The Lord's Supper
Part 6 of a 6-part series on Worship
©1995 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
You know, it's ironic to me that in our day, as in every day of decline
and superstition throughout church history, people turn from God's miracles
to their own. What do I mean by that? Well, once people stop believing
that salvation is a miracle and begin thinking that it is simply the
result of human decision and effort, before long they create substitute
miracles in order to retain some sense of the supernatural. Then, when
they deny that in the Word the Holy Spirit miraculously creates faith
and repentance, they must seek their signs through leg-lengthening.
And when they deny that in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's
Supper Christ is actually miraculously given, they seek their own revelations
and their own signs and wonders.
Churches that follow the apostolic, Reformation faith are charismatic
in the fullest sense of that term. That is, they believe that every
service of Word and Sacrament is a time of signs and wonders. They eagerly
anticipate--or, at least, should eagerly anticipate, the miraculous
when they come to church, because God has promised that when we gather
to worship and receive God's forgiveness, he will faithfully feed his
flock in the wilderness. But we often become like the cynical generation
of Israelites in the wilderness who, when God reaffirmed his promise
to feed them, cried out, "What! Is the Lord going to spread out
a banqueting table for us right here in the middle of the desert?"
But that is precisely what God does. He is a wonder-working God who
feeds us among the thorns and sand of our spiritual wasteland, when
and where we are least expecting.
But what Shepherd gives his own flesh for food and his own blood for
drink? What god gives his body for the life of his worshippers? Has
anyone ever heard of such a thing? Yes, indeed! Our Savior declares,
"Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life."
First, let's put things in perspective: There are essentially 4 views
of what happens in Holy Communion. First, there is the Roman Catholic
view, which is familiar to many. The official teaching of the Roman
Catholic Church is that the bread and wine are actually changed into
the body and blood of Christ. This is called "transubstantiation,"
from two words meaning, "to change substance." The bread still
looks like bread and the wine still has all of the appearances of wine,
but appearances are deceiving. Furthermore, the Lord's Supper, according
to the Roman Catholic Church, is the repetition of Christ's atoning
sacrifice and every time one participates in this sacrament, they believe
that Christ is being sacrificed again on the altar for their sins. This,
of course, is blasphemy, especially in the light of Hebrews, which is
given for the express purpose of demonstrating that the sacrificial
system came to an end in Jesus Christ, the final sacrifice for sins
At the time of the Reformation, however, Protestants differed in their
understanding of what actually was received--and how--in Holy Communion.
First, the Anabaptists interpreted this meal as merely a memorial or
symbolic remembering of Christ's death. The purpose was to arouse a
sense of gratitude and duty in the light of the suffering Jesus endured
for us. The Lutherans argued that this denied Christ's express statement,
"This is my body," and made this sacrament into the work of
man, because the activity was human--my remembering, rather than divine--God
forgiving. Lutherans believe, therefore, that Christ is physically present
at the altar in this sacrament, but deny the Roman Catholic doctrine
of a change in substance from bread and wine into body and blood. They
also, of course, deny the notion of a resacrifice of Christ. The Reformed,
after Calvin, were influenced by the Eastern Orthodox interpretation,
arguing, along with Lutherans and Roman Catholics, that Christ is truly
communicated through this sacrament, against the Anabaptist view of
Communion as a mere memorial. But they believed that the mode or means
of receiving Christ was by the Holy Spirit uniting believers to Christ
in heaven through the elements of bread and wine.
Now, these issues may at first sound confusing and you may be wondering,
"Why do Christians fight over such secondary issues?" But
remember that this is a sacrament instituted not by Athanasius or Augustine,
Luther, Calvin, or Wesley, but by our Lord Jesus Christ. He commanded
a perpetual and frequent administration of this Holy Supper until his
return and the apostle Paul warns the Corinthians that the reason many
of them are experiencing an untimely death is because they do not properly
recognize the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. Because of
their casual view of the Supper, turning this holy mystery into a sacrilege,
they are actually eating and drinking judgment. If this Supper is a
"secondary" issue, why does the apostle say that people are
eating and drinking judgment?
The apostle Paul says, in fact, that Holy Communion is an actual participation
in the body and blood of Christ: "Is not the cup of thanksgiving...a
participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread the we break
a participation in the body of Christ?" "Therefore,"
says Paul, "whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord
in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the memory of
the body and blood of the Lord." Is that it? No, Paul says that
he "will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the
But the purpose of this Holy Supper is not to hold out judgment, but
rather to hold out God's forgiveness and pardon. Through it, we receive
the benefits of Christ's death and present intercession; in fact, through
it, we receive nothing less than Christ himself.
Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the
Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical
theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate
of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.)
and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited
include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power
Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.