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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




This chapter carries the discussion forward to the great subject of the Lord's supper. And although it is a large topic, its explanation must be compassed in a single chapter. The doctrine of the supper, or, as it is often called, the eucharist, is very carefully stated in the Standards, and has its face set firmly against the doctrines and practices of Rome.

The three chief titles applied to this ordinance are significant, and deserve a passing remark. It is called "the Lord's supper" by a term which denotes the chief meal of the day, and thereby it is presented as the means of rich spiritual nourishment. It is sometimes named simply "the sacrament," implying thereby that it is a means of grace, and a solemn pledge on our part to be the Lord's. And it is known as "the communion," a term which indicates at once our participating in the benefits of grace, Christ's work, and our fellowship one with another as his children. In the New Testament it is sometimes spoken of as the breaking of bread, and in church history it is frequently known as the eucharist.

In the exposition of the doctrine of the Standards now to be made, a summary of their teaching without argument or expansion will be given under four or five heads. At almost every point it will be noticed that the doctrine and practice of Rome is formally rejected by the views of the Standards.

I. The Nature of the Lord's Supper.
There are several important particulars here which call for careful remark, in order to present clearly the well-defined doctrine of the Standards, which was forged in the fierce fires of prolonged controversy.

1. The Lord's supper is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ's appointment, his death is showed forth. The Confession describes this point in a slightly different way from that just quoted from the Catechisms. It says that our Lord, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, and called it the Lord's supper, to be observed in his church unto the end of the world, for a perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of him self in his death. It was thus instituted by Christ to take the place in the New Testament of the passover in the Old. It is a sacramental ordinance to be observed in the church till the end. It stands related in some important way to Christ's penal sufferings and sacrificial death, as the mediator of the covenant of grace. It thus exhibits the sacrifice of Christ.

2. The elements to be used, according to divine appointment, are bread and wine. These are the outward elements in this sacrament, to be duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ. They are evidently most suitable for this purpose, and have such relation to Christ crucified, as that truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the names of the things they represent, to-wit, the body and blood of Christ. In both substance and nature the bread and wine remain only bread and wine, as they were before the prayer of consecration was offered. Thus, the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation is formally rejected in this connection. This doctrine maintains that by the prayer of consecration which the priest offers a change is effected in the bread and wine, by means of which it is transmuted into the substance of Christ's body and blood. The Standards allege that this doctrine is repugnant to Scripture, reason, and common sense; that it overthrows the true nature of the sacrament; and that it becomes the cause of many superstitions and even gross idolatries. But this point comes up again, so that nothing more need be added at this stage.

It is worth while noting here that the Standards do not define in any way what kind of bread and wine is to be used in the supper. Here the flexibility and common sense of their teaching are illustrated. The common bread of the time, and the wine of ordinary use may be properly used. It is not necessary to have unleavened bread or unfermented wine. The controversy about these details is not countenanced by the Standards. This controversy is not only useless, but may be harmful, since it tends to unduly exalt the externals of the ordinance, and thus leads to ritualism. The suitableness of these elements is evident at a glance. Bread as the staff of life nourishes, and wine is a means of refreshment. In both cases the benefits which come to us through our interest in Christ's sufferings and death are fittingly symbolized by the emblems of this ordinance.

3. The words of institution are also worthy of some notice. The officiating minister is to bless or consecrate the bread and wine, thereby setting it apart from a common to a sacred use. Then he is to take these elements and break the bread, and take the wine and give it to those who are present at the table. In doing so he is to say: "Take, eat; this is my body broken for you, this do in remembrance of me;" and of the wine he is to say: "This cup is the New Testament in my blood which is shed for you." Here, also, the Standards enjoin, against the Romish practice, that the minister is to communicate along with the people, and also to give both the bread and the wine to the communicants. Rome gives to the people the bread only, and that in the form of a thin wafer, which is put upon the tongue of the communicant by the officiating priest, who himself only takes the wine of the sacrament. Against Rome the true doctrine is set forth in the Standards.

4. The Confession distinctly asserts that the sacrament of the Lord's supper is not a repetition of the sacrifice which Christ made to the justice of the Father. In no sense is it a sacrifice made for the remission of the sins of the quick or the dead. From the present point of view, this sacrament is only a commemoration of that one offering of Christ as a sacrifice of himself by himself upon the cross. This offering is the only true sacrifice, offered once for all, and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise to God. Hence, the only true sacrifice and oblation which takes away sin is that which Christ made upon the cross, and which needs no repetition nor addition. From this it plainly follows that what is called the Romish sacrifice of the mass is most abominable and injurious to Christ's one only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for the sins of all the elect. In this bold language the ordinance of the mass, so dishonoring to Christ, is rejected utterly. In like manner, the Confession says that private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest or any other alone, and also the denial of the wine to the people, are contrary to the nature of the ordinance. And, further, the worshipping of the elements, the lifting of them up in what is called the elevation of the host, and the retaining of any portions of the bread and wine for any pretended religious use, are all inconsistent with the true nature of the sacrament as instituted by Christ. Here, once more, Romish doctrine and superstitious practice are decidedly rejected. Careful attention to these four points will give a clear view of the nature of the Lord's supper.

II. The End or Design of the Lord's Supper.
In some respects this is the most difficult point to explain in connection with the doctrine of the supper. In a general way, the Lord's supper is said, in the Standards, to be an ordinance showing forth the death of Christ, a remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ till he comes. But this is a general statement, and by no means the whole doctrine of the Standards upon this point. It is to be kept in mind, too, that the relation between the sign and the grace signified, and the nature of the sacrificial bond between them, again appears. Several particulars are noted in order.

1. The Lord's supper shows forth and commemorates the sufferings and death of Christ in the church and to the world until he comes again. It is thus a memorial service, looking back to his sufferings and death as a sacrifice upon the cross for our sins. It is also a prophetic ordinance, looking for ward to, and reminding us of, his coming a second time without sin unto salvation.

2. The Lord's supper is designed to signify and seal the benefits of Christ and the covenant of grace to believers. Previous explanation of the sacraments in general have shown what is meant by this. All the blessings which flow from the death of Christ for us are set forth in the supper; and by the blessing of Christ through the Spirit to the worthy recipient he obtains, by means of this sacrament, and has sealed to him thereby, the blessings exhibited to him in the ordinance to his spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

At this point it may be well to explain the teaching of the Standards in regard to the way in which Christ is present in the elements of the supper. The body and blood of Christ are not corporally present in, with, or under the bread and. wine in the supper. This is really the Lutheran view, which is rejected by the Standards here, just as the Romish doctrine was stated and rejected in the preceding section. Yet the body and blood of Christ, that is, his sufferings and death, are spiritually present to the faith of the worthy receiver, no less truly and really than the outward elements are present to the senses. This seems an admirable statement. It rejects the real presence which Rome asserts, it sets aside the mystical view which Lutheranism favors, it is not content with a mere symbolic view, such as Zwingle maintained but it ascribes a spiritual presence of Christ crucified in the ordinance, and that presence has reality, not because of the ordinance itself considered, but only where faith is present. It is to this faith only that the spiritual presence of Christ in the supper has reality, and that only as Christ grants blessing by his Spirit. It is a spiritual presence, therefore, and not a real, or a mystical, or a symbolical presence which is the true doctrine of the Standards upon this important topic of great controversy.

3. The sacrament of the supper is designed to express the believer's thankfulness, and to be a constant and repeated pledge of his engagement to be the Lord's. By this sacrament believers testify and renew their gratitude to God for all his wonderful mercy and grace towards them, in the gift of the salvation which is in Christ. In this respect there will be spiritual nourishment. Then, too, every time believers partake of this ordinance they renew their vows of loyalty to Christ, and repeat their promise to discharge faithfully all the duties which they owe to him. It is their oath of allegience to the Captain of their salvation.

4. The sacrament of the Lord's supper is a means of communion with Christ, and of fellowship between believers. These two points may be grouped together. In regard to the first, believers are made partakers of the flesh and blood of Christ, with all his benefits, in the Lord's supper. It thus is a pledge of their communion with Christ, and by means thereof they have their union and communion with him confirmed. The great underlying fact here is the union of believers with Christ. Upon this their communion with him rests securely. From this fact the second follows. Because believers are in union with Christ, and one in him, they have fellowship with each other. They are members of Christ's mystical body, so that their mutual love and fellow ship are thereby assured. Thus, the Lord's supper is atonce a pledge of the spiritual kinship of believers, and a means of fostering brotherly love and spiritual communion among them. This leads to the question of the efficacy of the Lord's supper, and the discussion may now pass to that topic.

III. The Efficacy of the Lord's Supper.
Like the question of the design of the supper, that of its efficacy is equally important, and just about as difficult rightly to understand. To a certain extent, these questions imply each other. They also raise again the much-debated question of the mode in which Christ is present in the sacrament so as to render it a means of spiritual nourishment and growth in grace. As this latter point has been already discussed, little more need be said upon it. It will suffice to say, that the mode in which Christ is taken to be present in the elements will largely determine the view held as to the efficacy of the supper. If the Romish view of the real presence be held, then the efficacy of the sacrament will be entirely mechanical. If the Lutheran idea of the mystical presence be taken, then the efficacy of the supper will be magical in its nature. If the purely symbolic view of Zwingle be adopted, then its efficacy will be precisely the same as that of any other saving truth. But, when the true spiritual conception of the presence of Christ in the supper is held, we are in a position rightly to understand the efficacy of this sacrament. Christ and his spiritual benefits are spiritually present to the faith of him who rightly receives the ordinance. From this position the efficacy of the sacrament of the supper can be intelligently understood.

1. Negatively, the efficacy is not exercised or experienced in a carnal or corporal way. This follows, of course, from the fact that the presence of Christ in the elements is not carnal or corporal. Hence, the worthy partaker of the supper does not feed upon the body and blood of Christ after a corporal or carnal manner; that is, not literally. This negative position needs nothing more than this brief statement.

2. Positively, the efficacy of the Lord's supper is spiritual in its nature. The Confession and the Catechisms agree upon this point, and two facls are emphasized therein. First, That the benefit of this sacrament comes in a purely spiritual way, and is itself spiritual in its nature. Secondly, That the faith of the recipient has a very important place in the efficiency which the sacrament exerts for spiritual ends in the soul. The Shorter Catechism emphasizes the second point when it says that by faith we are made partakers of the body and blood of Christ, with all his benefits, to our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace. The Larger Catechism combines the two points above named when it says that the partakers of the Lord's supper do inwardly, by faith really, yet not carnally, but rather spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, with all his benefits. The benefit is gracious and spiritual, and it comes in a spiritual way, since the Holy Spirit in the ordinance alone gives it its efficacy. And just as the outward elements, bread and wine, are present to the senses, so Christ and his benefits are present to the inward faith of the receiver of the supper. Hence, there are really three things which unite to give efficacy to the ordinance. These are the blessing of Christ, the agency of the Spirit, and the faith of the believer. It is only when these three things are present that the true spiritual efficacy of the supper is exercised, and when this simple ordinance is thus observed it becomes a precious and an efficacious means of grace to the believer. Christ, with all he is, and gives, is participated in, in a spiritual way, with blessed spiritual results to the believer.

IV. The Conditions of Blessing on Our Part in the Supper. To a certain extent, this subject has been considered in what has been said about the place of faith in the efficacy of the supper. But the Standards have some additional things of value to say upon this point, and these are now gathered up under a brief paragraph. This raises the question of what is necessary on our part in order to the worthy receiving of the Lord's supper. A warning is also uttered against coming to the Lord's supper unworthily, and bringing condemnation upon ourselves. There must, therefore, be suitable preparation and self-examination in reference to this matter. Perhaps the very best outline of preparation is that indicated in the Shorter Catechism. This is now followed, adding what the Confession and the Larger Catechism also teach.

1. There must be knowledge to discern the Lord's body. This implies that they who come to the supper must be in Christ themselves by grace and faith, and that they have a conviction of their sin and need. But, specially, they must have a spiritual understanding of the ordinance which enables them to perceive the body and blood of Christ in their true meaning, as signifying and sealing Christ and his benefits to them. Ignorant men, therefore, are not to be admitted to the ordinance. If such do come they can receive no spiritual good, and may bring judgment upon themselves by doing so.

2. There must be faith to feed upon Christ. It is this faith which on our part conditions the blessing. This point needs no expansion after what has been said in other parts of this chapter.

3. Repentance, sincere and true, is another necessary condition of blessing. This is closely connected with faith, and is very important. As we look to Christ's body, broken for our sins, we should have the broken heart for these sins; and as we behold his blood poured forth we should be bowed down with penitence for our sins, which caused his blood to be shed. Wicked men, therefore, who are impenitent have no place, and can get no blessing at the supper of the Lord.

4. There must be love to Christ and for one another in our hearts. Specially should we have ardent love to him who so loved us as to die for us. This, also, implies a positive hatred of all that is sinful and wrong in his sight.

5. There must be a gracious and holy resolve for a new and a better obedience in life. The supper being a pledge of our loyalty to Christ, calls for a sincere purpose to render that obedience which he requires.

6. The Larger Catechism adds an important condition, to the effect that we should cherish a charitable and forgiving spirit towards all men, and especially towards those who may have done us any wrong. It is evident that this has valuable practical applications.

He who regards these conditions and fulfils them with earnest desires after Christ, and reviving these graces in his heart, and with serious meditation comes to the Lord's supper, will render acceptable service, and receive abundant blessing in turn.

The Larger Catechism raises two additional questions here. First, May any one who doubts his interest in Christ come to the Lord's supper? Secondly, Should any one who desires to come be kept back? The answer to the first is given in harmony with the teaching of the Standards in regard to the matter of assurance. It has already been seen that, while the assurance of faith and salvation is the privilege of the believer, yet such assurance is not of the essence of faith. Hence, any one who doubts his interest in Christ, and his preparation for the supper of the Lord, if he truly feels his need of Christ, and desires to be found in him, and to depart from all iniquity, and who is also anxious to have his doubts removed, such an one ought to be found at the Lord's supper, so that thereby he may have his faith strengthened, and his doubts removed. The answer to the second question is to the effect that the ignorant and the scandalous, even if they do make profession of faith, and desire to come to the supper, ought to be kept from that ordinance by the proper discipline which Christ has given to his church, till they receive instruction and manifest reformation. The well-balanced wisdom of the Standards is evident here.

V. The Proper Duties At and After the Lord's Supper.
Here the Larger Catechism alone must be our guide. What it says is exceedingly practical and searching.

1. The duties to be observed at the time of the supper are noted first. We are to have a spirit of holy reverence and attention, as we wait upon God in the ordinance. We are to diligently observe the sacramental elements, the bread and the wine, and the actions of breaking, pouring, giving, and receiving these elements. We are also to seek to discern the Lord's body, and with affection to meditate upon his sufferings and death. We should further seek to stir into lively exercise all the Christian graces, having deep sorrow for sin, and earnest hungering after Christ. We are also to feed upon him by faith, trust in his merits, receive his fulness, rejoice in his love, give thanks for his grace, renew our covenant with God, and stir up our love to our brethren. Such are the duties to be observed at the time of the observance of the supper.

2. The duties to be observed after we have received the supper are next mentioned. Here there is a most admirable outline of exhortation, and careful attention to it on our part will give the ordinance blessed significance in relation to the practical conduct of life. We are to consider, first of all, how we behaved at the supper, and how much blessing we obtained at the time. Then, if we have found quickening and comfort, we are to bless God for it, and pray for its continuance. Then, we are to watch against any relapse, and be faithful in keeping our vows, and at the same time be diligent in looking forward to the return of the ordinance. On the other hand, if no present benefit is experienced, we should carefully review our preparation for, and behavior at, the supper. Then, if on doing this, we can find no fault, but realize that our consciences are approved before God, we are to patiently wait for the fruit to appear in due time. But if there has been failure in preparation for, or in the observance of, the ordinance, then we are to be humbled before God, and attend upon the Lord's supper with more diligence afterwards.

This completes the discussion of the Lord's supper, and concludes the exposition of the sacraments as the second branch of the means of grace. It is evident, from what has been said at several points, that the sacraments are a very important section of Christian doctrine, and that they, rightly improved, must constitute a very important means of grace to build up the spiritual life of the believer. In some respects, the supper brings Christ nearer to us, and draws us into closer fellowship with him and with one another than any other ordinance or means of grace. Believers should always cherish a high and a reverent esteem for the Lord's supper.

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