That Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper cannot and may not be denied, for the very simple reason alone, that Christ Himself told His disciples, when He instituted the Holy Supper and broke the bread: “This is my body”, and when He poured the wine: “This is my blood”. Christ is surely very near, when we partake of Communion in the church of Jesus Christ in the world. But because we strongly oppose the theory of Transubstantiation to which the Roman Catholics hold, and also oppose the theory of Consubstantiation to which the Lutherans hold, we are apt to fall into the cold and unspiritual theory held to by the reformer Zwingli, who in reality denied all presence of the Christ at the Lord’s Supper, believing that the Supper is only a memorial, bringing to our memory the death of our Lord. We will try to examine these things a bit more closely.
It is well known to the readers perhaps that the Roman Catholic Church believes that at the Lord’s Supper, the believer literally eats and drinks the body and blood of Christ. Truly, they say, it was bread and wine, before it was put on the altar, but that bread and wine actually changed into the body and blood of the ever blessed Lord. Thus, when the believer eats and drinks this bread and wine, then he actually eats and drinks of Christ’s body and blood, and thus partakes of Christ in the most real and literal sense of the word. And so the Roman Catholic Church attaches great significance to the outward, physical, and visible signs partaken of, for a miracle of God has taken place with the original bread and wine. According to the Roman Catholics, the bread and wine are made HOLY and so it can be called a holy communion.
The Lutherans, also attach to the bread and wine of communion, a power that is not merely physical but also spiritual. Though they do not believe as the Roman Catholics that the bread and the wine have literally been changed into the actual body and blood of Christ, nevertheless Christ is present. Yea, He is present in that bread and in that wine which is partaken of Christ so attaches Himself to that bread and wine, that when eating of the bread and drinking of that wine, the believer actually eats and drinks Christ. Not because of a miraculous change wrought in the bread and wine, but because Christ attaches Himself to these means, and without those means will not communicate Himself to the believer. It can readily be understood that there is essentially no difference between the Roman Catholic or the Lutheran theory.
Now both these theories have been attacked and proven to be entirely without basis in Scripture, by our Reformed people, and in the denial of these two theories we see a danger that the true significance of the Lord’s Supper will be lost to the believer when the church celebrates the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is not merely a supper or meal wherein we bring to remembrance the suffering and death of our Savior. Then it would really be doubtful if it has any benefit at all. In fact the Word of God, which is the highest means of grace, surely also brings to our memory the passion and death of Christ. After all, the preaching may never be anything else but essentially the preaching of Christ and Him crucified. And therefore the preaching of the Gospel is surely sufficient to bring to memory the death of our Savior. If the Lord’s Supper is merely such a memorial then it would not be a loss to the Church of Christ to dispense with communion entirely. For a memorial’ is not a sacrament, and a sacrament is much more than a mere matter of bringing to memory. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal, and an undoubted testimony that God in Christ feeds us with the bread of life, spiritually nourishing us, and thus strengthening our faith. But to attain this end, namely, to feed us the bread of life and to spiritually nourish us and strengthen our faith, it is not a matter of choosing between the Transubstantiation of the Roman Catholic or the Consubstantiation of the Lutherans. Nor need we of necessity believe in the one or the other theory, to bring Christ close to us during the communion service.
To be sure, Christ our Savior IS near in the Supper, in fact He is very much present. Sufficient proof of this we have in the words spoken by our Lord when He instituted His Supper, “This is my body”, and “This is my blood”,. And these words may not be changed so that they simply mean that, “this bread refers to my body”, or “this wine BRINGS TO MEMORY my blood.” But that bread and wine is symbolically the body and blood of Christ the Savior. Just as you would see a picture of President Roosevelt hanging on the wall, you would say: “That is President Roosevelt”, without in the least meaning to imply that physically Roosevelt hangs there on the wall. But a symbol of the president hangs there. However with this difference we apply this to the Lord’s Supper, that whereas with respect to the picture, the president himself is not near, with the Lord’s Supper, OUR SAVIOUR IS VERY NEAR AND IS PRESENT, No not his body is present, for His body is in heaven, at the right hand of God, the Father. He is in highest glory and not on earth. That is why Christ could say when He instituted the Lord’s Supper, “I will not henceforth drink of this fruit of the wine, until that day, when I drink it new with you, in my Father’s kingdom”, . Christ is not now and will not be on earth physically and literally until WITH YOU (believers) He will drink of the fruit of the vine in the new, eternal kingdom of the Father. No, He is not physically and literally present. But Christ is nevertheless present, and that very much so, spiritually. And spiritually Christ is eaten at the table by the spiritual believer.
In article 35 of our Belgic Confession we have a beautiful and rather detailed explanation of the spiritual presence of our Lord at the table. In that article it is explained that the believer has a twofold life. He has first of all a natural and temporal life which he receives in his first birth from the natural father and mother. He has secondly also a spiritual and eternal life, which he receives at regeneration and is “affected by the Word of the Gospel”. Accordingly that believer is in need of a twofold nourishment: Earthly bread and drink for the natural, temporal life and spiritual food for the new and heavenly life in Christ Jesus. This spiritual food now is Christ Himself, for in Him is all our salvation. Everything we ever obtain and receive pertaining to our eternal life and salvation comes solely from Christ. He is our all and all we ever have or shall receive is exclusively IN HIM. Thus at the Lord’s Supper, He gives Himself to eat and to drink. He is indeed very present in the Supper. But His presence is spiritual and not physical, even as the benefits of the Supper for the believers are also not physical but spiritual. They are spiritually fed and spiritually they become strong. Thus the Lord’s Supper is surely a spiritual feast, wherein Christ communicates Himself with all His salvation to the believer.
We must therefore not forget that only the believer appropriates the Christ at the Lord’s Supper. He does that by faith. Faith believes in Christ and is the bond that unites us to Him. That faith appropriates all that is in Christ. It knows Him and trusts Him. It relies on Him and looks away from self. It seeks Him and will not let Him go until He has blessed and given of His fullness, even grace for grace. And so as that faith takes hold of all the benefits of Christ it is strengthened by the Lord’s Supper and built up.
And this takes place by an operation of the Holy Spirit upon the believers. Not the signs as such give nourishment, but the Holy Spirit gives this nourishment by making an appeal to the signs which speak of the suffering and death of Christ for us. Even as the Holy Spirit appeals to the spoken word and thus works in us through the hearing, so the Holy Spirit appeals to the signs of communion and works or rather strengthens that faith in us through the sight of the eyes upon the visible signs. Thus that bread and wine is not only a sign, but also a seal. The faith of the believer is sealed with the genuine stamp of God’s approval. It is at the table of the Lord that the Holy Spirit testifies to the believer that he is the benefactor of the death of Jesus Christ our Lord and that all His benefits accrue to him, making him a son of God, and heir of the righteousness which is by faith and thus an heir of eternal glory.
Finally it thus becomes plain that the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper is then a presence of grace and love to the believer but is also a condemnation to those who do not partake or even to those who do partake only outwardly. Such as merely eat without faith, eat and drink to themselves condemnation. Even as the Christ is spiritually present in the preaching of the Word, giving grace unto those who believe, for it is a power of God to whoever believes, so also is Christ spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper, giving grace only to those who believe, for it too is a power of God to strengthen and nourish the faith of the child of God. In the Supper of the Lord, Christ our Savior therefore, comes very close to His people and feeds them unto everlasting life.