A Visible Word

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Robert Bruce (1551–1631) is not a household name, even among knowledgeable Reformed Christians. He was at one time, however, one of the most important leaders in the Church of Scotland. He was the successor of John Knox and James Lawson and preached at the Great Kirk of St. Giles in Edinburgh. St. Giles holds a prominent place in Reformation history, being the site where Knox preached his first sermon on the Reformation. The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper (Christian Heritage) contains five sermons preached by Bruce at St. Giles in February and March of the year 1589. 

The Christian Heritage edition of these sermons is a reprint of the 1958 English translation of the work by Thomas F. Torrance (1913–2007). Torrance provides an introduction to the work, describing briefly Bruce’s life and work. Although helpful in terms of its biographical information, the introduction should be read with discernment since in it Torrance espouses the “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” thesis that has been so ably challenged by scholars such as Richard Muller, Paul Helm, and Carl Trueman.

The five sermons in the book cover a wide range of issues. In the first sermon, Bruce deals with the sacraments in general. He places his entire discussion in the context of union with Christ, saying, “There is nothing in this world, or out of this world, more to be wished by everyone of you than to be conjoined with Jesus Christ, and once for all made one with Him, the God of glory.” God brings about this union by means of the Word and the sacraments. Bruce devotes this first sermon to an examination of four fundamental questions: 1) the meaning of the sacramental sign; 2) the meaning of the thing signified; 3) the union of the sign and the thing signified; and 4) the different ways the sign and the thing signified are given and received.

Bruce follows the sacramental theology of John Calvin rather than that of Zwingli. Considering the fact that Zwingli’s memorialist view is the dominant view among evangelicals today, Bruce’s language may come as a surprise to those not familiar with the doctrine of Calvin or some of the first Reformed confessions. Bruce begins by noting that the signs are the sacramental elements and the sacramental actions (such as the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine). The thing signified is the whole Christ along with all of His benefits and graces. The sign and the thing signified are not conjoined locally, corporally, or visibly, but are instead joined in a mystical and spiritual manner. As the minister gives the bread and wine, Christ Himself gives His body and blood to believing recipients, and as the believer receives the bread and wine with his hand and mouth, he receives the body and blood of Christ spiritually by faith.

In his second and third sermons, Bruce deals specifically with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. He looks at the names given to the sacrament in Scripture, the reasons why it was instituted, and objections to the Calvinistic doctrine. He contends that the Supper represents our spiritual nourishment, bears witness of our faith to the world, serves as a sovereign medicine for our spiritual ailments, and is a means of giving thanks to God. In addressing various objections to the Calvinistic doctrine, Bruce offers a fine critique of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

In the final two sermons, Bruce addresses our preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper, offering practical advice and admonition to all believers. He urges communicants to test their consciences to determine first whether they are at peace with God and second whether they have love for their neighbor. After an extended discussion of the conscience, Bruce expounds on the absolute necessity of faith for proper reception of the Supper. He observes that true faith will always exhibit certain fruit in the lives of those who have it. He mentions specifically prayer, forgiveness, and compassion.

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that many, if not most, Christians coming to the Lord’s Table in our day have very little comprehension of what they are doing or why they are doing it. This is a tragic and, frankly, dangerous state of affairs. Christians are warned not to partake of the Supper in an unworthy manner, and they are called to examine themselves and to partake with discernment (1 Cor. 11:27–30). Bruce’s sermons are a remedy for the widespread ignorance that exists in the church today and should be in the hands of every Christian who desires to partake of the Lord’s Supper intelligently and with some understanding of this precious means of grace.

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