SIGNIFICANCE OF THE LORD’S SUPPER


What is the purpose of the Lord’s Supper? I believe when we are asked this question, most of us will answer with a one-liner: “To remember the Lord’s death.” This answer is not wrong (see 1 Cor 11:25–26). However, if this is all there is to the Lord’s Supper, then why does the Apostle Paul warns us: “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor 11:29)? This warning suggests that there is more to the Lord’s Supper; and it was the reason why the Reformed Church has generally rejected the purely memorial view of the Lord’s Supper, which Zwingli and the Anabaptists taught (see PCC Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 12; dated 19 September 1999).

Indeed, further studies and reasoning on the Scriptures by the Reformers have unfolded a theology of the Lord’s Supper, which indicates that there is much more in it than mere remembrance.

Reformed Consensus


The Belgic Confession, which was first composed in 1561, and after careful revision, adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1618, has this to say concerning the Lord’s Supper in Article 35, entitled “The Holy Supper of Our Lord Jesus Christ”:

We believe and confess, that our Saviour Jesus Christ did ordain and institute the sacrament of the holy supper, to nourish and support those whom He has already regenerated, and incorporated into His family, which is His Church.


Now those, who are regenerated, have in them a twofold life, the one corporal and temporal, which they have from the first birth and is common to all men; the other, spiritual and heavenly, which is given them in their second birth, which is effected by the Word of the gospel, in the communion of the body of Christ; and this life is not common, but is peculiar to God’s elect. In like manner God has given us, for the support of the bodily and earthly life, earthly and common bread, which is subservient thereto, and is common to all men, even as life itself. But for the support of the spiritual and heavenly life, which believers have, He has sent a living bread, which descended from heaven, namely, 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.


In order that He might represent unto us this spiritual and heavenly bread, Christ has instituted an earthly and visible bread as a sacrament of His body, and wine as a sacrament of His blood, to testify by them unto us that, as certainly as we receive and hold this sacrament in our hands, and eat and drink the same with our mouths, by which our life is afterwards nourished, 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 Saviour in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life.


Now, as it is certain and beyond all doubt that Jesus Christ has not enjoined to us the use of His sacraments in vain, so He works in us all that He represents to us by these holy signs, though the manner surpasses our understanding and cannot be comprehended by us, as the operations of the Holy Spirit are hidden and incomprehensible. In the meantime we err not, when we say, that 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. Thus, then, though Christ always sits at the right hand of His Father in the heavens, yet does He not therefore cease to make us partakers of Himself by faith. This feast is a spiritual table, at which Christ communicates Himself with all His benefits to us, and gives us there to enjoy both Himself, and the merits of His sufferings and death: nourishing, strengthening, and comforting our poor comfortless souls by the eating of His flesh, quickening and refreshing them by the drinking of His blood.… (italics mine).


The Westminster Confession of Faith, of 1648, is in essential agreement with this statement. But it states the significance of the Lord’s Supper more succinctly and more definitively in article 29.1:

Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein He was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of His body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in His Church unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body.


The Baptist Confession of Faith (BCF) of 1689, which is still being used by many Reformed Baptist churches, states in article 30.1:

The Supper of the Lord Jesus was instituted by Him the same night on which He was betrayed to be observed in His churches until the end of the world for the perpetual remembrance, and showing forth of the sacrifice of Himself in His death. It was also instituted by Christ to confirm believers in all the benefits of His death; for their spiritual nourishment and growth in Him; for their further engagement in and commitment to all the duties which they owe to Him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with Him and with their fellow believers.

 

Biblical Proofs

Despite the past consensus, there have arisen in recent times individuals in fundamental churches, who have been taught to reject anything but clear biblical statements, who have begun to question the validity of the formerly accepted doctrine. I am made aware of the vexation these individuals feel whenever they attend a Lord’s Supper service where anything more than “remembering the Lord’s Death” is mentioned as the purpose of the Supper. These individuals have objected to the statement in our Confession because they see no biblical basis for them, and therefore conclude that those statements are extra-biblical and therefore wrong.

What should our response be to such objections? In the first place, I believe, we should not discourage this spirit of inquiry, as we should indeed base all our practices and doctrine on the Scriptures alone; and if it can be proven that any of the statements in our Confession is found to be contrary to Scripture or having no biblical basis, then we should reject those statements. And therefore it is necessary for us to prove the biblical basis of our confessional doctrines, whenever we are called to do so. Nevertheless, in the second place, we must be careful not to cultivate any attitude of conceit or arrogance by which we regard ourselves to know the Scriptures better than the framers of our Confession, or to be more pure in our biblical knowledge. This balance is often not easy to achieve, but I believe it is not impossible if we all approach Scripture and the accepted doctrine of the church with an attitude of meekness and a desire to learn rather than to condemn.

With this in mind, let me take this opportunity to explain the fivefold purpose of the Lord’s Supper, according to WCF 29.1. The astute member of the congregation will realise that these purposes are repeated almost word for word as words of introduction at our Lord’s Supper services.

Signifying Christ’s Propitiatory Death

The Lord’s Supper was instituted by our Lord Jesus in the night wherein He was betrayed. The first and undisputed reason for this sacrament is “the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in His death.”


The Lord Jesus died on the cross of Calvary as a propitiatory sacrifice for His Church (Isa 53:5, 11; Rom 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2; etc.). He died, in other words, to pay for the penalty due to our sins, to satisfy God’s righteous wrath, that we might be reconciled to Him. The death of Christ is, therefore, of central importance to the worship and existence of the Christian Church. Thus, very appropriately, just before the Lord went to the cross, He instituted the Lord’s Supper, so that the Church may be solemnly and dramatically reminded of His death through the ordinance.

Each time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, therefore, we are to do so in remembrance of Christ (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24–25). To facilitate this purpose, the Lord Supper is particularly designed as a sign or, if you like, a divinely sanctioned drama to “shew the Lord’s death till He come” (1 Cor 11:26). The sacramental action of breaking the bread, together with the words of the institution: “broken for you” (1 Cor 11:24; cf. Mt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19) and “shed for you” (Lk 22:20; cf. Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24) should bring to our minds, very vividly, the fact that Christ died as a substitutionary atonement for us.

Sealing of all Benefits of Christ’s Death

The second purpose of the Lord’s Supper given in our Confession is: “[For] the sealing all benefits [of Christ’s death] unto true believers.” A seal authenticates, ratifies, attests, confirms or certifies something to be real. When we say that the Lord’s Supper seals the benefits of Christ’s death unto the true believers, we are saying that it not only points to but affirms the genuineness of the application of the benefits of redemption on the participants. More particularly, the Lord’s Supper seals the benefits related to sanctification or our spiritual growth, whereas baptism seals our regeneration and justification. These benefits were purchased by the Lord’s death (Rom 5:6, 11, 12, 21; 1 Cor 1:30; Eph 3:6; etc.).


What is the biblical basis for saying that the Lord’s Supper seals anything at all? There is admittedly, no direct statement teaching this, but I believe the inference from the Scripture on this doctrine is unmistakable. In the first place, consider how the LORD identified circumcision with His covenant when He said to Abraham:

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you (Gen 17:10–11).


In a certain sense then, circumcision is a sign (representation) and seal of God’s covenant with Abraham. This covenant which God made with Abraham was none other than a manifestation of the Covenant of Grace (Gal 3:16), which implies that circumcision does not only seal any promise concerning the land, but seals the benefits which would flow from the redemptive work of Christ in fulfilment of the Covenant of Grace. The Apostle Paul was referring to this fact in Romans 4:11:

And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.


Now, secondly, consider the fact that the Lord identified the Lord’s Supper with the New Covenant. He says: “This cup is the new testament in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25; Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20). The word rendered “testament” (Grk.diathêkê) can equally be rendered “covenant.” This identification of a sign with the covenant of both circumcision and the Lord’s Supper suggests that they are of the same category of ordinances, namely sacraments. This implies that if circumcision is a seal of the righteousness of faith (i.e., justification), which is a benefit of the Covenant of Grace, then we may say the same of the Lord’s Supper, namely, that it is a seal of the benefits of Christ’s death or of the Covenant of Grace.


The question may be asked: but what is the use of a seal, seeing that there is no way for us to ascertain if a partaker really receives anything since we cannot see if he is a true believer or is receiving by faith? We reply that it is a seal not for the beholder but only for the partaker, who himself has the assurance that he is a true believer. The true believer ought to be assured of his faith, and when he is given the privilege of partaking of the Lord’s Supper by the providence of God, he may view it as a seal that the Spirit of Christ is applying the benefits of redemption unto him. This is one of the reasons the Apostle Paul enjoins self-examination before we partake of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:28).

But the Lord’s Supper is more than a seal.

Applying Spiritual Nourishment and Growth

It is a means of grace for the “spiritual nourishment and growth” of worthy receivers as they are, by faith, made partakers of His body and blood. WSC 92 makes it clear that the Westminster Assembly viewed the sacraments as more than mere signs and seals: “A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (italics mine).


But how do we prove from the Scripture that this is the case? Well, in the first place, the Apostle Paul teaches us: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). The word rendered “communion” (Grk. koinônia) refers to intimate participation and fellowship. From what Paul says, it is most natural to understand him as meaning that there is a spiritual mystical element involved in the Lord’s Supper. This must be the reason why Paul adds that unworthy partaking of the Lord’s Supper will have effect on our well-being:

For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep (1 Cor 11:29–30).


In the second place, when we eat the bread and drink of the cup, we should also be reminded of the Lord’s words: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). It is often said that the Lord could not be directly referring to the Lord’s Supper when He said those words, since it was only a year later that He instituted the Sacrament. However, the close parallel between what the Lord said and the sacrament He instituted is undeniable. Could it be that He intended the Lord’s Supper to be a dramatic sermon of what he said in John 6? Or, could it be that one of the purposes of the Lord’s Supper is also to facilitate what He taught in John 6? It may be objected to the second view, that since the Lord intimates that anyone, who does not eat of His flesh and drink of His blood, has no life in Him, that taking a sacramental view would mean that all who have not partaken of the Lord’s Supper (e.g., infants and children) will have no life. Not withstanding the superstitions of Rome, can we not understand the Lord’s statement in the same way as we understand the importance of baptism, that “although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it” (WCF 28.5)? This ought to be a strong warning for any covenant child baptised as infants, who have grown of age, but refuse to believe and to seek admission to the Lord’s Table by confirmation of faith.


There is, in other words, very good scriptural grounds for us to hold that, by the effectual operation of the Holy Spirit, we actually become partakers of the body and blood of Christ for our spiritual nourishment and growth.


Despite some ambiguity relating to his proofs, we can agree, in the main, with Theodore Beza, the colleague and successor of John Calvin, who wrote in 1558:

As, by a natural process, we take, eat and drink the natural signs which, by the digestion which is made, is transformed into our substance: so by a spiritual and heavenly process, Jesus Christ Himself, who, according to the flesh, is now in Heaven and nowhere else (Acts 1:11; 3:20–21), is communicated to us in all truth, so that we may be flesh of His flesh (1 Cor 10:16; Eph 5:30) and bone of His bone; that is to say, so that being united to Christ (Jn 17:21), and engrafted into His Body by faith (Col 2:7), we draw thence life eternal; and also, so that in this world we may be so sanctified that His spirit governs our bodies and souls to free us and consecrate our entire life to His service (Rom 8:11–14)… (The Christian Faith, trans. By James Clark [Christian Focus, 1992], 66).

Further Engagement in and to Duties Owed

The fourth purpose for the Lord’s Supper, given in our Confession, is: “[our] further engagement in and to all duties which [we] owe unto Him.” This is clearly a development of the third purpose, but it is worth a quick look.


We do not have a direct scriptural statement to substantiate this purpose, but again we can infer both from experience and from the scriptural duties, pertaining to the Lord’s Supper, that are required of us. In the first place, by the fact that we are spiritually nourished, we are strengthened and enabled to do what duties are required of us (Eph 3:16; Phil 4:13). In the second place, the call to self-examination before partaking the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:28) would imply also repentance and resolutions to make good what duties we owe the Lord. In the third place, as we are reminded of the Lord’s death for us on the cross to redeem us, would not every worthy receiver be filled once again with gratitude to the Lord that we seek to glorify God with our bodies and in our spirit (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; 1 Pet 1:18–22).

Bond and Pledge of Spiritual Communion

Finally, the Lord’s Supper serves as “a bond and pledge of [our] communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body.”


bond is something shared by two or more parties, which symbolises their union. As such, the Lord’s Supper symbolises the union of believers with Christ and with one another. In the first place, since the Lord’s Supper is the communion of the blood and body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16), it is naturally a bond of our communion with Him. In the second place, as members of the same mystical body of Jesus Christ, our eating of the same bread and drinking of the same cup do symbolise our communion with each other. Paul puts it this way: “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). It is also for this significance of the Lord’s Supper that Paul chided the Corinthian church for divisions in the church, which became manifested when they gathered for the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17–22).


We may add also the interesting, albeit speculative, insight of Theodore Beza:

The correspondence of the things signified with the signs is very evident. The fact that one loaf is made from many grains gathered and united into one loaf, and that, in the same way, the wine is made from many grapes, well represents to us the union which we have with Jesus Christ and the mutual love of all believers as members of the same body (ibid.)


pledge is a token, which points to a promise. As such, it gives the believing partakers the personal assurance that all the promises of the Covenant and all the riches of Christ are in their actual possession. In this sense the Lord’s Supper, as pledge, is not very different from its being a seal. But reciprocally, the Lord’s Supper serves as a badge of profession on the part of those who partake the sacrament. Whenever we eat the bread or drink the wine, we profess our faith in Christ as our Saviour and pledge our allegiance to Him as our King by resolving to obey all His commandments. At the same time, we pledge our commitment to those who are partaking of the same table with us, to participate in their lives by “maintain[ing] an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, [by] performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; [and by] relieving each other in outward things, according to [our] several abilities and necessities” (WCF 26.2). It is partly because of this significance of eating together that Paul exhorts that we should not eat with anyone who claims to be a Christian but is living in sin (1 Cor 5:11–12). Some believe that Paul is speaking about having private meals together. But if that is so, how much more we should not be found at the same table at a sacramental meal together.

Conclusion

We have shown that the WCF (and the BCF) is right in asserting that the Lord’s Supper is not purely commemorative so that the only purpose is to remember the death of the Lord. Rather, the Lord’s Supper has a rich fivefold significance of signifying, sealing, applying, engaging, and bonding. May the Lord grant that, when we gather for the Lord’s Supper, we henceforth do eat and drink in faith and understanding for the benefits of our souls and the glory of Christ who instituted the Supper to be observed by His Church.