One of the best ways for us to think about worshiping God here on earth is to reflect on the worship of God in heaven. One example is the vision that the Apostle John was given in Revelation 4 and 5, which highlight the sovereignty of God the Creator and of Jesus the Lamb who was slain.
John rejoiced with heaven over the news that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah … has conquered” (Revelation 5:5). Turning to look, John saw instead of a lion “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). The Lion had conquered through His sacrificial offering as the Lamb of God! “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” cried heaven in its worship (Revelation 5:12). This scene from the heavenly congregation emphasizes the centrality of Christ and His atoning sacrifice at the heart of both our theology and doxology.
This emphasis on Christ and His atoning death is reinforced in the teaching on worship in the four Gospels. We read that on His last night with the disciples, Jesus gave instruction on worship, instituting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. By no means does this teaching, or this sacrament, contain the whole of what Christians need to know about worship. Yet it tells us something important when we see that the emphasis of the Lord’s Supper is the same emphasis in the worship that John saw in heaven. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,” they rejoice above (Revelation 5:12). Meanwhile, here below, Jesus gave the Lord’s Supper as an emblem of His atoning death, saying, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Without doubt, the Lord’s Supper was intended by Christ to play an important role in the worship of His church until He returned. How important it is, then, for Christians to understand the meaning and purpose of this remembrance of the death of our Lord.
The Biblical Institution
The place to begin a brief study of the Lord’s Supper is with its biblical institution. Four passages describe Jesus’ institution of the sacrament: three parallel accounts in the Gospels and one account recorded by Paul. Matthew’s Gospel gives the basic institution, telling us what Jesus did: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:26-28). This description tells us what to do in the Lord’s Supper. Bread is used to signify Christ’s body, and the cup is to signify His blood. These are to be prayed for and then passed out to Christ’s people: first the bread, which is broken, passed, and eaten; then the cup, which is given out and drunk. There are various innovations proposed for this procedure—there is currently a tendency to take the elements by intinction (dipping the bread in the cup and taking the elements together)—but it seems obvious that the Lord’s Supper is to be practiced today as it was established by Jesus. As the bread and the cup are respectively broken and poured, testimony is given to Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. Paul established the perpetual observance of this sacrament until Christ returns: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
Reformed Christians believe that through the Lord’s Supper the Holy Spirit confers the benefits of Christ’s atoning death to the faith of the recipient.
One of the first things we should notice pertains to when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. There are two important answers. First, He gave this ordinance on the night of His arrest because of its relationship to His impending death. The Lord’s Supper thus enshrines the centrality of Christ’s atoning death in the thought and praise of His people. Second, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper during a Passover meal. His clear intention was to connect this new sacrament to its old covenant foreshadowing.
The Passover was a memorial to Israel’s deliverance in the Exodus. The angel of death came to slay the firstborn of Egypt, but Israel’s sons were spared because of the lamb’s blood spread on their doorframes. The Passover blood was a sign for God to see, showing that the people trusted His promise to provide an atoning Lamb. “When I see the blood, I will pass over you,” the Lord said (Exodus 12:13). So even at the beginning of the Old Testament, on the night when Israel was delivered from bondage in Egypt, God’s people were to anticipate the worship of heaven in Revelation 5:12: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”
In the centuries that followed, Passover was one of the primary feasts observed by God’s covenant community. The story of Passover was to be told to each generation so that God’s people would remember that redemption comes by the blood of the Lamb (see Exodus 12:26; 13:8, 14). While the Exodus was a one-time event, the Passover meal was a recurring worship event looking forward to the coming of Jesus, the true Lamb. Similarly today, the Lord’s Supper is a recurring sacrament directing the faith of God’s people to the true sacrifice and once-for-all atonement, the death of God’s Lamb, Jesus Christ, on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin.
In describing the Lord’s Supper, the Westminster Confession of Faith describes it as a “sign” (WCF 27.1). Jesus said we are to administer this sacrament “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:25). As a sign, the Lord’s Supper points to Christ’s atoning death for our sin as the center of our faith. It is also called a “seal” of the covenant of grace (WCF 27.1). A seal authenticates those who bear it, like the government stamp on a passport. The Passover meal was a covenant meal at which God identified with His people. So it is with the Lord’s Supper. It is really Christ, not the minister, who sets the meal before His covenant people. Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25). Thus believers who receive the bread and blood of Christ in faith are assured that all the benefits of Christ’s saving death belong to them forever. Those who have made a sincere testimony of faith in Christ and have thus been received by the elders into the church receive not only the right to the Lord’s Supper, but in this way are assured that the whole of Christ’s saving work belongs to them.
The Grace of the Lord’s Supper
Historically, one of the more heated debates concerned the manner by which Christ may be said to be “present” in the Lord’s Supper. There are several views. Roman Catholics believe that Christ is physically present in the sacrament, saying that the elements become Christ’s body and blood when the words of institution are spoken by the priest. Protestants deny this view for several reasons. First, when Jesus said, “This is my body,” He was establishing an analogy, not an identity. Christ’s body was holding the bread at the moment when He said these words. So also His blood flowed in His veins when Jesus declared, “This is my blood.” Secondly, the Roman Catholic view errs by eradicating the distinction between the humanity of Christ (including His finite, physical body) and His deity. If Christ’s body takes on the attributes of deity, such as omnipresence and infinity, then Christians no longer have a man enthroned above to be our mediator with God. On the other extreme is the view associated with Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli, which states that the meal is merely a memorial to Christ’s death, without His presence in the sacrament. This neglects Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 10:16, which establishes a relationship between Christ’s presence and the sacrament: “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?” Based on this teaching, Reformed churches insist that Christ is present in the sacrament.
So how is Christ present in the Lord’s Supper? The best understanding is that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper not physically but spiritually. That is, our Lord is present through the ministry of the Holy Spirit as the sacrament is received in faith. Therefore, as the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it, the communicant “feed[s] upon the body and blood of Christ, not after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner” (WLC, 170). It is the Holy Spirit who applies the saving benefits of Christ’s atoning death to the hearts of those who receive the sacrament in faith.
When we speak of the Lord’s Supper’s benefits, two more questions are raised. First, what is the grace that is conferred through the Lord’s Supper? To answer this question we should return to the biblical institution, where Jesus established an analogy between eating and drinking and believing in His death. Just as the body is strengthened by bread and wine, so also the believer’s faith is strengthened and nourished through the sacrament, receiving sustenance and life. As the sacrament is a sign, our faith is directed anew to trust in the death of our Savior. As the sacrament is a seal, we gain increased assurance of salvation and communion with God as these blessings are authenticated in receiving the Lord’s Supper.
It is important for Christians to realize that the Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice, as is taught by the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore receiving the sacrament is not a way of having sins forgiven. To teach that the “mass” offers an “un-bloody” sacrifice denies the sufficiency of Christ’s once-for-all atonement for sin. The Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin because the Lamb of God was sacrificed once-for-all on the cross. This is why, before Jesus gave up His spirit, He cried, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Instead of being a propitiation for sin, the sacrament conveys grace to strengthen our faith, convey assurance of salvation, and spiritually nurture the communicant (see WCF 14.1, 29.1; WSC 96).
A second question is how is this grace communicated through the Lord’s Supper? In other words, “How does the sacrament work?” Our answer will be inevitably linked to our view of the presence of the Lord in the Supper. Under the memorialist view, which denies any presence of Christ, there is no actual grace conveyed in the Lord’s Supper, but only a reminder of Christ’s death. Under the Roman Catholic view, the Lord’s Supper works ex opere operato, that is, “by the doing it is done.” Since Christ is present physically, His grace is received by the mere partaking of the elements. Rome does allow that mortal sins may frustrate this sacramental grace, yet the basic idea is that the grace is secured by the priest for whoever eats and drinks. Lutherans hold to the necessity of faith, but since they believe that Christ is physically present in a mysterious way, they also teach that the sacrament’s virtue is inherent in the elements themselves.
In contrast, and in keeping with Christ’s spiritual presence, Reformed Christians believe that through the Lord’s Supper the Holy Spirit confers the benefits of Christ’s atoning death to the faith of the recipient. To benefit from the sacrament, therefore, we must believe in its significance. As Jesus taught, we must receive the bread as “given for you” on the cross and drink the cup as Christ’s blood “poured out for you” in His death (Luke 22:20). The grace is conferred not merely by the eating of the elements but by the ministry of the Holy Spirit as we receive in faith the redemptive benefits of Christ’s death.
One last question that may be raised is the necessity of the Lord’s Supper for salvation. In a strict sense, the answer is that the sacrament is not necessary for salvation. The grace of Christ for salvation is available through God’s Word: Like the thief on the cross, we are saved solely through faith in the word of Christ’s gospel (Luke 23:42-43). The ministry of the sacrament is not to create saving faith but to nourish and strengthen faith. In this sense, however, the sacrament is necessary. Since Jesus commanded the church to observe the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:26), it is necessary for our spiritual health and witness to obey Jesus in the regular administration of His covenant meal.
Worthy Partaking of the Lord’s Supper
Paul warned against partaking of the sacrament in an unworthy manner. “Let a person examine himself,” he says, “and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). What is the point of this examination? First, the Lord’s Supper is only for believers who have entered Christ’s church through a profession of faith and baptism. Before receiving the Lord’s Supper we should therefore earnestly repent of our sins and look to Jesus’ death for our salvation. Worthy partaking does not mean, however, that we may gain a place at Christ’s table through works or other merits of our own. In taking the bread and the cup, we are confessing our need of the Savior who died for our sins and continues His priestly intercession for us in heaven.
Worthy partaking of the Lord’s Supper is that which earnestly looks to Jesus for cleansing of sin, covenants with Him as our Lord so that we surrender to His service, and seeks grace from Him for an increase of faith so that we might endeavor to live more and more in obedience to His Word and for the sake of His glory. The Larger Catechism advises us to receive the elements “with all holy reverence and attention” and to “affectionately meditate on his death and sufferings … in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, feeding on him by faith, receiving of his fullness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace; in renewing of their covenant with God, and love to all the saints” (WLC, 174). This should make clear that our Lord intended His Supper for sinners who have found their righteousness in Him and for the weak who come to Him to be strong. On this note, John Calvin gives us a fitting conclusion to our study of the Lord’s Supper: “It is a sacrament ordained not for the perfect, but for the weak and feeble, to awaken, arouse, stimulate, and exercise the feeling of faith and love, indeed, to correct the defect of both” (Institutes, 4.17.42).
The Rev. Dr. Richard D. Phillips is senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, S.C. Phillips is the author of numerous books, including What is the Lord’s Supper?