Heidelberg 79: A Metaphor Is No Joke

Open Quote 5 lines79. 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.

Here are the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  1. I follow all your comments on the LORD´S SUPPER and I must acknowledge that i haven´t known about the true reformed view on the supper until I have started reading you

  2. Thanks, Scott.
    Your teachings are very helpful. This one especially so as there is nothing more confusing and controversial than the meaning of the Supper. Cranmer (with the help of Bucer and Vermigli) came up with these concise words below (found in the 1662 BCP, a combination of the 1549 and 1552 phrases). I think the Church of England got it right to combine them. To hear them upon eating and drinking is to hear the gospel and make the connection between the sign and the thing signified. In our OPC congregation our minister uses these words every Lord’s Day:

    THE Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

    THE Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.

  3. If the Reformed view is that we truly partake of Christ in a spiritual sense (as Christ is present in a real spiritual way), thru faith; as opposed to the strictly memorialist view, or the Catholic (and confused Lutheran) view of a real physical presence, why are there those in the Reformed world that insist on paedocommunion? How can a child who has not yet expressed faith gain anything from the supper if the benefits are only received thru faith? Or, how can they receive real spiritual nourishment if they haven’t yet been born from above (John 3)? How can the spiritually dead be nourished? This has always puzzled me (not an honest debate about how young of a child can comprehend true faith and in what way, I’m referring to the “the only thing that should keep a child from the table is their ability to swallow solid food, why are we starving our children while we feast” crowd). What exactly is their logic? I’ve read some rather lengthy logically convoluted attempts at evading the warnings in Corinthians, but nothing that addresses what seems to me this more fundamental issue. At least the baptismal regeneration types are logically consistent as paedocommunion follows, but what of those who claim not to believe in baptismal regeneration? Am I missing something here?

  4. Could you enlighten me about the difference between the reformed and the lutheran’s confessions about communion?
    I was once told that reformed believe in the presence of Christ’s spirit, whereas lutherans believe in the whole presence of Christ(body and spirit). I’s like to know if there is any truth on that.

    • Gabriel,

      In a word, no. You’ve been misinformed. Belgic Confession art. 35 (an unquestionably Reformed confession) says,

      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.

      Heidelberg (a Reformed catechism) 75 says:

      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.

      Here is an explanation of this Q/A:


      In general Lutheran sources are not always the best way to find out what the Reformed churches actually confess. This is not because Lutherans are ontologically incapable of telling the truth about the Reformed view but because they don’t believe us when we say that, in the supper, believers in the true, proper, natural body and blood by the operation of the Holy Spirit. In my experience, Lutherans tend to set up a test that says: there is only one way to be fed by Christ’s body and blood (in, with, and under). Anyone, such as the Reformed churches, who offers a different explanation of how we are fed is rejected.

      Yes, we believe that the Holy Spirit does operate through the Supper to feed believers on Christ’s body and blood but we do not confess that we are eating (were such a thing possible) the Spirit or a spirit. No, we are being fed by Christ.

      Here are some related posts that might help:


      On paedocommunion, the Reformed churches do not confess it and have rejected it. There are some who self-identify as Reformed but the Reformed faith is not defined by private persons nor by self-identification but by the Scriptures as confessed by the Reformed churches. On this see Recovering the Reformed Confession.

      Here are some resources on paedocommunion:


      You are quite right, the warning in 1 Corinthians forbids paedocommunion.

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