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Lord’s Day 29

Question 78. Do then the bread and wine become the very body and blood of Christ?

Answer. 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.

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?

Answer. 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.

The second great debate of the Reformation, after the debate over justification by faith alone, was the debate over the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. What did Jesus mean when, at the institution of this sacrament, He said, “This is my body”? Today, the visible church on earth is divided into four main groups along the lines of the answer to that question.


Four Views

The catechism is mostly answering the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, that the elements (substance) of the sacrament, the bread and wine, are changed (transformed) into the actual body and blood of Jesus. Catholics believe that when Jesus said, “This is my body,” the actual loaf of bread that He held up became His real physical body. Alluding to the Latin version of the words, “This is my body” (hoc est corpus meum), the Reformers derided the Catholic view as hocus pocus. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” He was speaking metaphorically, just as He was when He said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), “I am the door” (John 10:7), “I am the true vine” (John 15:1), and “I am the bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:41). He did not mean He was literally these things: a shepherd with sheep, a door on hinges, a vine in a garden, or a loaf of bread that fell from the sky. Rather, these things represented Him, and in the same way the bread represents His body in the Lord’s Supper.

Luther and the Lutherans reject the false teaching of transubstantiation, but they do not totally reject the idea of a real physical presence of Christ at the sacrament. The Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation, (con = with), insists that Christ is “in, with, and around” the elements of the sacrament. That is, these elements, remaining bread and wine, are, as it were, soaked and permeated with the presence of Christ. This, of course, means that Jesus’ human nature has to have the divine characteristic of omnipresence; and so Luther taught the ubiquity of the human nature of Christ, that the human nature assumes the characters of the divine nature in the state of exaltation, and therefore is not limited physically to the place heaven and the position of the right hand of God.

Ulrich Zwingli, another Reformer, responded to this debate by teaching that the Lord’s Supper is simply a feast of remembrance, that there is essentially nothing mysterious or spiritual in the sacrament, and that we need not talk about the “presence of Christ” in the sacrament. The bread and wine are simply reminders or memorials of the death of Jesus Christ for our sins. The modern Baptist view of the sacrament is very similar to this, with the emphasis falling on our receiving the sacrament, rather than what the sacrament represents.

John Calvin’s view, which is the Reformed and Presbyterian view, is that Christ is truly but spiritually (not physically) present in the sacrament to all who partake by faith, so that as a believer partakes of the sacrament he actually receives Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Supper is indeed a memorial, but it is also a feast of communion through which participants by faith lay hold on and receive to themselves Jesus Christ. In the sacrament, our faith is the “hand and mouth of our soul” (Belgic Confession, Art. 35). The Lord’s Supper is a sign of the death of Jesus Christ, yet also a seal and promise (a “pledge” in the Catechism) to all believers that they are truly partakers of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, that is, that they partake and benefit from the reality of His suffering that is represented by the sacrament. In the Lord’s Supper, we are able, by faith, to “discern the Lord’s body” (I Cor. 11:29).

The Reason for these Views

Why did the Reformers fight so long and hard over the doctrine of this sacrament? Why, today, is Christianity splintered along these lines into Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, and Roman Catholics?

There are at least three good reasons, all of which were at the heart of the Reformation.

The Reformed view calls us to look to Christ alone for our salvation. Whereas Rome says that in the Eucharist Christ is sacrificed again and again, the Scriptures teach that by His death on the cross Christ made the complete and final payment for sin (Heb. 7:27; Heb. 9:26-28; Heb. 10:10-12). There is no more sacrifice needed for sin, and there is nothing to add to the finished work of Jesus Christ. Rome’s view of the sacrament fits with its denial of the sufficiency of the death of Christ for our sins.

Another truth for which the Reformers battled was the truth of particular grace. Just as the gospel is not a universal offer of salvation from a God who loves all and wants to save all, so the grace of the sacrament is particular. Jesus’ word concerning His presence, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20), means that He, by His grace and Holy Spirit, would be with His church (believers) till the end of the world. So, also, His gracious presence in the Supper is only with believers. The views of Rome and Lutheranism, which teach that Christ is physically present and therefore is received by all who partake, teach a universal grace. However, to those who partake in unbelief there is no grace in the sacrament, but judgment and condemnation (I Cor. 11:29).

Too often the emphasis in Roman Catholic and Baptist circles falls on the act of partaking—you take your first communion, or the sacrament is viewed simply an expression of the faith of the participant. This sacrament, however, is intended by Christ as a statement of what He has done for us, not of what we do for or with Him. The message of the sacrament is the death and suffering of Jesus Christ as the only ground of our salvation, and in the sacrament we celebrate, remember, and believe in the cross. Yes, we make a profession in the sacrament, but this profession is itself a work of God’s grace. In this we profess that our only salvation is in Jesus Christ and that it was our sin that necessitated the death of the Savior. We “shew the Lord’s death till he come” (I Cor. 11:26).

Spiritually Nourished

Just as we have a physical life, so God’s people have a spiritual life—the new life of regeneration.

Just as our bodies grow hungry and thirsty and need nourishment, so we need spiritual nourishment—we hunger and thirst after righteousness.

Just as there is physical food to nourish us, so there is spiritual food for our nourishment—Jesus is the Bread come down from heaven.

Just as we need to eat and drink in order to be nourished physically, so we need to believe on Jesus Christ when we come to the Supper—faith is the hand and mouth of our soul.

Only as we come in faith, with our mind and heart fixed on what Jesus Christ has completed in His suffering and death on the cross, are we truly nourished by this sacrament. That nourishment is the growth and increase of our faith, in which we grow into a greater awareness of our sin and become more dependent on Christ for our salvation.

Coming to the Lord’s Supper, then, is a deeply spiritual exercise. That does not mean it is beyond any of God’s people, but it does mean that when we come, we must come in meditation on Christ and His work for us. We must avoid trust in the practice and externals. Only then can we grow spiritually.

As you come to the table, are you hungry and thirsty for Christ?


Questions for Discussion

1. What did not happen when Jesus uttered the words, “This is my body?”

2. Why are bread and wine given different names by Jesus in this sacrament?

3. Is it ever proper to call the elements of the Lord’s Supper the “body” and “blood” of Christ? What do we mean when we say this?

4. Evaluate the Lutheran view of this sacrament? In what important ways is it different from the Roman Catholic view? What are some of the problems with this view?

5. What is the difference between superstition and faith? How does this relate to the different views of the sacrament? How does it apply to our partaking?

6. Seeing that the idea of transubstantiation is so contrary to reason and sense, from where did it arise?

7. Why cannot Christ be physically present in the Lord’s Supper? How is He present?

8. How does the Reformed understanding of the sacrament promote the other main teachings of the Reformation?

9. Can the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper itself “convert” or “save” a participant? Why or why not?

10. Do unbelievers receive anything more than bread or wine when they partake (I Cor. 11:29)?

11. How can you prepare yourself to partake of the Lord’s Supper with profit?