In this article we conclude our discussion, of the Reformed view of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. This article also concludes our series on the Church and the Sacraments which began years ago when this rubric was introduced into our Standard Bearer. In this series we have discussed the views of the Church and the sacraments of baptism and that of the Lord’s Supper as maintained and developed in the Church of God since the days of the apostles. We now conclude this series. We concluded our preceding article with the question: “What, then, is the connection between the sign and the thing signified? What, according to the Reformed conception, takes place at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper?” We will now attempt to answer this question.
The Reformed conception certainly emphasizes that every imagination of a local presence of the Christ is to be discarded entirely. Christ as a man is now present only in heaven, and not upon the earth; and therefore His communion is to be sought only by faith. He cannot be included in the earthly elements. The doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation are rejected completely.
This is certainly the teaching of the Reformed Confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism asks the question (Question 79): “Why then doth Christ call the bread His body, and the cup His blood, or the new covenant in His blood; and Paul the “communion of the body and blood of Christ?” And the Catechism answers: “Christ speaks thus, not without great reason, namely, not only thereby to teach us that as bread and wine support this temporal life, so His crucified body and shed blood are the true meat and drink, whereby our souls are fed to eternal life; but more especially by these visible signs and pledges to assure us, that we are as really partakers of His true body and blood (by the operation of the Holy Ghost) as we receive by the mouths of our bodies these holy signs in remembrance of Him; and that all His sufferings and obedience are as certainly ours as if we had in our own persons suffered and made satisfaction for our sins to God.” It is evident, therefore, that two elements are mentioned here as constituting the power and efficacy of the supper of the Lord: (1) That through the Supper we spiritually eat and drink Christ at His table, and our souls are fed to eternal life. And (2) the strengthening of our faith through the Holy Spirit, that we are really partakers of the sufferings and obedience of Christ. The same view is substantially taught in our Belgic Confession, Art. 35. And this also applies to other Reformed Confessions of Faith.
All the Reformed Confessions emphasize therefore that the eating and drinking which takes place at the table of the Lord is purely spiritual. There is: a spiritual food: Christ imparts Himself at the table of communion to believers as the true meat and drink unto life eternal. There is, secondly, a spiritual operation: it is through the Spirit of Christ that He imparts Himself to the believers. And, thirdly, there is also a spiritual mouth, by which we eat and drink; and that spiritual mouth is faith. But this entire mode of operation, this spiritual eating, and drinking of Christ, takes place through the means of the signs of the broken bread and wine that is poured out.
He or that which is nourished through the sacrament is, of course, the regenerated man, or child of God, which is created in Christ Jesus. This spiritual life of the regenerated sinner can never be nourished by material food. It must have spiritual nourishment. And this spiritual food or nourishment: righteousness, holiness, light, etc., is in one word: the grace of God. And that grace is all in Christ. He is the Bread and the Water of life. Him we eat and drink, must eat and drink.
However, we eat and drink Christ only spiritually. This is surely emphasized in all the Reformed Confessions. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there is an action of Christ through the priest upon that physical and material bread and wine whereby their substance is changed into the actual body and blood of the Lord. But this is impossible and untrue. It is surely impossible because they would then proclaim a lie. And they would proclaim a lie because they, although not bread and wine, would continue to look like bread and wine, taste and act as bread and wine. If one should drink too much of this, wine, he would become drunk; and how could anybody ever become drunk when he drinks too much of Christ? When does Christ ever make a man drunk? And therefore the operation in the Lord’s Supper is surely spiritual. O, it is emphatically true that our Lord Jesus Christ is very really present in the signs of the broken bread and the poured out wine, but He is present only in a spiritual sense. He imparts Himself to the believer by an operation of His Spirit, not only mystically, but also through the consciousness of the regenerated child of God, so that he is constantly strengthened in righteousness and. holiness, and so grows in the grace of the Lord. And as Christ imparts Himself by His Spirit to this regenerated man, the latter eats and drinks Him, not with his physical mouth, but by the spiritual mouth of faith. And this faith, whereby I receive Christ, eat and drink Him, is surely wrought and strengthened chiefly by the word of the gospel, but also through the signs and seals of the sacraments, as through the broken bread and the poured out wine.
This explains the significance of the Lord’s Supper. We must not think that a special grace is bestowed upon us through the sacraments and which we receive only when we receive the sacramental bread and wine. What we receive is Christ, and we receive Him in all His benefits. Faith also receives Christ and all His benefits. Faith operated through the preaching of the Word and also through the sacraments. Hence, what we receive through the sacraments must be the same as what we receive through the preaching of the gospel. And we receive Christ and all His benefits by faith. This is emphasized in all the Reformed Confessions.
Indeed, the sacraments seal the promise of the gospel. We read this literally in Answer 66 of our Heidelberg Catechism, and we quote: “The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, he may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, viz., that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.” And in Romans 4:11 we read that the sacraments are signs and seals of the righteousness which is by faith, and we again quote: “And he received then sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” The gospel is the proclamation of good news, glad tidings. And it is the proclamation of good tidings exactly because it proclaims the promise. This promise is not an offer, but God’s announcement of His own promise, His own inviolate Word, of what He, and He alone, can and will do. Imagine if the gospel were merely an offer of salvation. This would mean that the Lord, in the gospel, offers salvation to a sinner, to all sinners who hear the preaching of the gospel. This would mean that the Lord wants all men to be saved, that He extends that offer of salvation to all the hearers of the gospel, and that that sinner will be saved who accepts this offer and consents to the divine work of salvation, allows the Lord to work and operate in his heart. But this would make the salvation of any sinner impossible. In the first place; such an offer must surely imply that God possesses what He offers: salvation to all men, and this must imply that Christ died for all men. But a Christ who died for all men is no Christ, and this for the simple reason that He then would have died also for those who perish. But if He died also for those who perish, then His death never paid for their sins, because they could never perish had He paid for their sins. And so we have a Christ upon the cross of Calvary who never died for the sins of men, and such a Christ surely cannot save anybody. But this also makes salvation impossible for the sinner because who would ever be able to accept an offer of salvation? The sinner is blind and deaf and lame and dumb and dead. One might just as well offer life to the dead in a cemetery or freedom to a man who is chained behind bars, bars which he cannot possibly break. So, if the gospel were merely an offer, no sinner could possibly be saved. Indeed, the promise is not an offer. It is good news, glad tidings, exactly because it proclaims the promise of the Lord, God’s announcement of His own promise, His own inviolate Word, of what He, and He alone, can and will do.
And the sacraments are seals of this promise, not in the sense that God promises us something He will do provided we believe, and therefore dependent upon our faith. But they are seals of the promise in the sense that they are His pledge and guarantee of what He has done. This is emphatically held before us in our Confessions. Fact is, we read in Answer 67 of our Heidelberg Catechism: “Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross.” This we must constantly bear in mind. Our salvation depends upon the cross of Calvary. It is not so that the cross made it possible for men to be saved, provided that they believe, and that therefore what actually saves us is not the cross but our faith. No, but we glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; we are not saved by the cross because we believe, but we believe because we have been saved by the power of the cross. And therefore the sacraments are connected with the cross of Calvary. And that means that the sacraments are just as particular as is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one is a sign and seal of the other. If the cross be particular, the sacrament cannot be general. And this also means that the sacraments are signs and seals of the promise of the gospel as fulfilled and realized. We need not add anything to it. And that includes our faith. Faith never adds anything to the cross, is never a substitute for the cross, always embraces the cross of Calvary. How important it is that we continue to maintain this fundamental truth of our Confessions and of the Scriptures! Today it is almost universally denied. Indeed, they may boast of their historic Christianity, that they are faithful to the fundamental principles of the Reformed faith, have built upon the “faith of our fathers.” They may glory in the fact that they maintain the fundamental truths of the Word of God and of the Reformed Confessions. But all such boasting is idle and vain, when they permit the Arminian lie that Christ died for all men, head for head, that God hates nobody arid loves everybody, and that the gospel is a sincere and well-meaning offer of salvation to all who come within range of the preaching of the gospel. The Lord willing, we will conclude in our next article.