We’re at that part of the Catechism which is about what God requires of us if we are to escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin. And we’ve learned already that we’re to repent and believe. We’re to turn from our sin in repentance. And we’re to turn with faith to the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. And all who repent and believe are immediately justified so that we’re pardoned for all that we’ve done wrong and we’re accepted as righteous in God’s sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ which is now regarded as ours. And all who repent and believe are immediately adopted into God’s family so that God is no longer the judge who condemns us, but is our loving, heavenly Father.
But, then, having repented and believed, we’re to make diligent use of all the outward means by which the Lord Jesus gives to us the benefits of redemption. What are the benefits of redemption? Well, as well as justification and adoption, there’s: sanctification so that we’re renewed in the image of God and become more and more willing and able to obey him; there’s assurance of God’s love so that we know that God is for us and not against us; there’s peace of conscience so that we can come before God with confidence, knowing that our sins have been removed from us as far as the east is from the west; there’s joy in the Holy Spirit so that we’re able to rejoice in our salvation; and, though our life may be marked by suffering and trials and difficulties, nevertheless, we’re able to rejoice that God is able to use all these things for our ultimate good; there’s growth in grace so that we grow and mature as believers; and there’s perseverance so that God enables us to keep trusting in Christ throughout the remainder of our lives.
The Lord Jesus, our Great Redeemer, wants to give us these things. And he gives these things to us through the outward means of grace. And the outward means are: the reading and preaching of his word; the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and prayer. We’ve already looked at preaching. And we’ve already looked at baptism. So, today we’re on to the Lord’s Supper.
So, listen to question 96 of the Shorter Catechism and their answers:
Q. 96. What is the Lord’s Supper? The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament in which, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is proclaimed, and those who receive rightly are by faith (and not by the mouth in a physical manner) made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.
What is the Lord’s Supper
What is the Lord’s Supper? First of all we’re told that it’s a sacrament. And a sacrament, we’ve already seen previously, is a holy ordinance appointed by Christ. And, of course, that’s what the Lord’s Supper is, because in the first three gospels we read about the institution of the Lord’s Supper when the Lord took bread and gave it to his disciples to eat. And he took wine and gave it to them to drink. He said: Do this. Eat this. Drink this. And then in 1 Corinthians 11 we have what are known as ‘the words of institution’. Paul writes:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
The first thing Paul says is that ‘I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.’ And the point he’s making is that this tradition about keeping the Lord’s Supper is something Paul received from the Lord and he’s passing it on to the Corinthians so that they too will keep the Supper. And the reason we do this, the reason we also keep the Supper, is because the Lord Jesus passed this on to us. He instituted this Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament — and a sacrament is a holy ordinance appointed by Christ.
And a sacrament comprises certain elements and actions and words which together form the sensible sign which we can see and taste and hear. So, the Lord Jesus, when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, took certain elements (bread and wine) and he performed certain actions with them: He took the bread; and he gave thanks for it; and he broke it. He also took the wine. And of course, the bread and wine were distributed and consumed by the disciples. And the Lord Jesus also said certain things:
This is my body.
This is the new covenant in my blood.
Now, since Christ is the head and king of his church, we want to do what he told us to do. So in order to perform the sacrament properly we need to use the elements he commanded us to use. So we use bread and wine or grape juice. And we need to perform the actions he commanded us to perform. And so, I take bread, and give thanks to God in prayer, and I break it, just as he did. And I take the cup, just as he did. And then we pass the elements around. And we need to say the words he commanded us to say. And so, we repeat the words of the institution. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament — and a sacrament is a holy ordinance appointed by Christ; and it comprises certain elements and actions and words which together form the sensible sign which we can see and taste and hear.
Represents, seals and applies
And a sacrament also represents, seals and applies the Lord Jesus Christ and the benefits of the covenant of grace. And so, the bread and the wine represent the Lord whose body was broken and whose blood was shed in order to establish the covenant of grace. They tell us about him and how he died for the forgiveness of our sins. And so, Paul tells us in verse 26 of 1 Corinthians 11 that ‘whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ This sacrament proclaims or speaks to us of the message of Christ crucified for sinners.
And a sacrament is a seal which certifies and guarantees God’s promise of forgiveness. And so, during the communion service, I’ll pray and ask God to confirm with our eyes what we have already heard with our ears. With our ears, we’ve heard the gospel message that God is willing to pardon all our sins and to give us eternal life. We’ve heard it. But can it possibly be true? Will God really pardon me? Will he really give me, a sinner, eternal life? And then we see the broken bread. And we see the wine which has been poured out. And we remember that yes, the Lord’s body was broken for me; and his blood was shed for me. The Son of God died for me, so that I can have eternal life. And so, there it is. God’s seal, God’s signature for us to see: ‘For the sake of my Son who died for you, I promise to cover all your sins and to give you eternal life.’ So, the Lord’s Supper, being a sacrament is a sign which speaks to us of Jesus Christ who died for us; and it’s a seal which certifies and guarantees God’s promise to us.
And a sacrament is also the means by which God applies to us the benefits of the covenant of grace. Remember? Along with justification and adoption, which we receive as soon as we repent and believe, the Lord Jesus also wants to give us sanctification and assurance of God’s love and peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Spirit and growth in grace and perseverance. And the means by which he gives us these things is through the reading and preaching of his word and it’s through the sacraments. So, as we take the bread and the wine, the Lord Jesus is working in us, by his Spirit, to give us all of these spiritual benefits, one good thing after another.
We’ve already thought about how this happens. Let me remind you. Take sanctification, for example. The Lord Jesus wants to sanctify us so that we become more and more willing and able to keep his commandments. How does he do that? One way is that he speaks to us through the Lord’s Supper about all that he suffered and gave up for us. And out of gratitude to him, we resolve to obey him more and more. So, the Lord Jesus uses the sacrament to lead us on to greater obedience, out of gratitude for what he has done for us.
Then there’s the assurance of God’s love. The Lord Jesus wants to give us this assurance. How does he do it? Well, he uses the Supper to show us the greatness of God’s love in that he was prepared to give up his one and only Son to death for us. And so, we realise how great the Father’s love for us really is.
Then there’s peace of conscience. The Lord Jesus wants us to enjoy peace of conscience and to be assured that we have been pardoned forever. And so, when we receive the Lord’s Supper, it speaks to us of how Christ has paid for our sins in full so there is nothing more for us to pay. And so our guilty conscience is made silent and we rest in the knowledge that God has pardoned us.
Then there’s joy in the Holy Spirit. Again, the Lord Jesus uses this Lord’s Supper to fill us with joy because this sacrament speaks to us of God’s love. And it assures us that our sins have been paid for by Christ’s death on the cross and they’ve been covered over by his blood. And so, by this Supper, the Lord assures us that instead of being condemned to eternal punishment, which is what we deserve, we now have the hope of eternal life. And that’s wonderful. And it causes our hearts to fill up with joy.
Take growth in grace and perseverance. By means of the Lord’s Supper, the Lord strengthens our faith and he ensures that instead of giving up the faith, we will continue to press on as believers right to the very end of our lives. And, as we press on, we’ll grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Through the Lord’s Supper we receive all of these good things from the Lord Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 10:16 the Apostle Paul says:
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
The word ‘participation’ can also be translated ‘communion’ which is why we refer to the Lord’s Supper as Communion. But it can also be translated as ‘share’. And the point is that by means of this sacrament we are able to share in Jesus Christ our Great Redeemer. And he shares with us all the benefits of his life and death and resurrection.
Think, for a moment, of parents who go out to work and they work hard and often it’s difficult and frustrating and demanding. But they go out to work and earn their salary or their wage in order to afford all the things they need each day. And their children, who are sitting at home and who don’t have to work, share in the benefits of their parents’ hard work. So, the child is feeling hungry. And goes to the cupboard. And there’s food for him to eat. But he didn’t buy the food. His parents did. But he gets to share it. And so Christ has done all the hard work for us to get us forgiveness and adoption and sanctification and assurance of God’s love and so on. He’s done all the hard work by living for us and by dying for us to pay for our sins, before rising again. He’s done all the hard work. And we — who don’t have to contribute anything towards it — get to share in the benefits of all that he has done. And through the reading and preaching of his word, and through the sacraments, he shares all of those benefits with us.
There are two other topics for us to consider before we finish today. First of all, there’s the question of how we ought to receive the Lord’s Supper so that we will receive the benefits which the Lord wants to give us. And so, answer 96 of the Catechism refers to those who ‘receive rightly’ the Lord’s Supper. Or, it refers to those who are ‘worthy receivers’. What does it mean to receive rightly the Lord’s Supper? That’s what question and answer 97 tackles. And this is the answer:
It is required of those who would receive rightly the Lord’s Supper that they examine themselves as to their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body; of their faith to feed upon Christ, and their repentance, love and new obedience; for coming in an unworthy manner would bring judgment on themselves.
This relates to what the Apostle Paul goes on to say in the rest of 1 Corinthians 11. You see, if you read the rest of 1 Corinthians 11 you’ll see that he’s very cross with the Corinthian church because they were participating in the sacrament in an unworthy manner. Do you see that in verse 27? And so our Catechism is attempting to explain what it means to receive the sacrament in a worthy, and not unworthy, manner. And, the first thing we should note is that it’s not that any of us is worthy to come. None of us should think that we have become worthy to receive the sacrament and all the benefits of Christ’s salvation because of something we have done. And none of us should think that. We mustn’t be like the Pharisee in the Lord’s parable who boasted about himself and all that he had done for God. Instead, we should always be like the tax-collector in the same parable who bowed his head and asked God for mercy. This is not about our being worthy to come. But it’s about coming in a worthy manner. It’s about coming in the right way to the Table.
And the Catechism refers to two things: We’re to examine ourselves as to our knowledge to discern the Lord’s body. In other words, do we understand that the bread and wine are given and received in order to represent and point us to Jesus Christ whose body was broken and whose blood was shed for sinners. Do we understand why the Lord Jesus Christ had to die? Do we understand these things? The person who comes in a worthy manner knows that he really deserves to be punished forever by God, but, for the sake of Christ who died for us, we have now been forgiven.
And then, secondly: We’re to examine ourselves as to our faith, and our repentance and our love for him and his people and our new obedience. You see, if we have never trusted in the Lord Jesus or repented of our sins, and if we don’t love God and his people, if we have no desire to obey the Lord out of gratitude, then we’re not yet a believer. And so, we don’t belong around his Table. And so, we should stay away until we have repented and believed and are able to love God and his people and to obey the Lord.
But, of course, believers often doubt God. And we fall short of loving him and his people. And we often disobey him. And so, we too are to examine ourselves before we come. And when we discover that we have not obeyed him as we should, that we haven’t loved him or his people as we should, that we haven’t trusted him or repented as we should, then before we come to the Table, we must confess our sins to the Lord and ask for his forgiveness. And, having done so, we should then come to the Table. You see, that’s really the purpose of this self-examination. The purpose of examining ourselves is not so that we will stay away, but it’s so that we will come in the right way, with faith and repentance renewed, and with a renewed love for God and his people, and with the desire to obey him. That’s why we’re to examine ourselves: so that we will come in the right way to the Lord’s Table and receive all that Christ wants to give his believing, contrite people.
The last thing for us to consider is to do with the presence of the Lord Jesus in this sacrament. When the bread and wine are distributed, where is Jesus? Well, there are three main views here.
First of all, there are those who say Jesus is physically present in the sacrament. The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. So what you eat is not bread any longer. It’s actually the body of Christ. It still looks like bread and tastes like bread. But it is, in reality, the body of Christ, because the substance of the bread is transformed into the substance of Christ’s body. Hence this is known as trans-substantiation.
Secondly, there’s the teaching of the Lutheran church. For them, the bread and wine aren’t transformed. However, when we receive the bread and wine we also receive Christ’s actual body and blood along with the bread and wine. So, for Catholics, you’re eating only one thing: the body of Christ. For Lutherans, you’re eating two things: the bread and the body of Christ. This view is known as con-substantiation. The prefix con- means ‘with’. The bread is filled with the body of Christ.
One difficulty with both of these views is that on the night when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper and said of the bread, ‘This is my body’, he was actually holding the bread with his own hand. The RC and Lutheran view would have us believe he was holding his own body in his own hand — which makes no sense. It’s much more natural to take his words as meaning: ‘This bread represents my body.’ That’s the first problem with their views.
Another problem is that the Catholic and Lutheran views destroy the true humanity of Jesus Christ. You see, we believe that the Son of God became a man by taking to himself a body and soul like ours. And he has done this forever. When he rose again from the dead, his body rose. When he ascended to heaven, he ascended bodily, physically. In heaven, he is still God and man in one Person. And thus he will remain forever and ever. So, in what sense can he have a true body like us, if his body can be physically present in churches all over the world at the same time? If that were the case, then it’s not a true body like ours. The Catholic and Lutheran views of the Lord’s Supper destroy his true humanity.
So, Presbyterians and other reformed churches deny both of these views. We believe the bread remains bread. The wine remains wine. The Lord Jesus remains in heaven, seated on the throne at his Father’s right hand side. But through faith, and by his Spirit whom he has sent to us, we’re united to him. And all who are united to him through faith receive from him one good thing after another, one benefit after another.
Christ the head in enthroned in heaven. And he watches over his people as we gather on Sundays. Through the reading and preaching of his word, he speaks to us. And when we gather around his table and the bread and wine are distributed, so he distributes to us and shares with his believing people all the benefits of his life and death and resurrection. The bread and the wine point us to Christ, enthroned in heaven, and from Jesus Christ we receive all that we need to grow as believers and to keep going right to the end of our lives.
And perhaps the final thing to say is this. At the moment all we have are signs. A little bit of bread. A little bit of wine. Just signs. But the day is coming, when Christ our Saviour will come again. And then, instead of the signs, we’ll have the real thing, because when he comes again, we’ll be with him for ever and ever and ever. And so, every time we take the bread and the wine, it makes us long for Christ our Saviour to return when we won’t need signs anymore, but he will be with us always.