Calvin’s View of the Lord’s Supper

communion03In an article entitled, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper,” Keith Mathison writes:

John Calvin is widely considered to be one of the greatest theologians of the Reformation era. Many associate his name with doctrines such as the sovereignty of God, election, and predestination, but fewer are aware that he wrote extensively on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. The topic occupied many of his sermons, tracts, and theological treatises throughout his career. Calvin’s emphasis was not unusual. Among the many doctrines debated during the Reformation, the Lord’s Supper was discussed more than any other.

By the time Calvin became a prominent voice in the late 1530s, the Reformers had been debating the Lord’s Supper with Roman Catholics and with each other for years. In order to understand Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, it is necessary to understand the views he opposed. Throughout the later Middle Ages and up until the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass was the received view in the Western church. Two aspects of the Roman Catholic doctrine require comment: Rome’s view of the Eucharistic presence and Rome’s view of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

According to Rome, Christ’s presence in the sacrament is to be explained in terms of the doctrine of transubstantiation. The doctrine of transubstantiation asserts that when the priest says the words of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine is transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. The accidens (that is, the incidental properties) of the bread and wine remain the same. Rome also teaches that the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice; in fact, the same sacrifice Christ offered on the cross. The Eucharistic sacrifice is offered for the sins of the living and the dead.

The Reformers were united in their rejection of both aspects of Rome’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. They rejected transubstantiation, and they rejected the idea that the Lord’s Supper is a propitiatory sacrifice. In his book The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Martin Luther attacked both of these doctrines. Also opposed to Rome’s doctrine was the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. However, although Luther and Zwingli agreed in their rejection of Rome’s doctrine, they were not able to come to agreement on the true nature of the Lord’s Supper.

Zwingli argued that Christ’s words “This is my body” should be read, “This signifies my body.” He claimed that the Lord’s Supper is a symbolic memorial, an initiatory ceremony in which the believer pledges that he is a Christian and proclaims that he has been reconciled to God through Christ’s shed blood. Martin Luther adamantly rejected Zwingli’s doctrine, insisting that Christ’s words “This is my body” must be taken in their plain, literal sense. Continue reading

Rome’s View of the Eucharist

William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He has already authored The Christian Following Christ as Lord and Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, from which this article is taken, and the three volume series, Sola Scriptura, co-edited by David T. King. Mr. Webster is a founder of Christian Resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism. You can visit his website at

Here is an excellent article he wrote concerning the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist.

Remember Me

Dustin Crowe serves as the local outreach coordinator at College Park Church in Indianapolis. He has a degree in historical theology from Moody Bible Institute. In an “What Does It Mean to Remember Jesus in the Lord’s Supper?” he writes:

Evangelical churches typically recite these words when taking communion—or the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Whether your theology of communion leans toward the Calvinistic “spiritual presence” or Zwingli’s memorial view, I would guess we all desire a heightened sense of what God holds out to us in these dynamic symbols. Continue reading

The Sacraments (1)

[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (v. 11a). – Romans 4:9–12

God uses means to convey grace to His people. While our understanding of the sacraments is firmly rooted in the teaching of the New Testament, the altar call (as used in most Churches today) is not. It actually is a very recent development in Church history.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are seven sacraments:
• Baptism (Christening)
• Confirmation
• Holy Eucharist
• Penance (Confession)
• Anointing of the Sick (known prior to the Second Vatican Council as Extreme Unction (or more literally from Latin: Last Anointing), then seen as part of the “Last Rites”)
• Holy Orders
• Matrimony (Marriage)

Protestant (Evangelical) Churches teach that there are two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In an over-reaction to Roman Catholicism, many Protestant/Evangelical Churches downplay sacraments altogether. Yet to do so violates Scripture itself. God is aware of our weakness and our need to be reassured of our standing with Him. God promises that we are His in the Gospel, and He confirms His favor toward us through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yes, God invites believing sinners to come to Him — not to an altar — but to a baptistry (where the water of baptism is applied) and to a communion table (where bread and wine are given to struggling sinners to remind them of God’s favor and to strengthen weak faith).

Summarizing the teaching of Scripture, the Heidelberg Catechism (Question 65) defines the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as: “holy signs and seals for us to see. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put his seal on that promise.” And what is the promise of the Gospel? “To forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross.”

Sacraments are tangible signs and seals of God’s invisible grace promised to His people in the Gospel. They are given by God to confirm that faith already given through the preaching of the Gospel. Just as the altar call seemed to be the logical outcome of a sermon — the Word often calls us to do something — so too the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments are intimately connected.

What God promises to us in the Gospel (the forgiveness of sins) is confirmed in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Gospel is both promised and then made visible when the Word is preached and when the sacraments are administered.

Yet, there is one huge difference between the altar call and the Reformed understanding of the sacraments. In the altar call the qualification was “if you truly meant it,” which made the subjective state of the sinner the critical factor in whether or not one actually benefited from going forward. In both sacraments, however, the emphasis falls squarely upon God’s sovereign oath: “I will be your God and you will be my people,” an oath that can be paraphrased as God stating to struggling sinners, “I really mean it!”

In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the emphasis falls squarely upon what God has done for sinners in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, and not upon the strength of a sinner’s faith.

Circumcision was a sign — a visible act that pointed beyond itself to an invisible reality. This invisible reality was the fact that Abraham was cut out from the world and set apart unto God through faith alone (Gen. 15:6; 17). It was a visible reminder of the Lord’s promise to cut out of this fallen world a people for Himself. Circumcision, Romans 4 also reveals, was a seal. In the ancient world, a seal marked off ownership — people knew to whom an object belonged based on the seal affixed to it. Thus, circumcision was the mark of God’s ownership, tangible proof that those who bore the mark actually belonged to the Lord and would inherit all His promises if they had faith in Him.

“[As with circumcision, the new covenant sacraments are also visible and tangible ways in which we are reminded of God’s promises and marked off as His people. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have no inherent power to make us the children of God. That is, the performance of these rites themselves does not benefit us if we have no faith. We can access the grace available in them only if we believe the gospel. In fact, if we receive the sacraments without faith, we call down curses upon ourselves (1 Cor. 11:27–30).

John Calvin writes in his famous Institutes that a sacrament “is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself and before angels as well as men” (4.14.1). Using elements that we can taste, see, and touch, the sacraments help us, as embodied creatures, to understand spiritual realities. In turn, when we participate in the sacraments, we testify to our faith in God’s promises before a watching world.

In what way do the Scriptures represent the sacraments of the church as being different from other practices, such as the reading of Scripture or prayers, which are not sacramental? What constitutes a sacrament? There are four elements (Boice):

1. The sacraments are divine ordinances instituted by Christ himself.
2. The sacraments are ordinances in which material elements are used as visible signs of God’s blessing.
3. The sacraments are means of grace to the one who rightly partakes of them.
4. The sacraments are seals, certifications or confirmations to us of the grace they signify. The sacraments are God’s seal on the attestation that we are his children and are in fellowship with him.

Invitation to the Table

A Poem by Nathan Pitchford

And in fine linens wrapped, as white as shrouds;
And you who healthy are, and wise, and strong,
Who have full-stuffed with minted coin your purse,
You are not welcome here, howe’er so long
You thumb your ros’ry or bejewel your hearse;
Get hence! your fond excesses all are wrong,
Your feigned good deeds and penances are worse.
Feigned-free, you ‘re slaves; feigned-blest, you are a curse.

But come, stooped-over, come grotesque and maimed;
All naked, come, and halt and blind and poor;
Come, feast, who guilty are, and pale-ashamed,
And covered with full many an oozing sore.
You will not stain this table with your slime
Nor turn the cup to salt with bitter tears,
Convicted though you be of many a crime,
And tortured by grim-stalking doubts and fears, –
You are welcome here, who’ve squandered all your time,
And left your whole estate in sad arrears!
Come, enemies, come – and leave God’s choicest dears. Continue reading