79. Why then does Christ call the bread His body, and the cup His blood, or the New Testament in His blood, and St. Paul, the communion of the body and the blood of Christ?
Christ speaks thus not without great cause, namely, not only to teach us thereby, that like as the bread and wine sustain this temporal life, so also His crucified body and shed blood are the true meat and drink of our souls unto life eternal; but much more, by this visible sign and pledge to assure us, that we are as really partakers of His true body and blood by the working of the Holy Spirit , as we receive by the mouth of the body these holy tokens in remembrance of Him; and that all His sufferings and obedience are as certainly our own, as if we ourselves had suffered and done all in our own person.
There is a great temptation to treat metaphorical speech as if it were less important than literal. Thus, lately, people have taken to abusing the adverb literally in order to emphasize what they’re trying to say. “Dude, the waves were literally 10 feet high.” They probably weren’t literally 10 feet high but he uses the adverb for emphasis because of its power. Literally connotes “true” or “concrete” whereas we might suspect that metaphorical speech is less true. That would be a mistake. Metaphors contain and communicate powerful truths.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! (Matt 23:37; ESV)
Our Lord used a simile, signaled in English with word as. From a purely literary perspective, would this passage have as affecting, as informative of our Lord’s attitude toward the lost and his sense of mission had he expressed it more straightforwardly? Perhaps not. The simple imagery is powerful and compelling. That’s what well-chosen metaphors do: they communicate important truths powerfully.
The same is true of the discourse around the institution of Lord’s Supper. One basic question is here is this: what’s the point of using a metaphor? The answer is that our Lord, followed by the Apostle Paul, speaks metaphorically to great effect. As he sustains us physically by bread and wine, he also sustains us by his body and blood. To insist that the only way one can be fed on the body and blood of Christ is either by transubstantiation (see the post on HC 78) or by locating the body and blood “in, with, and under” the elements is rationalism—to decide what must be the case ahead of time and then insist on it despite the evidence. There is abundant evidence that our Lord wanted us to think that, in the Supper, by faith, believers are fed by his body and blood. He did not explain how that happens. There is no evidence that our Lord intended us to think that the elements are transformed or that otherwise locally present.
We are meant to understand that, in the Supper, by faith, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, we are “really partakers” of Christ. This is why we should understand and believe in a real communion in the true body and blood of Christ. There is a strong correlation between eating the elements with the mouth and receiving Christ by faith. That’s the force of the phrase “just as.” When we eat bread we are not ordinarily in doubt as to whether we have eaten. We remember the sensation of eating, tasting, and swallowing. We have a sensation of being full, of being satisfied. So too it is with the Supper. It does not fill our bellies but the Spirit does use it to work in us, to strengthen us, to nourish us, and to encourage us in faith. According to the promise of the Supper, we are as surely fed the one as by the other.
I keep saying faith because what the Lord’s Supper offers us is the very same Christ, the very same favor (sola gratia), the very same benefits offered to us in the preached gospel: “all His sufferings and obedience are as certainly our own, as if we ourselves had suffered and done all in our own person.” This is virtually the same language used in HC 60. It is the “as if” principle: as if we had ourselves done all that Christ has done for us. When we receive the Supper in faith, we receive a visible, tangible, experience of what is promised in the gospel preached. Each time we eat the Supper in faith it is a little catechism
Q: Who receives Christ and his benefits?
A: Those who believe.
Q: Do I believe?
Q: Are you therefore receiving Christ and his benefits?
A: Yes, through faith alone.
The Supper is not Christ but it is a gospel sacrament of Christ. There is a sacramental union between the sign (the bread and wine) and the thing signified, Christ and salvation. For those who believe, it is as if they were one and the same. To those who believe (sola fide), to receive the one is to receive the other.
The relation between the sign (the Supper) and the thing signified (Christ and salvation) is as close as possible but the sign is not the thing, or else, as I keep saying, it would not longer be a sign. So the question is: of what value are signs? The answer is: much in every way. Of what value is the Word of God? It is, after all, a sign that the Spirit uses. This gets us back to metaphors. Our Lord compared himself to a hen to help us understand his attitude toward sinners. God sees fit to stoop to us and to use signs, like bread and wine, to help us on our journey. We should receive those signs and all that they communicate (Christ and his benefits) with thanks and joy because what they communicate and the communion that they seal to believers is glorious indeed.