The Lord’s Supper is an extraordinary meal. To be sure, it is simply an ordinary means of God’s grace to his church, but as eating and drinking go, it can be an unusually powerful experience.
Along with baptism, the Supper is one of Jesus’s two specially instituted sacraments for the signifying, sealing, and strengthening of his new-covenant people. Call them ordinances if you please. The true issue is not the term, but what we mean by it, and whether we handle these twin means of God’s grace as Jesus means, to guide and shape the life of the church in her new covenant with the Bridegroom.
The means of grace — also known as the “spiritual disciplines” — are the various channels God has appointed for regularly supplying his church with spiritual power. The key principles behind the means of grace are Jesus’s voice (the word), his ear (prayer), and his body (the church). The various disciplines and practices, then, are ways of hearing, and responding, to his word in the context of his church.
Shaped and supported by these principles, a thousand practical flowers grow in the life of the new-covenant community. But few, if any, other practices bring together all three principles of grace like the preaching of God’s word, and the celebration of the sacraments, in the context of corporate worship. Here, then, are four aspects of the Supper to consider in seeing it as a means of grace.
The Gravity: Blessing or Judgment
One of the first things to note is that the Supper is not to be taken lightly. Handling the elements “in an unworthy manner” is the reason Paul gives the Corinthians for “why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:27–30).
Great things are at stake when the church gathers at the Table of her Lord. Blessing and judgment are in the balance. There is no neutral engagement. Our gospel is “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15–16). So also the “visible sermon” of the Supper leads from life to life, or death to death. As with gospel preaching, the Table will not leave us unaffected, but either closer to our Savior, or more callous to him. Which leads to a second aspect.
The Past: Rehearsing the Gospel
When instituting the Supper, Jesus instructed his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), and Paul twice applies the phrase “in remembrance of me” in his instructions to the church (1 Corinthians 11:24–25).
The Lord’s Supper is no less than a memorial meal that draws us back to the cutting of the covenant at Calvary in Christ’s self-giving sacrifice for us. With baptism and marriage and every good Christian funeral, the Table gives the church a formal rhythm of remembering and rehearsing that which is of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3), the gospel of Christ’s saving work for us. It helps embed gospel-centrality into the life of the church.
Like baptism, the Supper gives us a divinely authorized dramatization of the gospel, as the Christian receives spiritually — through physical taste, sight, smell, and touch — the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus for sinners. The Table is an act of new-covenant renewal, a repeated rite of continuing fellowship and ongoing perseverance in our embrace of the gospel. It helps us “hold fast to the word” (1 Corinthians 15:2) and “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel” (Colossians 1:23).
The Present: Proclaiming His Death
And so the Table is more than simply a memorial. In this rich recollection of Jesus’s sacrifice, and the taking of the elements in faith, is a present proclamation of his death. “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). This visible sermon, like audible preaching, is “able to strengthen you” according to the gospel (Romans 16:25) as a means of grace to those who watch and receive. Those who participate without faith are “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27) and eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Corinthians 11:29), while
those who eat and drink in a worthy manner partake of Christ’s body and blood, not physically, but spiritually, in that, by faith, they are nourished with the benefits he obtained through his death, and thus grow in grace. (Desiring God Affirmation of Faith, 12.4)
In this way, the Lord’s Supper is a powerful pathway for deepening and sustaining the Christian life. “Participation in the Lord’s Supper,” writes Wayne Grudem, is
very clearly a means of grace which the Holy Spirit uses to bring blessing to his church. . . . [W]e should expect that the Lord would give spiritual blessing as we participate in the Lord’s Supper in faith and in obedience to the directions laid down in Scripture, and in this way it is a ‘means of grace’ which the Holy Spirit uses to convey blessing to us. . . .
There is a spiritual union among believers and with the Lord that is strengthened and solidified at the Lord’s Supper, and it is not to be taken lightly. (Systematic Theology), 954–955)
The Future: Awaiting the Feast
As Westminster confesses, the Table, received in faith, is for our “spiritual nourishment and growth” (29.1). But it not only strengthens our union with Jesus, but also our communion with fellow believers in Christ. As we come together to the Supper to feed spiritually on Christ (John 6:53–58), he not only draws us closer to himself, but also to others in the body (1 Corinthians 10:17).
Here at the Table, we hear Jesus’s voice, have our Savior’s ear, and commune with his body. We receive afresh his gospel, respond in faith, and knit our hearts together in the bread and cup we share. And in doing so, we look not only to the past and remember what he’s done, and not only to the present and our growing union with him, but also to the future and the full feast to come. “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
“We eat only little bits of bread and drink little cups of wine,” says John Frame (Systematic Theology, 1069), “for we know that our fellowship with Christ in this life cannot begin to compare with the glory that awaits us in him.”
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.