Tag Archives: Lord’s Supper

Week 47 of 50 in the Institutes: What It Means to Eat Worthily

I wonder how many people are pleasantly surprised and comforted by Calvin’s teaching on what it means to eat the bread or drink the cup in a manner unworthy of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27). This is yet another instance where the real Calvin turns out to be more pastoral than his caricature.

I know in the Independent Baptist church where I partook of communion for the first time as a teenager, that 1 Cor. 11 passage was used to instill fear and anxiety rather than to encourage and nurture faith. Calvin gloriously does the latter (4.17.41, emphasis added to Beveridge’s translation):

In seeking to prepare for eating worthily, men have often dreadfully harassed and tortured miserable consciences, and yet have in no degree attained the end. They have said that those eat worthily who are in a state of grace. Being in a state of grace, they have interpreted to be pure and free from all sin. By this definition, all the men that ever have been, and are upon the earth, were debarred from the use of this sacrament. For if we are to seek our worthiness from ourselves, it is all over with us; only despair and fatal ruin await us.

Ironically, partaking worthily of the Lord’s Supper means coming to terms with and confessing one’s utter unworthiness, hence relying completely on Jesus Christ (4.17.42, emphases added):

Therefore, lest we should rush over such a precipice, let us remember that this sacred feast is medicine to the sick, comfort to the sinner, and bounty to the poor; while to the healthy, the righteous, and the rich, if any such could be found, it would be of no value. For while Christ is therein given us for food, we perceive that without him we fail, pine, and waste away, just as hunger destroys the vigour of the body. Next, as he is given for life, we perceive that without him we are certainly dead. Wherefore, the best and only worthiness which we can bring to God, is to offer him our own vileness, and, if I may so speak, unworthiness, that his mercy may make us worthy; to despond in ourselves, that we may be consoled in him; to humble ourselves, that we may be elevated by him; to accuse ourselves, that we may be justified by him; to aspire, moreover, to the unity which he recommends in the Supper; and, as he makes us all one in himself, to desire to have all one soul, one heart, one tongue. If we ponder and meditate on these things, we may be shaken, but will never be overwhelmed by such considerations as these, how shall we, who are devoid of all good, polluted by the defilements of sin, and half dead, worthily eat the body of the Lord? We shall rather consider that we, who are poor, are coming to a benevolent giver, sick to a physician, sinful to the author of righteousness, in fine, dead to him who gives life; that worthiness which is commanded by God, consists especially in faith, which places all things in Christ, nothing in ourselves, and in charity, charity which, though imperfect, it may be sufficient to offer to God, that he may increase it, since it cannot be fully rendered.

But Calvin didn’t stop here with these strong encouragements and exhortations to look by faith to Christ as poor contrite sinners. Knowing the deceitfulness of the human heart and how prone we are to insert our own works at the slightest opportunity, he had this rebuff against any attempt to smuggle in human effort under the guise of faith and love, both of which are found in Christ alone as well (4.17.42, emphasis added):

Some, concurring with us in holding that worthiness consists in faith and charity, have widely erred in regard to the measure of worthiness, demanding a perfection of faith to which nothing can be added, and a charity equivalent to that which Christ manifested towards us. And in this way, just as the other class, they debar all men from access to this sacred feast. For, were their view well founded, every one who receives must receive unworthily, since all, without exception, are guilty, and chargeable with imperfection. And certainly it were too stupid, not to say idiotical, to require to the receiving of the sacrament a perfection which would render the sacrament vain and superfluous, because it was not instituted for the perfect, but for the infirm and weak, to stir up, excite, stimulate, exercise the feeling of faith and charity, and at the same time correct the deficiency of both.

It’s a shorter reading assignment due to Thanksgiving holidays this week. Enjoy and be thankful!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Nov. 23: 4.17.33 – 4.17.34

Nov. 24: 4.17.35 – 4.17.39

Nov. 25: 4.17.40 – 4.17.45



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Week 46 of 50 in the Institutes: The Definition of “Is”

Reading this week’s assignment reminded me of a bit of parsing a former American President did with the English language when giving testimony under oath: “It all depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”.

Calvin went to some length to show that the Lord’s assertion that “this is my body” (Mt. 26:26; Mk 14:22 1 Cor. 11:24) must rightly be understood as a figure of speech, namely, a metonymy.  Any failure to recognize the expression as such results in the absurdity of the literal (4.17.21):

I say that the expression which is uniformly used in Scripture, when the sacred mysteries are treated of, is metonymical. For you cannot otherwise understand the expressions, that circumcision is a “covenant”—that the lamb is the Lord’s “passover”—that the sacrifices of the law are expiations—that the rock from which the water flowed in the desert was Christ,—unless you interpret them metonymically.  Nor is the name merely transferred from the superior to the inferior, but, on the contrary, the name of the visible sign is given to the thing signified, as when God is said to have appeared to Moses in the bush; the ark of the covenant is called God, and the face of God, and the dove is called the Holy Spirit.  For although the sign differs essentially from the thing signified, the latter being spiritual and heavenly, the former corporeal and visible,—yet, as it not only figures the thing which it is employed to represent as a naked and empty badge, but also truly exhibits it, why should not its name be justly applied to the thing? But if symbols humanly devised, which are rather the images of absent than the marks of present things, and of which they are very often most fallacious types, are sometimes honoured with their names,—with much greater reason do the institutions of God borrow the names of things, of which they always bear a sure, and by no means fallacious signification, and have the reality annexed to them.

Dr. Derek Thomas did a nice job describing the literary nature of Scripture in the blog for Nov. 18th.  Many exegetical fallacies would be avoided if these literary devices occurring throughout Scripture were taken into account routinely.

As for Calvin’s own view of the Lord’s Supper, he takes the reader to sacred ground which consists of the very presence of Christ himself, rooted in the believer’s union and communion with Him. Rather than thinking that Christ comes down to us (either in transubstantiation or consubstantiation), we must realize that believers are lifted up to him through the working of the Spirit which unites us to Christ, as Calvin put it.  How this happens, he says, is mystery which is more to be experienced than fully comprehended or declared (4.17.32):

Now, should any one ask me as to the mode, I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express; and to speak more plainly, I rather feel than understand it. The truth of God, therefore, in which I can safely rest, I here embrace without controversy. He declares that his flesh is the meat, his blood the drink, of my soul; I give my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I have no doubt that he will truly give and I receive.

In his book, The Lord’s Supper, Thomas Watson noted how carnal persons fail to “discern the Lord’s body”, being totally oblivious to what Calvin described above:

“The manna lay round about Israel’s camp, and they knew it now: ‘They wist not what it was’ (Exod. 16:15).  So carnal persons see the external elements, but Christ is not known to them in his saving virtues: there is honey in the Spiritual Rock, which they never taste.  They feed on the bread, but not Christ in the bread: ‘They eat the bread of the Lord, but not the Bread which is the Lord.’  Isaac ate the kid, when he thought it had been venison (Gen. 27:25).  Unbelievers go away with the shadow of the sacrament; they have the rind and the husk, not the marrow.  They eat the kid, not the venison.” 

Until we put off this flesh, may we truly know and experience often the blessed truth of our Lord’s command: “Take, eat, this is my body.”

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Nov. 16: 4.17.12 – 4.17.15

Nov. 17: 4.17.16 – 4.17.20

Nov. 18: 4.17.21 – 4.17.24

Nov. 19: 4.17.25 – 4.17.28

Nov. 20: 4.17.29 – 4.17.32

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Week 45 of 50 in the Institutes: High Maintenance Christianity

An owner of a Harley Davidson recently told me that those bikes are nice to have and ride, but that they are high maintenance.  So unless you have deep pockets and can pay to have the maintenance done regularly by someone else, be prepared to turn a wrench yourself, he warned.  Owning a Harley has never been a dream of mine, and that sage advice snuffed out whatever sliver of a notion of Harley ownership that may have lurked deep down in my subconscious.  I can think of a thousand other things I would rather do in my spare time besides doing motorcycle, car, house, or any other kind of maintenance, for that matter.

Fortunately for us all, it is not so with our Lord and Savior, because every Christian is “high maintenance”.  The sacraments illustrate this truth vividly. As Sinclair Ferguson pointed out (Nov. 10 blog, below), both baptism and the Lord’s Supper point to Christ, just with different emphases on union with Him.  Baptism points to a once-for-all initiation into Christ, underscoring something done to us, not something that we do ourselves.  The Lord’s Supper points to communion which involves discerning the Lord’s body, examination, proclaiming the Lord’s death, and celebrating in remembrance of Christ.  Both sacraments underscore a total dependence on the Lord: the epitome of high maintenance.

So let’s “ride” with this analogy for a moment.  A Harley has a gas tank that can be filled so that it can at least run a while without being tethered to a gas pump.  But apart from Christ, we can do nothing: there is no life, no vitality, no sustenance, nothing at all, except the vast emptiness of death. Christ alone is the bread of life.  How appropriate and kind it is of our Lord in instituting the Supper to provide us with a vivid reminder of this truth, and to sustain us with spiritual food regularly through its observance.

Harley’s can have all kinds of problems.  A search of the internet turns up several items (tail lights, fuel tanks, brake light and fluid, etc.).  Mankind, on the other hand, only has one problem: sin.  Every problem in this world ultimately falls under that category, and sin entered by the transgression of the first Adam.  But life and light are found exclusively in the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

Consequently, being the high maintenance people that we all are, the only way to honor and glorify the Savior, as depicted in the sacraments, is to own our brokenness.  This is the message of Psa. 116:12-14 (part of the Egyptian Hallel comprised of Psa. 113-118, used during the Passover):

“What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” (ESV)

Here we see that the Lord’s goodness is first repaid by taking ever more and more of it!  No other response is rooted in reality, for He alone has the words of life, and He is the only Savior.  So the person with true knowledge of himself and God engages in daily “commutation” with the Lord Jesus Christ.  He recognizes and confesses his sin, looking unto Christ’s righteousness in a glorious exchange, John Owen put it:

“They hearken to the voice of Christ calling them to him with their burden, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden;’ – ‘Come with your burdens; come, thou poor soul, with thy guilt of sin.’  Why?  What to do? ‘Why, this is mine,’ saith Christ; ‘this agreement I made with my Father, that I should come, and take thy sins, and bear them away: they were my lot.  Give me thy burden, give me all thy sins.  Thou knowest not what to do with them; I know how to dispose of them well enough, so that God shall be glorified, and thy soul delivered.’”  (John Owen, On Communion With God, vol. 2 of The Works of John Owen, p. 194; available online here)

Harley’s are big bikes.  In the sacraments we are confronted with the enormity of our sin, but, wonder of wonders, we discover an ever larger Savior.  So in the final analysis, “high maintenance Christianity” is the only authentic kind there is.  Glory be to Him!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Nov. 9: 4.16.20 – 4.16.24

Nov. 10: 4.16.25 – 4.16.30

Nov. 11: 4.16.31 – 4.16.32

Nov. 12: 4.17.1 – 4.17.5

Nov. 13: 4.17.6 – 4.17.11

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