christ as a way to remember his death for us, but the Lord’s Supper is a means by which Christ imparts his life-giving body and blood, along with his saving graces, to his people. That is to say, the Lord’s Table is the place where we go, by faith, to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ and to be sustained in our spiritual life.
This language of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood is strong, even shocking. But if Letham is correct, and I believe he is, that Jesus in John 6 is speaking of what takes place at the Lord’s Supper, then the language is not only justified but sanctioned by our Lord himself. To eat the Lord’s Supper is to feast on the body of Christ.
Conversely, to neglect the sacrament, or to receive it thoughtlessly or perfunctorily, is to deny ourselves one vital means of grace God has given us for our comfort and sanctification. Letham observes that Christians today, by and large, don’t approach the Lord’s Supper with anything like the seriousness it demands: “It is seen as an optional extra. Often it is treated casually, as a pleasant and cozy ceremony” (pg. 1). To the extent that that is true, we have not only failed to give due honor to the One who instituted the sacrament, but we have robbed ourselves of the source of much blessing and joy. The Lord’s Supper is a glorious gift of grace – Christ’s giving himself to us – and so as Christians we ought to treasure the sacrament.
At this point, it may be tempting for someone who has thought through these matters to bewail the inadequate understanding and practice today of so many Christians and churches regarding the Lord’s Supper. But, I must confess that my own approach to this sacrament is not what it should be. As much as I believe the Lord’s Supper is a vital means of grace, in my actual practice I also find myself downplaying its importance. I don’t hunger and thirst for Christ in the sacrament as I should, and I don’t seek and expect the blessing attached to it as keenly as I ought. In my failure in this, I feel like the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23). In days gone by, Christians were sometimes martyred over the truth of the Lord’s Supper. O that I, too, would treasure this holy sacrament so dearly!
Be that as it may, all I’ve said so far raises a question. If it is true that those who take the Lord’s Supper (with faith) are truly feasting on the body of Christ, then in what sense is Christ present in the bread and wine? This is the question that Letham addresses in chapter 2 of “The Lord’s Supper”.
And he does so by surveying the different answers that major branches of Christianity have given to it. His taxonomy is very helpful, and I’ll just briefly outline it here.
Physical Presence: Transubstantiation. This is the view held by the Roman Catholic Church. It teaches that when the priest consecrates the bread and wine for the Mass, they become the literal and physical body and blood of Christ. There are a host of problems with this view, not the least of which it obliterates the important distinction between the sign of the sacrament, and the reality it signifies.
Physical Presence: Consubstantiation. This was Luther’s view. He rejected the Catholic doctrine that the bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ, but he retained the idea that Christ’s body was physically present in the elements. This is possible because the qualities of the divine nature of Christ are communicated to his human nature, so that Christ, even in his human nature, can be ubiquitous. To put it mildly, this view raises some profound theological difficulties concerning the person of Christ.
Real Absence: Memorialism. This view is attributed to the Reformer Huldrych Zwingli, and teaches that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial and nothing more. That is to say, Christ is not present in the sacrament any more than he is present everywhere at all times as the Son of God. Letham notes that this is the majority view among American evangelicals today, including many conservative Presbyterians (despite, as we’ll see, the teaching of the Westminster Standards on this subject). If the Roman Catholic view confuses the sign with the reality signified, this view dispenses altogether with the spiritual reality held forth by the sacrament. Though it is the Lord’s Supper, the Lord is strangely absent!
Real Spiritual Presence: Communion. This is the classic Reformed view, expounded by John Calvin and expressed in the Westminster Standards. Letham explains:
More is involved than a remembrance on the part of the participants. In terms of the Gospel of John, Christ gives himself to be eaten and drunk in faith. This eating and drinking is not physical but is nonetheless real and true. Christ does not come down to us in his body and blood. Instead, we are lifted up to him by the Holy Spirit…Thus, in the sacrament the Holy Spirit unites the faithful to the person of Christ as they eat and drink the signs, the physical elements of bread and wine. There is an inseparable conjunction of sign and reality. As truly as we eat the bread and drink the wine, so we feed on Christ by faith.
There is more to be said about this, of course. And this is the subject of chapter 3, “The Lord’s Supper in Reformed Theology.”