The Reformed Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper

How do Reformed Christians understand the Lord’s Supper? How is the Reformed understanding different from what Evangelicals and Lutherans believe? Do we believe in the true presence of Christ in the Supper? In this post, I will be drawing a great deal from the Reformed Confessions and John Calvin, as I seek to articulate the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper.

The First Lord’s Supper

On the night Jesus was betrayed, he gathered with His disciples to celebrate the Jewish Passover. This was a sacrament of the Old Testament that celebrated Israel being saved from the angel of death and the tyranny of Egypt. Jesus took the Passover elements of bread and wine and instituted the Lord’s Supper. The original Passover found its ultimate fulfillment in the sacrifice of the lamb of God—Jesus Christ.

Why was the Lord’s Supper Instituted?

It was to “nourish and support those whom” God “has already regenerated and incorporated into His family, which is His Church.” Just as God gives us natural food for our natural life, He also gives us spiritual food for our spiritual life. He “has sent a living bread, which descended from heaven…Jesus Christ, who nourishes and strengthens the spiritual life of believers when they eat Him, that is to say, when they appropriate and receive Him by faith in the spirit” (Belgic Confession, Article 35).

Because we’re still frail and weak human beings, Jesus provided tangible earthly elements to teach and reassure us “that, as certainly as we receive and hold this sacrament in our hands and eat and drink the same with our mouths…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” (Article 35).

The Real Presence of Christ

Unlike the majority of Evangelicals, Reformed Christians believe in the true presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. It’s more than a commemorative memorial meal. Paul says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16).

In a way that’s mysterious, there is a true communion with Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Herman Bavinck said, “The Lord’s Supper is above all a gift of God, not our memorial and confession. The Lord’s Supper signifies the mystical union of the believer with Jesus Christ.”

As Reformed Christians, we can even say that we feed on Christ in the Lord’s Supper, if we understand it like this: “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” (Belgic, Article 35).

Like Lutherans, Reformed Christians believe in the true and real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Calvin taught that “Nothing is more absurd than to call that a sacrament which is void and does not really present to us that which it signifies.” The question comes down to not IF Christ is present, but HOW He is.

While Martin Luther staunchly taught “is means IS,” the Reformed position is that “This is my body” should be taken in the same way Jesus said He is “the door,” or in the same way He is “the good shepherd” and “the vine.” Jesus was using metaphorical language to communicate this spiritual reality.

John Calvin wrote, “the breaking of bread is a symbol; it is not the thing itself. But…by the showing of the symbol the thing itself is also shown.” The term used by theologians to explain this dynamic is “metonymy.”

What on earth is a metonymy? An example would be “I swear allegiance to the crown.” I’m not swearing allegiance to a literal metal crown, but in a very true sense, I’m swearing allegiance to what the crown represents—the king himself!

Zacharias Ursinus said, “The name of the thing signified is attributed to the sign by a sacramental metonymy.” When believers partake of the symbols of bread and wine, we can be sure “that the truth of the thing signified is surely present there” (Calvin).

Not a Capernaitic Eating

One thing to note for clarification is that when we partake of the Lord’s Supper, Reformed Christians don’t believe we’re eating the literal flesh and blood of Christ, as if we’re cannibals. In fact, Lutherans don’t either. 

In speaking of Capernaitic eating (John 6:63), Martin Luther said, “My words are spirit and life,” which shows that he was speaking of a spiritual eating…whereas the Jews understood him to mean a bodily eating and therefore disputed with him. But no eating can give life except that which is by faith, for that is truly a spiritual and living eating” (Babylonian Captivity of the Church).

Capernaitic eating is condemned by Lutheran and Reformed Confessions

The Lutheran Formula of Concord says “We condemn without any qualification the Capernaitic eating of the body of Christ as though one rent Christ’s flesh with one’s teeth and digested it like other food…we hold and believe in a true, though supernatural, eating of Christ’s body and drinking of his blood (Formula of Concord, Epitome, VII).

Compare this Lutheran statement with the Reformed Second Helvetic Confession: In the Lord’s Supper there is a “spiritual eating of Christ’s body; not such a one whereby it may be thought that the very meat is changed into the spirit, but whereby (the Lord’s body and blood remaining in their own essence and property) those things are spiritually communicated unto us, not after a corporeal, but after a spiritual manner, through the Holy Spirit.”

Whereas the Lutheran Formula of Concord uses the word “supernatural,” the Reformed Second Helvetic uses “spiritual.” With these synonymous terms, the statements are very compatible—Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper. And both the Reformed and Luther would agree that faith is the true spiritual and living eating.

The Lutherans and Reformed were even able to reconcile their differences for a time when Calvin signed Melanchthon’s revised Augsburg Confession in 1540. Unfortunately, many Lutherans considered Melanchthon a “Crypto Calvinist,” and a second sacramental war was later started against the Reformed “in the interest of the high Lutheran theory” (Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol 8, p.659).

Reformed Christology

Ultimately, the Reformed view of the Lord’s true presence in the Supper comes down to Christology. Is Jesus Christ present with us on earth in his human nature? Is his human nature ubiquitous (omnipresent)? Lutherans believe Jesus’ human nature is omnipresent. Therefore, they teach that His literal flesh and blood is “in, with, and under the bread.”

The Reformed saw the Lutheran view as a Christological error because it would violate the Chalcedonian Creed, which says, the Son has “two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.”

As Reformed Christians, we believe in the true presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. But how can we believe this? Because even though “according to His human nature, He is now not on earth; but according to His Godhead, majesty, grace, and Spirit, He is at no time absent from us” (Heidelberg Catechism, question 47).

In the Lord’s Supper, Christ is not physically present in the elements of bread and wine, but He is truly present by His Spirit. As RC Sproul has said, “The human nature of Jesus is presently localized in heaven. It remains in perfect union with His divine nature. Though the human nature is contained in one place, the person of Christ is not so contained because His divine nature still has the power of omnipresence.”

Concluding thoughts

When we compare the Reformed and Lutheran view, we see there really is no disagreement about the reality of a communion with Christ. The difference is in the nature of that communion.

For Lutherans, the communion happens by Christ coming down to earth and into the bread and wine. By contrast, the Reformed view is that our souls are in union with Christ by His Spirit, because His humanity remains at the right hand of the Father until His second coming.

The ultimate purpose of the Lord’s Supper is that it unites us with the Lord. As Geerhardus Vos said, “Our faith is directed to the suffering and dead Mediator. And to eat His body and to drink His blood [is] nothing else than to appropriate in faith the merits of His suffering and His dying…It is to the grace of justification that the Lord’s Supper points as a means of grace.”

When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we can have the assurance of our communion with Christ, knowing our spiritual life is being fed in the same way that bread and wine keep and sustain our physical life.

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