A friend of mine recently asked if I would post the manuscript of a sermon I recently preached on Ruth  4.  I preached a series of sermons on the book of Ruth in 2013 and will make the manuscripts available throughout the coming weeks.  I was initially very hesitant about making these manuscripts public since they are written in a “sermonic” rather than literary style but I hope that they might prove helpful and edifying nonetheless.  

Redemption Accomplished and Applied- A Sermon on Ruth 4

If there is one foundational truth that we learn from the book of Ruth it is, as William Cowper puts it in his famous hymn, that the people of God are met with many “frowning providences” throughout the course of their lives.  The story of Ruth begins with famine, exile, sin, barrenness and death.  During the period of time in Israel’s history when the judges ruled, a dark and depraved time in which people did what was right in their own eyes, a famine struck the town of Bethlehem, a famine so severe that it drove a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, to leave the promised land for the pagan lands of Moab.  After arriving in Moab, we saw that the hard hand of God’s judgment fell upon Elimelech’s family.  Elimelech, the family patriarch dies; Mahlon and Chilion take for themselves Moabite wives; and after 10 years of childlessness, Mahlon and Chilion die, leaving Naomi all alone, with two Gentile daughters-in-law, in a land of exile and death, with no hope of offspring to continue the family line; and this fact is really the major problem of the book that needs to be resolved- Naomi is an old woman, Ruth is a barren widow, the name and identity of Elimelech’s family stands on the brink of total destruction.  And so even in spite of the blessing of Ruth, Naomi’s loving, faithful, devoted daughter in law; in spite of returning to Bethlehem where the Lord had provided food for his people, Naomi concludes chapter 1 with a lament- “The Lord has dealt very bitterly with me, I went away full and the Lord has brought me back empty.”  Naomi had experienced firsthand the black side of God’s providence and the conclusion she drew is that the hard hand of God’s judgment was the final word in her life.

And the book Ruth begins this way- it begins with the black side of God’s providence- with the emptiness of Naomi- because the purpose of the book of Ruth is to set before us how the Lord restores Naomi from emptiness to fulness through the characters of Ruth and Boaz.  The story of Ruth is almost like a miniature version of the story of the Old Testament.  The story of the Old Testament is the story of God establishing his typological kingdom in Israel out of the chaos of sin, particularly out of the chaos of exile.  The story of the book of Ruth reflects the larger story of the OT- it is the story of God establishing his kingdom in Israel out of the chaos, barrenness, and exile which marked Naomi’s life through the work of the kinsman Redeemer Boaz and his great grandson King David.  The book of Ruth begins with desolation and ends with new creation; it begins with death and ends with resurrection; it begins with slavery and ends with redemption; it begins with anarchy and ends with monarchy.

And so it is to chapter 4 that we turn our attention this morning and the one big idea I want us all to understand and rejoice in this morning- the one central and foundational truth that we are able to derive from chapter 4 is that the Lord secures our redemption and establishes his kingdom among us through the redemption purchased by the divinely appointed kinsman Redeemer.  The Lord frees us from our bondage, secures for us an unimaginably great and glorious inheritance, restores us to fullness, and raises us to life through the redemption purchased by a faithful, obedient, Torah-keeping Redeemer .  And this reality of redemption or we might say God’s work of restoration through redemption is really the theme of this chapter and so we will look at this idea of redemption from 2 perspectives:  First, Redemption Accomplished (v. 1-12) , Second Redemption Applied (v. 13-22).

And the first thing I want us to notice here is the redemption accomplished by Boaz.  If you remember from chapter 3, Ruth had essentially proposed marriage to Boaz in a very unusual manner.  We saw that Boaz accepts this proposal, but we also saw that there is an obstacle to this marriage.  Boaz tells Ruth in chapter 3 that there is another blood relative closer to Naomi that held the right of redemption before Boaz.  As we have seen already, there was a particular arrangement made under the Mosaic law that if a man died without any children, the dead man’s brother (called the kinsman redeemer or go’el) could marry the childless widow in order to raise up offspring for the dead husband and thereby preserve the name of the man who had died.  Now one of the big problems in the book of Ruth is that Naomi and Ruth have been reduced to emptiness and this emptiness consists in the fact that, from Naomi’s perspective in chapter 1, there is no one who could possibly marry Ruth and continue the family line.   We saw in chapter 3 that Boaz is indeed willing to marry Ruth, but now there is this obstacle of the other redeemer who holds the right of redemption.  And you might say- okay, why is this an obstacle?  There are now two Redeemers who could step in and restore Naomi’s family!  Isn’t this good news for Ruth and Naomi?  However, it is an obstacle because we [the reader] don’t want just any Redeemer to marry Ruth!  We want Boaz- faithful, loving, kind, generous- Boaz to marry Ruth and restore Naomi’s family to fulness.  And so in the beginning of chapter 4, Boaz sets out to resolve this conflict.

We are told in v. 1 that Boaz goes to the gate of the city which was the place where business was conducted, kind of the ancient equivalent to the town hall or the courthouse, and as he goes to the gate, the narrator tells us that “behold, the Redeemer of whom Boaz had spoken came by.”  Boaz approaches this man and then addresses him.  The ESV and most English translations render Boaz’s words to the other redeemer like this:  “Turn aside,  friend, sit down here” but that’s actually not the best translation.  The word translated “friend” is actually 2 rhyming words in Hebrew- Peloni Almoni- and the best translation is actually not “friend” but “so-and-so.”  “Turn aside Mr. So and So or we might say today, “turn aside John Doe or “Hey Mister- Turn Aside and Sit Down.”  Now Boaz certainly would have known the name of this relative and yet, curiously, the storyteller refuses to give him a name.  And we have to ask ourselves, “Okay, why does the storyteller do this?” and I think there is at least one big reason.  The reason why the storyteller refuses to even dignify this other redeemer with a name is because this redeemer, as we find out in just a few verses, refuses to carry on the name of Elimelech by redeeming Ruth.  He’s an unfaithful redeemer!  The book of Ruth is all about the need to restore and redeem the name of Elimelech and because Mr. So and So refuses to do redeem Elimelech’s name, he himself is not worthy of a name.

So Boaz, after telling Mr. So and So to turn aside, gathers together the elders of the city who would serve as witnesses to this transaction, and then we learn in v. 3-4 that Naomi is seeking to sell some of the land that belonged to her husband Elimelech.  In Lev. 25 we are told that if a poor person was forced to sell their land because of their poverty, it was the responsibility of his nearest relative- the go’el- to step in and actually buy back the property which now belonged to this third party.  The most likely situation is that Elimelech, before leaving Moab, had sold his property to someone else and Naomi, the poor relative, is in need of a go’el, a Redeemer, to purchase the land back.  And so Boaz is giving Mr. So and So the opportunity to step in as the go’el and do this.  Mr. So and So decides to purchase the field- it’s a good deal, the fruitfulness of the field would likely compensate for the price paid for it, why not purchase the field?  There is a catch, however, that Boaz has failed to mention-  “Oh and by the way” Boaz says “when you buy this land, you also have to buy Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate his name and inheritance.”  All of a sudden those dollar signs begin to disappear from before Mr. So and So’s eyes.  This might not be such a good deal after all! Purchasing Ruth meant that Mr. So and So would become responsible for raising up another son in order to carry on the name of Elimelech, not his own.  Purchasing Ruth meant that the land would remain in Mr. So and So’s possession only until this other son became old enough to claim it.  Add to this the social stigma attached to marrying Ruth, an unclean Gentile, an enemy of Israel- all of a sudden this deal doesn’t sound so good anymore, does it?

And so Mr. So and So changes his mind.  In v. 6 he says that He cannot not redeem the land [why?] lest his own inheritance be impaired.  He tells Boaz to take his right of redemption.  He is an unfaithful and self-seeking Redeemer unlike Boaz who takes the right of redemption and redeems everything that belonged to Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion.   Boaz is worthy of a name; Mr. So and so is not.  The narrator then zooms out of the story and records this custom in which the unwilling redeemer would remove his sandal and hand it to the one purchasing his right of redemption.  And so the last great conflict of the book- the right of this other redeemer- is resolved.  Ruth and Boaz can now be joined in marriage; there is a faithful redeemer in Bethlehem who will continue the name of Elimelech.  The elders and the people then bless Boaz, praying that he might be renowned in Bethlehem, that the Lord might make Ruth like Rachel and Leah, that his house might be like Perez, the son of Judah.  In other words, they are praying that God might use Boaz and his offspring to continue the Abrahamic line; that he and his offspring might be God’s appointed medium to bring blessing to his people and to the world; and this is an anticipation of what we find out in just a few verses when this prayer is marvelously answered.

Now lets step back for a minute and try to look at the big picture that the storyteller is setting before us in this opening scene because it’s easy to get caught up in many of the legal details and miss the bigger picture.  What is the storyteller doing in this opening scene?  He is painting a portrait of the faithful, obedient, law-keeping character of Boaz and setting up in stark contrast with with the unfaithful and self-seeking character of this nameless redeemer.  Boaz, as we saw at the end of chapter 3, does not rest until he deals with this obstacle of the other Redeemer.  But notice how he does it- he doesn’t deal with this obstacle by taking what rightfully belongs to this other Redeemer; he doesn’t bypass the law of God or take short cuts; he doesn’t allow his love for Ruth to soften his commitment to doing things God’s way- no, quite the opposite.  Boaz is intent upon acquiring Ruth according to the letter of God’s law and he does it comprehensively and selflessly.  He gathers the witnesses, he offers this other man the opportunity to redeem Ruth, he faithfully carries out his responsibilities as the kinsman redeemer no matter the cost.  As one writer puts it, Boaz is a model of the faithful King of Israel, who according to Ps. 72, renders justice to the poor and satisfies the needy.

More than that Boaz is a picture or an anticipation of how God will secure the redemption of his people through the promised Messiah.  We learn from Boaz that the redemption of God’s people can only be secured through the faithful, rigorous, comprehensive, selfless obedience of a Redeemer, a Redeemer worthy of a name, a Redeemer who humbles himself, who empties himself, who gives of himself for the sake of the helpless, the foreigner, the alien,  and the exiled no matter the cost.  And in this way, Boaz provides us with a striking and beautiful picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Redeemer of God’s elect, whose complete, comprehensive, rigorous and selfless obedience to the will of his Father secured a full redemption for his people; whose obedience to law of God secured for him the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9)

The redemption purchased by Christ for us is comprehensive and complete: he has purchased us out of our bondage and slavery to sin and Satan; he has removed our guilt by satisfying divine justice; he has removed the curse and sting of death; he has redeemed our bodies; he has redeemed our souls; his redemption extends to the creation itself.  This redemption purchased by Jesus Christ was also selfless: though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  Boaz paid a mighty price to redeem the name and inheritance of Elimelech and yet the price paid by our beloved Savior was infinitely greater.  He sealed our pardon with his blood.

I think one of the reasons our hearts, even as believers, often remain cold and unmoved by this good news of redemption through Jesus Christ is that sometimes we really don’t view ourselves like Naomi- as helpless, spiritually barren, completely dependent upon the willingness of a Redeemer to provide for our needs.  We don’t view ourselves as foreigners and aliens like Ruth, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12).   But apart from Christ and the redemption purchased by him and applied to us by the Holy Spirit we are spiritually dead, lifeless, children of wrath, alienated, estranged, condemned.  Like Ruth and Naomi we are spiritual exiles, completely unable to save ourselves apart from the perfect obedience and satisfaction of a Redeemer.  And so I ask you, have you entrusted yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ, have you closed with him by faith?  Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ:  are you continually entrusting yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ every day?  Are you deriving all of your sufficiency from Christ?  Are you clinging to Christ, resting in Christ, communing with Christ, delighting in Christ?  Are you resting in his righteousness or are you trusting in your own?  Is redemption through the consummate kinsman Redeemer your only plea, or are you trying to work your way out of the slave market of sin by your own obedience to the law of God?  Ruth and Naomi were entirely dependent upon faithful Boaz for their deliverance; we are completely dependent upon our faithful Savior for our deliverance.  We never outgrow our need for the redemption purchased by the Lord Jesus Christ.  May it be our prayer that as John Newton writes in one of his letters, every day might show us more and more of our own heart and more of the power, sufficiency, compassion, and grace of our adorable Redeemer.

The second thing I want us to notice in this chapter is the redemption that is applied to Naomi and Ruth and it is in these verses that we finally see the resolution of the central problem of the book- that of Naomi’s emptiness. And we see, in these verses a remarkable series of reversals. Notice 1st, the reversal of Ruth’s barrenness. In v. 13, we are told that the Lord applies the redemption purchased by Boaz in miraculously giving Ruth a son. Notice in v. 14 it is the Lord who gives her conception. Now this might not seem all that remarkable if you forget that in chapter 1, Ruth, during the 10 years that she was married to her husband, was barren. And so the Lord miraculously opens Ruth’s womb and gives her a son.

But then the focus shifts away from Ruth and onto Naomi and the divine reversal of her emptiness.  The narrator essentially tells us that Ruth’s son is really Naomi’s son- the Lord has given Naomi a redeemer (v. 14). Notice the words of the women in v. 14.  These words of blessing recorded here in chapter 4 parallel the words uttered by the women in chapter 1 and the cry of bitterness from Naomi.  Do you remember back in chapter 1, the women of Bethlehem say among themselves as Naomi returns from Moab “Is This Naomi?” and Naomi responds by telling them not to call her Naomi (which means sweet) but Mara which means bitter.   The women of Bethlehem are longer saying “Is this Naomi?” (as they did in ch. 1) but rather in v. 14: “Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without a Redeemer.”  Naomi’s bitterness has been replaced by blessing!

And notice that this Redeemer in v. 14 is not Boaz but the child born to Ruth. This child is Naomi’s Redeemer!  The prayer that the elders and the people had just offered up to God a few verses earlier is marvelously fulfilled in v. 14 as Ruth gives birth to a son- a Redeemer- whose name will be renowned in Israel.  Notice also how the birth of this Redeemer brings restoration and nourishment to Naomi in v. 15 –“he shall be a restorer of life to you and a nourisher of your old age.”  In other words, the miraculous birth of this child brings with it nothing short of resurrection life for Naomi.  Chapter 1 begins with death- the death of Elimelech and the death of Naomi’s sons.  Chapter 4 concludes with resurrection- the restoration which the birth of this child brings to Naomi and her family.

And so the narrative portion of the story concludes with a description of this little child sitting upon Naomi’s lap in v. 16.  It’s a visible picture of the complete reversal of Naomi’s situation.  The child is named Obed and and then in v. 16 the narrator provides us with a  surprise ending.  He tells us that Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David.  And it is at this point that we really understand the significance of this whole story; we see why it was so important that Elimelech’s family line be preserved.  God was at work through this family to bring on to the scene of history the greatest King of Israel- King David.  God was working, through this seemingly insignificant little family, in the darkest period of Israel’s history, to establish his typological kingdom in their midst, to usher in the long awaited eschatological kingdom in the person of Jesus Christ.  We see, then, that when viewed in light of the whole drama of redemption, the message of the book of Ruth is that the Lord was preparing the way for the birth of the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ, who would redeem us from our bondage to sin and establish his everlasting kingdom among us.  In the midst of the darkness, chaos, and anarchy of sin emerged a Messiah-Son who has graciously established his redemptive rule over a rebellious people through the purchase of a full redemption- a redemption unimaginably greater than anything Boaz, Obed, or David could accomplish.  Jesus is our “greater than Boaz,” Jesus is our “greater than Obed,” Jesus is our “greater than David,” and he delights in filling empty souls with his soul refreshing presence.

I think we learn an important lesson from the way that this book ends regarding the life of the believer and the character of what Rutherford calls “the black side of God’s providence.”  One of the lessons that we learn from the way that the book begins and ends; from these remarkable series of reversals; is that the life of the believer is not a straight line to glory.  Who would have thought that God was using the bleak, dark, tragic circumstances of chapter 1, full of famine, exile, death, and barrenness, to bring to on to the stage of history Israel’s greatest King and ultimately, the Lord Jesus Christ?    Who would have thought that Naomi’s emptiness would be reversed in such a profound way through the faithfulness of Boaz, the devotion of Ruth, and the birth of a Redeemer?  And yet, through all of the twists, turns, dangers, toils and snares, the Lord was carrying out his good and gracious purposes for Naomi and this is no less true for us today.  The Christian life is full of many twists and turns and obstacles and trials of various kinds.  But if we belong to Jesus Christ- though we are met with dangers, toils, and snares- though troubles assail our souls and dangers afright- we can be assured that God is sovereignly working, through all the events in our lives, to bring us to our  final, glorious inheritance through the promised Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.  At the end of Naomi’s wilderness road full of setbacks and tragedies and seemingly impossible circumstances was the infant Redeemer- Obed- who would restore to her everything which she had lost.  And at the end of our wilderness road full of set backs and tragedies and seemingly impossible circumstances is the imperishable, undefiled, unfading inheritance purchased for us by the blood of our kinsman Redeemer.

And so this story ends with a genealogy. Look with me at v. 18-22.

“Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.”

There are a number of things we could point out in this genealogy but I want to point out just a few things. Notice that back in v. 12, the elders and the people pray that God would make Boaz’s house like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah. And then Perez is mentioned yet again in v. 18- he was the great, great, great, great grandfather of Boaz. And you ask- okay who was Perez and why is that important? Perez, you might remember, was one of two twins, born out of the incestuous relationship between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar who dressed up like a prostitute and deceived Judah so that she might have a son (Gen. 38). This means that Boaz himself, a descendent of Judah and Tamar, was the product of an incestuous relationship. And remember that Ruth is a Moabite. The nation of Moab emerged out of an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters. And then notice Salmon, Boaz’s father, is also included in the genealogy. Who is Salmon? Salmon, according to Matthew’s genealogy, was the husband of Rahab the harlot. Rahab, according to this genealogy, was the mother of Boaz. Are you beginning to see a pattern? And we ask ourselves why so many notorious sinners? Why hang out the dirty laundry of adultery and incest and uncleanness for all to see? Why would God use such filthy, abominable, heartbreaking sins to establish his kingdom in Israel and prepare the way for the coming of his Son? And the answer is that God wants to put on full display, before all the world to see, that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more! As Iain Hamilton writes “The God of the Bible is a God whose grace bursts every conceivable notion of undeserved kindness and says to people ‘no matter how bleak and black and dark and godless your circumstances, I’m able to make all things new.

And if there is one foundational lesson that we can take from this book, it is this truth, that God loves sinners, that God delights in saving and restoring the lowest of the low. What Jerome wrote of Matthew’s genealogy is equally true of the genealogy provided here at the end of this book: “In it none of the holy women are included, only those whom the Scriptures blame, in order that He who came in behalf of sinners, Himself being born of sinners, might destroy the sins of all.”

And so let me close by asking you a series of questions. How have you responded to this marvelous grace? Have you believed in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, because there is no other name in heaven or on earth by which men can be saved. Have you come, with all of your sin and your filth and your misery, to the foot of the cross? Because it is there and there alone and nowhere else where you will find pardon. Maybe you are here this morning and you think that salvation is far from you. You are too dirty, too far gone,  your situation is too desperate. Perhaps you think that you have a lot of work to do before you can lay claim to the heavenly inheritance offered to you in the gospel. I would urge you- consider the kind of people the Lord used, in his grace, to bring his Son into the world- Judah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth. Look to the cross of Jesus Christ where justice and mercy meet. See there the gracious, kind, compassionate heart of the consummate kinsman Redeemer for sinners. Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, and you will be saved, no matter who you are or what you have done. Blessed be the Lord that there is a faithful Redeemer who beckons guilty and polluted sinners to come to him and find eternal redemption for their sin-sick souls.

As I have read through Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, I’ve noticed and appreciated both his respect for the Lutheran tradition and his theological sensitivity to some of the important theological differences between the Lutheran and Reformed churches.  Bavinck provides a helpful challenge to the pan-confessional thesis that the differences between the Lutheran and Reformed , especially in the area of soteriology, are minimal or even non-existent.

Perhaps one of the most important differences between the Reformed and Lutheran churches lies in their very different conceptions of the nature of the image of God in man, the kind of blessedness enjoyed by man before the fall, and the question of whether Adam related to God by way of covenant.  For the Reformed, there exists an inseparable link between protology and eschatology.  When Adam was created, his goal was not yet a given of his creation, the highest state of confirmed eschatological blessedness being conditioned by his obedience to the covenant of works.

The Lutherans rejected the idea of a prelapsarian covenant and viewed Adam as  already possessing the highest possible blessedness.  Thus, according to Bavinck, the Lutheran view comes dangerously close to a kind of antinomianism in which Adam, already enjoying a state of consummated perfection, exists outside the law.  This exaggerated view of Adam before the fall has important soteriological implications.  Lutheran protology leads to a soteriology in which the believer, through justification, comes to enjoy the very same kind of consummate blessedness which Adam enjoyed before the fall.  The blessing of justification is the blessing of Adam before the fall; justification takes us back to the beginning.

Bavinck’s summary provides insight into the very important differences between the Reformed and Lutheran conceptions of man before the fall, conceptions profoundly influenced by the presence or absence of a doctrine of the covenant.  For the Reformed, the doctrine of the covenant is of the very essence of true religion, the only possible way whereby man can come to enjoy a state of confirmed eschatological blessedness.  Christ’s obedience to the covenant of works and his suffering under its curse takes us beyond ground zero!  Christ’s covenantal obedience leads us into life, eschatological life in all of its variegated richness, the eschatological life which Adam failed to attain. Here is Bavinck’s summary:

The covenant of works…not only realizes the true and full idea of religion; it also gives expression to the fact that humanity before the fall, though created in God’s image, did not yet poses the highest possible blessing.  On this point Reformed theology has a primary difference with Lutheran theologians.  In their view, creation in God’s image was the realization of the highest idea of man.  In Adam that ideal was fully attained, and a higher state was not possible.

Adam did not have to become anything; he only had to remain what he was, namely a participant in the full gracious indwelling of the holy Trinity.  Accordingly, he was not subject to a law that commanded him to do anything positive.  The law that applied to him had only a negative thrust, and not until sin appeared was he brought under the dominion of the law.

That is why in the works of Lutheran theologians, as in those of the church fathers, the original state of man was frequently pictured in a very exaggerated manner.  It is also why the state to which believers in Christ are elevated is essentially equated with that of Adam before the fall.  In reference to the believer, everything is focused for the Lutheran on justification.  Once the believer is justified, he or she has enough and is completely satisfied and blessed.  Salvation completely coincides with forgiveness.

No need is felt to connect it backward with eternal election and forward with the whole of the Christian life, good works, and eternal life.  Neither predestination nor perseverance is needed here.  The Lutheran believer enjoys the new life in the present and feels no need for more.

For the Reformed, who walked in the footsteps of Augustine, things were different.  According to them, Adam did not possess the highest kind of life.  The highest kind of life is the material freedom consisting of not being able to err, sin, or die.  It consists in being elevated absolutely above all fear and dread, above all possibility of falling.  This highest life is immediately bestowed by grace through Christ upon believers.  They can no longer sin (1 John 3:9) and they can no longer die (John 3:16) since by faith they immediately receive eternal, inamissible life.

Theirs is the perseverance of the saints; they can no longer be lost.  Hence, Christ does not [merely] restore his own to the state of Adam before the fall.  He acquired and bestows much more, namely, that which Adam would have received had he not fallen.  He positions us not at the beginning but at the end of the journey that Adam had to complete.  He accomplished not only the passive but also the active obedience required; he not only delivers us from guilt and punishment, but out of grace immediately grants us the right to eternal life.

-Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2: God and Creation, p. 572-573

 

In light of the fact that most of my historical study of the sacraments, particularly the Lord’s Supper, has been confined to Calvin, the Westminster Standards, and John Williamson Nevin and the Mercersburg theology, I thought it might be time to examine the views of important Reformed figures with whom I disagree on this subject.  Throughout the summer, I’ve been reading through sections of R.L. Dabney’s Systematic Theology and have recently prepared a brief digest of his section on the Lord’s Supper.  The following is simply a summary of his views and not a critique, although, for reasons I will share later, I disagree with his analysis of Calvin’s position.

1. Definition of the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, His death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of His body and blood, with all His benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Qu. 96). Dabney notes that were it not for the strange career of superstition following the Lord’s Supper, “the dispassionate reader would have derived no conceptions from the sacred narrative but the simple ones of a commemorative seal.”

2.  History of Institution:  Dabney argues that the Lord’s Supper was instituted at the close of the Passover and was intended to replace and supersede the Passover (1 Cor. 5:7).  Jesus took the bread and the cup of wine and set them apart from their new use by an act of solemn thanksgiving to God.  He then broke the bread and after distributing both the bread and the wine, not partaking of them himself, said the words of institution:  “This do in remembrance of me; eat drink ye all of it, to show forth the Lord’s death till he come.”  These mandatory words were also accompanied by certain words of exposition, conveying the nature of the symbol and pledge; stating that the bread represented His body, and the cup the covenant made in His blood- the body lacerated and killed, and the blood shed, for redemption.”  The sacramental acts warranted by Christ are taking, breaking, and distributing the elements, on the part of the administrator, and their manual reception, both eating and drinking, on the part of the recipient.  The sacramental words are the thanksgiving, the explicatory and promissory, and the mandatory.  Dabney notes that the administration and reception of the sacrament is to be followed by another act of praise which he notes is not sacramental but an appendage to the sacrament, either by singing or praying.  He concludes, “to add anything else is superstition.”  

3.  Elements:  The elements of the Lord’s Supper are bread and wine.  While there has been some deal of controversy in the church as to what kind of bread should be used, Dabney argues bread of whatever kind can be used and that differences over this issue are non-essential.

4. Their Consecration: All Christians believe that the elements undergo some kind of consecration. Rome believes that the elements are consecrated with the pronunciation of the words of institution “This is my body” and teaches that these words result in a total change of the substance of the bread and the wine into the physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. Protestants argue that the only change that takes place is the simple change of their use, from a common use to a sacramental use and that the consecration is wrought “by the eucharistic act of worship which introduces the sacrament” rather than the words of institution.

5.  Breaking the Bread Significant- The breaking of bread is one of the sacramental acts and is never to be omitted by the minister or performed beforehand.  The one loaf or mass of bread signifies the unity of the church as a spiritual body. 

6. Pouring of the Wine, After the Bread, Significant- Dabney writes the following on intinction and communion in one kind: “There is also a significance the taking of the wine after the bread, in a distinct act of reception; because it is the blood as separated from the body by death, that we commemorate. Hence the soaking of the bread is improper, as well as the plea by which Rome justifies communion in one kind; that as the blood is in body, the bread conveys alone a complete sacrament. As we should commemorate it, the blood is not in the body, but poured out.”

7. Significant Acts of Communicants: Faith is the soul’s receptive act of the object of faith, Jesus Christ, who is signified by the elements. The sacrament also constitutes a profession and engagement to serve Christ, visibly signifies and seals our redemption, and indicates our communion with each other and with Jesus Christ the spiritual head of the church.

8.  Who may partake?  Dabney notes that 1 Cor. 11:27-30 clearly indicates to us the parties who may lawfully partake of the Lord’s Supper.  So clear is it that there should be no room for debate.  According to this passage only those who have examined themselves successfully  “of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, and faith to feed on Him, repentance, love and new obedience. (WSC 97; see also LC Q. 171-175).”  That the Lord’s Supper is only to be administered to credible professors does not depend upon the fact that the Lord’s Supper symbolizes saving grace since baptism does this as well.

The restriction of the Lord’s Supper to professing believers depends upon the express limitation of Paul and from the different graces symbolized in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is the sacrament of initiation. The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of continuance. According to Dabney, “baptism symbolizes those graces which initiate the Christian life: The Supper, those also who continue in it. Hence, while the former is once applied to infants born within the covenant, to ratify their outward membership, in the dependence upon the gracious promise that they shall be brought to commence the Christian life afterwords; it would be wrong to grant the second sacrament to any who have not given some indication of an actual progress in spiritual life”  In other words, baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the covenant community to be administered to all infants born within the covenant irrespective of our knowledge of their spiritual condition. Since it is an initiatory rite of an outward membership administered upon God’s promise to save them in his own time, it is not necessary that the saving graces symbolized in the sacrament of baptism be extended to the recipient at the time of its administration. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is the sacrament of continuance in the Christian life and should only be administered to those who show some signs of progress in spiritual life.

9.  The Supper Perverted by Two Errors:  The Lord’s Supper has become the subject of two particularly superstitious errors throughout church history:  the first that of the real or literal presence of Christ in the sacrament, the other that of a true sacrifice for sins offered in the sacrament.

10. Transubstantiation: Dabney explains the Romanist conception of the Lord’s Supper:

According to Rome, when the priest canonically, and with proper intention, pronounces the words in the mass: “Hoc est corpus meson” the bread and wine are changed into the very body and blood of the living Christ, including, of course, His soul and divinity; which mediatorial person, the priest does then truly and literally break and offer again , as a proper sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead; and he and the people eat Him . True; the accidents, or material qualities of bread and wine remain, but in and under them, the substance of bread is gone, and the substance really existing is Christ’s person. But in this condition of things, it exists without the customary material attributes of locality, extension, and divisibility; for He is none the less in heaven, and in all the ‘hosts,’ all over the world at once; and into however small parts they may be divided, each is a perfect Christ!”

Rome appeals to John 6:50 and insists on an absolutely literal interpretation of the words of institution. Dabney argues that John 6:50 cannot refer to the Lord’s Supper since the ordinance had not yet been instituted and it would have been absurd for him to speak of something that the people knew nothing about.  John 6:50 refers to the actings of faith upon the Lord Jesus Christ. If the passage refers to the Lord’s Supper, then everyone who eats the Lord’s Supper will go to heaven (John 6:53), not even a position that Rome embraces.

11. Words of Institution Properly Explained: Dabney argues that the words of institution are tropical (figurative) and the meaning of Jesus when he says “This is my body…this is my blood” is equivalent to “this represents my body, etc.”  Similar locutions can be found in Hebrew and Hebraistic Greek (Ez. 37:11; Dan. 7:24, Ex. 12:11; Matt. 13:38-39) and Jesus often speaks tropically of himself- I am the way (Jn. 14:6), the vine (15:1), the door (10:9). Dabney asks the question: “Why is a tropical exposition more reasonable or necessary here?” Jesus says that the bread is his body (i.e. his dead, broken body) and the cup is his blood (i.e. his blood shed in death). “This bread is my dead body” cannot, without absurdity, be understood as literal but must be understood as tropical since: (a.) the predication would then be self-contradictory. If it is bread, then it is not body, if it is body, it is not bread. If Jesus speaks literally, then the predication is meaningless and absurd. (b.) Jesus’s body was not yet dead. (c.) Incompatibles cannot be predicated of each other. Without a tropical understanding of Jesus’s words, we can make absolutely no sense of them.

12. Transubstantiation is Absurd:

a.  Because it violates our senses,

b. It violates reason.

c.  No Plea to call it a miracle: An attribute or accident is relative to its substance and cannot be conceived of as separate from it without destroying it. Also, it is impossible to abstract from matter the attributes of locality, dimension, and divisibility. It is impossible for matter to be ubiquitous but if the literal body and blood of Christ are present in the sacrament, Christ’s body must be ubiquitous. It cannot be defended by saying that is a great and mysterious miracle. “God’s omnipotence does not work the impossible and the natural contradiction. And whatever miracle has ever taken place, has necessarily been just as dependent on human senses, for man’s cognizance of its occurrence, as any common event. So that if the fundamental law of the senses is outraged, man is as incapable of knowing a miracle as any other thing.”

c. It violates the analogy of faith: Christ’s intention in instituting the Lord’s Supper was to institute a sacrament and a sacrament is a sign. Transubstantiation would utterly destroy the nature of a sacrament because if the elements are changed into Christ, then the sacrament is no longer a sign. It also contradicts the doctrine of Christ’s ascension and second advent. These doctrines teach us that Christ is at the Father’s right hand and will only come from the Father’s right hand at the final consummation. It also contradicts the doctrine of the atonement, “substituting a loathsome form of sacred (literal) cannibalism, for that faith of the the soul which receives the legal effects of Christ’s atoning sufferings as its justification.”

13. Therefore, Host not to be Worshipped: The host is not to be worshipped. Nor is kneeling appropriate since Christ’s calls the church to eat rather than kneel. The proper posture, according to Dabney, is that of a guest.

14. Consubstantiation Equally Erroneous, but not so Impious: Consubstantiation teaches that there is not a literal change in the elements of the bread and wine, but that they remain bread and wine. However, in a mysterious and miraculous way, there is a real, physical, presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in, under, and along with the elements. Dabney’s evaluation of the Lutheran position is that it is not so impious as the Roman Catholic view but that it is liable to the same exegetical and rational critiques.

15.  Reformed View of Real Presence: “There is a sense in which all evangelical Christians would admit a real presence in the Lord’s Supper. The second person of the Trinity being very God, immense and ubiquitous, is of course present wherever the bread and Vine are distributed. Likewise, his operations are present, through the power of the Holy Spirit employing the elements as means of grace, with all true believers communicating (Matt. 18:20). But this is the only sort of presence admitted by us.”  This really sums up Dabney’s entire position on the Lord’s Supper. Jesus Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper, not in any sense carnally, but through the activity of the holy Spirit who employs the signs as means of confirming grace to the faith of the believer.

16. Zwinglian View of Supper: Dabney hails Zwingli as “the most emancipated of all the Reformers from superstition and prejudice… [who] taught that the sacrament is only a commemorative seal, and that the human part of Christ’s person is not present in the sacrament, except to the faith of the intelligent believer.” Dabney argues that the defect of the Zwinglian view is that it does not take seriously enough the sealing nature of the sacraments.

17. Calvin’s View. Properly Grounded on Vital Union to Christ; yet Overstrains it: Calvin’s view of the Supper, Dabney argues, was perhaps influenced by his personal attachments to Melanchthon and motivated by a desire to heal the theological divisions between the Lutheran and Reformed parties. Thus, he takes an intermediate view that “the humanity, as well as the divinity of Christ, in a word, his whole person, is spiritually, yet really present, not to the bodily mouth, but to the souls of true communicants, so that though the humanity be in heaven only, it is still fed on in some ineffable, yet real and literal way by the souls of believers.”  Calvin was right, writes Dabney, to emphasize the nature of sacramental efficiency as representing and applying the vital, mystical union of the Lord with his people- “Such therefore as the vital union is, such must be our view of the sacrament of the Supper.” What is this mystical union? “Is the vital union then, only a secret relationship between Christ and the soul, instituted when faith is first exercised, and constituted by the indwelling and operation of the Holy Spirit: or, is it a mysterious, yet substantial conjunction, of the spiritual substance, soul, to the whole substance of the mediatorial person, including especially the humanity?”  In other words, what is the nature of our vital union with the Lord Jesus Christ? Is the soul of the believer substantially united to the humanity of Jesus Christ? Or is our union with Christ a spiritual union effected by the indwelling of the holy Spirit and received by faith? Calvin asserts that our union with Jesus Christ is a substantial union with his whole person, including his humanity. He argues that the corporeal part of Jesus Christ, having been established through the incarnation, is a kind of duct through which Christ and his benefits are communicated to us. Calvin argues that the body of Christ is said in Scripture to be our life and that faithfulness to Scripture requires us to understand union as more than a spiritual union in which the benefits procured for the elect are communicated to the soul.

18. Is Calvin’s the Westminster Doctrine? Dabney argues that it was the intention of the Westminster Assembly to modify all that was untenable and unscriptural in Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper while not completely repudiating it. According to the WCF, worthy communicants “do really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporeally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then not corporeally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers” (WCF 29:7).  Dabney observes that-  First, believers receive and feed upon Jesus Christ crucified and the benefits of his death spiritually and not, contra Calvin, on his literal flesh and blood. Second, the presence of Jesus Christ “is only a presence to our faith.” The Confession, then, understands receiving and feeding as the “spiritual actings of faith in Christ our Redeemer and on His body slain, and blood poured out, as the steps of his atoning work; so that the thing which the soul embraces, is not the corporeal substance of his slain body and shed blood, but their redeeming virtue.”   Dabney enlists the support of Francis Turretin who, according to Dabney, reflects the view of the Westminster Assembly that the human person of Christ is not present to the believer “in the sense of substantive proximity or contact; but only in this sense; that we say a thing is present, when it is under the cognizance of the faculty naturally apprehended for its apprehension.”  For instance, the sun is said to be present at day and absent at night when, in fact, it is no farther distant at night than during the day. Nevertheless, because the sun’s beams do not operate upon our visual organs during the night, it is said to be absent. In like manner, the sacramental elements set Christ before us, not physically or corporeally, but according to Dabney and Turretin, spiritually or mentally; the elements symbolically place Christ before the understanding of the sanctified understanding  and heart which then receive the seal of his saving benefits through Spirit-wrought faith Thus, Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper, though present spiritually (through the working of the holy Spirit sealing the benefits of Christ’s redemption to the faith of the believer through the visible elements of bread and wine) and never carnally.

19. Calvin’s Proposition Impossible. Reasons.

a. First of all, it requires us to admit that “matter may exist without its essential attributes of locality and dimension” (20, 375).” What Dabney is arguing is that both the soul of man and the glorified body of the Lord Jesus Christ are restricted and confined to their own ubi- the soul to the body and Christ’s glorified body to the right hand of God the Father. Christ’s glorified body dwells on high and will not return to the earth until the final consummation (Matt. 26:11; John 16:28; 17:11; 16:7; Luke 24:51; Acts 3:21; 1:11.)

b. If any body present, it is the body dead. The elements used in the Lord’s Supper represent the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. According to Calvin, the mystical union between Christ and the believer is sealed and applied to the believer in order to propagate spiritual life. How unreasonable it is, Dabney argues, that “spiritual life is communicated through the actual, corporeal, substance of Christ’s body, at the very stage at which the body is itself lifeless?” The spiritual life of the believer is strengthened not by the dead body of the Lord Jesus Christ, but through the agency of the holy Spirit, the Spirit of the glorified Christ (Rom. 8:9). Christ is present to the soul of the believer in no other way before his second advent.

c. Old Testament Saints: Dabney acknowledges that the Old Testament church did not possess the same sacraments as the church under the New Covenant. However, they possessed the same spiritual life and that life was nourished in the very same way (Rom. 4:5; Heb. 11; and especially 1 Cor. 10:14). Dabney asks- “Were Old Testament saints saved in the same gospel way with us? Yes. Then that theory which makes the anthropic person the corporeal duct of spiritual life, is not true: for when they were saved, there was not the anthropic person.” Calvin and Dabney differ in their understand of the character of union with Christ. For Dabney, union with Christ is exclusively Spiritual (i.e. union with Christ consists in the application of Christ’s benefits by the holy Spirit and not in a union with Christ’s corporeal flesh). Calvin’s view of union with Christ, according to Dabney, insists that in some ineffable and mystical way, the believer is united to the whole Christ, both God and man, and that this mystical union is the means through which the benefits of Jesus Christ are applied to the believer. If union with Christ is necessary for salvation, then Old Testament believers were united to Christ. But since Christ had not yet come in the flesh, this union could in no way have been a union with the anthropic person of Christ. Therefore, the union between the believer and Jesus Christ cannot be physical but must be spiritual.

d. The Conjunction is Simply Believing: In John 6 Jesus speaks of feeding upon his flesh as the source of the believer’s life and identifies this feeding with faith. In v. 60-64, Jesus very explicitly teaches that that eating and drinking spoken of in the previous verses is spiritual. Dabney paraphrases Jesus’s words:

“Are you minds so gross as to suppose that salvation is to be attained by a literal eating of the Savior’s material flesh? No wonder you are scandalized by gross an idea! Is it not a sufficient proof of its erroneousness, that in a few months you are to see the Redeemer’s person (divine and corporeal) ascend to the heavens from which the eternal Word descended?” Of course, that utter seclusion of his material body from the militant Church explodes the very idea of a material presence and a literal eating. But besides: all such notions misconceive the true nature of redemption. This is a spiritual work; no material flesh can have any profitable agency to promote it, as it is a propagation of life in the soul; the agency must be spiritual; not physical. And the vehicle of that agency is the gospel word, not any material flesh, however connected with the redeeming person. The thing you lack, is not any such literal eating (a thing as useless as impossible) but true, living faith on Christ (v. 60-64).”

e. Calvin Inconsistent with Results of Unworthy Eating: Unworthy communicants are not condemned for failing to receive the literal flesh of Jesus Christ. They are faulted for unbelief. In like manner, worthy communicants are blessed by faith in Christ and not by a literal consumption of his flesh.

20.  True Nature of Sacramental Efficiency-  The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace in the sense that “it sets forth the central truths of redemption, in a manner admirably adapted to our nature sanctified; and these truths, applied by the Holy Spirit, are the instruments of sanctification and spiritual life, in a manner generically the same with, though in degree more energetic than the written and spoken word.”  The Lord’s Supper functions as a means of grace by presenting the gospel to the believer in visible form.  This visible gospel is sealed to the faith of the believer by the holy Spirit and thus become an instrument of sanctification and spiritual life in a manner analogous to the faithful reception of the written and preached word.

22. Private Communion Rejected. Why? The Supper is not a sacrifice, it is a commemoration of Christ’s death which shows forth his death. Therefore, fellow communicants must be present to whom Christ’s death is shown forth. The Supper is also a communion, representing our membership in the body of Christ and therefore must be celebrated with the body.

23.  Laity Entitled to the Cup- The blood is poured out from the body by death and therefore the blood is not in the body as Rome asserts.  The grounds for refusing it to the laity are so trivial to really need any substantial refutation.  All who eat are also to drink (Mk 14:23; Matt. 26:27).  The true motive for withholding the cup from the laity “doubtless, is, to exalt the priesthood into a superior caste.”  

A Christian hathFile:Thomas Watson (Puritan).jpg that which may make him content. 1. Hath not God given thee Christ? in him there are “unsearchable riches;” (Ep. 3. 8) he is such a golden mine of wisdom and grace, that all the saints and angels can never dig to the bottom. As Seneca said to his friend Polybius, never complain of thy hard fortune as long as CÊsar is thy friend: so I say to a believer, never complain as long as Christ is thy friend; he is an enriching pearl, a sparkling diamond; the infinite lustre of his merits makes us shine in God’s eyes. (Ep. 1. 7) In him there is both fulness and sweetness; he is unspeakably good. Screw up your thoughts to the highest pinnacle, stretch them to the utmost period, let them expatiate to their full latitude and extent; yet they fall infinitely short of these ineffable and inexhaustable treasures which are locked up in Jesus Christ; and is not here enough to give the soul content? A Christian that wants necessaries, yet having Christ, he hath the

“the one thing needful.”

-Thomas Watson, Art of Divine Contentment

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Note:  While I haven’t posted in a long time, I thought I’d put this up since the concerns of this short essay I wrote for my doctrine of the church class address some of the issues this blog has sought to address throughout the years.  I didn’t have near enough time to work on this as I wanted to, but I thought it might be helpful to some.  Here’s the first part

In John Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, after answering why the Lord’s body is represented by the elements of bread and wine, the following question is asked:  “Do we then eat the body and blood of the Lord?”  Calvin answers: “We do. For since the whole hope of our salvation consists in this, that his obedience, which he rendered to the Father, may be placed to our credit as through it were our own, it is necessary that he himself should be possessed by us.  He does not communicate his benefits to us except as he makes himself ours.”

Many contemporary Reformed and evangelical Christians, if they were confronted with Calvin’s question and answer without being told who the author of the Catechism is, might think it a Lutheran or even Roman Catholic catechism.  But a Calvinist catechism?  A Reformed catechism?  A catechism informed at every point by a self-consciously biblical rejection of all forms of sacerdotalism?  How can it be?  Anecdotal and written evidence suggests that a hypothetical reaction like this is exactly the kind of reaction we should expect from many contemporary Reformed Christians.

It has been my own experience as a member of two Presbyterian denominations, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, that a low view of the Lord’s Supper has crept into many churches, with the result that this sacrament is scarcely regarded as a central element of the church’s worship and piety, is celebrated infrequently (monthly, sometimes even quarterly), and explained in memorialistic categories foreign to the eucharistic theology of the Reformed creeds and confessions.  While my experience certainly cannot furnish a definitive analysis of every Reformed church, the reflections of other Reformed Christians and theologians with greater exposure to the Reformed world and better knowledge of the Reformed faith and its history have confirmed my conviction that the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, as confessed by Calvin and the majority of Reformed and Presbyterian churches throughout history, has fallen on hard times.  The reality of this obvious disjunction between Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper and the popular Reformed view raise a number of important questions:  Why has the Calvinist doctrine of the Lord’s Supper fallen on such hard times?  What have been some of the theological and liturgical side-effects of this theological shift?  Should the Calvinist doctrine of the Lord’s Supper be abandoned or re-affirmed in our contemporary context?  How might a re-affirmation of the Calvinist doctrine of the Supper assist us in reforming contemporary Reformed liturgical practice?  These are the kinds of questions this essay is interested in exploring with the hope that as we consider the biblical evidence for the Calvinist doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its indispensability for the corporate and individual life of the church, we might also think through the pastoral issue of how this doctrine should shape the worship of the church and the rhythm of her corporate devotional life.

A number of factors have contributed to contemporary Reformed and evangelical views of the Lord’s Supper, but two stand out as especially important:  rationalism and pietism.  R. Scott Clark has observed that “the most immediate reason for our fall from the Protestant idea of the Supper as a means of grace is that we have become practical modernists.”

Clark observes that with the the emergence of the Enlightenment in the late 17th and early 18th centuries came a seismic shift in modern man’s view of himself in relationship to the universe.  Philosophers like Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant laid the intellectual foundations for the overtly rationalistic theology of Schleiermacher and other 19th century theologians who have left a permanent mark upon the character of both the liberal and evangelical Christianity of the 20th and 21st centuries.  Man, beginning with himself, sought to reformulate Christian theology along rationalistic lines and any doctrine which could not be reconciled with human reason was abandoned.  The historic-Christian affirmation of the objective presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was cast aside as a pre-modern superstition not consistent with an enlightened view of the universe.

19th century rationalistic theology was accompanied by pietism, a movement with roots in the ascetic, monastic, and mystical piety of the medieval church and the Lutheran pietism of Philip Jakob Spener (1635-1705) who is usually regarded as the father of the pietist movement.  Pietism, discontented with a spirituality rooted in the ordinary means of grace, sought an immediate encounter with God detached from the historical considerations so important to the orthodox Christian faith.

Aided by the emergence of 19th century revivalism and 20th century fundamentalism, elements of rationalism and pietism became part and parcel of 20th century evangelical theology and practice.  These movements and their own unique piety and practice have drawn the evangelical and Reformed churches away from a piety rooted in the ordinary means into a quasi-Gnostic, privatized spirituality with little need for things like water, Word, bread, and wine.  While our confessional Reformed churches have, for the most part, avoided the more extreme elements of pietism and rationalism, it would be naive to conclude that they have been left entirely unscathed.  A case in point is the reality already mentioned in this paper: the glaringly obvious departure from the robust eucharistic theology of the Reformed creeds and confessions.  The practice of many contemporary Reformed and Presbyterian churches confirms the validity of this diagnosis:  infrequent administration of the Lord’s Supper along with an abiding suspicion of weekly communion as a Romanist innovation, a hurried liturgy tacked on to the end of the service, an individualistic environment in which people curl up into a semi-fetal position, close their eyes, and dare not make a peep lest the concentration of their fellow Christian be broken; these realities, and more, are a distressing indication that our piety, while it may bear the Reformed label, is much more indebted to rationalism and pietism than to the the sacramental piety of the Reformed confessions.

The salient features of the Reformed doctrine of the Supper can be found in the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 29.  The Westminster Confession of Faith doesn’t always use Calvin’s terminology and, at points, might minimize the objective character of Christ’s presence in the Supper in a way that Calvin did not.  However, the essential contours of Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper are present in WCF 29, the most important of which is that in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the whole Christ is truly present for the nourishment of the church.  In WCF 29:1, the the nature of the Lord’s Supper is defined in the following way.  First, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a commemorative ordinance “for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in his death.”

Second, the Supper seals “all the benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him.”

Lastly, the Lord’s Supper is a “bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body.”

The Lord’s Supper is a seal of the covenant of grace and a visible confirmation of the preached word.  According to Berkhof, “the grace received in the sacrament does not differ in kind from that which believers receive through the instrumentality of the Word.  The sacrament merely adds to the effectiveness of the word, and therefore to the measure of the grace received.  It is the grace of an ever closer fellowship with Christ, of spiritual nourishment and quickening, and of an ever increasing assurance of salvation.”

As a seal of the covenant of grace, the Lord’s Supper confirms our interest in Christ and our ongoing communion with him.  Thus, as in baptism, faith is the instrument through which Christ and his benefits are received.  It is important to note that the Lord’s Supper doesn’t create or effect union with Christ.  According to question and answer 30 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “the Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting to us Christ in our effectual calling (emphasis mine).”   The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the divinely established seal of our union with Christ, a Spirit-wrought augmentation of the union we already possess.  This union with Christ, which is concentrated and realized in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, is more than a moral union, a mere legal union, a carnal, physical, or material union, or a purely “spiritual” union with Christ in his divine nature   The glorified and risen Christ remains both God and man forever which means that any form of communion which takes place between Christ and the believer must be a communion with the glorified, incarnate Christ.  In our communion with the glorified, incarnate Christ, the Lord Jesus Christ remains in heaven and we remain upon earth.  Calvin explains that we are not to think of communion with the body of Christ “as if the body of Christ, locally present, were to be taken into the hand, and chewed by the teeth, and swallowed by the throat,” but “the Spirit of Christ, who unites us to him, and is a kind of channel by which everything that Christ has and is, is derived to us.”

Such an important qualification aimed at sacerdotal theories of the Supper, however, should not be interpreted as a denial of the real, objective presence of Christ in this ordinance.  Through the working of the Holy Ghost, believers are transported into the heavenly realm to feed upon the very body and blood of Christ by faith.  Hence, the term “spiritual presence”, often used to described the Calvinist view of the Supper, can be misleading if it is meant to suggest that our communion with Christ in the Supper is communion with the holy Spirit or the divine nature of Christ rather than with Christ himself.  Calvin wrote that he was not satisfied “with the view of those who, while acknowledging that we have some kind of communion with Christ, only make us partakers of the Spirit, omitting all mention of flesh and blood”

“Spiritual presence”, as it is is understood by Calvin, denotes the action of the holy Spirit, making the flesh and blood of Christ objectively present to gathered church on earth.  Calvin was concerned that his biblical via media between sacerdotal and memorialist extremes not be interpreted in such a way as to deny the real, objective, presence of Jesus Christ in the Supper through the mysterious power of the holy Spirit.  The difference between Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Calvinists was never over whether Christ was present in the Lord’s Supper.  Historically, the disagreement centers upon the manner in which Christ is received.  For the Roman Catholics and Lutherans, the physical flesh of Christ is actually consumed by the mouth.  For the Calvinists, the whole Christ, locally present in heaven, no less truly, is received by the mouth of faith.

Another important feature of the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper which oftentimes doesn’t receive the attention it deserves is its horizontal character as a sacrament of communion with fellow believers.  The polemically driven quest to define the substance of the elements and their efficacy has often obscured this particular feature of the Supper which all three branches of the Christian church- Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant- affirm.  The mystical union and communion with Christ which believers enjoy, by faith, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper “immediately results in mutual fellowship” between believers.

As we’ve already seen in WCF 29:1, the Lord’s Supper is “a bond and pledge of their communion with Him [Christ] and with each other, as members of His mystical body.”  The Belgic Confession expresses the same conviction:  “We are moved by the use of this holy sacrament to a fervent love towards God and our neighbor.”

One might wonder whether the absence of Christian love and unity in many congregations is an indication that the Lord’s Supper is not being taken seriously enough.

Such a view might sound good in theory, but can it be supported by Scripture?  Perhaps one of the clearest texts which establishes the Reformed view of the Supper as a means of communion with Christ is 1 Cor 10:16.  After warning the Corinthians to flee idolatry and their former pagan practices, Paul establishes his exhortations by appealing to what goes on in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper:  “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 (ESV).”  The Greek word for “participation” is koinwni÷a which carries the idea of participation, sharing, or social intercourse.  A literal rendering of 1 Cor. 10:16 looks something like this:  “The cup of blessing that we bless- is it not the fellowship of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break- is it not the fellowship of the body of Christ?”  According to Paul, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is nothing less than a means of true participation and fellowship with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ as he is communicated to us through the power of the holy Spirit.

As to the question of whether believers actually participate in the body and blood of Jesus Christ by faith, a number of texts could be mentioned in which the flesh of Jesus Christ is intimately tied to the believers ongoing spiritual nourishment.  Although Calvin did not adopt a eucharistic interpretation of John 6, a number of verses in that chapter (v. 27, 33, 51-59) attribute to the flesh of Christ a life-giving efficacy which, when received, provides eternal life (v. 54).  Other texts emphasize this mystical union with the glorified and risen Christ and the intimate relationship between the body of Christ and the church (Jn 1:1, 14; Eph. 5:30; 1 Cor 6:15; Eph. 4:16).  Lastly, the words of institution place the emphasis squarely on the body and blood of Jesus Christ and its reception by the disciples:  “This is my body” “This…is my blood.”  The words “which is given for you” and “which is shed for you” (Luke 22:19-20) along with the mention of forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28) leave us with no doubt that though the ordinary elements of bread and wine do not change (contra Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism) a real sharing in the very body and blood of Jesus Christ is in view.

Thus far, we’ve briefly defined the Calvinist doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as it is expressed by our representative theologians and confessional standards.  We’ve seen that Calvin’s doctrine of a real, objective presence of Jesus Christ in the Supper is built upon the teaching of Jesus and the apostles that the believer’s faithful participation in the sacrament is a real participation in Christ’s body and blood and used by the holy Spirit as a means of spiritual nourishment for the church.  One thing which seldom receives the kind of attention it deserves in Calvinist treatments of the Lord’s Supper is the relationship between the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and the the actual practice of the Lord’s Supper in our churches.  Is it possible for the liturgical practices of Reformed churches to be inconsistent with their official eucharistic theology?  I’m of the opinion that such a disjunction is not only possible but common.  I also think that while Scripture doesn’t provide us with specific directions for how to administer and celebrate the Supper, its doctrine of the Supper should direct our eucharistic liturgies in a specific direction, a direction consistent with the great truths we’ve briefly outlined above.  In this last section, I want to offer a few brief suggestions which might assist Reformed churches in aligning their eucharistic theology with their eucharistic practice.

First, Reformed and Presbyterian churches who celebrate the Supper more infrequently (monthly or quarterly) should consider whether an infrequent administration of the Supper is consistent with their confessional commitments.  If the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a means of communion with the risen Christ, a powerful bond of communion between fellow believers, a confirmation of the preached Word which, in the words of Berkhof “adds to the effectiveness of the word,” then why wouldn’twe celebrate it every time we meet together to hear the word preached?  If the divinely appointed means of grace consist of Word, sacrament, and prayer, then why would we even think about excluding one of these means from the weekly rhythm of the church’s corporate devotional life?  Could churches get away with quarterly or monthly prayer or a quarterly or monthly reading and preaching of the Scriptures?  The question answers itself.  The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is no less important than these other ordinances and yet pastors and congregants are bafflingly content with an infrequent celebration of this central feature of the church’s ministry.  Darryl Hart and John Muether observe that “Calvin saw weekly observance as necessary for uniting the ministry of Word and sacrament. By sealing the promises proclaimed in the preaching of the Word, weekly communion enabled Christians frequently to return in memory to Christ’s work, and ‘by such remembrance to sustain and strengthen their faith.’”

For Calvin, as Muether and Hart point out, he sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, along with the preaching of the Word, stands at the very the very heart of the church’s corporate life.  An infrequent approach to the Lord’s Supper pushes this soul-refreshing sacrament away from the heart of Christian worship into the periphery.  It sends the message that the Lord’s Supper is nothing more than a personal devotional aid that we can take or leave without doing any harm to our own souls.  Weak assurance, lack of unity and love among church members, a cold and formalistic intellectualism, moralistic approaches to the Christian life severed from the good news of the gospel- all of these distressing problems and more might just begin to be remedied by a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper in which believers are consistently brought into closer communion with their Savior and each other.  I’m convinced that vital Christian piety can be best served by a weekly administration of the Lord’s Supper.

Along with a renewed commitment to weekly communion, Reformed churches might also consider the mood of the liturgy and its effect upon the faith of the participants.  One important element of Calvinistic eucharistic theology is it emphasis upon faith as the “mouth” through which believers feed upon Christ.  If faith is the instrument through which we lay hold of Christ in the Supper, then we should strive to create an environment in which faith is strengthened rather than weakened.  A gloomy, dark, and even depressing environment often becomes the context within which the Supper is celebrated.  What is meant to be a joyful meal with our risen Lord and each other often becomes a drab devotional exercise which looks more like funeral than a feast!  This environment is often augmented by a fencing of the table which makes struggling believers feel unworthyof participation.  It has become a Protestant tradition for congregants to curl up into the semi-fetal position and close their eyes after receiving the elements.  Silence and quiet have become the defining characteristics of many Protestant administrations of the Supper, with a soft accompaniment or complete silence attending the distribution of the bread and wine.

We must ask ourselves:  Does such an environment strengthen faith?  Is such an environment consistent with the Scriptural doctrine of the Lord’s Supper?  I’m highly doubtful.  The Synoptic accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper reveal that active participation (Luke 22:17), thanksgiving (Luke 22:19; Mark 14:23), and singing (Mark 14:26) marked its first observance.  Taken together with the fact that the Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal, a foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb, an intrusion of the age to come into the present life and existence of the church, it simply cannot be maintained, upon any solid biblical foundation, that the Lord’s Supper should be observed in such a gloomy and individualistic environment.  Celebratory hymns and psalms should be sung, corporate prayers should be offered up to God, the congregation should open their eyes and actually look at one another, the table should be both fenced and freely offered to struggling, weak, downcast believers  Nothing short of a deep and unbounded delight in and celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ in all of his glorious fulness should mark our observance of the Lord’s Supper and be reflected in our liturgy.

Willhelmus a Brakel and Guilelmus Saldenus, in their treatise In Remembrance of Him, Profiting fro the Lord’s Supper, write that “it is a special fruit and consequence of the lawful partaking of the Lord’s Supper that it generates comfort and joy in the hearts of God’s children.”

What could be more comforting and joyful than a real confrontation with the glorified and risen Christ, an intimate communion with the living God which surpasses our feeble attempts to understand it and probe the depths of its mysteries?  The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace or better yet, grace itself which can be seen, held, touched, and eaten.  According to Westminster Shorter Catechism Q and A 88, “the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”  In many contemporary Reformed churches, much emphasis has rightly been placed upon the importance of the word and prayer.  The reading and preaching of the word of God along with both pastoral and congregational prayer are central elements of the church’s life and ministry.  Far less emphasis, however, has been placed upon the centrality of the sacraments, specifically, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as an ordinance whereby “Christ communicateth to us the benefits of his redemption.”  The twin evils of rationalism and pietism have left a permanent mark upon our piety and practice, with the result that the Lord’s Supper has come to be viewed as a dispensable devotional exercise to be administered a few times a year.  The Calvinistic doctrine of the Supper, in contrast to the rationalist and pietist conceptions, recognizes this sacrament, along with the Word and prayer, to be the very life-blood of the church, a haven of rest in the midst of the wilderness of this world wherein believers meet with their Savior and receive the grace that only his soul-refreshing presence can provide.  The piety, unity, and corporate witness of our churches would be greatly strengthened should they recover both the biblical doctrine of the Lord’s Supper along with a liturgical practice consistent with it.  My prayer is that the Lord would bless his church with a renewed confidence in the ordinary means of grace to the end that she might resist the spirit of this present evil age and find strength where God has promised to give it.

Since I thought this topic might be relevant to the concerns of this site, and since I haven’t really utilized this blog in a while, I thought I might post a paper I just wrote on the Christology of St. Cyril of Alexandria and its closely related soteriological concerns. To get an idea of what the Nestorian controversy was all about, I’d start with one of Cyril’s letters.  In the following paper, I dealt with his third letter, by far the most polemical and interesting, and thought of some ways that Reformed Christians might appropriate the Cyrillian Christology.

The Soteriological Implications of the Hypostatic Union in Cyril of Alexandria’s Third Epistle to Nestorius

          The vicarious death of Jesus Christ and its redemptive implications are crucial components of Western Christianity and its belief, teaching, and confession.  The Protestant tradition, with its historic and confessional emphasis upon penal-substitutionary atonement, gratuitous justification by faith alone, and the forensic imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience, might find it more difficult, however, to think through the redemptive implications of Christ’s incarnation and the hypostatic union of his divine and human natures.  These emphases and their mystagogical implications, rooted in the Eastern tradition and its most notable representatives are, on many levels, inherently irreconcilable with the theology and practice of Western evangelicals.  Nevertheless, a sustained and thoughtful meditation upon the relationship between Christology and soteriology, informed by the theology and practice of the Eastern fathers, might serve the Protestant tradition as a helpful complement to their historic and confessional emphases.  The important connection between Christology and soteriology is nowhere more vigorously expressed than in the early Alexandrian tradition.  The Christology of Cyril of Alexandria is but one example of how the Alexandrian tradition understood the vital relationship between Christology and soteriology.  His anti-Nestorian letters and treatises reveal a man whose complex and nuanced Christology was driven by an eminently practical concern: the salvation of mankind through the life-giving body of the God-man.

In 428, a Syrian monk named Nestorius was summoned to Constantinople by the emperor to succeed the recently deceased bishop Sissinius.  In the summer of that year, a delegation was sent to Nestorius to ask him about a disputed point of doctrine.  Should Mary be given the title “Theotokos” (she who gave birth to God) or “anthropotokos” (she who gave birth to man)?  Nestorius, whose theology was firmly rooted in the Antiochene school, argued that “Christotokos” (she who gave birth to Christ) was the term most faithful to holy Scripture.  Early in 429, Nestorius began a more vocal polemic against Theotokos through his lectures and sermons, accusing the Theotokos theologians of Apollinarianism, a charge which would continue to re-surface throughout the controversy.  After a series of events in which the Church of Rome, at Cyril’s instigation and with the help of Pope Celestine, condemned Nestorius and his deviant Christology, Cyril, in 430, gathered a synod of Egyptian bishops to affirm the consensus of the Roman church.  It is within this context that Cyril wrote his third and most controversial letter to Nestorius with its 12 anathemas.

Nestorius’ denial of Theotokos was only one integral part of his larger Christological schema.  Driven by a concern to preserve the church’s belief in the genuine humanity of Christ, he followed his mentor Theodore of Mopsuestia in teaching a “two sons” Christology in which the person of Jesus Christ is divided between the man Jesus Christ and the divine Logos.  While it is not always clear whether Nestorius advocated some of the later theological extremes attached to his name, it is fairly clear that he viewed the divine and human persons of Christ as existing alongside of one another, bound or conjoined by a moral union, but not united together into one divine-human hypostases.  Cyril’s third letter to Nestorius reveals why such a Christology so thoroughly undermines the belief, teaching, and confession of the church.

Cyril begins his letter by observing that the only begotten word of God “was incarnate and made man; that is taking flesh of the holy virgin, and having made it his own from the womb, he subjected himself to birth for us and came forth man from a woman without casting off that which he was.  But although he assumed flesh and blood he remained what he was, God in essence and truth.” He continues to argue for a personal union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ, linking belief in this doctrine to the church’s worship: “confessing the Word to be made flesh according to substance, we adore one Son and Lord Jesus Christ.” Confessing the unity of Christ’s person is essential to the genuine worship and practice of the church.

Nestorius and the Antiochenes frequently argued for an “association” or “conjunction” of the divine and human persons.  For Cyril, “junction”, “conjuction”, and “association” are inappropriate descriptions of Christ’s divine-human unity.  Jesus Christ must be “considered as one, the only begotten Son, to be honored with one adoration together with his own flesh.” Without this personal union, Christ cannot carry out the redemptive purpose for which he was sent into the world: “that having trodden down death by his unspeakable power, first in his own flesh, he might become the firstborn from the dead and the firstfruits of them that slept.” With his predecessor Athanasius, Cyril teaches that God must become man in order that “he might make a way for the nature of man to attain incorruption.” If Christ is to conquer death and secure a dynamic transformation of the human race, it is necessary that the life-giving Deity of the eternal Logos be personally, intimately, and substantially united to human flesh.

Closely related to these soteriological and liturgical concerns are Cyril’s sacramental concerns.  Christian participation in the “unbloody sacrifice” is not a mere carnal participation in common flesh.  Nor do Christians receive the flesh “of a man sanctified and associated with the Word according to the unity of worth or as having a divine indwelling, but as truly the life-giving and very flesh of the Word himself (emphasis added).” The efficacy of the sacrament is directly dependent upon the hypostatic union of the two natures and cannot be rightly understood apart from it.  While this kind of connection might sound strange to Western Christians inclined towards thinking of the Lord’s supper in strictly spiritual or physical categories, the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ is, for Cyril, a necessary precondition for the proper celebration of the holy Eucharist.

Cyril closes the letter with a word on why confession of Mary as Theotokos is a necessary component of orthodox Christology and soteriology.  Confessing Mary as the “mother of God” demands belief in the hypostatic union of the divine Logos with human flesh from the very beginning of Christ’s existence.  The divine Logos becomes flesh at the moment of conception “in order that he might bless our existence and that that which sent the earthly bodies of our whole race to death, might lose its power for the future by his being born of a woman in the flesh.”  Again, Cyril’s is quick to point up the vicarious nature of the incarnation and hypostatic union.  If the divine Logos is not united to Christ’s flesh at every stage of his existence, then mankind cannot participate in the divine nature and attain immortality.

Cyril’s 12 anathemas are a condensation of what he considers to be Nestorius’ signature doctrines.  Particularly relevant to the concerns of this essay are the eighth, tenth and twelfth anathemas in which the soteriological, liturgical, and sacramental implications of the hypostatic union are presented as a test of doctrinal orthodoxy.             In the eighth anathema, Cyril condemns anyone who teaches “that the man who was assumed ought to be worshipped and glorified together with the divine Word and be called God along with him, while being separate from him.” Christians do not worship a divine son and a human son, but a divine-human son united together in one person.  Nestorius’ two-sons Christology destroys the worship of the church by demanding the worship of two separate persons (Jesus Christ and the divine Logos) rather than one divine-human person.  In the tenth anathema, Cyril connects the hypostatic union to Christ’s high-priestly office.  The efficacy of Christ’s priestly work and the impeccability of Christ’s person in the carrying out of that work is directly dependent upon the personal union of the two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ.  The eleventh anathema mandates belief in the “life-giving flesh” of the Lord Jesus Christ, no doubt a reference to the life-giving flesh of Christ received by Christians in the holy Eucharist.  Nestorius’ Christology cannot make sense of the church’s belief in the divine presence of Christ in the sacrament, for if the divine Logos is not hypostatically united to Christ’s flesh, then the individual Christian partakes of either a purely physical element or an element divided between a divine and human subject, options which, for Cyril, are absurd and heretical.

For Cyril, man’s salvation cannot be realized apart from the total reconciliation of God and man, a personal and substantial communion between human flesh and divine life, a dynamic and intimate fellowship between the flesh of man and the divine Logos.  Such fellowship can only be realized through the vicarious incarnation of Jesus Christ and the personal union of his two natures in one single, indivisible, and inseparable divine-human hypostases.  The hypostatic union secures the deification of mankind, establishes the worship of the one Lord Jesus Christ, and gives meaning to participation in the “unbloody sacrifice” of the holy Eucharist.

The Reformed tradition, in its attempt to preserve and defend the great solas of the Reformation, has often emphasized the legal and forensic aspects of our union with Christ to the neglect of its vital, spiritual, and mystical dimensions. While a full-scale appropriation of Cyril’s soteriology would certainly run counter to the historic and confessional interests of Reformed Protestants, a thorough examination of Cyril and his doctrine of the hypostatic union could potentially complement and augment certain aspects of our tradition which have, in some cases, led to theological one-sidedness. While Cyril’s doctrine of theosis is certainly not compatible with confessional Reformed soteriology, might not the general contours of his Christology serve as a helpful antidote to the tendency among Protestants to regard Christ’s death  rather than his incarnation and hypostatic union, as the most vital aspect of his mediatorial work?  Cyril’s sacramentology and its close relationship to the hypostatic union could also be utilized by Reformed Christians who are often surrounded on all sides by laity and clergy who, while subscribing to the Reformed creeds, tend to view the Lord’s Supper in memorialistic categories. Cyril’s doctrine of the hypostatic union has enormous pastoral and churchly applications as well.  Therapeutic and moralistic versions of the Christian faith do not need a Jesus who is one person in two natures, who saves mankind from death, sin, and corruption through the power of his life-giving flesh, who gives himself freely, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the holy sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and who, as God and man, always lives to intercede for his people. It is an indictment upon our churches that the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the hypostatic union receive such meager attention, if any attention at all, in our teaching, confession, liturgy, and preaching.  How many times does the average Reformed Christian hear a sermon on why Jesus Christ must be homoouios with the Father?  How often do we recite the Nicene Creed or the Definition of Chalcedon and meditate upon their importance for our life and practice?  How often do we hear of Reformed conferences entirely devoted to the doctrines of the Incarnation, hypostatic union, or the two wills of Christ?  What kind of Christ do we worship in our churches?  Are our hymns, songs, creeds, and prayers offered up to a divinely inspired life-coach who was sent to give us a helpful list of prescriptions for living our best lives now?  Or are we worshiping and confessing the divine Logos made flesh, the eternal and preexistent Lord of heaven and earth who saves mankind from sin, guilt, death and corruption through his incarnation, death, and resurrection? Cyril of Alexandria beckons us to think hard about the kind of Jesus we believe, teach, and confess in our churches, a Jesus that, depending upon our doctrinal precision, can either be the life-giving Jesus of Scripture or a divinely inspired human Jesus unable to save mankind from death, sin, and corruption.

A former classmate of mind posted this magnificent article on his facebook wall a couple of months ago.  Since I’m a huge Dr. Seuss fan, have been since my childhood, and now have a son whose affection for Dr. Seuss seems to exceed mine, I read this article and really put my finger on why I love Dr. Seuss and children’s literature in general so much.

My friend Wes White has provided an excellent analysis of John Piper’s recent attempt to understand Muslim reactions to public burnings of the Qur’an.  This is of particular interest to me since I live in Rochester, MN which has one of the largest Somali populations in the United States.  Wes does a great job of explaining some of the more disturbing aspects of Islamic teaching which many Muslims try to either evade or explain away.

A friend of mine has been asking me for a while to compile some of the more important aspects of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ and its relationship to our ongoing union and communion with him in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  This subject was again brought up recently by some of the feuds raging on the blogosphere concerning the merits and/or demerits of John Williamson Nevin and the Mercersburg theology.  As any reader of this blog knows, Nevin has played a vital role in my understanding of union with Christ and the Lord’s Supper.  My reaction to Ligon Duncan’s post was similar to that of Darryl Hart:  “Huh?”  I thought it sloppy to make a point in such a random, short, and ambiguous post, especially since Nevin is virtually unheard of by your average Presbyterian churchgoer and not really in the purview of our clergy. Nevertheless, I understand his reaction and would probably agree with him concerning our need of Nevin.  If we’re in need of Nevin at all, it’s because we’re in need of Calvin since, in my opinion, Nevin’s value lies in his repristination of those aspects of Calvin’s theology that were ignored or rejected in his day and are being ignored or rejected in ours.  In light of all of this, and because Calvin’s language concerning our reception of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Lord’s Supper is often misunderstood, I’ve done as my friend suggested and compiled a few important points concerning our union with Christ in both the ordo salutis and the Lord’s Supper.  I hope that both this friend of mine and anyone else interested in some of these pressing questions will find this helpful.

Theses On Union with Christ and the Lord’s Supper

1. Christianity is rooted in the vital, living, and organic union of the believer with the glorified and risen Christ.  Union with Christ is central to the order of salvation as it is applied to the believer in space and time. As John Murray writes:

“Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ.  Union with Christ…in its broader aspects underlies every step of the application of truth of the whole doctrine of salvation not only in its application but also in its once-for- all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ.  Indeed the whole process of salvation has its origin in one phase of union with Christ and salvation has in view the realization of other phases of union with Christ.”

-John  Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied. pg. 161

2. This central doctrine of an inward, living, existential union with Christ is confirmed, augmented, concentrated and realized in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Consequently, the vital union of the believer with Christ wrought in regeneration and effectual calling is inseparable from the ongoing confirmation and realization of that union in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Our view of the one will inevitably affect our view of the other.

3. This existential union with the person of Christ is the very foundation, basis, and source of all the spiritual blessings we receive in Christ. Question 30 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks:

Q:  “How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?”

The answer given to this question betrays the Christological emphasis of the Westminster divines with respect to the ordo salutis.

A:  ”The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us,and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.”

A believer rightly receiving the elements of bread and wine by faith, therefore, not only receives the benefits of Christ’s mediation, but Jesus Christ himself in both his divine and human natures.

4. The salient features of the Reformed doctrine of the Supper can be found in WCF 29.  In WCF 29:1, the divines define the nature and essence of the Lord’s Supper in the following way.

First, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a commemorative ordinance “for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of Himself in his death.

Second, the Supper seals “all the benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual growth in Him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him.

Lastly, the Lord’s Supper is a “bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body.”

The remaining articles of Chapter 29 focus on the sealing aspect of the Lord’s Supper as its most important feature.

5. As a seal, the Lord’s Supper confirms the realities of that which is signified to the faith of the participant.  Thus, as in baptism, faith is the instrument through which Christ and his benefits are received.

6. The union with Christ, which is concentrated and realized in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, is more than a moral union, or a union bound by an inward agreement of mind between two parties.  This union with Christ is also more than a mere legal union. Nor is this union a carnal, physical, or material union.  The Reformed reject the ubiquitarianism which the Lutherans propose with respect to the physical presence of Christ’s body.  Lastly, this union is not merely with Christ in his divine nature. The glorified and risen Christ remains both God and man forever.  Any form of union which takes place between Christ and the believer must be a union with the glorified, incarnate Christ.

7. This union with Christ in the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is a union with the person of the glorified and risen Christ, in both his divine and human natures, effected by the power of the Holy Spirit, and received by the mouth of faith.  The presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is a real spiritual presence of flesh and blood, given for the continual nourishment and growth of the believer, communicated to the believer by the Holy Spirit, and experienced and received by the faith of the participant.

8. First, the Lord’s Supper seals our union with the glorified and risen Christ.  The Reformed reject Lutheran ubiquitarianism as contrary to Scripture, the Christology of the early church, and common sense.  In our union with Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Lord Jesus Christ remains in heaven and we remain upon earth.  Through the working of the Holy Ghost, nevertheless, believers are transported into the heavenly realm to feed upon the very body and blood of Christ by faith.

9. Second, the Lord’s Supper seals our union with the glorified and risen Christ in both his divine and human natures.  That our spiritual union is with Christ’s divine nature is generally acknowledged.  Far more difficult to accept is the teaching of the Reformed churches that the very flesh of Christ is received by the believer through the mouth of faith.  In the Genevan Catechism, Calvin asks this question concerning our reception of Christ’s flesh and blood:

Do we then eat the body and blood of the Lord?”

Calvin’s answer is telling:

We do.  For since the whole hope of our salvation consists in this, that his obedience, which he rendered to the Father may be placed to our credit as though it were our own, it is necessary that he himself should be possessed by us.  He does not communicate his benefits to us except as he makes himself ours.”

To guard against any kind of Lutheran or Roman Catholic interpretation of this language, Calvin instructs us that this eating is by faith.  Nevertheless, he insists that this union between the believer and Christ is no less real because it is spiritual.  When asked: “Is not the mode of receiving him, however, by faith?” Calvin answers:

This I allow ; but add at the same time,  that   this takes place, not only as we   believe that he died to redeem us from death, and rose again to acquire life for us, but as we acknowledge also that he dwells in us, and that we are joined to       him with such union as holds between members and their proper head ; in order that by the grace of this union, we may become partakers of all his benefits.

WCF 29:7 argues the same point when it teaches that this union with Christ in the Supper is no less real because it is spiritual:

the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really,  but spiritually, present to the faith of  believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward       senses.”

10. Third, the union and communion with Christ experienced in the Lord’s Supper is effected by the power of the Holy Spirit. The relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit is of such intimacy that the Spirit’s work in us is Christ’s work in us and vice versa.  Therefore, in the Lord’s Supper, the Spirit communicates Christ’s very presence to the faith of the believer. In the faithful reception of the Lord’s Supper, we are drawn by the Spirit into the heavenlies where we feast upon the entire Christ, human and divine. The Holy Spirit communicates the very life, virtue, efficacy, and energy of Christ, all of which are bound up with his person so that we cannot partake of this benefits without partaking of Christ himself.

11.  Lastly, the body and blood of Christ , received by believers, in the Lord’s Supper, is received through the mouth of faith.  In saying this, those in the Calvinist tradition don’t merely mean that believing is eating or that eating is merely a figurative term to describe the act of believing.  Faith is the instrument through which we eat, and so believers actually do eat, or more literally, do actually partake of an objective, inward, and vital union and communion with the risen Christ through faith.  This is precisely what Calvin argues in Institutes IV 17:5:

“For as it is not seeing bread, but eating it, that administers nourishment to the body, so it is necessary for the soul to have a true and complete participation of Christ, that by his power it may be quickened into spiritual life.  At the same time, we confess that there is no other eating than by faith, as it is impossible to imagine any other; but the difference between me and those whose opinion I now oppose is this.  They consider eating to be the same as believing; while I say, that in believing we eat the flesh of Christ, because he is made ours actually by faith, and that this eating is the fruit and effect of faith.  Or to express it more plainly, they consider eating to be faith  itself; but I apprehend it to be rather a consequence of faith.”

In all its branches alike, theology has as its unique end to make God known:  the student of theology is brought by his daily task into the presence of God, and is kept there.  Can a religious man stand in the presence of God, and not worship?  It is possible, I have said, to study even theology in a purely secular spirit.  But surely that is possible only for an irreligious man, or at least for an unreligious man.  And here I place in your hands at once a touchstone by which you may discern your religious state, and an instrument for the quickening of your religious life.  Do you prosecute your daily tasks as students of theology as “religious exercises”?  If you do not, look to yourselves:  it is surely not all right with the spiritual condition of that man who can busy himself daily with divine things, with a cold and impassive heart.  If you do, rejoice.  But in any case, see that you do!  And that you do it ever more and more abundantly. Whatever you may have done in the past, for the future make all your theological studies “religious exercises.”  This is the great rule for a rich and wholesome religious life in a theological student.  Put your heart into your studies; do not merely occupy your mind with them, but put your heart into them.  They bring you daily and hourly into the very presence of God; his ways, his dealing with men, the infinite majesty of his Being form their very subject-matter.  Put the shoes from off your feet in this holy presence!

-Benjamin B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students

 

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