Understanding the Lord's Supper

Christ established the Lord’s Supper on the eve of His crucifixion, commanding His followers to observe it until His return. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated in churches of varying beliefs and is obviously understood in different ways. What is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper?

There are four views within Christianity concerning its meaning.

Transubstantiation. The Roman Catholic view concerning the Lord’s Supper is called transubstantiation, meaning, “a change of substance.” The Roman Catholic Church teaches that a miracle takes place at the Eucharist (the Mass) in which the elements of the bread and wine are actually changed into the literal body and blood of Christ, although the sensory characteristics (touch, smell, taste) remain the same. As the priest consecrates the elements, their substance is changed, so that an individual actually partakes of the body of Christ. The Catholic Church claims John 6.32-58 supports this teaching.

Problems: (1) This understanding of the Lord’s Supper views the work of Christ as unfinished, with the sacrifice of Christ continuing in the Mass, i.e., the body and blood of Christ are offered every time the mass is celebrated. But Christ declared His work completed (John 19.30) as did also the writer of Hebrews 9.12 and 10.10-14. (2) When Christ established the Supper, He used a common figure of speech (metaphor) in referring to the bread and cup as His body and blood. So also, in John 6 Jesus used a metaphor to vividly picture a saving faith-relationship to Himself. To interpret these expressions as literal language is to violate the laws of sound interpretation. (3) The OT forbids Jews to drink blood (Lev 17.10-16), yet this is what Jesus would be asking them to do if transubstantiation was what He intended.

Consubstantiation. This view is held by the Lutheran Church. They emphasize the presence of Christ in the elements, teaching that Jesus’ body and blood are actually present in the elements, but the bread and wine do not change into the literal body and blood of Christ. Lutherans reject the teaching of the perpetual sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist.

Problem: The problem with the Lutheran view of the Eucharist is the failure to recognize Jesus’ statement, “This is My body” as a figure of speech.

Spiritual Presence. The Reformed view is also called the Calvinist view because its adherents are primarily from the Reformed churches who follow John Calvin’s teachings. They reject the presence of Christ in the elements in any sense and therefore are like those who hold to the memorial view. However, they understand there to be a “present spiritual work of Christ” whereby Christ is present and enjoyed in His entire person, both body and blood. They teach that there is a mystical presence of Christ in the elements, and that grace is communicated to the participant in the elements. Moreover, it is a grace that is similar to that received through the Word and in fact, it adds to the effectiveness of the Word.

Problem:  A problem with this view is that there is no explicit statement or inference from Scripture suggesting that grace is imparted to the participant.

Memorial or Symbolic.  This view is also called the Zwinglian view because of Ulrich Zwingli. Essential to the memorial view is the notion that the bread and cup are figurative only; they are a memorial to the death of Christ. The elements are unchanged. Christ is present in the service but not in the elements in any way.

Support: 1 Cor 11.24-25 indicate the Lord’s Supper is a memorial to His death (“in remembrance of me”).

The summary chart below is taken from page 362 of The Moody Handbook of Theology, by Paul Enns.
Views on the Lord’s Supper
ViewChrist and the ElementsSignificance
(Roman Catholic)
Bread and wine literally change to body and blood of Christ.Recipient partakes of Christ, who is being sacrificed in the Mass to atone for sins.
Bread and wine contain the body and blood of Christ but do not literally change. Christ is actually present “in, with, and under” the elements.Recipient receives forgiveness of sins and confirmation of one’s faith through partaking of the elements, but they must be received through faith.
Spiritual Presence
(Presbyterian, Reformed)
Christ is not literally present in the elements but there is a spiritual presence of Christ.Recipient receives grace through partaking of the elements.
(Baptist, Mennonite)
Christ is not present physically or spirituallyRecipient commemorates the death of Christ.

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