The Reformed doctrine of the Lord's Supper is intimately connected with the two great mysteries of the incarnation and the personal union of believers with Christ. The Holy Communion has its profound roots in the one mystery, and its precious fruits in the other. Christ did not say, "This do in remembrance of My death.'' To make it simply a memorial of His sufferings on the cross is to belittle the ordinance, and presumptuously to restrict the meaning of the words of institution: "Do this in remembrance of Me." Christ Himself, in His Divine fullness, and not any part of His person or of His history, is the subject and the substance of the sacrament. His death as the sacrifice for sin, though it is the central point, is but a small part of the history of His relation to His redeemed people; and the importance and efficacy of this fact depend on what precedes and follows it. The cross of Jesus would be no more to us than the cross of the penitent thief, if He were not the Incarnate Son and Word of God, and if His cross were not inseparably connected with His resurrection and ascension to glory.
The sacrament is founded upon and leads us to His one indivisible Person, which is the reservoir of all Divine fullness for our salvation. He is not, and cannot be, divided. His human nature never had, and never can have, any existence separate from His Deity. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and was the Son of God from the moment of His conception. His human soul and His human body were separated for three days, when the one descended to Hades (Acts 2:27, 31), and the other lay in the tomb; but neither was parted for a moment from His Divine nature. Moreover, since the incarnation Christ's Divine nature does not exert any saving power, nor bestow any gracious gift upon men, except in and through His human nature. The Son of God was from the beginning the living Word of the Father, the life and the light of men; and now since the Word became Flesh, it is the Son of Man who has power on earth to forgive sins, and is exalted a Prince and a Savior to give repentance and remission. By its union with the Divine nature the humanity of Christ is infinitely exalted. It was so even on earth; the touch of His finger was life-giving, and there was virtue in the hem of His garment. The light of God which transfigured Him on the mount came from within. It follows from this that wherever Christ is there is His human as well as His Divine nature. His human nature is virtually omnipresent, because it is inseparably and forever united to the Divine.
The incarnation of the Son of God accomplishes its chief purpose in the personal union of the believer with Him. This union is a great mystery (Eph. 6:32). But its mystery is no hindrance to our faith in its reality nor to our experimental knowledge of its blessedness. The Scriptures in which it is asserted are numerous, varied, and explicit. The sixth chapter of John, the farewell address of Christ, and the intercessory prayer are full of it. We are one with Him, even as He is one with the Father, as the branch is one with the vine, as the husband is one with the wife, as the members are one with the body. The union is not only legal, but vital. He dwells in us, and we in Him; and "when He who is our life shall appear, then shall we also appear with Him in glory." It is trifling to set aside these Scripture statements as mere figures of speech. The figures fall short of the profound reality which they illustrate. It is no less trifling to resolve the mystery of this personal union with Christ into the indwelling of His Spirit in the souls of believers. It is accomplished by the indwelling of the Spirit, and therefore additional to it, and not identical with it. Our bodies as well as our souls are united to Christ, — our whole nature to His one Person. His saving work for us and in us will reach its consummation in the "redemption of our body." (Rom. 8:23) When the Christian dies, he "sleeps in Jesus." "The souls of believers at death, being made perfect in holiness, pass immediately into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in the grave till the resurrection." 1
Now, both the everlasting unity of Christ's person and our personal union with Him are signified, exhibited, and brought home to our experience in the Lord's Supper. This is the chief end for which it was instituted. "It was designed to signify and effect our communion with Christ in His person, in His offices, and in their precious fruits." 2
It is only by being made partakers of Christ Himself that we can partake of His benefits; and therefore the res sacramenti, the thing signified, sealed, and applied in the Holy Supper, is not merely the sacrificial virtue of His death, nor the benefits He procures for us by His sacrifice and intercession, but the personal Christ, once crucified, now risen and glorified forever. He plainly asserts the necessity of this personal union with Himself in words (John 6:53-57) which, if they are not intended to describe the Lord's Supper, are certainly applicable to it; for Paul makes the application (in 1 Cor. 10:16) when he declares that the bread we break and the cup of blessing we bless is the communion (the koinonia, the actual participation) of the body and blood of Christ, — that is, of His Divine yet human person. "This I say, then, that in the mystery of the Supper, by the symbols of bread and wine, Christ, His body and blood, are truly exhibited to us; first, that we might become one body with Him; and secondly, that, being made partakers of His substance, we might feel the results of this fact in the participation of all His blessings." 3 In his commentary on the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians, Calvin asserts the same great truth still more strongly. 4
The first question relates to the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. In common language the idea of presence is usually restricted to local nearness and to discernment by the bodily senses. Yet even in common language a much wider conception of its meaning is often indicated. We say of another that he is present with us when we know that he is sitting behind a screen at the farther end of the same room, or in another room of the same house. Two hearers are present in the same audience without recognizing each other. We speak of the presence of the sun when it shines on us. A blind man would use the same language. Presence, therefore, even in common language, does not depend upon local nearness nor upon sense perception. One person is present with another wherever he reveals himself and makes his influence felt by the other; and even where such revelation is made and such influence exerted, though they are accepted and realized by some and not by others of the same company. On a bright day at a funeral the sun is as really present with the corpse as with the living mourners.
All Christians who believe in the Lord's Supper at all, believe also that Christ is present in it. The whole contention is about the mode of that presence. Many who admit its reality virtually deny it in their attempts to explain it, — those, for example, who make it a mere conception in the mind of believers. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms assert that "Christ's body and blood are present to the faith of the receiver no less truly than the elements themselves are to their outward senses." Their bodily senses do not produce, but only perceive, the presence of the elements. They are present to a blind man, though he does not see them. And so Faith perceives, but does not create nor secure, the presence of Christ's body and blood. It is as real to those who do not discern the Lord's body as to those who do. While we fully agree, with Hooker, that they who hold that Christ's body and blood are "externally seated in the very consecrated elements themselves," are driven either to incorporate Him with the sacramental elements or to transubstantiate their substance into His, we cannot accept the inference that "the real presence of Christ's most blessed body and blood is not to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament.” 5 Surely there is a broad and tenable ground between seating Christ externally in the elements and confining Him to the thoughts and experiences of the communicants. The two extremes meet, and are equally objectionable in this point, that they limit and localize the Savior's presence.
No less objectionable is the theory which identifies Christ's presence in the sacrament with the omnipresence of the Divine nature. This, like the preceding notion, belongs to Zwinglianism in its lowest form, and cannot be reconciled to the Scripture doctrine of the person of Christ. The Romish Church is consistent with Scripture and with the teaching of all the Reformed Confessions when she insists that Christ's presence in the sacrament includes His human as well as His Divine nature, His body and blood as well as His Deity, But when she insists that this personal and real presence involves the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into His Deity and humanity, we deny and protest against the assumption. We reject also the theory of a local presence in, with, or under the sacred symbols. Presence, as applied in Scripture and in our theology to the theanthropic person of Christ, has nothing to do with locality or limitation of any kind. 6 It refers to influence and manifestation. His whole human nature, body and soul, being forever united to His Divine nature, is virtually omnipresent; that is to say, its influence can be exerted and manifested anywhere, according to His Divine will. The ultimate source of such influence and manifestation, of course, is in His Divine nature; but they are exerted and put forth in and through His human nature.
This use of the word "presence" is perfectly consistent, as already shown, with the popular use of language. It is consistent also with Christ's own promises: "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." "Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them." To resolve such promises into the presence of the Holy Spirit is to belittle and utterly to confuse them. Christ does not make a difference in His promises without a corresponding difference in the things to which they refer. His promised presence, though invisible and intangible, and in that sense spiritual, is nevertheless personal, real, and objective; that is, outside and independent of our apprehensions of it. This spiritual but real presence of Christ is specially promised and covenanted to us in the Lord's Supper. The consecrated bread and wine are not merely the symbols of His body and blood, but the Divine seals of the covenant whereby Christ and all His benefits are not only represented, but applied to us; and therefore their use is the koinonia, the actual participation of Christ's body and blood by every believing communicant. "If they are 'seals' of the covenant, they must, of course, as a legal form of investiture, actually convey the grace represented to those to whom it belongs; as a deed conveys an estate, or the key, handed over in the presence of witnesses, the possession of a house from the owner to the renter. ... It is the authoritative appointment of Christ that these signs, rightly used, shall truly represent and convey the grace they signify." 7 The grace signified is the fullness of the Godhead dwelling bodily in Christ (Col. 2:9). His body and blood are specially mentioned and emphasized, because it is through His humanity that the Divine nature is brought into union with us and His Divine power made efficacious for our salvation, and also because it is in regard to His coming in the flesh, His sacrificial death, and His glorification as our representative that our faith most needs to be confirmed.
This will be more apparent in our answer to the second question: What does the believer receive in the Lord's Supper? The unbeliever receives nothing but bread and wine. Here the Reformed doctrine differs radically from both the Romish and the Lutheran. 8 The unbelieving communicant is guilty of or concerning the body and blood of the Lord, not because he eats and drinks them without faith, but because, having no true faith, he does not eat and drink them at all. 9 They are present and offered to him as truly as to the believer; but he neither discerns nor receives them. He is guilty, not because he is personally unworthy, as all communicants are, but because he eats and drinks unworthily, in a way not suitable to the nature and design of the sacrament. The thing there signified, Christ truly exhibits and offers to all who sit down at that spiritual feast. 10 But just as the rain falling on the hard rock runs away because it cannot penetrate, so the unbelieving repel the grace of God, and prevent it from reaching them. "They bring death on themselves, not by receiving Christ unworthily, but by rejecting Him." 11
But the believing communicant receives and appropriates that which the unbeliever ignores and rejects. The bread and wine are called Christ's body and blood because our Lord, by holding forth these symbols, gives us at the same time that of which He has chosen them to be the signs and the seals; for Christ is not a deceiver, to mock us with empty representations. The reality is conjoined with the sign; or, in other words, we do not less truly become participants in Christ's body and blood in respect of their spiritual efficacy than we partake of the bread and wine.
It should be remembered, however, that the body and blood of Christ cannot be separated from Christ Himself, and that no saving benefit can be received from Him unless we are vitally united to His person. His body and blood represent His whole person and offices, His merits, the sacrificial virtue of His death, and all His benefits, both of grace and of glory. This is evident from His own words in John 6:51-57; and this mode of speaking is adopted especially with reference to the Lord's Supper, because we cannot be made partakers of His Divine nature except in and through His humanity. "For the flesh of Christ is the conduit that conveys the graces of the Godhead and the graces of the Spirit of Christ into our souls, which otherwise than by His body we could not receive." 12 It is plainly the doctrine of the Standards of the Presbyterian Church that the believing communicant receives not only the sacrificial virtue of Christ's death, but Christ Himself in all the fullness of His Divine and human nature. "Sacraments are holy signs and seals to represent Christ and His benefits, and to confirm our interest in Him." 13 "Wherein Christ and the benefits of the New Covenant are represented sealed and applied to believers." 14
2. A.A. Hodge, Commentary on WCF
3. Calvin, Institutes
4. Calvin, Commentary on 1 Cor. 11:24-36
In the light of the incarnation and the personal union of believers with Christ, we may undertake to answer certain questions which go to the root of the whole doctrine as to the design and efficacy of the Lord's Supper.
5. Hooker, Ecc. Pol.
6. That participation in the body of Christ which I affirm does not require a local presence, nor the descent of Christ, nor infinite extension, nor anything of that nature. His communicating Himself to us is effected through the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit, which cannot merely bring together, but join in one things which are separated by distance of place. In short, that He may be present with us He does not change His place, but communicates to us from heaven the virtue of His flesh as though it were present. Calvin, Commentary on 1 Cor. 11:23-26.
7. A.A. Hodge, Commentary on the Westminster Confession
8. WCF 29.7
9. 39 Articles, Art. 29
10. “Christ's body and blood be offered by God unto all, yet they are received by such only as have the hand of faith to lay hold on Christ; and these, with the bread and wine, spiritually receive Christ, with all His saving graces. The wicked receive only the outward elements”. Ussher, Body of Divinity,
11. Calvin, Institutes 4.17.33
12. Isaac Ambrose, “Looking to Jesus.”
13. WCF 27.1
The Church, Her Ministry and Sacraments: Lectures delivered on the L. P. Stone foundation at Princeton theological seminary in 1890 by Henry J. Van Dyke