Presbyterians, unlike Roman Catholics and other Christians, believe that there are only two sacraments of the New Testament: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (WCF 27:4). Having looked at baptism, let’s think about the Lord’s Supper. Most people who go to church know what this sacrament is, even when they call it something different like “the breaking of the bread,” “communion,” or “the Eucharist.” The name “Lord’s Supper” to name this sacrament comes from 1 Corinthians 11:20 and the heart of the ritual is common among all Christians: “the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth” (SC 96).
Typically, the mechanics of the Supper involves ordained ministers who “set apart the bread and win from common use, by the word of institution, thanksgiving and prayer; to take and break the bread, and to give both the bread and the wine to the communications; who are, by the same appointment, to take and eat the bread, and to drink the wine, in thankful remembrance that the body of Christ was broken and given, and his blood shed, for them” (LC 169).
While the validity of the sacrament is fairly easy to establish from Scripture, the sacrament’s efficacy is much more difficult to understand. In fact, at one point the Westminster Confession describes this Supper as a holy mystery (WCF 29:8). And because how the Supper “works” is a mystery, it has led to a number of disagreements about what happens in the Supper. Presbyterian confessional documents attempts to deal with a number of these “mistaken” views while setting forth our understanding of what happens in this meal. Sometimes the qualifications and caveats in the Standards are so confusing that it is hard to understand what is at stake or even what Presbyterians are trying to say. But if we are patient, I think we can get at a basic understanding of what happens in this holy mystery called the Lord’s Supper. What is important to understand is that Reformation debates over the Supper had everything to do with where Christ’s ascended body is and how believers feed upon that ascended body. We’ll see this as we go along.
Notice first that the confessional documents are very careful to tell us what does not happen in the Supper. One thing that doesn’t happen is that the bread and the wine do not actually, really, truly become Christ’s body and blood. This doctrine, called transubstantiation, is held by Roman Catholics. They believe that in the act of consecration by the priest (when he says in Latin, “this is my body”) that the bread, which is lifted up in the sight of the congregation for their adoration, actually and really becomes the substance of Christ’s body. The Westminster Confession spares no language in rejecting this position: this doctrine “is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; [and it] overthrowth the nature of the sacrament, and hath been and is the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries” (WCF 29:6). Presbyterians believe that when the bread and wine are consecrated by God through a minister’s prayer, “they till remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before” (WCF 29:5). We also don’t believe that the Lord’s Supper provides an opportunity for Christ to be offered up to his Father once again in a real propitiation for sins. This “popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect” (WCF 29:2).
Presbyterians also don’t believe that Christ’s body is somehow “in, with, or under the bread and wine” (WCF 29:7). This describes the Lutheran view, which is based on a belief that Christ’s resurrected and ascended body is “ubiquitous” (that is, everywhere at the same time). The result of the Lutheran view is that when an individual partakes of the bread in the Supper, the bread itself is not Christ’s body, but is accompanied by Christ’s body which surrounds it. Presbyterians don’t believe that Christ’s ascended body works like that. We believe that Christ’s resurrected body has ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father. As a result, his body is not everywhere present at the same time to surround the bread and wine at the Supper.
So, what do Presbyterians believe happens in the Supper? How do we feed upon the body and blood of Christ? The Confession takes great pains to stress that we do not feed on Christ “corporally or carnally,” but “spiritually” and yet “really and indeed” (WCF 29:7). Perhaps you’ve read the somewhat tortured section of the Confession in 29:7:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.Did you catch what the Confession is trying to say here? It says two important things: first, worthy receivers of the Supper receive and feed upon Christ crucified and all benefits of his death; and second, the body and blood of Christ are as surely present to the faith of believers in the Supper as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
How do these two things happen? Not corporally or carnally, but spiritually. In way perhaps we don’t always grasp intellectually, when we outwardly eat and drink the visible elements, we are inwardly feeding on Christ’s body and blood by faith. There is no change, no transformation, no surrounding of the bread and wine with Christ’s body. And yet, really and indeed, we feed on Christ’s body and blood spiritually.
John Calvin, the great sixteenth century Reformed pastor and theologian, believed that in the Supper the Holy Spirit worked to lift our hearts and minds to heaven, where Christ is seated at God the Father’s right hand, so that we might feed spiritually on his presence (Inst., 4.17.18). Yet Calvin was also careful to point out that our feeding upon Christ was a mystery that was felt, more than explained, because words themselves were inadequate to describe what is transacted in the Lord’s Supper (Inst., 4.17.7).
The upshot of all this is that in the Supper, we “receive and apply unto ourselves Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death” by faith (LC 170). The benefits that we receive are consequential to our living the Christian life well. We believe that in this meal we gain what is vital for “our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace,” including having our union and communion with Christ confirmed, our thankfulness to God and engagement to belong to him renewed, and our mutual love and fellowship with one another engaged (LC 168).
In order to receive these spiritual benefits, however, we must prepare ourselves before we come to the Lord’s Supper in at least two ways. First, we must examine ourselves. Drawing upon Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 11:28, Presbyterians have long urged one another to examine themselves before they came to the Lord’s Table, seeking to ascertain “their being in Christ; their sins and wants; the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance, love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; their desires after Christ; and their new obedience” (LC 171).
Second, we must seek to renew the exercise of all of our spiritual graces. As we consider and examine ourselves, we should meditate on the truths of God’s Word and on his great grace and forgiveness for those who fail in their spiritual duties. We also need to pray fervently, seeking God’s mercy and grace for our sins and failures and asking that he meet us in the Lord’s Supper to grant us his strengthening and nourishing grace in the meal.
During the Supper, we are called to wait upon God in the sacrament, observing diligently what is going on: the minister’s explanation of the sacrament, the words of institution, the invitation to the Supper, the prayer of consecration for the Supper, the breaking of bread and pouring out of wine, and the distribution of the elements. In the midst of these actions, we should seek to discern Christ’s body, believing that, in the bread and in the wine, Christ’s crucified body and blood are spiritually present to their faith and in these elements Christ and all his benefits are given to their faith. In thus discerning Christ’s body, we are stirred up to judge ourselves and sorrow for sin, to hunger and thirst after Christ, to feed upon him and receive of his fullness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace, and to renew their covenant with God and with the other church members (LC 174). In many ways, the Lord’s Supper is the renewal of a solemn covenant between God and ourselves—we are forsaking our sin, resting on Christ and his merits for acceptance with God, and renewing new obedience to God and his Word in gratitude for his mercy. In response, God grants us all of Christ’s benefits, but more importantly he grants us Christ himself.
After the Supper, we should use some time to consider how we participated in the Supper. If we found spiritual comfort and renewal, then we should bless God for his mercy in the Supper, beg God for the continuance of this gracious renewal, watch against relapses into sin, and fulfill our spiritual duties. If we didn’t find that comfort and renewal, then we should think back to how we prepared ourselves beforehand for the Supper and how we carried ourselves during the Supper. If we were prepared for the Supper and sought God’s presence in the meal, then we wait for the spiritual benefit in God’s good time. But if we didn’t prepare well or if we didn’t carry ourselves well, then we should be humbled and seek God’s presence more fervently and diligently next time we have the opportunity to participate in the Lord’s Supper (LC 175).
Obviously, Presbyterians historically have taken the Lord’s Supper very seriously, perhaps more seriously than other evangelicals. That seriousness is reflected in the Presbyterian practice of “fencing the table.” In the eighteenth century, Scots and American Presbyterians were examineed by their ruling elders for their faith in Jesus Christ and current spiritual condition; if they were deemed to be “worthy professors,” these hardy souls were given “communion tokens” that would admit them to a place at the Lord’s table. In contemporary practice, Presbyterian ministers invite to come to the Supper those have made a profession of faith in a particular congregation and have been admitted to the table by either the local church session or some other authorized church leadership. We also warn those who have not made a profession of faith or who are living in unrepentant sin not to come to the table, so that they will not “eat and drink judgment to themselves” (SC 97; 1 Corinthians 11:27-32). In this way, Presbyterians have tried to preserve the purity of the Lord ’s Table.
Another way this seriousness is demonstrated is in the way in which we deal with our children in approaching the table. Perhaps the best way of getting at this point is to think through the similarities and differences between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The similarities between the two are somewhat obvious (LC 176). We believe that God is the author of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper; they are both God’s idea and have his warrant. The focus of both is Christ and his benefits. Both are seals of the same covenant, the same promises. Each is to be done by ordained ministers of the gospel and by none other. And each is to be continued in the church until the end of the age. Some of the differences between the two are obvious as well, or at least, should be (LC 177). Baptism happens, or should happen, only once in a person’s life; the Lord’s Supper is to be administered often. Baptism uses water; the Supper uses bread and wine.
But other differences are more important. The Catechism says that baptism is a “sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ,” a grace that is conferred in God’s appointed time and that evidences itself in a full-hearted turn to Christ as Savior and Lord. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is received those who have already begun the journey of faith, “to confirm our continuance and growth” in Jesus Christ. Or it could put it like this: baptism initiates our children into the visible people of God, into the church people, and into the care of the church and all the benefits that brings. Yet the Lord’s Supper has a different focus; it serves to confirm our faith and assure our hearts that as surely as we partake of bread and wine, so surely did Christ die for our sins.
As a result, Presbyterians believe that baptism is rightly administered “even to infants,” as we have just seen. Because our children belong to our households of faith, they should belong in a visible way to THE household of faith; and baptism initiates them into God’s visible people. However, we believe that the Supper is to be administered “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.” The emphasis here is not upon adult-only communion but on professing believers-only communion. Our catechism presumes that infants or toddlers cannot examine themselves of “their being in Christ” (LC 172), that is, to recognize their sinfulness and turn to faith to Jesus Christ. When they come “of years and ability to examine themselves,” if they make a credible profession of faith in Jesus, then the local church’s session has the opportunity to admit them to the Lord’s table. As a result, the Presbyterians typically do not admit to the table children who have not made a profession of faith; not because they are children, but because faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for a worthy reception of the Supper.