75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?
Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ (Heidelberg Catechism).
In part 2 we considered the Zwinglian view of the Supper and why it is unsatisfactory and how it contributes to a reluctance to observe the Supper more frequently. There is an alternative.1 Calvin criticized the view of those whom he described as “fanatics,” who refuse to to use God’s ordinary methods. It is non-Christian pride, not Christian humility, to despise divinely ordained means of Christian growth in grace.
It not that Calvin thought that we should love the sacraments in themselves. Rather, the sacrament of the Supper is valuable because it is an “appendix” to the preaching of God’s Word that confirms and seals (obsignet) it to the elect. Though we ought to believe the Word by itself, and it is certainly true as it stands, nevertheless the sacraments are God’s kind “gifts” (dotes) to strengthen our trust in the Word. The Christ of the Supper is the same Christ offered to us in the gospel word. Since it was not meant to be a mute witness by itself, the Supper therefore can be effective only in the context of gospel preaching.
At the heart of Calvin’s view is that the Eucharist is a supper, and even more intimately, a family meal.Scripture calls it a supper because it was given to nourish us and feed us. He called it a “spiritual feast” (spirituale epulum), a “high mystery,” and “this mystical blessing” (mystica haec benedictio) of which Satan hopes to deprive us.
How does the Supper feed us? In several ways. First, as a visible representation of the Gospel it symbolizes for us the “invisible nourishment” we receive from Christ’s flesh and blood. Just as it is Christ who is preached to us in the Gospel, so it is Christ we eat in the Supper. Not that the elements are transformed; no, they remain bread and wine. Christ, however, uses the elements to share Himself with us by the power of His deity. He is the “only food of our soul.”
We are fed by the Supper as Christ uses it to strengthen His spiritual union with us. Just as water pours from a spring, so “Christ’s flesh is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain.” Though we confess that, with respect to Christ’s humanity, he “ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God,” nevertheless God the Spirit overcomes the spatiotemporal distance between us and the risen Christ and unites us to Him For this reason, one does not need to think of Christ as being physically present in the elements of the table. His flesh is present by the “secret operation of the Spirit drawing us up to Himself, not bringing Christ down to us.” It is not necessary “to drag Him from heaven” for us to enjoy Him.
We eat because God has entered into a covenant with us to be our God, and He has given signs and seals to this covenant union. Thus when He calls us to the Lord’s Table, “as often as He pours out His sacred blood as our drink,” it is for the “confirmation of our faith” in which “He renews or continues the covenant once ratified in His blood.” So the Supper does not initiate faith in us; that is the function of the Spirit working through the preached Gospel. As we “constantly” eat this bread (by trusting in Christ’s imputed righteousness), so in the Supper “we are made to feel the power of the bread.”There is more to union with Christ than “mere knowledge” (simplex cognitio). Christ meant to teach something more “sublime” in John 6:53. Just as it is not “seeing” (aspectus) the bread, but “eating” (esus) it that feeds the body, it is not the mere intellectual apprehension of Christ that is saving faith, but “the soul must partake of Christ truly and deeply,” entering into His promises.
The prime benefit of this mystical Supper with earthy elements is that by it the Holy Spirit works assurance of our faith. Christ is the object of our faith. His promises are the sure foundation of our confidence. As we eat it, Christ again says to us, “You are Mine.“ As we hear the promises set before us weekly in the preaching of the Gospel, so we also see them in the Supper. In this way “pious souls”can derive “great confidence and delight from the sacrament.“ Calvin spoke thus because he believed that in the Supper Christians have real fellowship with Christ, who is truly present with them. Christ has not abandoned us. In the Supper we receive the “true body and the blood of Christ.“
In Belgic Confession art. 35, as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this way of thinking about the Supper is reflected:
Now it is certain that Jesus Christ did not prescribe his sacraments for us in vain, since he works in us all he represents by these holy signs, although the manner in which he does it goes beyond our understanding and is incomprehensible to us, just as the operation of God’s Spirit is 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.
In that way Jesus Christ remains always seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven—but he never refrains on that account to communicate himself to us through faith. This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates himself to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy himself as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood.
We confess that the Supper is not empty (vain). Surely in it we remember but the Supper is more than a memory. In it Christ feeds us with his “proper and natural” body and his “proper blood.” I doubt that the categories of “high” and “low” are very useful for understanding the Supper. For one thing they are subjective and assume that transubstantiation is at the top of the scale and the Zwinglian view is at the bottom. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that the Reformed have an exalted view of the Supper. We confess that Christ feeds us with himself, not with memories. We confess that, in the Supper, we have a real communion with his true body. How could the churches be any clearer than “natural” and “proper”? The natural body is the body that he presently has. It is glorified but it is nature glorified. The body in which he lived, in which he died, and in which he lives now is his natural body. “Proper” means “that which belongs to” something or someone. In other words, when we eat the Supper in faith, when we commune together with Christ, he feeds us by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit on his true, natural, proper humanity.
Our Lord Jesus shocked his hearers when he said:
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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (John 6:53–56; ESV).
There are two edges to these words. Christ cannot be ignored. To refuse to eat his flesh is death. To eat his flesh and to drink his blood is true food and drink, true communion, and eternal life. Radbertus and Rome (see part 1 of this series) attempted to turn the sacrament into the thing signified (Christ), thus destroying the sacrament. The Zwinglians reduced Christ’s feast to a funeral. The Reformed Churches, however, receive the Supper as sign and seal of the gospel and of the covenant of grace, as a true fellowship with the risen Christ, as a true, mysterious and wonderful feast. It is not that we have climbed into heaven but that Christ has come down out of heaven, as it were, and taken us to himself. It is he who feeds us and not we ourselves. As surely as we eat bread and wine, as surely as we receive them from the hand of the minister, so sure is Christ’s promise that we believers belong to him and he to us.
1. This section is taken from “The Evangelical Fall From the Means of Grace.” The sources for the quotations are in the endnotes there.