The Lord's Supper: Recovering From the False Dogma of Memorialism
"The problem with the pietistic version of the Lord's Supper, therefore, is that in its obsession with the indivual's inner piety, it loses much of the import of the feast as a sacred meal that actually binds us to Christ and to each other. Instead of viewing it first as God's saving action toward us and then as our fellowship with each other in Christ, we come to see it as just another opportunity to be threatened with the law. Instead of celebrating the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb on Mount Zion, we are still trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is no wonder, then, that there is a diminished interest in frequent communion."
Although numerous aspects of the memorialist/Zwinglian position are found to be erroneous, and in the end unbiblical, two main errors stand out to me. First, the typical Baptistic/fundamentalist view of the Lord's Supper understands the nature of the event in purely memorialistic terms. In an effort to run away from Rome, they have run to the other dangerous extreme of understanding the bread and wine as being devoid of any kind of supernatural grace, or sanctifying nourishment. Despite Jesus' claim that when we partake of the Supper, we are in a very real sense partaking of His body and His blood, memorialists look at the elements as bare symbols meant only to invoke and direct our faculty of reflections to the gospel. And similarly, despite the apostle Paul's explicit words, in I Cor. 10, memorialists still maintain that the Lord's Supper is not a means of grace- "the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" [I Cor. 10:16,17] The problem is that the Lord's Supper is indeed a means of grace as these passages and others testify. The question is, in what sense is the Lord's Supper a means of grace, and in what sense is Jesus Christ present within this divinely instituted covenant meal? The great reformer John Calvin rejected Luther's consubstantiation, Zwingli's pietistic memorialism and Rome's heretical transubstantiation. He opted for a more balanced and bliblical view, affirming the presence of Jesus within the covenant meal while denying the lumping together of the sign and the thing signified. "Thus Calvin refuses the false dilemma of either annihilating the sign by the signified (Rome) , confusing them (Luther) , or separating them (Zwingli)." Calvin taught that Christ is ascended bodily in heaven, and therefore not to be identified as the elements of bread and wine. Yet in a mysterious working of the Holy Spirit:
"believers nevertheless receive this same Christ born of Mary and crucified for our sins, but in heaven where he is seated at the Father's right hand...The Lord's Supper, therefore, is an irreducible mystery. The Spirit, as Christ promised, takes that which belongs to Christ and gives it to us. He makes us one with Christ, to feed on him as one person. It is the Spirit who not only cries out in our hearts, 'Abba, Father!' but who effects our communion even now with the ascended Lord. Therefore, what we receive in the supper is not only confirmation of our own share in the sacrifice once offered, but a real sharing in the one offered."
As the preaching of the gospel, from the Scriptures, through verbal proclamation, is a divine means of grace, so partaking in the Lord's Supper, with the covenant community, through visual elements is also a divine means of grace. Preaching uses words, the Supper uses visual elements, both used by God to confer sanctifying grace upon the Israel of God whom God has called from darkness to light. In the Lord's Supper we feed upon Jesus and receive the efficacious confirmation of the oath sworn to Adam and his descendents in the covenant of grace. Whats important to note is that God is the one who is acting and initating. Like the covenant of grace which is a unilateral royal grant freely made with believers and their children, so the Lord's Supper, through the working of the Spirit uniting us to Christ and each other, is a confirmation of the covenant of grace and an efficacious means of grace given for our sanctification.
The second serious error inherent within the memorialist position is the emphasis on an individualistic kind of self-examination or scrutiny necessary in order to partake of the supper. Before discovering the Biblical nature of the Lord's Supper, I would approach the Lord's table with an intense fear of what God might do to me if I partook of the elements with harbored sin within my heart. Granted, Paul did urge the Corinthians to examine themselves for the purpose of eating and drinking the Lord's Supper in a proper manner. But as Horton labors to prove, Paul's intent was not to keep believers from partaking of the supper, but instead to rebuke the Corinthian belivers for participating in drunkenness, hierarchical biases, and a party-spirit when they came to the table. His purpose was to create a due reverence and a proper understanding of the Supper's nature, not to instill fear in believers who daily fight against indwelling sin. The Lord's Supper is a celebration of Jesus' redemptive work for His people and an effectual seal of the covenant of grace made to weak and struggling sinners. Instead of barring struggling believers from the Lord's Supper, God desires those weak sinners to come and partake so that they might grow and receive the Spirit's grace. Horton writes that:
"Paul's warning simply cannot be read as placing the choice of communing in the hands of individual's, who must then determine whether their faith and repentance are equal to the task. After all, the sacrament is given precisely to strengthen weak faith and repentance, to cheer downcast souls with the good news that Christ is sacrificed and raised to the Father's right hand even for them...worthy eating in the context of 1 Corinthians has to do with coming to the Supper with understanding and reverence for what is taking place, not in orgies, dissensions, and sacriliege."
I think that the widespread nominalism which characterizes modern day evangelicalism is a direct result of a misunderstanding, further, an unbiblical re-definition of the Lord's Supper as soley memorialistic and individualistic in nature. Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Preaching of the Gospel are God's divinely instituted means of grace wherein He uniquely and efficaciously strengthens our faith as we walk through the wilderness of this world. Failure to grow in grace is a direct result of an under-appreciation of the sacraments, and a misunderstanding of their intended function. The obsession with novelty, methodology, and "purpose driven" approaches to church growth results from a failure to love, cherish, and partake in the means of grace which God has expressly and explicitly given us in His Word. The Lord's Supper is a means of grace without which we cannot and will not grow. I say this to my own shame, as I have failed to appreciate this wonderful institution all of my life. Let me close with the words of Princeton theologian A.A. Hodge, one who rightly understood the nature of the Lord's Supper:
"If he [Christ] is not present really and truly, then the sacrament can have no interest or real value to us. It does not do to say that this presence is only spiritual, because that phrase is ambiguous. If it means that the presence of Christ is not something objective to us, but simply a mental apprehension or idea of him subjectively present to our consciousness, then the phrase is false. Christ as an objective fact is as really present and active in the sacrament as are the bread and wine, or the minister or our fellow communicants by our side. If it means that Christ is present only as he is represented by the Holy Ghost, it is not wholly true, because Christ is one person and the Holy Ghost another, and it is Christ who is personally present...It does not do to say that the divinity of Christ is present while his humanity is absent, because it is the entire indivisible divine-human Person of Christ which is present."
[A.A. Hodge, quoted in God of Promise]
Soli Deo Gloria