Heidelberg Catechism 76: Embracing, Communing With, And United To Christ

Open Quote 5 lines76. What does it mean to eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ?

It means not only to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life eternal; but moreover also, to be so united more and more to His sacred body by the Holy Spirit, who dwells both in Christ and in us, that, although He is in heaven and we on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone, and live and are governed forever by one Spirit, as members of the same body are by one soul (Heidelberg Catechism).

One of the great tragedies of the debates about the nature of the sacraments is that they force us to look at the sacraments instead of looking at him whom they signify, Christ, and that which they promise: the gospel. Thus far we’ve spent a good bit of time doing what it is necessary to come to a clear understanding of what sacraments are, how they are that (sacraments) and not the thing signified but true and real signs and seals of the covenant of grace. The Supper is a real, mysterious, Holy Spiritual communion in the true body and blood of Christ. This is a glorious truth but in their nature the sacraments are meant to push us forward to Christ. This is not the counsel of Pietism and its Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. To look at Christ is not to marginalize the sacraments. The sacraments want us to look to Christ.

What is it to eat Christ’s true crucified body? It is to believe. The catechism is re-stating Augustine’s famous saying, “Why make ready teeth and stomach? Believe and you have already eaten” (Tractate 25). All believers eat Christ by faith but not all who receive communion receive Christ. This is why material cause of the Reformation was sola fide (by faith alone). Faith is the sole, unique instrument by which we receive Christ, through which we are united to Christ. It is through faith alone that we embrace Christ and his benefits (justification and sanctification). The Spirit operates powerfully through the gospel preached to create new life and faith (see Heidelberg 65). He operates powerfully, mysteriously through the Holy Supper to strengthen that union and communion.

Notice that we confess that it person of the Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ, who is heaven. In other words, it is not necessary that the substance of bread should be transformed (transubstantiation). It’s not necessary that Christ be locally present in, with, and under the elements of the Supper. By virtual of our union with him, through the Holy Spirit, we are with him and he with us. We have the most intimate and wonderful union and communion and it is progressive. Like a marriage (Ephesians 5:25, 30, 32). A husband and wife gradually become more and more united. So it is with Christ and his bride, the church. We are “flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.” We live by the Spirit. We walk by the Spirit. We are governed by the Holy Spirit operating through the Word.

This is sanctification: conformity to Christ and we are gradually being conformed to Christ, by the Spirit, through union and communion with Christ. To be sanctified is to be governed by the Spirit (as distinct from the sinful nature). Our union is so close that it is as if we all are members of the same body, governed by one soul. In other words we are being sanctified together, not in isolation from each other.

One of the great temptations of in the history of the church has been to withdraw from other Christians in pursuit of sanctity. The assumption has been that if we can just get away from the sins and corruption of others we can attain greater sanctity. History tells us, of course, that the project has been a failure. Wherever we go we take our sinful nature and corruption with us. This is one of the gospel mysteries of sanctification, that the Spirit operates in the visible church, through the preached gospel to bring us to life and faith and through the gospel made visible in the Supper to sanctify us and to improve our communion with Christ.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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