The Lord’s Supper

R.L. Dabney on the Mass as “the Most Impious and Mischievous of All the Heresies of Rome.”

In his Systematic Theology, R. L. Dabney discusses the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass as a sacrifice. He first describes the Roman Catholic view, and then goes on to critique it.

First, he describes it, saying,

“Rome asserts most emphatically that the Lord’s Supper is a proper and literal sacrifice; in which the elements, having become the very body, blood, human spirit, and divinity of Christ, are again offered to God upon the altar; and the transaction is thus a repetition of the very sacrifice of the cross, and avails to atone for the sins of the living, and of the dead in purgatory.” (p.814)

Here we see that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is connected to the doctrine of the Mass as a proper and literal sacrifice. In order for the Mass to be considered an actual sacrifice of Christ, the outward elements of bread and wine would then need to somehow be physically changed into the actual body and blood of Christ.

That idea, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; overthroweth the nature of the sacrament, and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries” (29.6).

This is why in Reformed or Protestant churches, we typically speak of a table and not an altar. The basic Protestant view of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is that it is a commemoration and a covenantal meal, not a sacrifice.

Dabney goes on to roundly and sharply criticize the Roman Catholic view:

“The great necessity of the human soul, awakened by remorse, or by the convincing Spirit of God, is atonement. By making this horrible and impious invention, Rome has brought the guilty consciences of miserable sinners under her dominion, in order to make merchandise of their sin and fear. While nothing can transcend the unscripturalness of the doctrine of Transubstantiation, I regard this of the sacrifice of the Mass as the most impious and mischievous of all the heresies of Rome.” (p.814-815)

Dabney goes on in that section to say that the real motivation behind the Roman Catholic doctrine of viewing the Mass as a sacrifice was “to make merchandise” of (or to capitalize upon) the sin and fear of guilty consciences. In other words, it makes people utterly dependent upon the church for atonement and forgiveness. And in doing that, it then brings those same people “under her dominion” or control.

No wonder Dabney regarded the Mass as “the most impious and mischievous of all the heresies of Rome.”


Thomas Brooks on the Lord’s Supper and Assurance

Brooks (Heaven on Earth)In his book, Heaven on Earth, Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) writes all about assurance of salvation – it is essentially a treatise on that great subject. There Brooks deals with such things as proving that believers may attain a well-grounded assurance, pointing out what means may be used in order to obtain assurance, giving reasons why believers may lack assurance,  and demonstrating the differences between true and counterfeit assurance. It is a very helpful and encouraging book.

There he also shows us the vital connection between the Lord’s Supper and assurance. He writes,

It was the principal end of Christ’s institution of the sacrament of the supper that he might assure them of his love, and that he might seal up to them the forgiveness of their sins, the acceptation of their persons, and the salvation of their souls, Mat. 26.27,28. The nature of a seal is to make things sure and firm among men; so the supper of the Lord is Christ’s broad seal; it is Christ’s privy-seal, whereby he seals and assures his people that they are happy here, that they shall be more happy hereafter, that they are everlastingly beloved of God, that his heart is set upon them, that their names are written in the book of life, that there is laid up for them a crown of righteousness, and that nothing shall be able to separate them from him who is their light, their life, their crown, their all in all. (p.27)

Brooks would have us to understand that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is primarily about assurance. It is “the principal end” (or main purpose) for which the Lord Jesus Christ instituted it for His people. The Supper is meant to reassure believers of Christ’s great love for them. It is, to use Brook’s words above, to “seal up to them the forgiveness of their sins, the acceptation of their persons, and the salvation of their souls.” A “seal” is given for the express purpose of assurance. It is “to make things sure and form among men.”

The Lord’s Supper is certainly not the only means whereby believers may attain, maintain, and be strengthened in their assurance of salvation, but it is certainly one of the most important, and one which must not be neglected. The very fact that the Lord Jesus instituted this Sacrament to be perpetually celebrated by His church until He returns (1 Corinthians 11:26) shows us our perpetual need for assurance. It also shows us how greatly our faithful Savior desires that His beloved people would have assurance of His great love for them.

The Importance of the Lord’s Supper (The Charges Against Latimer & Ridley)

FoxeThose who are familiar with 16th century church history may remember the story of the martyrdom of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. They were burned at the stake for their Protestant beliefs and teachings during the reign of Queen Mary I (AKA “Bloody Mary”). Hugh Latimer’s words to Ridley, as the fire beneath him was being kindled, are among of the most memorable ever uttered:

“Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p.309)

But while we may be familiar with Latimer’s speech, how many of us have ever given thought to the specific charges that were brought against him and Ridley? The substance of those charges may surprise you. The Pope charged them with at least three things:

  1. Affirming and openly defending and maintaining “that Christ, after the consecration of the priest is not really (i.e. physically) present in the sacrament of the altar”,
  2. Publicly affirming and defending “that in the sacrament of the altar remaineth still the substance of bread and wine” (i.e. that the bread and wine are not changed into the body and blood of Christ – transubstantiation)
  3. Openly affirming and obstinately maintaining that “in the mass is no propitiatory sacrifice for the quick and the dead” (i.e. that the mass is not a re-offering of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ). (See Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p.297)

How important is the biblical view and right administration of the Lord’s Supper to you? Would you be willing to die for it? Ridley and Latimer were. They refused to recant, even under threat of being burned alive!

Think about that next time someone treats the biblical doctrine and right administration of the Lord’s Supper as if it were borderline adiaphora (i.e. things indifferent).

The Use of Wine in the Lord’s Supper

communionIn 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 Paul says something that clearly indicates that wine was used in the Lord’s Supper.  There he writes,

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.

Drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper? One thing is certain – people weren’t getting “drunk” on non-fermented grape juice.  And notice what he does not propose as the solution to someone being drunk at the Lord’s Supper – he never suggests (much less commands) that wine should no longer be used! If ever there would have been an excuse to forbid the use of wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, it would have been in Corinth. The fact that Paul did no such thing should be very instructive to us. If alcohol itself were somehow inherently sinful or if Jesus Himself had not instituted this Sacrament with wine, it would have been the simplest solution, wouldn’t it? It would certainly sound logical enough. But because the Lord Jesus Himself instituted the sacrament with wine, we should be very careful not to tinker with it however we see fit.

The use of grape juice instead of wine in the Lord’s Supper is actually a relatively recent innovation in the practice of the church. In fact, it was virtually unheard of throughout the first 1,800 or so years of church history. In his book, The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread, Robert Letham notes,

Only with the rise of the temperance movement in the nineteenth century was an aversion to alcohol allowed to intrude into the Christian church. (p.52)

To be sure, the Bible plainly condemns drunkenness. Ephesians 5:18 (also written by the Apostle Paul, who wrote 1 Corinthians) plainly says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” So drunkenness is indeed a sin, but drinking wine itself is not. And if the Lord Jesus Himself actually commanded that we drink wine in remembrance of Him and His blood shed on the Cross for our sins, certainly we should not try to be wiser than God. Even less should we appear to charge Him with error at somehow giving us something that would be harmful to us.

Maybe this is a non-issue for you. If so, good. But what should you do if you have an issue of conscience against any use of alcohol whatsoever? Maybe you were raised in a church tradition where you have been taught that alcohol itself is inherently sinful. (I myself was raised in such a church tradition.) Or maybe you have struggled with addiction to alcohol and fear that even the smallest amount of wine (as it is certainly common in the Lord’s Supper to use the tiniest of cups) crossing your lips could be the beginning of a terrible downward spiral back into alcohol abuse.

If any of those scenarios describes you, I would humbly offer you the following advice:

  1. Do not go against your conscience. Elsewhere Paul writes, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23, ESV). So if you are presently convinced that something is inherently sinful, then abstain from it until such time as your conscience freely permits. (Many churches, including ours, offer both wine and grape juice for this very reason.)
  2. Seek to the best of your ability to have a biblically-informed conscience. Prayerfully examine the whole counsel of God on the subject. Make sure that you are drawing the line where Scripture itself draws the line. There are more than enough commandments in the Word of God already; we don’t need to be adding to them (or subtracting from them, for that matter).
  3. Act in accordance with that biblically-informed conscience. If you now come to the conclusion that wine (and not grape juice) is what is to be used in the Lord’s Supper as Jesus originally instituted it, trust that He knows what is best and partake of the wine in the Supper in faith.
  4. One last thing – in the event that your mind is changed and your conscience has been persuaded of the use of wine, be careful not to seek to short-circuit this very same process in the life of a fellow brother or sister in the Lord who still has a conviction against the use of wine. Pray, gently seek to inform their conscience with Scripture, but do not try to get someone else to go against their coscience.

Of course, these same principles apply to just about everything in the Christian life, not just the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. But I hope that you find them helpful in thinking about the right administration & observance of the Lord’s Supper.

The Importance of the Lord’s Supper

bread-72103_1280Do we place much of an emphasis or priority on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or do we barely give it a second thought? Richard Phillips, senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, writes of how odd it is that so many believers today have such a low regard for the Lord’s Supper:

“They seldom observe it and assign to it little significance. They are largely ignorant of the theology poured into and out from it. They derive no assurance or comfort, and seek no grace, as they receive from the Lord’s Table. How remarkable this is among those supposedly devoted to the Bible!” (What Is the Lord’s Supper?, p.5-6)

You might be surprised to learn that the church down through her long history has not always viewed the Lord’s Supper with as much disinterest or apathy as many do in the church today – quite the opposite, actually! In his very helpful book about the Lord’s Supper entitled, Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, Keith Mathison makes the following observation:

“One of the most interesting phenomena that one encounters when comparing the writings of the sixteenth-century Reformers with the writings of their twentieth-century heirs is the different amount of attention devoted to the Lord’s Supper. The Reformers devoted volumes of books, letters, tracts, and sermons to the subject. The sixteenth century was a time of heated controversy over such crucial doctrines as the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone, yet the doctrine that was discussed more often than any other was that of the Lord’s Supper.” (xv)

Another writer puts it this way:

“More ink was spilled over the Lord’s Supper, and more horses were ridden to exhaustion attending conferences about it, than over any other doctrine.” (David J. Engelsma, “Martin Bucer’s “Calvinistic” Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper” (Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, Grandville, MI, 1988)

One need only ask when the last time was that you heard a sermon or any extensive teaching on the subject to see how far we have fallen from such a mindset.

To further illustrate the point, The Westminster Larger Catechism devotes no less than 10 separate questions to the subject, while the Heidelberg Catechism spends three (3) whole Lord’s days on the subject with a total of 8 questions (and some rather lengthy answers). Clearly the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is a very important one. It is a subject that the 16th century Protestant Reformers and their heirs in the 17th century spent quite a bit of time and energy studying, teaching, and even debating about together. It was near and dear to their hearts, and should be so to ours as well.

Last but not least, we as believers are commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Jesus said, Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). He certainly appointed and established this Sacrament for our benefit, to be a blessing and a means of grace, but that makes it no less of a command just the same. It is much like when a mother slaves all day over a hot stove to put a good, healthy meal on the table, but still often needs to tell her children to eat! Surely if it is important enough for Jesus to not only appoint it for our benefit, but also to command us to partake of it on a regular basis, we would be well-served to sit up and take notice, as well as seek to understand what the Word of God has to say about it.

May we learn to think more highly of the Lord’s Supper, to think about it more often, and (even more importantly) to think about it more biblically. And if that means that we end up disagreeing over it and debating the subject, so much the better! Better to care enough about it to vigorously debate it than to view it with apathy.

Quite Possibly the Greatest Book Recommendation of All Time


Keith Mathison has written a very helpful book about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. (OK, it was actually published w-a-y back in 2002, but whatever – I’m reading it now.)

In it he details both John Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as well as developments in Reformed views on the subject in the centuries that followed Calvin’s day. The opening chapter of the book (“John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper”) by itself is worth the purchase price.  The chapters that follow are very good as well.

The foreword is written by R.C. Sproul. There he states that this book “represents the best and most comprehensive treatment of the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper I have ever seen” (p.x). He also calls the book a “must read” (p.xi). That should be enough to persuade just about anyone to read it for themselves, right?

But in case that is not enough to make you want to pick up a copy, he adds a rather interesting personal aside:

When I read it for the first time (and D.V. not the last time), I said to Keith Mathison, “You may die now.” Keith gave me a puzzled look as he was not ready to sing the Nunc Dimittis. I explained that if he made no other contribution to the church for the rest of his life, he has already provided a legacy for future generations by writing this book. (p.x-xi)

“You may die now.” That just might be the greatest (as well as the strangest) book recommendation of all time. If you are a pastor or a seminary student preparing for future ministry, this volume belongs on your shelf. It is also well worth your time if you are simply a believer & church member who wants to better understand the outward and ordinary means of grace that you partake of in the Lord’s Supper.

So what are you waiting for?  You can order a copy here: Given For You

What is the Lord’s Supper?

What is the Lord’s Supper?  Have you ever stopped to ask yourself that question?

As usual, the Westminster Shorter Catechism has a very helpful answer to that very question.

Q.96. What is the Lord’s Supper?  A.  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 corporeal 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.

So first things first, it is a sacrament.   What does that mean?  A sacrament is a “holy ordinance instituted by Christ” in which Christ and the benefits of the gospel are signified or represented, sealed, and applied to believers (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.92).

So the bread and the wine are signs or symbols of the body and blood of Christ.  In the words of Q.96, the bread and the wine ‘show forth’ or represent the death of Jesus Christ.  They call our attention back to the remembrance of the gospel itself – Christ’s death on the Cross to save sinners; His body broken and His blood shed to atone for our sins.

But that’s not all.  The Lord’s Supper is a reminder, but it is much more than that.  It is not just a sign, but a seal as well.  By faith (not in a mechanical fashion, and not physically or outwardly), believers are made partakers of His body and blood – we feed on Christ spiritually and by faith alone.

And what is the result (and the purpose)?  The “spiritual nourishment and growth in grace” of believers.  And who among us doesn’t need that (and need it on a very regular basis)?

Are you a Christian?  If so, do you want to grow in grace?  Then you need the Word and the Sacraments that our Lord Jesus Christ has ordained for your growth in His grace!

Self-Examination & the Lord’s Supper

How are we to prepare ourselves to partake of the Lord’s Supper?

The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q.171) tells us:

They that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance, love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience, and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation and fervent prayer.

So self-examination is the place to start.  We may live in a narcissistic culture, but true self-examination seems quite rare, even in the church.

The first thing to ask yourself is whether or not you are a Christian.  Are you trusting in Jesus alone for your salvation from sin and death, or are you still trusting in your own goodness or deeds to make you right with a holy God?  Isaiah 64:6 warns us that our own righteous deeds are nothing but “filthy rags” that will not cover our sins before the Lord.  Only the righteousness of Christ and His death can cover our sins.

The next thing we are to ask ourselves is whether or not there are particular sins and weaknesses that we need to repent of.  Are we believing the truth of God’s Word?  Are we striving to know God and His Word?

Do we love God (who loved us first)?  Do we truly love our brethren (our fellow Christians)?  Do we love our neighbors?

Have we truly, sincerely, and freely forgiven anyone who has done us wrong? (Have you told them so?)  This is so important that it is included in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13)!  We ask our heavenly Father to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (v.12).  Ask yourself this question: Would you or I be happy if God forgave us exactly (and only to the extent!) that we have forgiven others?

And then, just in case we miss the point, Jesus repeats it a 2nd time in v.14-15:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.

Evidently our Lord knew that we His people would have a major problem in this area, so He included this in the very pattern that He gave us for prayer!

Next, do we have a fervent desire for Christ?  Do we really and sincerely desire to live obediently to Him?

Lastly, we all need to ‘renew the exercise of these graces.”  How?  By “by serious meditation and fervent prayer.”  We need to think and pray.

Sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it?

None of us is sufficient for these things.  We must let our consideration of these things lead us to cast ourselves on Christ and Him alone!  And that is really what the Supper is all about, isn’t it?  When we partake, we “proclaim His death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).  We proclaim it to each other!

So whenever the Lord’s Supper is to be observed at your church, use it as an opportunity for a spiritual check-up of sorts for you and your family.  Make the most of this means of grace that our Lord Jesus has given to His church for our benefit and growth in grace!

The Heidelberg Catechism on the Lord’s Supper

The Heidelberg Catechism is very helpful to us in explaining the purpose(s) of the Lord’s Supper.   Q.75 says:

Q. How does the Lord’s Supper remind you and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his gifts?
A. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup. With this command he gave this promise: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of him who serves and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.”

In other words, as a sign of the gospel, the Lord’s Supper reminds us of our salvation in Jesus Christ by grace alone through faith alone.

And as a seal of the gospel, the bread and cup strengthen us in the assurance of our salvation in Christ and make us grow in grace.

So we need the preaching of the Word, and we also need the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Why? Because we are sinners who are tempted to do one of two things: 1. Rest in and rely on our own righteousness, and 2. to despair of our salvation because of our sin.

So we need the bread and the cup to remind us of Christ’s death on our behalf.  We need it to shatter any confidence that we might have in our own good works, so that we might once again receive and rest upon Christ alone and his righteousness for our salvation. And we need it to strengthen our faith and assurance in that grace that we have through Christ alone.

Be Prepared!

Be prepared.  It’s more than just the Boy Scout motto.

Do we give much thought for preparing ourselves and our families for worship on Sundays?  (Truth be told, sometimes it seems like we are happy to just get there on time without forgetting one of the kids!)

What about the Lord’s Supper?  Do we take the time to prepare ourselves and our families for it?  And how are we supposed to  prepare to partake in the Lord’s table?  Many well-meaning Christians come to the Lord’s table on a regular basis without ever having given any thought to such questions.

Where can we look for help?  The Westminster Larger Catechism addresses this very topic for us:

Q. 171. How are they that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper to prepare themselves before they come unto it?

A. They that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves (1) of their being in Christ, (2) of their sins and wants; (3) of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; (4) of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer.

So preparing involves examining & renewing.  It involves thought & prayer.

But what does it mean to “examine” ourselves?  What it does not mean is that we are to somehow try to figure out whether or not we are “worthy” of taking part in this sacrament. (Although there is a way to partake in an unworthy manner – 1 Corinthians 11:27-31.)  To think of ourselves as inherently worthy of it would practically disqualify us from partaking of it!  Half the point is that we are not worthy, but the Lord Jesus Christ was worthy in our place!  Remember, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, one of things that we are doing is ‘proclaiming His death‘ until His Return (1 Corinthians 11:26).

So if you are genuinely a believer in Christ and are not under the discipline of the elders of the church (or living in such a way that you should be), this is for you – it is meant to strengthen you in the faith and help you grow in grace!

So use the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a time to examine yourself – to give yourself and your family a regularly-scheduled spiritual check-up, so to speak.  We often fail to do that at all, but if we at least make that our practice prior to partaking in the Lord’s Supper, it will be to us an immense source of blessing and growth in the faith.

Use it as a time to examine your faith; to consider and confess your sins and need for growth in Christ-likeness; to contemplate how we are to love God as well as our brothers & sisters in Christ; to forgive our debtors as our heavenly Father has forgiven us (including those in your church!); and use it as a time to pray fervently for all of the above!

If we were to make it our practice to take the time to prepare ourselves for the Lord’s Supper (and for worship in general), how much more would we look forward to the Lord’s Table! And how much more would we benefit from it, to the praise & glory of Christ Jesus!