Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa. Previous article in this series: October 1, 2007, p. 20.
As we continue our consideration of the spiritual feast that is ours in the Lord’s Supper, we must also understand that we receive that spiritual nourishment only by a spiritual operation, a spiritual work of the Holy Spirit.
Eating and Drinking by Faith
That spiritual operation occurs through faith.
The Belgic Confession in Article 35 sets forth the truth that, when we eat and drink the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, “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.”
Faith is “the hand and mouth of our soul.”
When, therefore, we speak of faith as essential to this spiritual operation that takes place in the Lord’s Supper, we speak of the activity of faith. Faith is first of all and essentially the bond by which we are united with Christ. God establishes that bond. He makes us one with Christ, one with Christ’s life. That is the essence of faith.
But faith is also an activity. And when we talk about eating and drinking, or the exercise of the hand and mouth, we are talking about activity. It is important that we understand that in connection with the Lord’s Supper. We are nourished unto everlasting life by tasting the wonder of the grace of God in Christ Jesus.
It is possible in our day for a man to be nourished without any activity on his part. Hospitals and nursing homes have people who are so ill that they cannot eat or drink. In such cases a patient is fed by the injection of an intravenous line into which fluids are dripped into the veins. Or, in some cases, a surgical procedure is done by which a feeding tube is inserted into the patient. In such cases, those who are very ill are nourished without any physical action on their part. They cannot even taste their food.
But that is not how Christ nourishes us in the Lord’s Supper. To partake of the Lord’s Supper requires activity. It requires the activity of faith.
This belongs to that which cannot be entirely explained. For faith is a very mysterious spiritual power by which we lay hold of Christ and draw out of Him all the blessings of grace that are in Him.
That activity of faith is such that the sinner draws out of Christ His own life and all the blessings of salvation. The believer eats Christ’s flesh and drinks His blood. We draw from Him the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
Again, there must be life there, if the sinner is to draw nourishment from Christ. Bring the unbelieving, dead sinner into contact with Christ as He is revealed in the gospel, and there will be no saving activity. But when the believer is led to Christ through the preaching of the Word, he will lay hold of Christ and, as a plant sinking its roots deep into the soil, draw out of Him all the nourishment necessary unto life.
The Connection of Word and Sacrament
Since Christ is revealed to us in the Scriptures, true faith always lays hold of the Word. It delights in the Word, hungers and thirsts for Christ as revealed in the gospel, is called into activity through that Word preached, and grows as it lays hold of that Word.
That is an element also in the Lord’s Supper that we must not forget. It reflects back on the institution of the Supper, as we considered it previously. But it stands intimately connected with the administration of grace in the Lord’s Supper.
I refer to the fact that we not only have the bread and wine in that feast, but we also have the Word of Christ. That is absolutely necessary for the administration of this holy ordinance.
Without the Word of Christ, there is no sacramental operation in the Lord’s Supper. Without the Word of Christ there is no grace in the Lord’s Supper.
What did Christ say? He said this, pointing to the signs: “This is my body, which is broken for you; this is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
Why is that so important? Because, as we have pointed out from Scripture before, that Word of Christ is spoken in power as applied by the Holy Spirit. It is a Word that works.
We must understand that the grace administered in the sacrament is not something that comes by the physical eating and drinking of the elements. There is the thought, the superstition, that prevails in the minds of some that says that all you have to do is partake, because the operation of God is not on the heart, but on the sign.
That is not just the superstition that permeates Roman Catholicism. We have to acknowledge that the thought is not totally foreign to us. Whenever we come to the table thoughtlessly, out of mere habit or superstition, we come with that same idea. “All you have to do is to partake, and your faith will be strengthened. Grace is in the bread and wine.”
That common-grace conception of grace being in things must be rooted out and cast into hell. There is no grace, except the grace worked by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His children. There is no grace in bread. You could stuff half a loaf of bread in your mouth at communion, and it would only fill your stomach, not your soul. That is what Paul found in the church at Corinth. Read I Corinthians 11.
We confess that there is an action of Christ by His Spirit whereby He imparts Himself to us His people, changing us and making us partakers of His righteousness, holiness, and life.
That is one side of the operation of this spiritual nourishment. The other side is this: There is a spiritual activity on our part, worked by the Holy Spirit in our hearts, whereby we appropriate this spiritual nourishment.
Once again we refer to our Belgic Confession in Article 35:
Now, as it is certain and beyond all doubt that Jesus Christ hath not enjoined us to 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.
That having been said, however, the Confession goes on to speak about our partaking of Christ by the Spirit through faith.
The Incomprehensible Work of the Spirit
Now without question there is something here that is incomprehensible.
The operation that Christ performs by His Spirit upon the elements of the Lord’s Supper, and particularly upon us as we partake, is mysterious, wonderful.
Just as Scripture reveals throughout that in the preaching of the gospel there is a mysterious work of the Spirit, so that Christ speaks to His people by that Word, even though what we hear with our ears is the speech of a man, even so with the administration of the sacraments, while we eat bread and drink a little wine, those very elements become a means of grace to us, as Christ speaks His powerful, efficacious Word. He says, by His Spirit, “This is my body; take eat. This is my blood; drink ye all of it.”
And when we hear those words with our spiritual ears, we eat. We eat and drink with the mouth of faith the very body and blood of Christ. We assimilate Him into ourselves, so that as Paul wrote in I Corinthians 10, in a way beyond our comprehension, “we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.”
We are one with Christ!
Let me ask you now: Do you know Christ in this way, as the fullness of life?
I do not ask whether you know about Him. But do you know Him, also in the Lord’s Supper, as the fullness of your own emptiness, as the righteousness to replace your unrighteousness? Do you know Him as the Bread of Life for which you hunger and the Water of Life for which you thirst? Is your longing, your love, your delight, found in Him?
If in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper you hear with spiritual ears the Word of Christ, you will certainly find in Him your spiritual delight. And you will partake with rich spiritual benefits.
Christ is first.
We must have spiritual nourishment. But Christ must impart to us that spiritual food. He must give us in the Lord’s Supper not only a little bread and wine, but the reality of those signs, i.e., the reality of His own body and blood.
Then we eat and drink unto life eternal.
Oh yes, we must be spiritually fit. We can only eat and drink to the nourishment of our souls when we are well. That is certainly a matter of emphasis in I Corinthians 11:27-30. Perfection is not the requirement for such nourishment. But we can eat and drink only when we are well, and when we hunger and thirst for the body and blood of the Lord.
That is why we must also examine ourselves and come prepared spiritually for that spiritual feast. That is why we give attention, already the Sunday before the Lord’s Supper is administered, to the importance of preparing properly for attendance at the Lord’s table, and give ourselves to a week of spiritual self-examination.
The importance of coming properly to the Lord’s table will be examined more fully in another article. But when we come hungering and thirsting for Christ and His righteousness, not clinging to our own righteousness, but in the spirit of repentance and humble submission to God’s Word, Christ Himself feeds us by His Spirit.
We sit at the feast table of our Lord, eating and drinking with the mouth of faith Him who is our life. And we are assured 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” (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 79).