Reformed Efficacy in the Supper
There are many conversations that we need to be having in the church today. While there are a great many threats to the purity of Christ’s church from both within and without, it is not a healthy posture to constantly seek out dividing lines of orthodoxy from one group to the next. There are most definitely times and places where we must dig our heels in and stand the line against error. I am not trying to diminish that, but I am suggesting that we also need to be having serious, uncomfortable, and passionate discussions and charitable debates with our brothers about things that matter. There is a whole host of issues that need to be addressed, one of which is our sacramental theology, specifically regarding the Lord’s Supper. To many today, this doctrine is very insignificant (matched almost by the insignificance of its practice). This is a tragedy, at least for the ecumenically minded among us.
Historically we know that one of the main reasons that the Protestants could not unite after the Reformation began was the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. There was a substantial division between Luther and Zwingli, representing both major strands of the magisterial reformation. To dismiss these differences is to trivialize the struggles that the Lutherans and Reformed had to try and unite. If we are to have brotherly conversations with each other, we cannot simply discuss our differences today and expect to “come together” in some Kumbaya moment. The differences we have today are built upon the differences that defined our churches. With a view toward history, the Reformed will also recognize that there is a wide breadth in their own sacramental theology as well. Calvin’s view is, historically, much closer to Luther’s than to Zwingli’s, for instance.
While a great number of things could be talked about for this piece I wanted to discuss a couple things from the Westminster Confession. The Confession was the consensus document that brought a number of views together, yet it still takes a higher view of the sacraments than many contemporary Reformed people seem to today. First, I want to briefly discuss how Christ is related to the sacrament, and secondly, I want to briefly discuss its efficacy more broadly.
The Real Presence
“Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.” - WCF 29.7
Here the Confession asserts that believers “really...feed upon” the crucified body and blood of Christ. As bread and wine nourish and sustain us physically, so too does the flesh and blood of Christ nourish us spiritually. The distinction is made between what is “real” and what is “carnal” and “corporeal”. If you are not comfortable with the idea that we are really and truly feasting on Christ’s flesh and blood, then you must object to the Confession at this point. It must be asserted by those who hold the Confession at this point that spiritually feasting on Christ is really feasting on Christ. The way many of our Lutheran brothers and sisters speak, they hold to the real presence of Christ in the Supper to be in contra-distinction from the spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper. In order to be really present in the Supper, Christ must be physically present.
Scripture, however, teaches that both the spiritual and physical experiences are “real”. Christ promises to be present wherever two or three are gathered in His name. Most certainly this means that Christ is really present (or he would be a liar), and yet he is not physically present. To argue that a spiritual experience is less real than a physical experience is more gnostic than Christian. So while there are most certainly differences that need to be established between the Lutheran and the Reformed on the Supper, the “real presence” of Christ should not be one of those differences. How do we spiritually eat Christ’s flesh and blood as we are carried up to feast on him in heaven? I have no problem saying that this is a mystery and I do not know how we spiritually feast upon Christ, but I know that we do.
Unto Grace or Judgement
“Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him, so are they unworthy of the Lord's table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.” - WCF 29.8
The sacraments are one of what are normally called the means of grace. The Reformed believe (as well as Lutherans) that the efficacy of the sacraments, by that I mean the conferring of grace, is attached to faith. It is the Spirit that works and not the signs themselves. That being said, the Reformed do believe that when the Christian partakes in the Supper in faith (believing the promises of God) the blessings and grace of God are conferred to “worthy receivers” (WCF 27.3). For unworthy receivers, however, the Supper also confers something. This is not a conferring of grace, however, it is a conferring of judgment. As our confession states, they are “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation”. If the Spirit nourishes the believer who partakes in faith, we see that the Spirit afflicted professing believers in Corinth who ate unworthily with weakness, illness, and in some cases death (1 Cor. 11.30). What we see in the Supper then is that the Spirit is the efficacious agent and that the Spirit confers blessing or curse upon those who would feast upon Christ. In short, in the Supper God acts because he has promised to act.
There are a great many other questions regarding the Supper that we need to discuss: how frequently to partake, what methods are to be used in the administration, what requirements of fencing the table are both commanded and/or wise, and even at what age it is appropriate for baptized children to come to the table. I have made an effort to scratch the surface regarding a few details of the efficacy of the sacrament. It is a very insufficient treatment of the topic, but it is a call for brothers and sisters in Christ to take this sacrament seriously and to have these discussions. Know what you believe, and be fair with the beliefs of others. Have conversations (and at times debates) with those whom you agree and those whom you disagree. I have not interacted dogmatically with Lutheran theology on the Supper, but have expressed frustrations in conversations that I have witnessed and taken a part of, and done so with both frankness and a spirit of love. Toward that end, I hope that more people will read broadly and be charitable with others. Hopefully, we will start to treat the Supper, and the sacraments more generally, as seriously as our fathers in the faith did, because these things matter. Hopefully, we will not only talk but also listen. Hopefully one day we will see brothers and sisters start tearing down denominational differences not because theology doesn’t matter, but rather because we have wrestled with each other and have become the John 17 church that Christ instructed us to be. Hopefully one day we can actually reform our churches in ways our fathers failed to do so.