Excerpted from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.1–5, 7–11
(trans. John McNeill)

God has received us, once for all, into His family, to hold us not only as servants but as sons. Thereafter, to fulfil the duties of a most excellent Father concerned for His offspring, He undertakes also to nourish us throughout the course of our life. And not content with this alone, He has willed, by giving His pledge, to assure us of this continuing liberality. To this end, therefore, He has, through the hand of His only-begotten Son, given to His Church another sacrament, that is, a spiritual banquet, wherein Christ attests Himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality (Jn 6:51).

Sign and Reality

First, the signs are bread and wine, which represent for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ. For as in baptism, God, regenerating us, engrafts us into the society of His Church and makes us His own by adoption, so we have said, that He discharges the function of a provident householder in continually supplying to us the food to sustain and preserve us in that life into which He has begotten us by His Word.

Now Christ is the only food of our soul, and therefore our Heavenly Father invites us to Christ, that, refreshed by partaking of Him, we may repeatedly gather strength until we shall have reached heavenly immortality.

Since, however, this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, He shows its figure and image in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity. Indeed, by giving guarantees and tokens He makes it as certain for us as if we had seen it with our own eyes. For this very familiar comparison penetrates into even the dullest minds: just as bread and wine sustain physical life, so are souls fed by Christ. We now understand the purpose of this mystical blessing, namely, to confirm for us the fact that the Lord’s body was once for all so sacrificed for us that we may now feed upon it, and by feeding feel in ourselves the working of that unique sacrifice; and that His blood was once so shed for us in order to be our perpetual drink. And so speak the words of the promise added there: “Take, eat; this is my body, which is broken for you” (1 Cor 11:24; cf. Mt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19).

We are therefore bidden to take and eat the body which was once for all offered for our salvation, in order that when we see ourselves made partakers in it, we may assuredly conclude that the power of His life-giving death will be efficacious in us. Hence, He also calls the cup the covenant in His blood (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). For He in some measure renews, or rather continues, the covenant which He once for all ratified with His blood (as far as it pertains to the strengthening of our faith) whenever He proffers that sacred blood for us to taste.

The Special Fruit of the Lord’s Supper
—Union with Christ

Godly souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament; in it they have a witness of our growth into one body with Christ such that whatever is His may be called ours. As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which He is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which He has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from Him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt He has absolved us, since He willed to take them upon Himself as if they were His own. This is the wonderful exchange which, out of His measureless benevolence, He has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, He has made us sons of God with Him; that, by His descent to earth, He has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, He has conferred His immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, He has strengthened us by His power; that, receiving our poverty unto Himself, He has transferred His wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon Himself (which oppressed us), He has clothed us with His righteousness.

The Spiritual Presence of Christ

In this Sacrament we have such full witness of all these things that we must certainly consider them as if Christ here present were Himself set before our eyes and touched by our hands. For His Word cannot lie or deceive us: “Take, eat, drink: this is my body, which is broken for you; this is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins” (Mt 26:26–28, conflated with 1 Corinthians 11:24; cf. Mk 14:22–24; Lk 22:19–20). By bidding us take, He indicates that it is ours; by bidding us eat, that it is made one substance with us; by declaring that His body is broken for us and His blood shed for us, He teaches that both are not so much His as ours. For He took up and laid down both, not for His own advantage but for our salvation.

And, indeed, we must carefully observe that the very powerful and almost entire force of the Sacrament lies in these words: “which is broken for you,” “which is shed for you.” The present distribution of the body and blood of the Lord would not greatly benefit us unless they had once for all been given for our redemption and salvation. They are therefore represented under bread and wine so that we may learn not only that they are ours but that they have been destined as food for our spiritual life.

And so as we previously stated, from the physical things set forth in the Sacrament we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things. Thus, when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realise that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden. For if we sufficiently consider what value we have received from the giving of that most holy body and the shedding of that blood, we shall clearly perceive that those qualities of bread and wine are, according to such an analogy, excellently adapted to express those things when they are communicated to us.

The Promise of the Lord’s Supper

It is not, therefore, the chief function of the Sacrament simply and without higher consideration to extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm that promise by which He testifies that His flesh is food indeed and His blood is drink (Jn 6:55), which feed us unto eternal life (Jn 6:54). By this He declares Himself to be the bread of life, of which He who eats will live forever (Jn 6:48, 50). And to do this, the Sacrament sends us to the cross of Christ, where that promise was indeed preformed and in all respects fulfilled. For we do not eat Christ duly and unto salvation unless He is crucified, when in living experience we grasp the efficacy of His death. In calling Himself “the bread of life,” He did not borrow that name from the Sacrament, as some wrongly interpret. Rather, He had been given as such to us by the Father and showed Himself as such when, being made a sharer in our human mortality, He made us partakers in His divine immortality; when, offering Himself as a sacrifice, He bore our curse in Himself to imbue us with His blessing; when, by His death, He swallowed up and annihilated death (1 Cor 15:54); and when, in His resurrection, He raised up this corruptible flesh of ours, which He had put on, to glory and incorruption (cf. 1 Cor 15:53–54).

How We Are Partakers by Faith

It remains for all this to be applied to us. That is done through the gospel but more clearly through the Sacred Supper, where He offers Himself with all His benefits to us, and we receive Him by faith. Therefore, the Sacrament does not cause Christ to begin to be the bread of life, which we continually eat, and which gives us a relish and savour of that bread, it causes us to feel the power of that bread. For it assures us that all that Christ did or suffered was done to quicken us; and again, that this quickening is eternal, we being ceaselessly nourished, sustained, and preserved throughout life by it. For, as Christ would not have been the bread of life for us if He had not been born and had not died for us, and if He had not arisen for us, so this would not now be the case at all if the effectiveness and result of His birth, death, and resurrection were not something eternal and immortal.

Christ beautifully expresses the whole matter in these words: “The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). By these words He doubtless means that His body will to us be as bread for the spiritual life of the soul, for it was to be made subject to death for our salvation; moreover, that it is offered to us to eat, when it makes us sharers in Him by faith. Once for all, therefore, He gave His body to be made bread when He yielded Himself to be crucified for the redemption of the world; daily He gives it when by the Word of the gospel He offers it for us to partake, inasmuch as it was crucified, when He seals such giving of Himself by the sacred mystery of the Supper, and when He inwardly fulfils what He outwardly designates.

Now here we ought to guard against two faults. First, we should not, by too little regard for the signs, divorce them from their mysteries, to which they are so to speak attached. Secondly, we should not, by extolling them immoderately, seem to obscure somewhat the mysteries themselves.

None but the utterly irreligious deny that Christ is the bread of life by which believers are nourished into eternal life. But there is no unanimity as to the mode of partaking of Him. For there are some who define the eating of Christ’s flesh and the drinking of His blood as, in one word, nothing but to believe in Christ. But it seems to me that Christ meant to teach something more definite, and more elevated, in that noble discourse in which He commends to us the eating of His flesh (Jn 6:26 ff.). It is that we are quickened by the true partaking of Him; and He has therefore designated this partaking by the words “eat” and “drink,” in order that no one should think that the life that we receive from Him is received by mere knowledge. As it is not the seeing but the eating of bread that suffices to feed the body, so the soul must truly and deeply become partaker of Christ that it may be quickened to spiritual life by His power.

We admit indeed, meanwhile, that this is no other eating than that of faith, as no other can be imagined. But here is the difference between my words and theirs: for them to eat is only to believe; I say that we eat Christ’s flesh in believing, because it is made ours by faith, and that this eating is the result and effect of faith. Or if you want it said more clearly, for them eating is faith; for me it seems rather to follow from faith. This is a small difference indeed in words, but no slight one in the matter itself. For even though the Apostle teaches that “Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith” (Eph 3:17), no one will interpret this indwelling to be faith, but all feel that he is there expressing a remarkable effect of faith, for through this believers gain Christ abiding in them. In this way the Lord intended, by calling Himself the “bread of life” (Jn 6:51), to teach not only that salvation for us rests on faith in His death and resurrection, but also that, by true partaking of Him, His life passes into us and is made ours—just as bread when taken as food imparts vigour to the body.

Thought and Words Inadequate

Moreover, I am not satisfied with those persons who, recognising that we have some communion with Christ, when they would show what it is, make us partakers of the Spirit only, omitting mention of flesh and blood. As though all these things were said in vain: that His flesh is truly food, that His blood is truly drink (Jn 6:55); that none have life except those who eat His flesh and drink His blood (Jn 5:53); and other passages pertaining to the same thing! Therefore, if it is certain that an integral communion of Christ reaches beyond their too narrow description of it, I shall proceed to deal with it briefly, in so far as it is clear and manifest, before I discuss the contrary fault of excess. For I shall have a longer disputation with the extravagant doctors, who, while in the grossness of their minds they devise an absurd fashion of eating and drinking, also transfigure Christ, stripped of His own flesh, into a phantasm—if one may reduce to words so great a mystery, which I see that I do not even sufficiently comprehend with my mind. I therefore freely admit that no man should measure its sublimity by the little measure of my childishness. Rather, I urge my readers not to confine their mental interest within these too narrow limits, but to strive to rise much higher than I can lead them. For, whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither the mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express. Nevertheless, I shall in one way or another sum up my views; for, as I do not doubt them to be true, I am confident they will be approved in godly hearts.

Christ Makes His Abode in Our Flesh

First of all, we are taught from the Scriptures that Christ was from the beginning that life-giving Word of the Father (Jn 1:1), the spring and source of life, from which all things have always received their capacity to live. Therefore, John sometimes calls Him “the Word of life” (1 Jn 1:1), sometimes writes that “In him was life” (Jn 1:4), meaning that He, flowing even into all creature, instilled in them the power to breathe and live.

The same John afterward adds that life was manifested only when, having taken our flesh, the Son of God gave Himself for our eyes to see and our hands to touch (1 Jn 1:1–2). For even though He previously poured out His power upon the creatures, still, because man (estranged from God through sin and having lost participation in life) saw death threatening from every side, he had to be received into communion of the Word in order to receive hope of immortality. For how little assurance would you grass, if you heard that the Word of God (from which you are far removed) contains in itself fullness of life, but in and round about yourself nothing but death meets you and moves before your eyes? But when the Source of life begins to abide in our flesh, He no longer lies hidden far from us, but shows us that we are to partake of Him. But He also quickens our very flesh in which He abides, that by partaking of Him we may be fed unto immortality. “I am,” He says, “that bread of life…. I am the living bread which came down from heaven… and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn 6:48, 51). By these words He teaches not only that He is life since He is the eternal Word of God, who came down from heaven to us, but also that by coming down He poured that power upon the flesh which He took in order that from it participation in life might flow unto us.

From this also these things follow: that His flesh is truly food, and His blood truly drink (Jn 6:55), and by these foods believers are nourished unto eternal life. It is therefore a special comfort for the godly that they now find life in their own flesh. For thus not only they reach it by an easy approach, but they have it spontaneously presented and laid out before them. Let them but open the bosom of their heart to embrace its presence, and they will obtain it.

Sense in Which Christ’s Body
is Life-Giving

But the flesh of Christ does not of itself have a power so great as to quicken us, for in its first condition it was subject to mortality; and now, endowed with immortality, it does not live through itself. Nevertheless, since it is pervaded with fullness of life to be transmitted to us, it is rightly called “life-giving.” In this sense I interpret with Cyril that saying of Christ’s: “As the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (Jn 5:26). For there He is properly speaking not of those gifts which He had in the Father’s presence from the beginning, but of those with which He was adorned in that very flesh wherein He appeared. Accordingly, He shows that in His humanity there also dwells fullness of life, so that whoever has partaken of His flesh and blood may at the same time enjoy participation in life.

We can explain the nature of this by a familiar example. Water is sometimes drunk from a spring, sometimes drawn, sometimes led by channels to water the fields, yet it does not flow forth from itself for so many uses, but from the very source, which by unceasing flow supplies and serves it. In like manner, the flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours unto us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself. Now who does not see that communion of Christ’s flesh and blood is necessary for all who aspire to heavenly life?

This is the purport of the Apostle’s statements: The Church is the “body” of Christ; “the fullness of him” (Eph 1:23); but He is “the head” (Eph 4:15), “from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth… maketh increase of the body” (Eph 4:16). We understand that all these things could not be brought about otherwise than by His cleaving to us wholly in spirit and body. But Paul graced with a still more glorious title that intimate fellowship in which we are joined with His flesh when he said, “we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Eph 5:30). Finally, to witness to this thing greater than all words, he ends his discourse with an exclamation: “This,” he says, “is a great mystery” (Eph 5:32). It would be extreme madness to recognise no communion of believers with the flesh and blood of the Lord, which the Apostle declares to be so great that he prefers to marvel at it rather than to explain it.

The Presence of Christ’s Body
in the Lord’s Supper

To summarise: our souls are fed by the flesh and blood of Christ in the same way that bread and wine keep and sustain physical life. For the analogy of the sign applies only if souls find their nourishment in Christ—which cannot happen unless Christ truly grows into one with us, and refreshes us by the eating of His flesh and the drinking of His blood.

Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure His immeasureableness by our measure. What, then our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.

Now, that sacred partaking of His flesh and blood, by which Christ pours His life into us, as if it penetrated into our bones and marrow, He also testifies and seals in the Supper—not by presenting a vain and empty sign, but by manifesting there the effectiveness of His Spirit to fulfil what He promises. And truly He offers and shows the reality there signified to all who sit at that spiritual banquet, although it is received with benefit by believers alone, who accept such great generosity with true faith and gratefulness of heart.

In this manner the Apostle said, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16; order changed). There is no reason for anyone to object that this is a figurative expression by which the name of the thing signified is given to the sign. I indeed admit that the breaking of bread is a symbol; it is not the thing itself. But, having admitted this, we shall nevertheless duly infer that by the showing of the symbol the thing itself is also shown. For unless a man means to call God a deceiver, he would never dare assert that an empty symbol is set forth by Him. Therefore, if the Lord truly represents the participation in His body through the breaking of bread, there ought not to be the least doubt that He truly presents and shows His body. And the godly ought by all means to keep this rule: whenever they see symbols appointed by the Lord, to think and be persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is surely present there. For why should the Lord put in your hand the symbol of His body, except to assure you of a true participation in it? But if it is true that a visible sign is given us to seal the gift of a thing invisible, when we have received the symbol of the body, let us no less surely trust that the body itself is also given to us.

Signification, Matter, and Effect
of the Sacrament

I therefore say (what has always been accepted in the Church and is today taught by all of sound opinion) that the sacred mystery of the Supper consists in two things: physical signs, which, thrust before our eyes, represent to us, according to our feeble capacity, things invisible; and spiritual truth, which is at the same time represented and displayed through the symbols themselves.

When I wish to show the nature of this truth in familiar terms, I usually set down three things: the signification, the matter that depends upon it, and the power or effect that follows from both. The signification is contained in the promises, which are, so to speak, implicit in the sign. I call Christ with His death and resurrection the matter, or substance. But by effect I understand redemption, righteousness, sanctification, and eternal life, and all the other benefits Christ gives to us.

Now, even though all these things have to do with faith, I leave no place for the sophistry that what I mean when I say Christ is received by faith is that He is received only by understanding and imagination. For the promises offer Him, not for us to halt in the appearance and bare knowledge alone, but to enjoy true participation in Him. And indeed, I do not see how anyone can trust that he has redemption and righteousness in the cross of Christ, and life in His death, unless he relies chiefly upon a true participation in Christ Himself. For those benefits would not come to us unless Christ first made Himself ours.

I say, therefore, that in the mystery of the Supper, Christ is truly shown to us through the symbols of bread and wine, His very body and blood, in which He has fulfilled all obedience to obtain righteousness for us. Why? First, that we may grow into one body with Him; secondly, having been made partakers of His substance, that we may also feel His power in partaking of all His benefits.

 or, prefer: Henry Beveridge’s translation