For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, 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.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)
The Lord’s Supper is one of two sacraments, the other being baptism, ordained by Jesus. Baptism is observed only once by each Christian, as a sign of beginning his or her Christian life. The Lord’s Supper is observed repeatedly throughout our Christian life, as a sign of our continuing in fellowship with Christ. As observed in the quotation with which I opened this post, Jesus instituted it on the night of his betrayal. Although it has counterparts in other religious traditions, such as the sacrificial meals described in the Old Testament, it goes far beyond them in meaning and importance.
For the past week my family and I have been reading about the Lord’s Supper in our after-breakfast Bible reading, our reading Chapter 50, “The Lord’s Supper,” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). Here I’ll share some of what we read, occasionally referring to other systematic theology books that I consulted in preparing for our family reading. I’ll summarize the major views of it, share what Grudem says about its meaning, and consider some questions about how it should be observed.
Major Views of the Lord’s Supper
Roman Catholics believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ when the priest says “This is my body” during Mass (their name for the Lord’s Supper), a view called transubstantiation. They believe that when this happens Christ’s sacrifice is repeated and that grace is imparted to those present. The view fails to recognize the symbolic nature of Jesus’ statements, which his disciples would have understood because of seeing him before them when he made the statements, and the finality and completeness of his sacrifice.
Although Lutherans don’t believe that the bread and actually become the body and blood of Christ, they believe that his physical body and blood are present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. This view is called consubstantiation. Like transubstantiation it fails to recognize the symbolic nature of Jesus’ statements.
Other Protestants don’t believe that the bread and wine change into or somehow contain the body and blood of Christ. Instead they believe that the blood and the wine symbolize his body and blood. Many of them believe that Christ is also spiritually present in a special way. Thus Grudem says, “Certainly there is a symbolic presence of Christ, but it is also a genuine spiritual presence and there is a genuine spiritual blessing in this ceremony” (page 996). The belief that Christ is symbolically present is generally associated with Zwingli, and the belief that he is also spiritually present is generally associated with Calvin (both were leading Reformers).
Besides the discussion of these views in various systematic theology textbooks, I found helpful in understanding them the chapter on the Lord’s Supper in Gregg R. Allison’s Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011, pages 635-58).
The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper
Grudem identifies and comments on these things symbolized by the Lord’s Supper:
1. Christ’s death. “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).
2. The benefits of Christ’s death. “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).
3. Spiritual nourishment. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
4. The unity of believers. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
He also identifies and comments on these things affirmed in the Lord’s Supper:
5. Christ affirms his love for me.
6. Christ affirms that all the blessings of salvation are reserved for me.
7. I affirm my faith in Christ.
Louis Berkhof terms #’s 1-4 “things signified” and #’s 5-7 “things sealed” (Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1939, pages 650-51).
How the Lord’s Supper Should Be Observed
Who should participate in the Lord’s Supper? Protestants generally agree that only those who believe in Christ should participate in the Lord’s Supper because it is a sign of being a Christian. Many also argue from the meanings of baptism and the Lord’s Supper that only those who are baptized or who plan to be baptized should participate in the Lord’s Supper, and some churches restrict participation in the Lord’s Supper to their own members and/or specify a minimum age for participating in the Lord’s Supper. The Pentecostal church which I attend practises what is called “open Communion” (Communion is another name for the Lord’s Supper), which means that all believers present are invited to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
Still on the same question, Paul told the Corinthians that people should examine their behaviour before participating in the Lord’s Supper–“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). A. H. Strong suggests these as reasons to bar a person from the Lord’s Supper: immoral conduct, disobedience to the commands of Christ, heresy, and schism (Systematic Theology, Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1907, pages 973-75).
Who should administer the Lord’s Supper? Ordinarily the pastor or other leader who officiates at a church’s worship service should officiate at the Lord’s Supper too. However there doesn’t seem to be any reason why only leaders should distribute the elements. Thus the Pentecostal church which I attend invites different members of its congregation to share in distributing the elements.
What elements should be used in the Lord’s Supper? In the original Lord’s Supper a single loaf of unleavened bread and a single cup of wine were used. However often substitutes are used that retain the symbolism. For example, the Pentecostal churches which I attend uses wafers and small glasses of grape juice.
How often should the Lord’s Supper be celebrated? Throughout much of church history most of the church has celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week. However since the Reformation many Protestant groups have celebrated it less often. For example, the Pentecostal church which I attend celebrates it once a month.