The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the church that Jesus commanded His people to do in remembrance of Him (Matt 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:17–20; 1 Cor 11:23–34). It includes the breaking and eating of the bread which symbolized the breaking of Christ’s body in His sacrifice for sinners, as well as the sharing of the cup of wine which symbolized the shedding of His blood as a propitiation for sins.
The fact that Paul repeats Christ’s instruction to “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19) as he is giving instructions to the church (1 Cor 11:23–25), plainly puts the focus on the memorial aspect of this ordinance. That is to say, the primary significance of this meal is to remember the work that Christ accomplished on the cross, in paying for sins and providing salvation according to the promise of the New Covenant (Luke 22:20; cf. Matt 26:28).
But sometimes those who hold to a memorial view of the Table are criticized for not esteeming it highly enough. “Just remember? That’s it?” For this reason, we need to underscore that this remembering that both Jesus and Paul call us to is not merely an informal, primarily passive, casual calling of events to mind. This kind of remembering is an intentional, active, and meditatively intense act of worship that bears on the past, present and future. It bears on the past as we actively meditate on the gravity and the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice. It bears on the present as we believe afresh, once again proclaiming the Lord’s death (cf. 1 Cor 11:26). And it bears on the future, as we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor 11:26), remembering that Christ is indeed returning to judge His enemies, vindicate His saints, and set up His kingdom.
Regarding how frequently a church should observe the Lord’s Supper, honest Christians must admit that no prescription of frequency is given in Scripture. The command is merely to do it “as often as you drink it, in remembrance of [Him]” (1 Cor 11:25). It’s true that Luke describes the early church as “continually devoting themselves…to the breaking of bread” (Ac 2:42), suggesting that they observed the Lord’s Supper as often as they came together, which, presumably, was at least weekly but likely even more frequent than that in those very early days. Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that the Book of Acts is not primarily prescriptive but descriptive. Thus, I believe individual churches have liberty to determine the issue of frequency of the Lord’s Supper.
The nature of the Lord’s Supper has been the subject of much debate, and through church history has even contributed to the splitting of churches and denominations. At the root of the discussion, though, there are two main questions that must be answered about the nature of the Lord’s Supper.
The first is: What is the efficacy of partaking in the Lord’s Supper? As I’ve understood the biblical arguments and the history of the debate, I see three options:
Salvific. Some, such as Roman Catholics, view the act as salvific.
By “salvific,” I don’t mean to say that Rome believes that once one partakes of the Eucharist that he is automatically born again. But, in keeping with Roman Catholic soteriology, participation in the Mass is salvific in the sense that it infuses grace into the believer to provide righteousness and merit for their final justification. Obviously, I reject this as unscriptural, and as a denial of the heart of the Gospel; namely, that man is not justified by works, but by faith alone in Christ, whose merit is alone sufficient for justification, which merit is imputed by faith.
Nourishing. Others, such as some Reformed Protestants, view the efficacy of the Supper as what might be called nourishing.
Partaking of the Supper does not grant salvific grace, as the previous view holds. But it’s not that the elements are altogether not efficacious. They must be received with faith. And when they are received with faith, they are a means by which God confers sustaining and strengthening grace–grace which has nothing to do with one’s justification, but with aiding in progressive sanctification. In partaking, then, the believer is strengthened in grace and faith by spiritually feeding on Christ.
What separates this view from the one that follows is that this gracious nourishment of faith occurs in a way that is unique from other forms of worship and devotion. The emphasis here is on what God is doing in the act of the believer’s partaking of the elements (i.e., graciously nourishing the believer’s faith), rather than what the believer himself is doing (i.e., remembering).
Testimonial. Still other Protestants, such as Baptists, believe the Lord’s Supper is a testimony.
I land in this final category. I believe the Bible teaches that partaking of the elements does not in itself communicate grace in a way that is unique to other forms of worship. In partaking, Christians merely testify to the efficacy of God’s grace already given on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice—grace that is given both at our conversion and continually through our Christian walk.
In saying this, though, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that partaking in the Lord’s Supper is of no spiritual benefit, or that we don’t experience the grace of God by our participation in it. God surely does meet the believer’s intense, active, worshipful remembrance with precious, undeserved grace.
Having said that, though, I don’t see anything in Scripture that leads me to believe that such grace and fellowship with Christ is unique to this experience. I believe Christians can have the same kind of worshipful, faith-strengthening fellowship with Christ as we remember His sacrifice in our morning prayer time, or during times of meditation on Scripture, or even during singing in worship along with the rest of the gathered assembly.
So, I believe that those who hold to the “nourishing” view and those who hold to the “testimony” view are much more unified than perhaps is often thought. The difference seems to boil down to how unique the grace experienced during this time of worship is from other times of worship.
The Presence of Christ
This brings us to the second question, namely: “How is Jesus present in the Lord’s Supper?” Here again, I see three options.
Actual / Essential Presence. Some believe that Christ is actually present in the Supper.
The famous Roman Catholic position on this question is called transubstantiation. That is, Christ is actually present in the elements because the elements actually become the body and the blood of Christ upon partaking of them. This is based on a poor interpretation of Jesus’ words in John 6. Jesus’ figurative language there is plain, as no one expects that we will never literally be hungry or thirsty after partaking of the elements (John 6:35).
Martin Luther rejected this understanding, but nevertheless believed Christ to be actually present “in, with, and under” the elements, a view called consubstantiation.
Manifest Spiritual Presence. John Calvin differed with Luther on this issue. Along with him, many Reformed churches today don’t believe that Christ is actually present in His essence with the elements, but that He uniquely manifests His presence spiritually, in a way that is unique from other forms of worship.
Present as Always. Finally, aside from the Actual/Essential view and the Manifest Spiritual view, other believers, including myself, view Christ’s presence in the Supper as none other than normal.
The argument here is that Christ is always present with His people by means of His indwelling Spirit. Rather than the meal uniquely conjuring Christ’s presence, the Lord’s Supper is a time that believers dedicate to remembering and benefiting from the presence of Christ that is always with us. As Robert Saucy puts it, “The efficacy of the Lord’s Supper is thus concerned not with a special presence of Christ but with the further enjoyment of His continual presence in the believer’s life” (The Church in God’s Program, 28). Thus, there is a “real presence” of Christ in the communion meal, but it is no different than the real presence of Christ in His word, or in the praises of the saints (cf. Ps 22:3).
In summary, then, I believe that the Lord’s Supper is primarily memorial, testimonial in its efficacy (since God’s grace is no more operative than in other forms of worship), and memorial when it comes to Christ’s presence (since Christ is no more present than in other forms of worship).
These conclusions, though, are more reflective of where my thinking currently stands in the process of study, rather than resolute conviction that comes at the end of adequate study. So what do you think? Have I described the views accurately? Are there issues I left out? Which positions do you take regarding the presence of Christ and the efficacy of the ordinance, and why?