The Reformed church of yesteryear had a more biblically rich, complex and theologically accurate view of the Lord’s Supper than 99% of those claiming the Reformed banner today. Not only did the magisterial Reformers take time in sermons, tracts, commentaries and writings on the subject of the Lord’s Supper, but because of their break with Roman Catholicism’s doctrine of transubstantiation, they had to biblically and solidly prove that their position was not only superior, but more biblically accurate. They did this easily, but extensively.
Most of the 21st century church does not adhere to Calvin’s view, or the Reformed view, of the Lord’s Supper. Instead, they have adopted the counter Reformation view of Ulrich Zwingli, who was not only opposed by Luther and Melancthon, but also Calvin and those that followed Reformed Doctrine in Geneva.
Later, we will discuss Zwingli’s view, here, we look at Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper which was highly influenced by Augustine.
Here is what Calvin taught about the Lord’s Supper –
Calvin said that a sacrament is an outward sign that seals on our consciences the promise of God and His good will to us in the Gospel. It is a visible sign of a sacred thing, and a form of invisible grace. It is the visible words of God. The sacraments bring the clearest promises; and they have this characteristic over and above the word because they represent them for us as painted in a picture from life.
Sacraments are signs of God’s covenants. They are tokens of the covenant. They are exercises which make us more certain of the trustworthiness of God’s word.
They are only positively efficacious for us when we partake of them by regenerating grace. They are negatively efficacious for those who partake unworthily, calling down the curses of the covenant for covenant breakers. They are instruments of God and are only useful insofar as God uses them as instruments.
The sacraments, in and of themselves, do not impart grace. Instead, like the word of God, they present Christ to us. In the elect alone the sacraments effect what they represent. We receive their reception of God’s grace as we partake of them in faith. If one receives the sacrament carnally, the sacrament does not cease to be spiritual, but it is not so for them. God truly executes whatever He promises and represents in signs.
The Supper, then, extends to us the body of Christ which is in heaven. Union with Christ is crucial to Calvin’s understanding of the Supper. Christ is the life-giving bread that has come down from heaven and upon which our souls feed unto true blessedness (John 6:55). Christ is invisible food and invisible drink for us to feed upon. We are members of His flesh and bones, and the bond of this union is the Spirit of Christ.
Christ is present in the Supper by way of the sign of the bread and wine. The name of the thing, that is the body and blood of Christ, is transferred to the thing signified. These signs presuppose the presence of Christ and manifests that presence via those signs. They are real grace signified and sealing real things exemplified in their signs of grace. Christ said, “This is my body…” Calvin concurs. But he asks, “In what sense?” The expression is figurative. The bread is Christ’s body, and the wine is His blood. But these elements hold forth Christ to us, which demonstrate the truth of the reality for those who partake by faith. The reality is conjoined with the sign. Calvin rightly says that we do not less truly become participants in Christ’s body in respect of spiritual efficacy, than we partake of the bread. Calvin says, “In His sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink His body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.” (Institutes 4:17.10)
What is Calvin saying in all this? Simply, let us use a modern marvel of technological wonder to explain what Calvin is saying about the Supper. It is as simple as a cell phone. When you call someone, you enter into your contacts list that list the person’s name and number. There you have a visible representation of ideas formed in your mind about that person. When I see the name “Mr. Black”, I have all sorts of information running in my mind about who “Mr. Black” is. I can tell you that I have never met Mr. Black face to face. I have never sat with him at dinner. But I have, countless times, emailed Mr. Black about all sorts of things concerning theological issues and publishing books. But I have never met Mr. Black. I am sure that if I sat down with Mr. Black and talked with him face to face, the experience of that would be far more satisfying than simply seeing him in my cell phone, or emailing him, or even talking with him by phone. My experience with him is limited to WORDS. In the same way, the cell phone is much like the sacrament that demonstrates to us the visibility of the Word of God, and Christ. Christ, though, is in heaven. However, through the cell phone of the sacrament the conduit, which is the Spirit, unites us with Jesus Christ, really and truly, but not as fully as “face to face.” For now, we will have to be satisfied with a cell phone conversation of His real presence with us, in this case through the bread and wine that truly connect us to Him, and we will long for the day that those spiritual sacraments, those spiritual cell phones are done away with, and we will sit down with the Lord in the fullness of His glory.
Is this not better and more theologically rich than just thinking of the Lord’s Supper as some memorial service with no connection to Christ? Truly, Calvin’s doctrine, the Reformed Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was exceedingly rich, and more importantly, biblically consistent with the Bible’s means of grace for us. More later…