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Next to justification, there was no issue more fiercely debated during the Reformation than the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. Although the Reformers did not always agree among themselves as to the meaning of the Supper, they were unified in their opposition to the Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation. Using categories from Aristotle, Catholic theologians taught that the substance of the bread and wine were changed, while the accidents remained the same. Thus the elements were transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ, but still retained the outer appearance of bread and wine.

According to Catholic teaching, when Jesus held up the bread and said "this is my body" he meant "this loaf of bread is my actual, real physical flesh." The Reformers all agreed in deriding this view as nonsensical (the seventeenth century preacher John Tillotson was the first to speculate that there was a connection between the Latin phrase hoc est corpus meum ["this is my body"] and the magician's formula hocus pocus). Protestants have argued that Jesus was employing a figure of speech in the Upper Room. Just as "I am the good Shepherd" did not mean Jesus tended little animals that go baa-baa, and "I am the gate" did not mean Jesus swung on hinges, and "whoever believes in me...out of his heart will flow rivers of living water" did not mean that the disciples would rupture a valve with H20, so "this is my body" did not mean "this loaf is my Aristotellian defined flesh and bone" (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4).

Luther and his followers rejected transubstantiation, but they did not completely reject a real physical presence of Christ. In affirming consubstantiation, Lutherans have argued that though the bread remains real bread and the wine real wine, nevertheless the physical presence of Christ is there also, "in, with, and under" the elements.

A third view of the Lord's Supper, called the memorial view, is often attributed to Ulrich Zwingli, though it's not clear this captures the fullness of his thought. In this view, communion is simply a feast of remembrance. There is nothing mystical and no real presence to fuss about. The bread and wine remain plain old bread and wine. They serve as a reminder of Christ's sacrifice, a memorial to his death for our sins.

The fourth view--and in my mind the correct view–is normally associated with John Calvin. Calvin believed the Supper was a feast of remembrance, but he believed it was a feast of communion too. He believed in a real presence, a real spiritual presence whereby we feast on Christ by faith and experience his presence through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, by faith, we "share in his true body and blood" (Q/A 79).

No one doubts that the Lord's Supper is, at least in part, a memorial. We remember the Last Supper and remember Christ's death (1 Cor. 11:23, 26). And as we remember his passion in the past, we proclaim his death until he comes again in the future. But the Lord's Supper is more than mere mental cognition. 1 Corinthians 10:16 says, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ?" When we drink the cup and eat the break, we participate in, and have fellowship with, the body and blood of Christ. We are joined to him and experience a deep, spiritual koinonia with him. We gain spiritual nourishment from him (John 6:53-57) and unite as believers around him (1 Cor. 10:17). Christ is truly present with us at the Table.

A Meal, Not a Sacrifice

As important as it is to understand the significance of the Lord’s Supper, it’s just as important that we understand it is a supper we are celebrating. The sacramental feast is a meal, not a sacrifice. The last sentence in the previous paragraph is essential, not only because of the first clause (about Christ’s presence), but also because of the last word. In celebrating Communion, we come to a table, not to an altar. Among all the critical rediscoveries during the Reformation, it is easy to overlook the importance of recovering the Lord’s Supper as a covenantal meal (not a re-presenting of Christ’s atoning death) with all the elements (bread and cup) distributed to every believer (no longer withholding the cup from the laity). The Lord's Supper acts as a family table where we can enjoy fellowship with each other and with our Host, partaking of the rich feast of blessings purchased for us at the cross.

I fear that in too many churches the Lord's Supper is either celebrated so infrequently as to be forgotten or celebrated with such thoughtless monotony that churchgoers endure it rather than enjoy it. The Lord's Supper is meant to nourish and strengthen us. The Lord knows our faith is weak. That's why he's given us sacraments to see, taste, and touch. As surely as you can see the bread and cup, so surely does God love you through Christ. As surely as you chew the food and drain the drink, so surely has Christ died for you. Here at the Table the faith becomes sight. The simple bread and cup give assurance that Christ came for you, Christ died for you, Christ is coming again for you. Whenever we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we not only re-proclaim the Lord's death until he comes again (1 Cor. 11:26), we re-convince ourselves of God's provision on the cross.

Don’t discount God's preferred visual aids--baptism and the Lord’s Supper--and jump right to video, drama, and props to get people's attention. What a mistake to think these "signs and seals" will be anywhere as effective as the ones instituted by Christ himself. Pastors who ignore the sacraments or never instruct the congregation to understanding and appreciate them are robbing God’s people of tremendous encouragement in their Christian walk. What a blessing to hear the gospel, and eat it too

Of course, this eating and drinking must be undertaken in faith for it to be effectual. The elements themselves do not save us. But when we eat and drink them in faith we can be assured that we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. More than that, we get a picture of our union with Christ. As we eat the bread and drink the cup, we have communion with him, not by dragging Christ down from heaven, but by experiencing his presence through the Holy Spirit. Let us not come to the Lord's Supper with drudgery and low expectations. If you shed a tear at the Table, let it not be out of boredom but out of gratitude and sheer wonder and delight. “While all our hearts and all our songs join to admire the feast, each of us cries, with thankful tongue, ‘Lord, why was I a guest?'”

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24 thoughts on “The Reformation Gave Us a Seat at the Table”

  1. WoundedEgo says:

    As I understand the scriptures the bread and the wine were just two parts of the Jewish seder and “as often as you do it” referred to the celebration of the seder. As such it does not relate to anyone but the Jews. In fact, the new covenant, like the Sinai covenant were given only to the Jews. “To them belong the covenants”.

    This is a case of “reading other people’s mail”.

    Heb_8:8 but God found something wrong with his people when he said, “Look! The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

  2. Neville Briggs says:

    So drinking the cup and eating the bread is to proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Sounds easy.
    But for centuries the “church’ has argued and fought over this simple memorial. What does that proclaim about the church ? That far from remembering , the church has lost the plot.

    It should be noted that the main element in the disgraceful saga of heresy hunting and disputing has been the power play of the clergy system.

    I still puzzle over the fact that in the memorial meals we have, e’g’ Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, we get a substantial meal. In the Lord’s memorial all we get is a thimbleful of juice and a tiny piece of dry biscuit. is that all the Lord is worth ?

  3. anaquaduck says:

    Church worship services are usually at different times to family meal times. I think if I sat next to Neville at a meal I might be reminded of all the negative things regarding the body of Christ.

    It is an awesome thing to remember what God did on the cross as the bread & the wine/juice point to that. God’s covenant of Grace revealed to Abraham & his spiritual seed.

  4. Neville Briggs says:

    The great prophets Jeremiah, Elijah were accused of being constantly negative. I’m not in their league but I am happy to share that same personal insult for the sake of truth.

    In the meantime we can all relax , take it easy, like the foolish virgins who had no oil for their lamps when the bridegroom arrived. Too late, too late, should have been awake. Nagging them about their lack of preparation I suppose would have been just so negative.

  5. Simon says:

    The Catholic usage of Aristotellian categories here is not the substance of their theology on the Lord’s supper, but only a way to describe what the church had always – in their opinion anyway – taught. There are many reasons as to why we should conclude that this is what the Church always taught – not least because the doctrine is shared in common with the other two ancient Christian communions, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. So it is the universal witness of the majority of orthodox Christendom. I would agree that trying to use Aristotellian categories here is problematic because I think it bore fruit in Protestant hyper rationalisation of the Lord’s Supper. It is the disenchantment of the world, which we see go forward in the Reformation, that has ultimately led to secularism in my opinion. Nothing is sacred. It is just the material and nothing more. Faith and grace could not be mediated through material elements. This is the beginning of the material world view.

    Just a quick note regarding sacrifice. Sacrifices offered in the OT actually became sacred meals. Goats were sacrificed and then actually eaten. I’m not sure what you think they did with these sacrifices after the burning. It was both sacrifice and meal. This is, of course, what the Church re-interpreted around Christ’s sacrifice. Having the altar as the focal point of the church is, therefore, completely appropriate.

    Finally, to say that remembrance is the primary function of the Lord’s Supper is to sentimentalize the sacrament. It makes the whole practice completely abstract. You won’t find support for this view in ancient Christendom. This view of Holy Communion could only have been formed in the scholastic world of the Reformation.

  6. Neville Briggs says:

    Simon says :
    Finally, to say that remembrance is the primary function of the Lord’s Supper is to sentimentalize the sacrament. It makes the whole practice completely abstract.
    Jesus says :
    ” This is my body, which is given for you. DO THIS IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME “

  7. Simon says:

    Neville, remembrance is part of the eucharistic celebration. But note the first part of that statement is as well: “This is my body”. Actually partaking of the Eucharistic meal is central. We can remember without bread and wine.

  8. Neville Briggs says:

    When Joseph gave a positive message to the Pharoah’s butler who was released from jail, Joseph asked the butler to remember him to Pharoah. After promising , the butler went away and promptly forgot his promise.
    When the Israelis were brought out of Egypt and through the Red Sea by a great miracle they were hardly down the track very far when they were forgetting God and worshipping a metal idol.

    Remembering and forgetting are major themes in the Bible. It is usually the Lord who remembers and humans who so easily forget. Moses addressed the Children of Israel saying ” But take care and watch yourselves closely so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen or let them slip from your mind all the days of your life ” The Psalmist writes ” Bless the Lord oh my soul, and do not forget all His benefits ”

    Can we remember without bread and wine, maybe, but God knows what we are like, we need a constant reminder, It’s all about relationship Simon.

  9. Simon says:

    Neville, I agree that we need physical elements in worship. Which leads me to ask: why did the Reformers and their successors marginalize physicality in worship?

  10. Mitchell Carter says:


    Thanks so much for this article. It was really helpful for me in thinking through a succinct description of the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (you also did that really well for baptism in a post a few years ago). Also really helpful in giving some clear meaning when I participate on Sunday mornings. I have a quick resource question for you: I’m student at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis and am about to write a paper for a class on Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. I’ve got some resources lined up, but I’d love to hear some of the ones you used. Thanks, Brother. Your writing and teaching have been extremely helpful for me.

    P.S. Midway through the article, just after your quoting of 1 Cor. 10:16, you have “drink the cup and eat the break” instead of “eat the bread.”

  11. The Lords supper was delivered in the upper room from my understanding at the end of a meal/ Ive been to communnion in CHurch where the communion was a meal which had been prepared for all people and during the meal freshly baked bread was provided so people could remember what Christ had done for them. It was a family event you could say all invited to celibrate Christs being our Lord and Saviour and to realise we are washed clean. Neville is correct it should be a special meal.

  12. Warren says:

    And what of the position of the early Church Fathers which seems to indicate a real presence? To focus on faith apart from a real, physical presence seems to deny the Incarnation.

  13. anaquaduck says:

    Re Neville.

    I fail to see how the parable of the ten virgins (the day & the hour unkown) connects with the Lord’s Supper, particularly in relation to Salvation by Grace alone & being a guest at the Lords table.

    If my comment regarding your negative approach to church & worship has hurt you then I am sorry for that. Placing yourself in the vein of Jeremiah & Elijah is something every Christian can do in one context but in another prophecy has finished & Scripture is how we intepret God’s will for our lives.

    The Christian church does look a bit ordinary at times with its schisms, trials etc (for nearly all of its life, OT or NT). And yet God is pleased to pour out His love & blessing upon His bride despite her failings & inconsistencies. Often under attack & criticised heavily (like a KDY blog post even).Yet she on earth hath union
    With God the Three in One.

  14. Neville Briggs says:

    The comments have mentioned ” physicality” and ” presence ” . When we read in the BIble that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit and that we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Doesn’t that tell us about physicality and presence in our walk and worship with the living risen Lord.

    It seems that much of the argument about forms and procedures in the so-called ” Lord’s Supper ” arises from people wanting to cling to a pale imitation of the levitical priesthood.
    You can’t keep the Lord on a little table in the temple, He is risen from the dead and He is out and about, as the angel at the tomb said ” why are you looking for the living among the dead ” and Isaiah’s seraphim say ” the earth is full of His glory ” .
    If we pause regularly to remember what Christ has done for us, then surely we must then follow Him out into the world and live the new creation life that He has given us.

    At the end of John’s gospel, John tells the reader that if all the things that Jesus did could be written down the world could not hold all the books that would be written.
    Jesus the Man of life and action , not the Man of theological theories and dressing up games in a theatre. He is still living and He still offers the living water.

  15. Neville Briggs says:

    For anaquaduck. The reference to the foolish virgins ( or bridesmaids ) is that they forgot, they fell asleep, they didn’t remember to keep watch. Jesus tells us a story, an example to explain how important remembrance is. We note that the exhortation to take the bread and wine includes ” until He comes ” .Keeping awake until He comes is surely more important than speculating on the forms of rituals. Jesus said keep watch., as you have pointed out, we do not know the day or hour.
    No need to apologise, I just wanted to make the point that it’s not the person but the issues that are to be accepted or rejected.
    The apostle James said that teachers will be judged more strictly. As Mr DeYoung has put his teaching out there for scrutiny, so he should accept that examination of his claims is not negativity but required by scripture.
    Not because I think I’m superior bur because every believer is commanded to test.
    Is the doctrine of Kevin DeYoung not firm enough to stand critical examination in the light of scripture.

  16. anaquaduck says:

    1 Cor 11:26-28. For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
    So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

    So from the light if Scripture & the hand of paul or a scribe we can easily see that The Lords Supper is no theolgical theory but something unique which in no way limits or contradicts God’s presence & power in all that He has made & upholds.This is no pale imitation at all but comes from the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

    You charge KDY as a man of theatre but your accusation is grounded where in Scripture exactly ? or are just bearing a type of grudge which Scripture also forbids. Could you eloborate from Scripture on this or is it just empty words ?

    1John 4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

    KDY does not deny the incarnation yet you continually challenge Him. No where have I seen a KDY post claim that faith & deeds are not connected, so you really seem to be throwing a lot of mud for no good reason at all.

    Even within a church organisation various courts exist for ministers who go beyond or stray away from Christ & his word. From what I can tell they are dealt with in a far more just way than what you are doing.

    James also gives us these words for action in our lives…

    Jas 4:11 -12 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

  17. Neville Briggs says:

    The unworthy manner that Paul was chiding the Corinthians for, was their bad behaviour at the table, which we understand was a sit down meal of the ecclesia..

    The pale imitation of levitical priests is the idea that the “laity’ come to the altar or table for an anointed man to carry out an altar ritual and give them something that only a holy man can give them. The NT does not support that idea at all. My reference to that is a comment on the disputation over the Lords Supper, I didn’t say that was Mr DeYoung’s practice ( did I ? ), Mr DeYoung himself made reference to conflicting dogma on that issue.

    I didn’t charge anyone with being a man of theatre, I said that Jesus was not that.

    I have not thrown “mud ” at any person, I have challenged assumptions and teachings. If anything I have written is a personal slight then I retract it unreservedly.

    It’s interesting how often a person who challenges admired preachers gets labelled as judgemental. It’s a standard put-down.

    There is probably plenty of room for Mr DeYoung to answer any misapprehensions about his teachings.

  18. to anaquaduck

    Looking at the contributions from yourself anf Neville their is room for solid debate. Paul in Corinthians is alluding to the churches poor behaviour in relation to communion which fits in well with the rest of their contra behaviour which corrects right through 1 Cor… Secondly Neville is after KDY he is testing the statements being made which is a clear biblical mandate in scripture. Its all about persuation the teacher or preacher must be able to that and we as beleivers test, view that persons total life in Christ with great dilegence and decide whether to follow or not. Hebrews 13:7 echo a very powerful and important thread . ie believers are to “imitate a leader’s faith” as they “consider the outcome of their life”…. but the condition is this….only if you have been persuaded.

  19. correction Secondly Neville is not after KDY

  20. anaquaduck says:

    So even a sit down meal with ecclesia can give offence to God (1 Cor 11) as much as

    “When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand.
    Trample my courts no more, bringing offerings is futile.”

    It really came across as an inference for me “not the Man of theological theories and dressing up games in a theatre.” so I am glad that it has nothing to do with KDY. Thanks for clearing that up then.

    I have never heard KDY preach or visited the congregation that he is part of but I do get a lot of good teaching from his insight & abilities posted on TGC site.

    Of course being judgemental is something that comes naturally to us & is so easy to fall into if we are honest whether we admire someone or not whether we are in leadership roles or not.

    Congregations that share the Lord’s supper with small portions are no less blessed if it is a matter of the heart & God is greatly concerned with our hearts as proverbs makes clear on many occasions. Congregations often get the opportunity to serve one another in so many ways every day or night of the week & its good that we can come together as a body face to face, a real blessing.

  21. Neville Briggs says:

    Anaquaduck says’
    Congregations often get the opportunity to serve one another in so many ways every day or night of the week & its good that we can come together as a body face to face, a real blessing.

    Yes Indeed.

  22. LWesterlund says:

    Thank you, Kevin, for this succinct summary. Thank you especially for this statement: “A third view of the Lord’s Supper, called the memorial view, is often attributed to Ulrich Zwingli, though it’s not clear this captures the fullness of his thought.” It does not. It is not a “simply a feast of remembrance.” It is, to quote the hymns I grew up singing, “a foretaste of Heaven.” The symbols serve to focus our worship on the Lord who whose body was broken and whose blood was shed for us. As we do that, we are in His presence, communing with Him. This is what matters. As Biblically instructed, we are remembering Him and proclaiming His death until He comes. As we do this, in simplicity, as we deeply meditate and worship, Jesus Himself, our risen Lord, draws near. It is His table. He has invited us here and given us robes of righteousness to wear. There is no sweetness of communion that can compare. Instead of being confined in focus to a literal reality, we are breathing the air of another world, a true, eternal world, our Home forever. We are keenly aware of the spiritual reality of the new covenant, into which we have been brought by our Lord and Savior. It is the reality of which earth is but the shadow, beautiful and good as created but transient. (Hebrews 9, 2 Cor 4) I enjoyed growing up in a group whose Reformation loyalties lie with Zwingli. The word, “memorial” was never used. We partook of the bread and wine, symbolically enacting here what is true eternally in the Heavens, where our Forerunner has entered. Many of the hymns expressed this. but I will have to choose one–which is by Charles Spurgeon. (Not sure how to manage the format on this site.)
    Amidst us our Beloved stands,/And bids us view his pierced hands,
    Points to the wounded feet and side,/Blest emblems of the crucified.
    What food luxiurious loads the board/When at His table sits the Lord,
    The wine how rich, the bread how sweet/When Jesus deigns the guests to meet.

    If now with eyes defiled and dim/We see the signs but see not Him.
    O may His love the scales displace/And bid us see Him face to face.

    Thou glorious Bridegroom of our hearts/Thy present smile a Heav’n imparts!
    O life the veil, if veil there be/Let every saint Thy glory see!

  23. Forrest says:

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  24. “…it is easy to overlook the importance of recovering the Lord’s Supper as a covenantal meal (not a re-presenting of Christ’s atoning death)…”

    Kevin would you be able to point to a resource or explain further what you mean by this? I’m sure there is some “catholic’ connection I’m not aware of. Are we not to remember the Lord’s sacrifice when we take communion?

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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