When we compare the Reformed and Lutheran view, we see there really is no disagreement about the reality of a communion with Christ. The difference is in the nature of that communion. For Lutherans, the communion happens by Christ coming down to earth and into the bread and wine. By contrast, the Reformed view is that our souls are in union with Christ by His Spirit, because His humanity remains at the right hand of the Father until His second coming. The ultimate purpose of the Lord’s Supper is that it unites us with the Lord.
How do Reformed Christians understand the Lord’s Supper? How is the Reformed understanding different from what Evangelicals and Lutherans believe? Do we believe in the true presence of Christ in the Supper? In this post, I will be drawing a great deal from the Reformed Confessions and John Calvin, as I seek to articulate the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper.
The First Lord’s Supper
“When [Jesus] had given thanks, he broke [the bread], and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
On the night Jesus was betrayed, he gathered with His disciples to celebrate the Jewish Passover. This was a sacrament of the Old Testament that celebrated Israel being saved from the angel of death and the tyranny of Egypt. Jesus took the Passover elements of bread and wine and instituted the Lord’s Supper. The original Passover found its ultimate fulfillment in the sacrifice of the lamb of God—Jesus Christ.
Why was the Lord’s Supper Instituted?
Why was the Lord’s Supper instituted? It was to “nourish and support those whom” God “has already regenerated and incorporated into His family, which is His Church.”
Just as God gives us natural food for our natural life, He also gives us spiritual food for our spiritual life. He “has sent a living bread, which descended from heaven…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” (Belgic Confession, Article 35).
Because we’re still frail and weak human beings, Jesus provided tangible earthly elements to teach and reassure us “that, as certainly as we receive and hold this sacrament in our hands and eat and drink the same with our mouths…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 Savior in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life” (Article 35).
The Real Presence of Christ
Unlike the majority of Evangelicals, Reformed Christians believe in the true presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. It’s more than a commemorative memorial meal. Paul says, “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? (1 Cor 10:16).
In a way, that’s mysterious; there’s a true communion with Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Herman Bavinck said, “The Lord’s Supper is above all a gift of God, not our memorial and confession. The Lord’s Supper signifies the mystical union of the believer with Jesus Christ.”
As Reformed Christians, we can even say that we feed on Christ in the Lord’s Supper, if we understand it like this: “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” (Belgic, Article 35).
Like Lutherans, Reformed Christians believe in the true and real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Calvin taught that “Nothing is more absurd than to call that a sacrament which is void and does not really present to us that which it signifies.” The question comes down to not IF Christ is present, but HOW He is.
While Martin Luther staunchly taught “is means IS,” the Reformed position is that “This is my body” should be taken in the same way Jesus said He is “the door,” or in the same way He is “the good shepherd” and “the vine.”