The Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper
Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” Matthew 26:27-28NKJV
This morning we look at Westminster Larger Catechism Question 170, which asks, “How do they that worthily communicate in the Lord’s supper feed upon the body and blood of Christ therein?” It gives the answer, “As the body and blood of Christ are not corporally or carnally present in, with, or under the bread and wine in the Lord’s supper, and yet are spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses; so they that worthily communicate in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, do therein feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner, yet truly and really, while by faith they receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.”
If you are somewhat new to Reformed Theology, you might be surprised – in reading this portion of the Catechism – to see the Westminster Divines affirming that in the Lord’s Supper communicants “feed” on the body and blood of Christ. As noted in the article on Question 163, all of the major Reformed Creeds and Confessions from the Reformation – which means all of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches today which adhere to them – affirmed the real presence of Christ in the Supper and so also a real feeding upon Him by faith. Thus, we can safely say that modern Protestantism’s more or less “memorial” view of the Supper is not the product of the historic Reformed Faith. So what is the Reformed view of Christ’s real presence in the Supper and how does it differ from the Roman Catholic and Lutheran views?
In Chapter 29 of the Westminster Confession, the Divines explicitly and strongly rejected the Roman Catholic view of Christ’s presence in the Supper, whereby it is believed that in the consecration of the priest, the “substance” of the bread and wine are transformed into the “substance” of the body and blood of Christ. “Substance,” being a metaphysical category, does not refer to any physical matter but to the essence of a thing as it has existence in or participates in “being.” According to Rome this is why the bread and wine still look, taste, feel, and would show themselves under a microscope to be physical bread and wine, even after the priest performs the “miracle,” because all of these physical components belong to a thing’s “accidents,” and not to its “substance.” And Rome’s view is that the “accidents” of bread and wine remain. Only the immaterial “substance” of the bread and wine is changed into the immaterial “substance” of the body and blood of Christ. Rome’s view is thus called, “transubstantiation.” The substance of one thing is transformed into the substance of another.
Martin Luther reacted strongly to this view, arguing that there is no Scriptural reason to hold to it or to compel others to adopt it. For his part, Luther believed that Christ’s body and blood were given and received along with the bread and the wine. This has caused others to sometimes label the Lutheran view as “consubstantiation,” con meaning “with.” Because the substance of Christ’s body and blood are given and received “along with” the substance of the bread and wine. However, conservative Lutheran theologians like Hermann Sasse have argued strongly against this classification of the Lutheran view, correctly noting that Luther never used such a title, neither did he use the exact phrase, “in, with, or under the bread” with the intention of defining a mode of Christ’s presence as a new article of faith. Luther plainly confessed he did not know how Christ was present in the Supper just so long as it was affirmed that He was.
For this reason some have claimed that Luther would have, or even actually did, express approval of Calvin’s view, which is approximately what is set forth here in the Catechism. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ, in His humanity, is as truly present to the faith of the believer as the bread and wine are to his senses. So that as the believer eats the bread and drinks the wine he is to trust in the ongoing atoning power of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice almost 2,000 years ago. In this fashion the believer’s faith “feeds,” which is to say is nourished and strengthened by the continuing efficacy of Christ’s body and blood, who in His once and for all redeeming death procured for him all of the benefits needed for his salvation. In this way, as the Catechism teaches, believers continue to “receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.” May our Sovereign Lord Jesus cause His Supper to be an ongoing means of grace in your life!