Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa. Previous article in this series: September 1, 2007, p. 468.
We began our consideration of the sacramental operation of the Lord’s Supper by seeing that the Lord’s Supper is our spiritual feast.
Christ instituted the sacrament for our spiritual nourishment in much the same way that He gave us means for physical nourishment when it comes to the health and strength of our physical bodies.
The spiritual nourishment necessary for our spiritual life is Christ. We must eat and drink Christ. That is the truth Jesus set forth in John 6:53-56. That is confirmed inI Corinthians 10:1-4. Christ is the spiritual food necessary for our spiritual life.
The question we face now is this: How is this fulfilled in the Lord’s Supper?
How by partaking of the sacrament are we partaking of Christ, of His body and blood? When we eat the bread and drink the wine of the Lord’s table, how is that eating and drinking Christ? What does it mean that the Lord’s Supper is our spiritual feast?
Fundamentally these are questions that concern the grace of God. How is the Lord’s Supper a means of grace?
In answering these questions we get into the heart of the controversy concerning this sacrament.
The Roman Catholic Doctrine
We begin with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
Rome says that in the sacrament the bread and wine change. The signs change. When the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest, those natural elements change physically into the body and blood of Christ.
From its own writings, Roman Catholicism teaches the following:
What is the Holy Eucharist?
The Holy Eucharist is a sacrament and a sacrifice. In the Holy Eucharist, under the appearances of bread and wine, the Lord Christ is contained, offered, and received.
(a) The whole Christ is really, truly, and substantially present in the Holy Eucharist. We use the words “really, truly, and substantially” to describe Christ’s presence in the Holy Eucharist in order to distinguish our Lord’s teaching from that of mere men who falsely teach that the Holy Eucharist is only a sign or figure of Christ, or that He is present only by His power.
(b) All Christians, with but few minor exceptions, held the true doctrine of the Real Presence from the time of Christ until the Protestant Revolution in the sixteenth century.
(c) The word “Eucharist” means “Thanksgiving.”¹
After treating the institution of the sacrament, the following Roman Catholic doctrine is set forth:
What happened when Our Lord said: “This is My body…this is My blood?”
When Our Lord said, “This is my body,” the entire substance of the bread was changed into His body; and when He said, “This is my blood,” the entire substance of the wine was changed into His blood.
When presenting the question of whether anything remains of the bread and wine after their substance is changed into Christ’s body and blood, the answer is that there remains “only the appearances of bread and wine.”
The change of the entire substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is called Transubstantiation.
It still looks like bread. It still tastes like bread. But it is no longer bread, but Christ’s physical body.
And what is in the cup still looks and smells like wine. It still tastes like wine. But it is now the physical blood of Jesus.
Then we read that which leads into Rome’s teaching concerning the mass, a matter to be treated separately:
Why does Christ give us His own body and blood in the Holy Eucharist?
Christ gives us His own body and blood in the Holy Eucharist:
first, to be offered as a sacrifice commemorating and renewing for all time the sacrifice of the cross;
second, to be received by the faithful in Holy Communion;
third, to remain ever on our altars as the proof of His love for us, and to be worshiped by us.
Such is the heart of Rome’s teaching concerning the sacrament.
Not to be overlooked, however, is the significance of the sacrament. For the sacrament is a means of grace. According to Rome,
When the sign is applied to the one who receives the sacrament, it signifies inward grace and has the power of producing it in the soul. The external action performed by the minister of the sacrament is called a sign of the inward grace because it signifies and represents outwardly what is produced inwardly and invisibly in the soul. The sacramental signs actually effect what they represent.²
And so all who partake of those elements in the Eucharist eat and drinkgrace, providing they aren’t carrying mortal sins that prevent them from receiving that grace. That is what Rome teaches.
Martin Luther, on the other hand, defined the sacrament this way: “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink.”³
Luther rejected the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation.
As regards transubstantiation, we care nothing about the sophistical subtlety by which they teach that bread and wine leave or lose their own natural substance, and that there remain only the appearance and color of bread, and not true bread.4
But when Luther speaks of the “true body and blood,” he makes the same reference as does Rome to the natural and physical body and blood of the Lord. Instead of speaking of the elements changing, he speaks of the true body and blood of Christ being “in and under the bread and wine.”
Luther’s error was in speaking of Christ’s presence in the sacrament as a physical presence. His doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was affected by an erroneous view concerning the two natures of Christ and particularly what is referred to as the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature.
But what is the nature of Christ’s presence in the sacrament? Is it merely symbolic? Is He only present in our minds, by way of remembrance?
The True Nature of the Sacrament
We must remember that sacraments are spiritual institutions or ordinances of God. They are spiritual, not natural. To put it another way, the sacraments are natural signs that signify and seal spiritual realities.
The water of baptism itself does not wash away our sins, as if sin is something that only clings to our skin. Baptism is a sign of a spiritual reality, a tremendous wonder of God’s grace that leads us spiritually to Christ, who alone cleanses all our sins. So it is also with the Lord’s Supper.
It is from that point of view that the Heidelberg Catechism (Q & A 78) answers the question: “Do then the bread and wine become the very body and blood of Christ?”
Not at all; but as the water in baptism is not changed into the blood of Christ, neither is the washing away of sin itself, being only the sign and confirmation thereof appointed of God; so the bread in the Lord’s Supper is not changed into the very body of Christ, though agreeably to the nature and properties of sacraments, it is called the body of Christ Jesus.
Notice, the Catechism speaks of the elements being properly called the body of Christ, according to the nature and properties of sacraments.
The Lord’s Supper is not merely a feast of remembrance.
We partake of the body and blood of the Lord. We must. But we partake of His body and blood not with the natural mouth, but with the mouth of faith.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, which arose out of the English and Scottish branch of the Calvinistic Reformation, has this to say about this matter in Q & A 170:
How do they that worthily communicate in the Lord’s Supper feed upon the body and blood of Christ therein? As the body and blood of Christ are not corporally or carnally present in, with, or under the bread and wine in the Lord’s supper, and yet are spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses; so they that worthily communicate in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, do therein feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not yet after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner; yet truly and really, while by faith they receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.
The Belgic Confession, written years before the Westminster, states the same in its treatment “Of the Holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In Article 35, as it unfolds this doctrine, the Confession states:
…as certainly as we receive and hold this sacrament in our hands and eat and drink the same with our mouths, by which our life is afterwards nourished, we also do as certainly receive by faith (which is the hand and mouth of our soul) the true body and blood of Christ our only Savior in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life. Now, as it is certain and beyond all doubt that Jesus Christ hath not enjoined to us the use of His sacraments in vain, so He works in us all that He represents to us by these holy signs, though the manner surpasses our understanding and cannot be comprehended by us, as the operations of the Holy Ghost are hidden and incomprehensible. In the meantime we err not when we say that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ. But the manner of our partaking of the same is not by the mouth, but by the spirit through faith. Thus then, though Christ always sits at the right hand of His Father in the heavens, yet doth He not therefore cease to make us partakers of Himself by faith. This feast is a spiritual table, at which Christ communicates Himself with all His benefits to us, and gives us there to enjoy both Himself and the merits of His sufferings and death, nourishing, strengthening, and comforting our poor comfortless souls by the eating of His flesh, quickening and refreshing them by the drinking of His blood.
And so, at the table of the Lord, in the Lord’s Supper, God has given us a spiritual feast, the spiritual food of which is His own Son.
You and I eat and drink Christ in the spiritual sense of the word.
We partake of His righteousness. We eat and drink His holiness, and by the work of the Holy Spirit assimilate it into our own spiritual life. We eat and drink knowledge, the true knowledge of God.
We eat and drink Him in whom alone is the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
We are partakers of all the blessings of salvation when we eat and drink with mouths of faith at the spiritual feast of the Lord’s Supper.
¹ Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism (Paterson, New Jersey, St. Anthony Guild Press, 1941 and 1949), Lesson 26, pp. 273-281.
² Ibid., p. 246.
³ Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, Part Fifth, “Of the Sacrament of the Altar.”
4 Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles, The Third Part of the Articles, 6. Of the Sacrament of the Altar. 1537.