Growing up in my Southern Baptist church, we partook of the Lord’s Supper once a quarter. It was an important day for my church family. On the evening before we took the Lord’s Supper, we would all pray to make sure our hearts were right before God, and if we found any fault; be it resentment, need of forgiveness, or necessity of extending it; we would go before the Lord’s supper was offered and seek reconciliation before God and our fellow Christians. This “moment” before partaking would often last at least twenty minutes. We took seriously the warning given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:28-32:
Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
We feared that if we took the Lord’s Supper unworthily, we risked harming our bodies and our souls.
Reformed Millennials, especially those who have converted from traditionalist/baptistic backgrounds, tend to quickly accuse their former churches of having a “low view” of the Lord’s Supper. Theologically, I believe that accusation is often true, but in practice, my SBC heritage held a greater reverence for the Lord’s Supper than any other tradition I’ve been apart of. I want to honor them even though I disagree with them.
Nonetheless, in the churches of my youth, I was taught that the Lord’s Supper was simply a memorial. I was taught that when I took the Lord’s supper, I was not eating the body and blood of my savior. Yet, doesn’t Jesus say “Take; this is my body.” and “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many…”? (Mark 14:22,25). They would reply that Jesus has appointed them as symbols and those symbols aren’t actually the body and blood of Christ; and with that I agree. The bread and wine are not transformed into Christ’s body and blood, nor is Christ’s body and blood intermingled between the particles of bread. But, the Gospel of John prevents me from ending the discussion there.
The Gospel of John is the only Gospel that does not record the institution of the Lord’s Supper. I believe the reason is because He covers the subject earlier in chapter 6. Jesus tells the crowds following Him,“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you…” The crowds then ask Jesus how they could obtain this food, to which Jesus replies:
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” -John 6:27
What food is Jesus talking about? The crowds did not understand and asked Jesus to give them this bread, not realizing that He was referring to Himself. Jesus tells them that He is the bread of life (6:35). I was taught that since Christ is speaking of Himself, He isn’t really talking about eating, but about how we are to have faith in Him for eternal life. But that is only partially true. We must have faith in Jesus Christ to receive eternal life, but to end the discussion there misses the fact that Jesus promises food to those who believe in Him. So once again, what is the food?
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” -John 6: 53-56
Jesus began verse 26 by offering eternal food, but the crowds do not understand and ask for bread. Jesus answered that they must believe in Him. Believing in Him was the work that enabled them to receive the food that He offered. The food that is offered is His body and blood which He sacrificed on the cross for the sins of all those who believe in Him.
We eat His body and blood by faith, and He appointed bread and wine to be set apart as symbols of His body and blood, which He offered for us, and these things are in union with one another. When I eat the bread and wine which has been set apart for the Lord’s supper by faith, I eat the body and blood of my savior, not physically but spiritually. When I eat and drink the Lord’s Supper His body and blood are as real to my faith as the bread and wine are to my physical senses. I eat bread and drink wine with my mouth, and the body and blood of Christ by faith.
At this point, my position might appear Roman Catholic; Eastern Orthodox, or possibly Lutheran, and not Protestant at all. I’ll admit this position has a closer kinship to theirs than to the memorial view. I’ll explain why the Reformed view is different than those traditions in part two. This view might even be surprising to some who would place themselves within the Reformed tradition. To those I would encourage to go and read their own confessional standards.
Nathaniel Johnson graduated with an MDiv from Covenant Seminary in 2019. Nathaniel loves spending time outdoors, debating Papists, and drinking moonshine. Nate is also from Missouri, and if you ask he will tell you all about why it’s the greatest state in the union.