• Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

The Real Presence of Christ in Communion

And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 2 Corinthians 12:3-4NKJV

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.”

Today’s question clearly affirms, as did John Calvin, the real presence of Christ in the Supper; that “the body and blood of Christ… are spiritually present to the faith of the believer.” But what exactly does this mean? Is this spiritual presence of Christ’s human body and blood spoken of by the Catechism less than the physical presence of the bread and the wine that we can see, touch, smell, and taste? Should we understand this spiritual presence as a sort of wishful thinking of the imagination? Not according to the Westminster Divines. Our question precisely states the quality of this spiritual presence of Christ’s human body and blood: that its presence is “no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their senses.”

We have previously looked at how all of the Reformed creeds and confessions coming out of the Reformation period sided with Calvin over against Zwingli on the subject of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli held that regarding Christ’s physical body and blood, the Supper is a solemn and meaningful memorial. We remember Christ, we remember His life and death on our behalf – in particular we remember how he died on the cross and gave his body and blood for us as a real atoning sacrifice to God for our sins – but according to Zwingli Christ’s human body and blood are not present in the Supper. They are absent, for Christ’s body and blood are localized and in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and we are somewhere on earth (unless astronauts in space or on the moon were to take Communion!), separated from His physical presence.

Martin Luther, in affirming the real presence of Christ’s body and blood to all communicants who partake in real faith, resorted to attributing the quality of ubiquity to Christ. That is, because Christ is not a mere man but also God, and because God cannot be circumscribed to any particular place but is eternally omnipresent, Luther held that in some fashion Christ’s human body must also be everywhere. He used the term “ubiquity” to describe this everywhere present aspect of Christ’s human body. He argued that unless we affirm the ubiquity of Christ’s humanity then in communing only with His spiritual nature we would be dividing His person, for Christ would be here in His divine nature but absent in His human nature. Luther illustrated His position by stating that the humanity of Christ is “not a coat” that the divine nature puts on and off.

So how do the Westminster Divines handle the problem? How can we affirm that we are communing with the whole Christ, but at the same time affirm that Christ’s human body and blood are localized in heaven at the Father’s right hand? Calvin’s explanation, which is endorsed here by the Divines, is that the Spirit of God bridges the gap so to speak. That is, by the power of the Spirit we are, by faith, spiritually present in heaven where Christ is in His body and blood. So that Christ in His humanity is really and truly present, not to our physical senses, but to our faith. And that in communing with Christ in heaven, we also commune with the whole church triumphant in heaven with Him. Take some time today to consider the reality of our communing with Christ and His whole church and let your faith feed upon Him!

A member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)

Reformed doctrine. Reverent worship. Real life.

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