The Lord’s Supper
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 96-97)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
Taking part in the Lord’s Supper is a high privilege given by God to his children. By it God blesses them, and by it they declare how our Creator redeemed his people out of the fallen human race. The practice of this important Sacrament has often been confused. It has become divorced from the covenant of which it is a part. Some attribute magical powers to the elements used. Others reduce it to little more than an object lesson. It is worth our time and effort to restore this part of worship to what God ordained it to be.
The Lord’s Supper is a Sacrament.
Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 96, “What is the Lord’s Supper?”
Answer: The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.
Westminster Confession of Faith 29:I. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in his church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body.
The Lord’s Supper was directly instituted by Jesus Christ as a continuing practice for the church during this era between his death and the final Judgment (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25). This has been the universal understanding and practice of Bible-based churches.
It is the covenant meal which fulfills the promises signified in the feast of Passover. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper while he partook of the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before his own sacrifice on the cross. He identified the bread as his body which was to be crucified on the cross the next day for the sins of his people. He also explained that the cup of wine represented the blood of the covenant in his own blood which was soon to be shed for them. Jesus is called “our Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:7), and “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).
The Mosaic Passover was prophetic in nature. The New Testament sacrament is not in every way the same as Passover. It fulfills what the covenant meal prefigured. Not all the particulars of it should be expected to apply to the fulfillment. Many of the details had to do with things that symbolized the coming of the Messiah as our sin bearer. Only what is specified by our Lord for the church applies to the Lord’s Supper. For example, we no longer celebrate this covenant meal in our own homes led by the head of the family unit just once each year. We don’t sacrifice a lamb. There is a requirement that all who partake now must discern the body of Christ, etc.
As a Sacrament, the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. It is a means by which true believers grow spiritually and are nourished when the elements are received in faith, and in the way God has specified in his covenant promises.
The benefits are not attached to the elements themselves apart from their proper use. When we rightly partake of this covenant meal we both receive God’s promised blessings and attest to our common commitments as believers and as members of Christ’s body, the church.
By partaking of the elements we come into union with Christ as a united covenant people. For this reason the Lord’s Supper is often called “Communion”.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.”
It is not an offering up of Christ as a sacrifice.
Westminster Confession of Faith 29:II. In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to his Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of himself, by himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same: so that the popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of his elect.
A common confusion arises from the Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper as the “Mass”. Contrary to that teaching, the Bible does not present this sacrament as a re-sacrificing of Jesus Christ. His once-for-all sacrifice is not to be repeated ritually. It is a sacramental practice to commemorate what has already been accomplished, and to seal its blessings upon proper recipients.
Its Appointed Administration
Westminster Confession of Faith 29:III. The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed his ministers to declare his word of institution to the people; to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation.
IV. Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone; as likewise, the denial of the cup to the people, worshiping the elements, the lifting them up, or carrying them about, for adoration, and the reserving them for any pretended religious use; are all contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.
The sacraments are to be administered only by those given the authority to do so by ordination to serve as shepherds of the people. The Elders are held responsible in Scripture for the right administration of all the elements of worship. They are the only ones recognized by God’s word to properly represent the gathered congregation before God in its times of convocational worship. Among the Elders, only those examined for their thorough understanding of the Biblical issues involved should lead in the Lord’s Supper. We commonly designate such Elders as Pastors or Teaching Elders. Most churches require them to complete seminary level training.
According to the institution given both by our Lord and the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, certain things should always be present in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Prayer should be offered. The word of God is to be expounded. The elements are to be clearly set apart for this special use. The words of Jesus (usually those in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) are recited. The elements are distributed to and partaken of by the members of Christ’s true church.
Since this is a communion of the church as a body of Christ, and since it is to be accompanied by the teaching of the word and the words of Christ, this sacrament should not be administered outside the called worship of the church under the oversight of its Elders. It should never be distributed later to those not present in the worship time.
The practice of taking the Lord’s Supper to people in private settings, or the administering of it to only the bride and groom at weddings, are in direct violation of this biblical principle. It is therefore contrary to the teachings of the Westminster Confession of Faith and most importantly to the word of God in Scripture. This practice reflects either a superstitious view of the elements as if they have some power or quality infused into them, or a diminishing of their sacramental use as if they are mere object lessons, endearing ceremonial trappings, or signs, but not seals, of God’s Covenant of Grace.
The administration of the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins, or to those unable for physical reasons to attend the convocations of the church, should always include all the biblical elements of the Sacrament. To honor God’s word Pastors and the Elders of the church will sometimes call a worship time at the bedside of those who are disabled. The word is taught, other believers are present as a congregation, and all the things required for its rightful administration are included in the presence of those partaking. The details of this are far beyond the scope if this present lesson, and get into the portions of the Bible that teach about those God calls to minister to his people during this present era.
Other abuses of this sacrament such as limiting the cup to only those administering it, or the carrying around or venerating of the elements, are pure inventions of men and are contrary to the biblical practice instituted by our Lord and reported by the Apostles in Scripture. They are usually attached because of an improper understanding of how the elements of bread and wine convey the blessings promised in the Covenant.
The outward elements remain
unchanged in substance and nature
Westminster Confession of Faith 29:V. The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.
VI. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation) by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; overthroweth the nature of the sacrament, and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries.
VII. 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.
The physical elements of a Sacrament convey blessings due to the promise attached to them, rather than by any power or change in the actual elements themselves. They ought to be rightly received and administered, while leaving the blessing part to God who alone is the author of our every spiritual benefit.
When Jesus administered the bread and wine at his last Passover supper with his apostles, he explained that the bread was his body and the wine was the new covenant in his blood. There could have been no confusion in the minds of those present. In that context, nothing indicates that he was speaking of a physical transformation which would mean that what he called bread was no longer bread as they understood it, nor that what he gave them as wine was anything other than what God’s laws of Passover required it to be. There is nothing to make us expect that his command to continue the sacrament implied that the elements would be any different after his resurrection.
The medieval doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the whole substance of the bread is changed into the literal physical body of Jesus, and that the wine is changed in substance into the literal blood of Jesus. This view protects itself from the obvious objections by saying that they continue to have the outward characteristics of bread and wine, but they are no longer what they appear to be.
This view was taken up by the Roman church. It led to superstitions about the power and efficacy of the elements themselves. The bread is sometimes paraded around invoking followers to worship it and to expect actual blessings to flow from its mere presence. Extreme measures have been taken to keep the leftovers of the consecrated bread or wine from being treated with disrespect, since they are believed to remain the body and blood of Jesus even outside the context of the administration of the sacrament. The administration of the elements have been guarded so that no crumbs of the sacred body or drops of our Savior’s true blood would fall accidentally. A special wafer was designed to replace the bread so that it would be laid intact into the mouth of the participant and could not produce crumbs.
The Lutheran view was a modified form of the Roman doctrine. Their view is often called consubstantiation. Though they also believed that in consecration the actual physical body and blood of our Lord became present in, with, and under the elements, nevertheless the real bread and wine remain also.
Most of the confusion which led to these extreme positions has to do with a basic misunderstanding of the concept of the sacramental relationship which unites the outward forms with that which they represent. Those who hold to those views put a very unnatural reading upon the words of Jesus when he said, “this is my body”. Throughout Scripture figures of speech are used where the thing representing something is spoken of in terms of the thing it represents. Though Jesus calls his disciples the light of the world and the salt of the earth, they are not transformed into photons or Sodium Chloride crystals. There are many classical discussions of this issue and we will not try to reproduce all the details of the arguments here.
In response to these abuses some have taken a view often called Memorialism. It reduces the entire Sacrament to an object lesson denying that the body and blood of Christ are received in any real sense at all.
The position of the Reformed churches differs from these other schools of theology. The classic Reformed symbols indicate that there is a real presence of Christ in the elements, but it is not a physical presence. By virtue of God’s promise we partake of Christ’s body and blood spiritually, receiving the benefits of his covenantal presence when those rightly partaking trust in God’s assurance that blessing will accompany this means of grace.
Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 97: What is required for the worthy receiving of the Lord’s Supper?
Answer: It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves.
Westminster Confession of Faith 29:VIII. 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.
Those who receive the elements of the Lord’s Supper in ignorance or with a wicked intent cannot receive the blessing promised. God looks upon the heart and blesses only those who come as he specifies in his word.
Paul carefully instructed the church at Corinth about the right reception of the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11 he wrote,
23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread;
24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.
27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.
32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
33 Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.
34 But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.
Those who receive the elements without faith in, or awareness of what they represent, and of the church gathered as the body of Christ, are unworthy receivers. They bring condemnation upon themselves rather than blessing. For this reason most Reformed churches require communicants to be qualified by the examination of the Elders in order to be admitted to the Lord’s table. Children and new members must show that they are acting with understanding and a credible faith in Christ before they are welcomed to this Sacrament.
Some admit all baptized children on the basis of their covenantal union in the body of Christ. The admitting of children is called Paedo-Communion. Study committees in most Reformed bodies have not been convinced by the arguments offered to support this concept, but it is a worthy issue for study, and challenges us to improve our understanding of the Sacraments and of their Covenant nature.
The many detailed practices of the ancient celebration of the Passover are not brought over into the New Testament era without change. Most believe that the caution Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 shows one of the ways in which the prefiguring of the Lord’s Supper changed as it came into its fulfilled form.
Since the Lord’s Supper is a means by which God extends his work of grace in the believer, those admitted to the Sacrament should not abstain from it. It is a good time for confessing sin and renewing commitments to the Lord. The idea that one must first have made full restitution for the effects of all his sins is neither biblical nor reasonable. Passages relating to the Levitical sacrificial system and its demands for outward purity should not be transposed into the New Testament era in a way that keeps a truly repentant believer from taking advantage of this important means of grace.
There are many issues which have engaged the church in the study of this Sacrament. Some say fermented wine should always be used, while others insist on the use of unfermented grape juice. Some demand that the bread be unleavened, while others prefer the ordinary leavened bread in common use. Some receive the elements while remaining seated as a congregation. Others come to the front of the church and kneel while receiving it. Some eat and drink each element as it is received while others wait until all have been served then partake as a congregation. Some administer the sacrament every Sunday, others monthly, some quarterly.
These are fascinating areas of discussion and have been used by God to provoke his people into studies that explore the depths of his word for answers. Great caution should be exercised regarding these differences lest things not directly addressed in God’s word should be used by the enemy of our faith to divide us and derail our joint efforts to preserve true biblical worship, individual spiritual maturity, and the declaration of the gospel to the world. The members of local churches should submit to the judgment of the Elders of the church in such matters as these, unless they find sound biblical cause to do otherwise.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)