Monday, May 25, 2009


A friend of mine brought up the question on his blog about whether the Lord's Supper is a gift from God to us, or if it is something that we do. I wish to share my response.

Keith Mathison’s book revolutionized the way I think about the Table years ago. It’s an excellent read. I highly recommend it. It’s called Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

For Calvin (and I believe the biblical view as well), the Table was not just a memorial, but it was the gift of Christ’s actual Body and Blood. As Mathison rightly notes, throughout Christian history, there were disputes over the *nature* of the Lord’s presence in the Table, but that presence was never denied until Zwingli in the Reformation.

The apostle calls the Table a “participation in the Body and Blood of Christ”. He also argues that we are to be in unity with one another as we partake. I see the Table as very much connected to the Word, in the same way that, when a husband and wife take their marriage vows (analogous to the Word), their vows are sealed and renewed every time they join in physical union in the act of making love (analogous to the Lord’s Table).

The Table, therefore, Calvin rightly saw as very much connected to our union with Christ. It strengthens our union with Christ, and, since we are the Body of Christ, with each other as fellow believers. It would hardly make sense to partake of the Table with someone we are at odds with, even as it would hardly make sense to partake of the act of making love with our spouse if we were at odds with him/her.

So, to neglect this great and mysterious sacrament is also to neglect one’s soul. Imagine if a husband and a wife hung out all the time, talked, enjoyed one another’s company, but only made love once a year. Or once a quarter. Or once every 2 months. Or even once a month. They are missing out on a great blessing…the blessing of a stronger and closer union and unity with one another.

Although Calvin believed that the elements remain bread and wine, he also truly believed that we receive the real and proper and natural Body and Blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Belgic Confession of Faith, I believe, does well in wording this mysterious truth as well. It is also found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (although not as developed), as well as the London Baptist Confession of Faith, as well as the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

So, Calvin’s view of the real and spiritual presence of Christ in the Table won the day at the Reformation. Luther’s view differed from his, but it would be wrong to think that Calvin was closer to Zwingli than to Luther. Calvin, along with Luther, condemned Zwingli’s view. He was much closer to Luther than to Zwingli. It is not quite correct to say that Calvin was a “middle road” between Luther and Zwingli. ***In fact, Calvin and the other Reformers believed that Zwingli was no different than Rome, in that, for Zwingli, the Table was something that *we did* to “remind” ourselves of what Christ had done to obey God, just like in Rome it is something the people do for God.*** But both Luther and Calvin rightly saw the Table as a gift–as something that *God* does for us in Christ.

And all of the above is only a quick glimpse into the riches of Calvin’s view! I am convinced that Calvin’s view was the biblical view as well. I highly suggest Mathison’s book, and Robert Letham’s quick book as well called The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread.

Thanks for bringing this excellent discussion up! I hope you are blessed as you see the gift of the Lord’s Supper for what it is.


Reid said...

Hey Josh,

I do not have Mathison's book. What main scriptures does he use to defend these views?

Apart from that, How are you my dear brother? I think of you often and even thought of you earlier as we both commented on Jim's run.

May God continue to sanctify us both!

~ Reid

Josh Brisby said...


Mathison goes much deeper than 1 Co 10 and 11 and the gospels where Jesus instituted the Supper. He also discusses the Passover, as well as the Passover liturgy (he gives a good argument from the Passover liturgy that I think helps settle the case against the Lutherans), and the many other OT meals and their significance.

We are doing well! Good to hear from you. How are you guys?

Anonymous said...

I have heard of the catholic view and thought all Protestants viewed communion differently (symbolically) Calvin's view makes a lot of sense to me. It seems that the more I press into theology, the farther back I have to go.

Josh Brisby said...


Yes. All Protestants differ with the Catholic view (called "transubstantiation") of the Table.

Among Protestants, there are three competing views of the Table. They are:

*The Zwinglian/memorial view. This view says that the Table is a reminder or memorial of what Christ did in His work. It does not believe Christ is present in the Table (except perhaps in the mind).

*The Lutheran view. This view believes that Christ is present "in, with, and under" the elements, and that we feed on His true body and true blood, physically, yet mysteriously. There is much connected to why Lutherans believe this in their theology.

*The Calvinist/spiritual presence view. This view was described on the blog post as well. It basically says that we receive Christ's true body and blood, but spiritually. It differs from Rome's view and the others.

I hope you are blessed as you take up and read into these wonderful things.

Gospel.or.Death said...

I just really, really object to this sex analogy. I just don't think it's accurate AT ALL to label preaching as taking wedding vows and to say that communion is like sex.

That analogy necessarily makes the importance of the Supper dwarf that of the Sermon. That analogy makes the Sermon really just a prelude to the Supper.

But HOW are we united to Christ if not by faith? And doesn't Paul say that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ in Rom 10:17? Why doesn't he say that faith comes from hearing - but REAL UNION comes by eating and drinking?

Don't get me wrong - PLEASE don't think I'm devaluing the sacrament. I think it should be done every week. I recognize the significance of the Emmaus incident in Luke 24. I think the sacrament is very important.

But to say that the Supper is more important than the Sermon is nothing less than Roman.

The Sermon is not a mere prelude to the Supper, or the vows that make taking the Supper legitimate. The Sermon is the REAL THING, while the Supper is a sign and seal of that real thing.

Furthermore, to say that anything for Christian pilgrims is analogous to sex tends toward an over-realized eschatology.

Are we in the age of the consummation? If anything can be compared with sex between Christ and his bride, it CERTAINLY has to be reserved for the Age to Come and glorification.

The Supper is a sign and seal of what takes place PRIMARILY in the preaching of the Word.

Another minor point: it's interesting how you speak of the Westminster Confession of Faith as being less developed than the Belgic Confession. But which one was written first?

I just think this whole debate that people have about the precise nature of the sacrament is distracting from where our focus ought to be, namely the proclamation of the Word of God. Christ IS the Word incarnate. When that WORD is preached, Christ is present. Christ is present in the Supper insofar as the Supper is a visible sign and seal of what was SAID in the proclamation of the Word.

The path that begins with valuing the Supper over the Sermon ends in mysticism and Rome.

Josh Brisby said...


I'm not sure how you came to the conclusion that I think the Supper is more important than the preaching of the Word. I have never said that, nor have I intended to.

I am saying that the Word and the Sacrament *need* *each other*. As Mathison rightly notes, without the preaching of the Word, the Sacrament loses all its meaning; and without the Sacrament, the Word is not properly sealed.

Gospel.or.Death said...

Josh, I never said that you said it explicitly, rather my claim was that your analogy claims it...implicitly. It is your analogy that I objected to so strongly. Nor am I opposed to weekly communion.

But I think you're hard pressed to say that the Word is deficient without the sacrament, since the Word is preached so many times in the New Testament with great effect and the sacrament isn't mentioned.

Furthermore, Paul does not say anything about the sacrament in Rom 10:17. He says faith comes from hearing the preached Word - full stop. He says nothing about the sacrament.

So on what grounds do you say that the preaching without the sacrament is somehow deficient? Isn't that what you mean by "unsealed"? Are you implying that it's ineffective?