In this series of posts, I am using Robert Letham’s book The Lord’s Supper as a guide for considering what the sacrament is all about. In my last post I covered chapter 2, in which Letham compares the different ways major branches of Christianity have explained the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
Chapter three is entitled, “The Lord’s Supper in Reformed Theology,” and in it Letham summarizes the standard Reformed teaching on the sacrament. For his sources, he focuses on John Calvin and the Westminster Standards. Though Letham covers several areas that the works of Calvin and the Westminster Standards address concerning the sacrament, here I will deal with just one aspect of that teaching, the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.
How is Christ present in the Lord’s Supper? The Reformed answer is that Christ is really and truly present, though not in a local or physical way. In other words, the bread and wine do not become the literal body and blood of Christ, as in the Roman Catholic view, but nevertheless believers do truly partake of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Lord’s Supper.
The genius of the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper is that it preserves the true nature of a sacrament. The sacramental sign, and the spiritual reality showed forth by that sign, are distinct yet always joined together. The two should not be confused or conflated, nor should one be divorced from the other. In the Bible, the sacramental sign and the reality it signifies are so closely united that the Scriptures can speak of the sign as though the sign itself were the reality, i.e, “this is my body,” and “this is my blood” (Mt. 26:26-28). At the same time, the Bible always locates the true source of grace not in the sacramental signs themselves, but in the realities to which they point (namely, Christ and his saving work).
But if the Reformed view does justice to the biblical teaching on the nature of a sacrament, it will fail to satisfy anyone who demands a full intellectual comprehension of the Lord’s Supper. Both the Catholic view and the memorialist view are easier for our minds to comprehend. In the first, the bread and the wine become, literally and physically, the flesh and blood of Christ, and in the second, while the bread and wine remain only bread and wine, Christ is no sense present in them. But the Reformed view holds two truths in tension: on the one hand, those who partake of the Lord’s Supper (believingly) truly do feed on the body of Christ, but on the other hand, Christ is not physically present in the elements.
But isn’t this affirming two mutually exclusive truths? How can Christ remain bodily in heaven, and yet also be truly present in the sacrament? Isn’t this a blatant contradiction?
I remember reading several years ago J. I. Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, in which he writes that some biblical teaching takes the form of an antinomy. That is, the Bible sometimes teaches two apparently conflicting truths that are impossible for our limited and finite minds to reconcile. This does not mean they are not resolved in God’s mind, nor does it mean that the Bible teaches logical contradictions or impossibilities (such as, 2+ 2 = 5). Rather, two truths coexist in tension with each other. Packer defines an antinomy this way:
It is an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths. An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stands side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable. There are cogent reasons for believing each of them; each rests on clear and solid evidence; but it is a mystery to you how they can be squared with each other.
Packer was writing about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but his definition of antinomy applies also to the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The Bible clearly teaches that Christ is in heaven, and will remain there until his return to earth. At the same, as Letham argues from John 6, Jesus taught that he truly offers his life-giving flesh and blood in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Though not a solution that resolves the apparent contradiction, Calvin does offer a helpful explanation of the way in which we partake of the true body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The key is the work of the Holy Spirit. In the sacrament, the Spirit, who effects our union with Christ, lifts us up to Christ in heaven for us to feed upon him there.
However, this explanation, though helpful, doesn’t answer all our questions. At the end of the day, we must be content with a mystery. Just how we our nourished by the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament is a mystery, pure and simple.
But this does not at all diminish the blessing God has for us in it. In the Supper, Christ, who is the source of all spiritual life, does nothing less than give himself to us for our growth in grace. For that reason, it is not a theological puzzle to be solved by us, but a precious gift to be received with gratefulness and joy. As Calvin put it:
Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it (Institutes 4.17.32).
Let us come to the Lord’s Table with faith, leaving the mystery to God, and believing that though we only receive a little bread and wine with our mouths, by faith we are feasting on our Savior Jesus Christ, the bread of life everlasting!