The architecture at the local Lutheran church embodies their theological commitments. Front and center in the sanctuary, on an elevated island, is the Lord’s table. A beautiful banner, emblazoned with a cup and wafer, adorns the wall. The pulpit, on the other hand, is small and situated on the left side of the sanctuary. It was difficult to see from the seat in the right-center aisle where I recently sat for a memorial service. During the funeral sermon, the minister mentioned precious times taking “Holy Communion” with the deceased in her home in the years before her passing. Clearly, the Eucharist is central to the life of the congregation. This raises the question, how much priority should Protestants give to the Lord’s Supper?
Word and Sacrament
Like the Lutheran church I visited, most Protestant churches place the communion table front and center. But behind and above the table is the pulpit from which the word of God is opened and proclaimed. The pulpit is intentionally used to frame the table. Word and sacrament: these are central to the life of every true church. Since the Reformation, the sacraments have been consensually recognized as one of two distinguishing marks of the true church.1
According to the Augsburg Confession, “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”
When I entered the local Luthern sanctuary, I thought, “Something is out of balance here. The pulpit should be with the table at the center.” But in many other Protestant churches, there is a similar imbalance. While the symbols of word and sacrament may still stand together at the center of the church, the regular practice of communion is often neglected. If some churches would relocate the table, I fear that no one would notice except the decorating committee who use it as a platform for their flower arrangements.
Tim Chester suggests a thought experiment: Imagine your church stopped celebrating Communion, unannounced. He asks, “How long do you think it would be before you noticed? What difference would it make to your life? To your life together as a church? Would you miss it?” These are sobering questions. Yet, the next bit is even more unsettling:
As a control, imagine what would happen if your church stopped singing. Again, no announcement is made. But next Sunday there’s no music group or organist; there are no hymn numbers or songs on the screen. The Bible is read, prayers are offered, a sermon is preached. But there’s no music.
Same questions: How long do you think it would be before you noticed? What difference would it make to your life? To your life together as a church? Would you miss it?
Here’s my hunch. In the no-singing scenario there would be an uproar after the very first meeting. A group of people would surround the leaders demanding to know what was going on. People would be pointing in open Bibles to Colossians 3:16. Veiled threats would be made. But what about the no-Communion scenario? I fear that many Christians could skip Communion without missing very much, and perhaps without even noticing for some time.
If what he says is true, something is out of balance: The table has been moved, at least in our hearts, to the side of the sanctuary.
The table has been moved, at least in our hearts, to the side of the sanctuary.
Not a Mere Symbol
If we sense a problem in our practice, it is likely a symptom springing from an anemic theology. Practice is downstream from doctrine; Spirit-baptized theology is the fountainhead of the church’s life. This is especially true for the Supper, in which many theological streams converge. It was disagreement over the Supper that prevented a unified Protestant Reformation, culminating in the famous Marburg Colloquy, where Luther and Zwingli were unable to duke out their doctrinal differences. Bavinck explains that
Among Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Zwinglians, the Reformed, and Anabaptists, and so forth, the sacraments became the central focus of the struggle. They became the shibboleths of every dogmatic system. Practically and concretely they embodied the principles from which people proceeded in the church and in theology, in doctrine and in life. The relationship between God and the world, creation and re-creation, the divine and the human nature of Christ, sin and grace, spirit and matter—all found their practical application in the sacrament.
To be sure, Protestants are united in rejecting transubstantiation, the teaching of the Roman Catholic church (and many Eastern Orthodox) that the substance of the consecrated bread and wine is transformed into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus.2 But we should not assume that a denial of this doctrine reduces the bread and cup to mere symbols.
Martin Luther rejected the change in substance but maintained Christ’s real, physical presence in the elements. In his view, Christ’s body and blood are in sacramental union with the consecrated bread and wine. His body is in, with, and under the elements, as fire permeates a heated iron. To eat the bread is to eat the body. The Formula of Concord, an early Lutheran confession, rejects those “gross Sacramentarians” who hold that “nothing but bread and wine is present.”
Ulrich Zwingli, the great Swiss reformer, opposed Luther’s doctrine of the real presence, insisting that Christ’s human body could not be in the bread if it was at the right hand of the Father. A human body is, by definition, limited to one location. Luther saw this as a concession to human reason and appealed to Christ’s words, “This is my body.” While Zwingli’s critics nicknamed his view “the real absence,” Zwingli was quick to affirm Christ’s spiritual presence in the Supper. Because of his emphasis on the Supper as a way to remember Christ’s death, his view is sometimes labeled as the memorial view. He saw the bread and cup, first and foremost, as signs or symbols that point back to the cross of Christ. Those who favor this view (for example, Baptists) refer to baptism and the Supper as ordinances, because they were ordained and commanded by the Lord, but tend to avoid or redefine the term “sacraments.”3
The teaching of John Calvin is a via media or mediating position in this debate. Calvin rejected the physical presence of Christ in the Supper, and agreed with Zwingli that the sacraments are acts of confession; however, he prioritized their nature as “a testimony of divine grace toward us confirmed by an outward sign” (emphasis mine). More important than what we do at the table is what God does for us. In his Institutes, Calvin describes the Supper as “a spiritual feast” which sustains and preserves our union with him who is “the only food to invigorate and keep alive the soul.” Christ’s words, “This is my body” (Lk. 22:19) are taken in a spiritual sense. Christ is spiritually present in the sacraments so that the one who partakes in faith also receives the benefits they promise. Like circumcision in the old covenant, sacraments are seals as well as signs of the new covenant and of our spiritual union with Christ (Rom. 4:1), confirming the promises of God which are made to us in the gospel.
Christ is spiritually present in the sacraments so that the one who partakes in faith also receives the benefits they promise.
John Wesley, following the Anglican tradition, was in harmony with Calvin and the Reformed view in his emphasis on the Supper as a means of grace. The 39 Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church affirm,
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
To be clear, “the Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner,” but it is no less real than a physical meal. Through faith, we partake and are nourished in our union with Christ. Wesley preached,
The grace of God given herein confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.
Communion nourishes union. The great Methodist theologian William Burt Pope affirms that the Eucharist “signifies and seals the mystical nourishment of Christ” (emphasis mine). He favorably cites the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism, concluding that “not only are blessings pledged, but they are then and there imparted.”4 Ole Borgen summarizes a key point of Wesley’s view: “Christ Himself is present here and now to save and uphold, and His presence is as real as God is real, and, as a means, the sacrament actually conveys what it shows.”
Like the twelve disciples at the first Supper, we commune with Christ our host and also with his body, the church. I. H. Marshall puts it well: “There is a real communion with the Son. Essentially God acts and people receive.” In this holiest of meals, Christ shares his life with his own. As we come in faith to the spiritual banquet, the Lord meets us there. The sacraments do not merely stir up our faith and devotion as we meditate on what they represent—they are means for God to dispense needed grace to our souls. When we go to an altar of prayer, we expect God to do something in our hearts; when we approach the Lord’s table, we should have the same expectancy.
A Participation in the Body and Blood
When we take a low or merely memorialist view of the sacraments, we easily neglect them in practice. This can be seen in the common evangelical practice of baptism, which is often delayed after conversion or reduced to a testimony or public statement of faith, without any expectation that God will communicate grace to the baptized. The same is true of the Lord’s Supper, which is approached as a time of personal reflection, but not as a means of grace.
However, when we see that God has ordained to share needed grace through the sacrament, we come in eager anticipation to meet Christ through his Spirit at his Table. Every other purpose of the Table finds its proper expression in this context.
The sacraments do not merely stir up our faith and devotion as we meditate on what they represent; they are means for God to dispense needed grace to our souls.
The Lord’s Supper is the primary way that believers remember and appropriate the ongoing benefits of Christ’s death: “Do this,” Jesus said, “as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25; cf. v.24). The Hebrew people ate the Passover meal each year to remember their redemption from slavery in Egypt; the Lord’s Supper was ordained at Passover time to memorialize that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Now, as the new Passover meal, it is a time to remember the death of Christ that secured our exodus and ratified the new covenant (1 Cor. 11:25).
In the Lord’s Supper, we also celebrate with thanksgiving what Christ has accomplished. Christ broke the bread after “he had given thanks [eucharistia]” (1 Cor. 11:24), which is why the Supper is formally called the Eucharist. Our gathering at the table is a thanksgiving feast marked by holy joy.
At the same time, we present ourselves in God’s presence, reconsecrating ourselves to Christ and renewing our covenant with God through the sole Mediator. As baptism is our sacramental entrance into the covenant, so the Supper is our continued participation therein. This is why the table, since the earliest accounts of the church’s life, has been open only to baptized believers.5 The sacraments mark off God’s covenant people from the rest of the world (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 11:17-34).
Further, the table is specially ordained by God as a place for individual and corporate examination (1 Cor. 11:27-28). Michael Svigel comments that
Many in the early church associated coming to the Table with Romans 12 and offering our bodies as living sacrifices … reaffirming our commitment to discipleship, and to the Christian life, and to one another. … So in a sense in the early church, there was an altar call every week at the end of the service. There was a Table call to rededicate.
An altar serves a valuable function, but it is no replacement for the Lord’s table.
Through the Supper, we also proclaim to one another and to outsiders that Christ’s body was broken and his blood “shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28). Paul writes that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). As such, this sacrament is a re-preaching of the word of the cross. J. I. Packer explains, “As the preaching of the Word makes the gospel audible, the sacraments make it visible, and God stirs up faith by both means. The sacrament therefore functions as a means of grace on the principle that, literally, seeing leads to believing.”
This proclamation of Christ should continue “until he comes.” Through the Supper, we anticipate that glorious day of which the Lord spoke after his Last Supper with the disciples: “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Mt. 26:29). The Supper is our assurance of new creation as we groan eagerly for the consummation of all things at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Every blessing of the Supper is enjoyed in community. As we join the Lord through his Spirit at his table to commune, remember, proclaim, celebrate, anticipate, and reconsecrate, we grow in unity with Christ and with his body. This holy supper is our shared participation or communion in every blessing of the covenant: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
Recentering the Table
In light of all that it means, there is no question that the Lord’s Supper should be central to the life of the church. It is not central if it could be skipped but not missed, or if it is never the subject of teaching and preaching, or if it is taken only a few times each year. Thomas Oden warns,
There can be no church without a fitting sacramental life. From the outset, those who have confessed Jesus as the Christ and “who accepted his message were baptized” and were immediately found devoting themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:41, 42, italics added). Where no one is baptized, there is no church (Cyprian, Epistles 72, ANF V, p. 382). Where the farewell meal is uncelebrated, one has no right to expect the true church.
It is fruitless to entertain the hackneyed objection that if we take communion often, it will become commonplace. Experience shows that the less we receive communion, the less we value it. John Wesley considered it a basic Christian duty to take holy communion at least once each week. He insisted that it was “daily received in the beginning by the whole Church of Christ, and highly esteemed, till the love of many waxed cold, as the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God.” In his sermon, “The Duty of Constant Communion,” Wesley answers objections to it being “received constantly.” He reminds his hearers that the church for several centuries “received it almost every day: Four times a week always, and every saint’s day beside.” Jim Hamilton states a succinct and compelling case that weekly observance is the Biblical pattern:
From what Paul says in 1 Cor 11:17–34, it seems that the church partook of the Lord’s Supper when they “came together,” and from 1 Cor 16:2, it seems that the Corinthian church “came together” on the first day of the week. When combined with a text like Acts 20:7, which indicates that Paul’s practice was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with the church when it gathered for worship on the first day of the week, this seems to be the early church’s practice. It is not clear to me why churches that seek to model themselves by the pattern of church life and structure seen in the NT would not also partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. If it is objected that this would diminish its significance, my reply is simply that those who make this argument typically do not claim that weekly observance diminishes the significance of the preaching of the Word, the prayers of God’s people, the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and I doubt they would be disappointed to have weekly baptisms!
The Lord’s Supper is the food of our souls. It is our duty to partake constantly.
Protestants may never come to a consensus on this point, but we should all agree that our practice must proceed from serious thought and prayerful study—not merely from received theological traditions (see footnote for practical steps for pastors who desire to recenter the Supper).6
Wesley calls us to attend constantly to this holy Supper since it is given by God for our holiness and happiness:
As God, whose mercy is over all his works, and particularly over the children of men, knew there was but one way for man to be happy like himself; namely, by being like him in holiness; as he knew we could do nothing toward this of ourselves, he has given us certain means of obtaining his help. One of these is the Lord’s Supper, which, of his infinite mercy, he has given for this very end; that through this means we may be assisted to attain those blessings which he has prepared for us; that we may obtain holiness on earth, and everlasting glory in heaven. (emphasis mine)
God has given us the Lord’s Supper for our holiness and happiness. At the center of a holy, happy church is word and sacrament: two holy joys which are ours in Christ. Let us hasten to the gospel feast!
- Discipline is sometimes added as a third mark, as in the Belgic Confession, Article 29.
- According to transubstantiation, all that remains of the bread and wine are the superficial qualities—called accidents or incidentals—that we see, touch, and taste. The distinction between substance and accidents is borrowed from Aristotelian philosophy. Most abhorrent to the Reformers was the thought that the elements serve as a propitiatory sacrifice that provide salvation by the very act of partaking. This view, which Wesley called repugnant and superstitious, insists on a hyper-literalistic interpretation of passages like John 6:53-56: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”
- The 1689 Baptist Confession states that “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances of positive and sovereign institution, appointed by the Lord Jesus, the only lawgiver, to be continued in his church to the end of the world” (emphasis mine). The word sacrament is never used. Contrast this to the 1647 Westminster Confession, Chapter 27, “Of Sacraments”: “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits, and to confirm our interest in him: as also to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.”
- For the Westminster Confession, see Footnote 3. Pope also cites the Shorter Catechism: “the Presbyterian standard thus speaks: ‘A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ and the benefits of the New Covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.’ Here the last expression gives additional strength to the idea of the seal: not only are blessings pledged, but they are then and there imparted.”
- The Didache (2nd century), the earliest summary of the Apostles’ teaching, states: “But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptised in the Lord’s Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs.’” This shocks our sensibilities, since the unbaptized are here referred to as unholy dogs. However, we must remember that in the early church, there was no such thing as an unbaptized Christian. Exceptions like the thief on the cross were recognized, but not normalized. When Paul asked, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3) he assumed that every believer had been baptized as the sign and seal of his entrance into the covenant community, just as every Hebrew male was signed and sealed by circumcision (Rom. 4:1). To recenter the Supper, we must experience a revival of sacramental life as a whole, including a return to the close association between baptism and salvation. Those who enter into the covenant through their one-time baptism continue to participate therein by constant communion.
- (1) Discuss it with your elder board. (2) Teach a two or three-part series on the Table. (3) Confess to your congregation the need to make the Supper more central to your church’s life. (4) Gradually increase the frequency that you observe the Supper (e.g., from two or three times a year to quarterly, then to bimonthly or monthly, and so on until you reach a frequency that the elders agree upon). If you have not read Footnotes 1-5, they include several points of pastoral interest.