The Lord’s Supper in the Present

Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many Tfor the forgiveness of sins’ ” (vv. 26–28).

- Matthew 26:26–29

Temporally speaking, the Lord’s Supper has both a past and a present orientation. Regarding the past, the Lord’s Supper looks back on God’s great act of deliverance, the atonement of Christ that delivers us from sin, the work of redemption foreshadowed in the old covenant Passover (Ex. 12; Mark 14:22–25). In reference to the future, the Lord’s Supper looks forward to the coming of Christ to consummate His kingdom, the time at which we will celebrate the marriage supper of the Lamb (1 Cor. 11:26; Rev. 19:6–10).

Yet the past and future aspects of the Lord’s Supper do not exhaust what happens in the sacrament in relation to time. The majority report in Christian history is that something also happens in the present when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Although some have denied that Christ is present in the supper—this is the memorialist view associated with Huldrych Zwingli that holds that the supper is essentially a mental act of remembrance—most believers have held that Jesus is truly and really present when we celebrate the sacrament.

Most theological traditions have held that Christ is really present in the Lord’s Supper, but there has been no consensus as to exactly how He is present. In fact, this was the central issue that kept the Reformed and Lutheran branches of the Protestant Reformation from uniting. To this day, various understandings of the Lord’s presence in the sacrament persist and divide the church.

The Reformers were united in opposing the official Roman Catholic view of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper: transubstantiation. Aristotelian philosophy forms the backdrop of this view. Aristotle held that every individual thing or substance consists of an essence and accidens. The accidens of a substance are accessible to our five senses and can change without changing the substance. For example, consider a green ball. The “greenness” of the ball falls into the category of accidens and is not essential to “ballness.” You can change the color to red and still have a ball because the essence of the ball remains.

Accordingly, things such as texture, color, taste, and so forth are all accidents of bread and wine. Roman Catholicism holds that in the Lord’s Supper, the accidents of bread and wine remain while the invisible essence of those substances changes into the body and blood of Jesus. To our senses, the elements of bread and wine still look, taste, feel, and smell like bread and wine, but the elements in their essence are Christ—personally and physically.

Coram Deo

For many reasons, transubstantiation has been rejected by Protestants as a biblical way of conceiving of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. However, that does not mean we deny Christ’s presence in the supper. Following John Calvin, we affirm the spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament, and we commune with Him when we come to the Lord’s Table.

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 24:1–11
Leviticus 23:4–8
1 Corinthians 11:17–24

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