The Lord's Supper: An Overview

"Given for you" - Luke 22:19

The Lord’s Supper is an essential part of our worship. Along with baptism, prayer, and the word of God read and preached, communion is a primary means of grace. The means of grace are things which God has appointed, in his word, for the spiritual health and growth of his people.

As a divinely appointed means of grace, the Supper is more than a symbolic meal. By the ministry of the Holy Spirit working through faith, communion is a means where we commune with Christ and he strengthens and nourishes our faith. This post briefly explains our understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22:19)

Dimensions of the Lord’s Supper

A sacrament.  Sacraments are signs and seals of God’s promises (Rom 4:11). As signs, sacraments point to God’s promises; as seals, sacraments confirm God’s promises.

Throughout Scripture God gives his people promises and confirms them with signs (Gen 17:9-14; Exo 12:1-14; Mt 28:18-20; Lk 22:15-21). As signs, sacraments picture God’s gracious promises; as seals they confirm those promises to God’s people. Therefore, the Lord’s Supper visually represents the heart of the gospel – Christ dying for our sins, and it assures us of the love and grace of God revealed at the cross.

A memorial meal. The Lord’s Supper is a public remembrance of God’s mighty act of redemption (1 Cor 11:24). It reminds us of Christ’s atoning death as believers express their faith by partaking of the elements. As we remember the gospel made visible, faith is stirred, hope is strengthened, and our love for God and his people is exercised.

A communion meal. At the Table, the spiritual union of believers with Christ and fellow believers is expressed and experienced. We commune with Christ and our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Supper is a meal where we share fellowship with our Savior and the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16-18).

The truth of communion is important for our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. The meal is not a bare remembrance of an absent Christ. Christ is not physically present with us at the Lord’s Supper, but he is truly present by the Holy Spirit, otherwise it would not be a communion meal. By the ministry of the Holy Spirit we truly commune with Christ at the Table. We are fed and nourished by him through faith (1 Cor 10:16). And as we do this together, we manifest our unity while we partake of the one bread (1 Cor 10:17).

A covenantal meal. God’s people are in covenant with the Lord. The goal of the covenant relationship is communion with God (Gen 17:2). The Lord’s Supper is a sign of the covenant (Lk 22:20). A covenantal understanding of the Lord’s Supper implies that it is an expression of the bond we have with God and his people. It is a meal in which we experience God’s love and favor, and we express our love to God as we devote ourselves afresh to walking before him in obedience. 

In corporate worship, and particularly during the Lord’s Supper, the covenantal relationship is renewed, sustained, and strengthened. In the Supper, God ratifies his promise to redeem his people through the cross of Christ, and our faith is sustained and nurtured as we promise commitment to Christ whom we trust (Mk 14:24).

A proclamatory meal. The Lord’s Supper preaches. It is “the word of God made visible.” When we eat the bread and drink the cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26). By partaking of the bread and drinking of the cup, we witness to God’s saving mercy in Christ. We tell the old, old story of what God has done to rescue and redeem his people.

This proclamation not only strengthens the faith of the faithful; it calls for the faith of the doubtful. This is a neglected but important aspect of the Lord’s Supper – it is evangelistic because it visibly proclaims the gospel of God. As the elements pass by unbelievers, they are not only hearing but seeing that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53).

A heavenly meal. The Supper anticipates a final heavenly banquet. The tension between the now and not yet of the Christian life is expressed. While on earth, we fellowship with Christ in heaven, and we look forward to the celebration of the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. Therefore, the Supper functions as a sign and foretaste of our victory over death and being raised with Christ in glory. As Jesus promised, one day we will eat and drink with him in his Father’s kingdom (Mt. 26:29).

 “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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?” (1 Corinthians 10:16-18)

Christ’s Presence at the Lord’s Supper

The question of the nature of Christ’s presence in communion has been a source of much debate. Here is a brief summary of four main views.

Transubstantiation. This is the Roman Catholic view. “This is my body” is taken literally. A miracle occurs when the priest pronounces the words of institution – the bread and wine, while remaining bread and wine in appearance, are substantially converted to be the body and blood of Christ.

There are two main problems with this view. First, there is no indication in Scripture that the elements are anything but bread and wine. When Jesus said “This is my body” he was standing right there (see also 1 Cor 11:26). The disciples would have understood Jesus’ language figuratively. Second, this view understands the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice. According to Rome, the sacrifice Christ offered on the cross and the sacrifice of Mass are one single sacrifice. The problem, however, is that Jesus established the Lord’s Supper as a meal, not a sacrifice. He didn’t say “Take and offer it,” he said “Take and eat.” Christ’s atoning sacrifice occurred on the cross. It is not a reoccurring event. It is finished. He offered up his body and bore our sins in his body on the tree “once for all” (Heb 10:10).

Consubstantiation. Like Catholicism, Lutherans believe that Christ is physically present in the sacrament. However, instead of the elements being transformed, Christ is physically present with the elements. The body and blood of Christ accompany the elements of bread and wine while they remain bread and wine. Partakers eat and drink the substance of the body and blood of Christ along with the substance of bread and wine.

The Lutheran view requires an unbiblical view of Christ’s human nature. If Christ is physically present with the elements, then Jesus is no longer truly human. For the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper to be true, Christ must be physically present in more than one place at one time. Lutherans argue this is possible because divine qualities have been communicated to Christ’s humanity. Christ is now able to be everywhere-present because his humanity has in some ways been divinized. But this confuses and mixes Christ’s divine and human natures. We confess that Christ is fully and truly both God and man – two natures united in one person without mixture, confusion, separation or division.

Symbolic Memorialism. In contrast to Catholic and Lutheran views, many Protestants hold to a memorialist view of the Supper. According to this view, the meal is purely symbolic. Faith in Christ is expressed as Christ’s death is remembered. It is not a means of grace; it is a memorial meal where we recall what Christ has done and express faith by eating and drinking. According to this view, Christ is not present. 

This view has trouble doing justice to 1 Corinthians 10 where Paul says that the cup is a participation in the blood of Christ and the bread a participation in the body of Christ (10:16).  Communion is a certainly a time for us to direct our thoughts to what Christ did for us, but it is also a time of real spiritual communion with Christ.

Real Spiritual Presence. By rejecting the Roman and Lutheran views, we deny that Christ is physically present during Communion. By rejecting the memorialist view, we deny that Christ is absent. So how should we understand the nature of Christ’s presence at the Lord’s Supper?

Reformed Christians affirm the real presence of Christ, but this presence is not physical; it’s spiritual. In other words, the Holy Spirit enables believers on earth to have real communion with Christ in heaven. We are drawn to Christ in his heavenly presence. At the Table, believers commune with the exalted Christ and are fed and nourished by him. Christ meets us in Communion and gives himself to us, nourishing our faith. The bread and wine remain bread and wine, but there is a real relation between the signs of bread and wine with the life-giving virtue of Christ’s body and blood when we eat and drink in faith (1 Corinthians 10:16; Westminster Confession of Faith 27.2).

A spiritual understanding of Christ’s presence avoids another error. Catholics and Lutherans affirm the objectivity of the sacrament – Christ is physically present in the elements objectively. Whoever partakes, even if it is without faith, feeds on Christ. The Reformed view is that Christ is present as the Holy Spirit works through faith. We feed on Christ spiritually – by the ministry of the Holy Spirit – when we eat and drink in faith. Without faith, we cannot understand the truth represented in the Supper, nor participate in its blessings. Because of the significance of what the bread and wine represent, to partake without faith is to eat and drink judgment on one’s self (1 Corinthians 11:29).

The spiritual presence of Christ is not an artificial presence. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a real communion meal. By the Spirit, Christ meets us as we eat and drink in faith.