The Lord’s Supper Is Not Penance

In our course on the Reformed Confessions the end of the semester brings us near the end of the Belgic Confession, to article 35 on the Lord’s Supper. It is a marvelous confession of what God’s Word teaches us about the nature of the Holy Supper, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Every time I have the opportunity to walk through this article with the students it is always a wonder to me that so many Reformed folk are so resistant to more frequent communion. I am in good company. This was a source of great frustration to Calvin too, who made it clear that he regarded the Genevan practice as defective. He argued positively for weekly communion in Institutes 4.17.43–44. See also his comments, in 1561, (Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice, p. 96) indicating that even though they had improved the practice from three times a year to monthly, “I took care to have it recorded in the public records, however, that our way was wrong, so that correcting it might be easier for future generations.” His goal was always weekly communion.

I keep asking myself: why are so many Reformed folk so resistant to weekly communion? The reason the Genevans were reluctant is the same reason they refused to allow Calvin to pronounce the forgiveness of sins as part of the worship service: they feared that it would lead Geneva back to Rome. It is true Geneva had some reason to fear. In 1539 Cardinal Sadoleto had written a seductive letter that the Genevan authorities so feared might send the city back to Rome that they asked Calvin, whom they had just exiled, to write a response. For the record, despite the way that the Genevans had treated him he consented. His response to Sadoleto is considered one of the great defenses of the Protestant Reformation. There was external pressure from the House of Savoy to consider as well as those old-money Genevan families who never really embraced the Reformation. Is there any evidence that weekly communion leads Reformed congregations back to Rome? They observed weekly communion in Strasbourg while Calvin was there and Strasbourg did not return to Rome. I know of congregations who have practiced weekly communion for decades now and they are in no danger of returning to Rome. This objection seems to be a non-starter.

Another objection to weekly communion is that it will make the Supper less significant. In that case, if weekly communion makes the Supper less significant then, by all means, let us do away with weekly sermons. It will hardly do to do anything that would make the preaching of the Word less important. If quarterly communion is what is needed to keep the Supper in proper perspective then quarterly sermons are next.

I have long suspected, however, that the real grounds for objecting to weekly communion lie in a misunderstanding of the nature of the Supper. For many evangelical and Reformed Christians communion is considered exclusively as a memorial, as an opportunity to remember our sins and the suffering and death of Christ and to grieve for both. In short, for too many Reformed folk holy communion has become a funeral and the idea of a weekly funeral is too much to bear. When Christians, who think of the Supper this way, hear “weekly communion” what they think is, “a weekly funeral” and they shudder.

The Belgic Confession is a wonderful antidote to this way of thinking. The first thing we confess about the Lord’s Supper is that it is a supper: “We believe and confess
that our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper…”. The first thing we say is not “We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the holy funeral.” The principal function of the Supper is not grieving. It is appropriate to remember our sins and to repent of them, as we prepare for the Supper but the Supper is not chiefly a funeral. It is a meal.

An ordinary supper is a meal. It is a way that our bodies are nourished. We confess that like an ordinary (common) meal, the Holy Supper is a meal, a spiritual feast, instituted by Christ “to nourish and sustain those who are already born again and ingrafted into his family: his church.” Imagine that, for some reason, you ran out of food in your house and that all the stores were closed for two days so that you could not eat for two days. You would be quite weak and very hungry after two days. Imagine that your fast continues. Your body will begin to burn muscle to stay alive and then its fat reserves. After that, well, things become rather grim. If that is so, and it is, why do we think that we need only to be fed by the body and blood of Christ infrequently? This is just how we consider the matter in Belgic 34. We confess that we have a “twofold life” (duplex vita), because we live in a twofold kingdom: temporal and eternal. By the operation of the Holy Spirit, “through the word of the Gospel,” we are given a new, second, spiritual life. The chief purpose of the Holy Supper is “for the support of the spiritual and heavenly life which believers have…”.

Christ, of course is that heavenly bread, who feeds us with himself. This is one of the truths that I am confident most believers miss about the Lord’s Supper. They are so focused on grieving for their sins and remembering the death of Christ (αναμνήσεις), both of which are a legitimate part of the observance of the Supper, that the lose track of the fact that the Supper is not fundamentally about what we do in response to the Gospel, nor is it at all about our presenting ourselves to God on the basis of our preparation—that is a contradiction of the gospel—rather it is about Christ giving himself to us. The Supper is a gospel sacrament. It is good news for needy sinners.

It is Christ who feeds us by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. We confess that we “apply and receive him by faith, in the Spirit.” The bread and wine are sacraments (signs and seals) of Christ’s body and blood. The bread and wine feed our bodies but it is Christ’s body and blood that feeds our souls. Here is another neglected and wonderful truth of the Supper: Christ feeds us with himself. We confess, “as certainly as we receive and hold this sacrament in our hands, and eat and drink the same with our mouths,…we also do as certainly receive by faith (which the hand and mouth of our soul) the true body and blood of Christ, our only Savior in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life.” How the Spirit does this is a mystery but we are sure that he does. Our Lord Jesus said, “‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood'” (Luke 22:19–20). For most Christians, through most of church history, the debate has not been whether believers eat the body of Christ and drink his blood but how. The Roman doctrine of transubstantiation was not articulated until the 9th century. It did not become dogma in the Western church until the late 13th century. It is not the historic doctrine of the church. In the dispute between the Lutherans and the Reformed, both sides agree that believers are fed by Christ’s true body and blood. They disagree about how that happens.

Unfortunately, under the influence of American revivalism, many Reformed folk in North America have lost track of what we confess about the Supper. They are sometimes surprised to learn what we actually confess:

In the mean time we err not when we say that what is eaten and drunk by us is the proper and natural body and and the proper body of Christ.

The Reformed Church has the highest possible doctrine of the Supper. “Proper and natural” is a very strong phrase indeed. It means “that which belongs to it” and “what makes it what it is.” That is to say that, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, through the sacrament, we receive, through faith, nothing less than the true, real body and blood of Christ. We do not eat memories nor do we eat our sorrow for our sins. Holy communion is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. It is a mystical feast. The bread and wine are unchanged (contra Rome). It is not even necessary to say, with the Lutherans, that Christ’s true body is “in,” “with, and “under” the elements. Christ said, “this is my body.” He did not say, “this reminds you of my body” and even less did he say, “this reminds you of your sins. Do better!” He did not say, “This becomes my body.” He did not say, “This is with my body.” He said, “This is my body.” We are to receive it as such and we are fed by it because it is his body. We confess, “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 rightly confess the necessity of self-examination before coming to the table but the table is not itself a self-examination. The table itself is good news for believers. It is Christ unreservedly giving himself to us who believe. To believers the Supper means that we are unconditionally received. It means that Christ is with us and for us, that we are united to him and he communes with us.

Let us not treat the Holy Supper as a Protestant penance but as Christ’s Holy Supper, in which he comes to us, gives himself to us, and feeds on his proper, true, natural body, by the Spirit, through faith and thereby strengthens and encourages us in our pilgrimage.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Dr Clark, what do you make of Anne Askew’s argument against transubstantiation, that the bread and wine are no more literally His Body and Blood than He is a literal door, when He said “I am the door”? Wouldn’t her statement seem to prove too much for Guido de Bres?

  2. The Synod of Paris (1565) acknowledged that communion four times a year was the most common practice of the French Reformed but went on to say, “yet the more frequent Celebration of it is very desirable (due Reverence in approaching to it being always observed) because it’s most beneficial for God’s Children to be exercised, and grow in Faith, which is done by the frequent usage of the Sacraments; as also because this was the Practice of the Primitive Church.” (Synodicon in Gallia Reformata, Vol. 1, 66)

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