Beyond a Memorialist-Lite Understanding of the Lord's Supper

by Chris Bruno

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17)

Many Baptists, Free Church members, and, in modern times, even confessional Reformed Christians don’t give much thought to what is actually going on when we come to the Lord’s Table. We tend to default to a “memorialist-lite” understanding of the Lord's Supper. This is less than the type of memorial that Zwingli and Anabaptists had in view. It is more like a sentimentalist view, where mere bread and wine are intended to make us feel something when we think about the death of Jesus--usually either the “warm-and-fuzzies” or some sort of introspective guilt.

Most Christians throughout history have had a very different view. Even though they saw the problems with the Roman view of the Eucharist, virtually all Protestant traditions have affirmed that when we come to the table of the Lord, we are participating in the very body and blood of Jesus; our real spiritual union with him is nourished and strengthened.

Baptists are no exception to this high view of the Lord’s Supper. The 1689 London Baptist Confession states that in the Lord’s Supper, Christians “ really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified” (30.7). This same article is not afraid to affirm the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper: “the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.” That is, we are spiritually present and united to him in a unique way when we come to the Table. Perhaps it is more accurate to talk about our real spiritual presence with Christ in communion. In any case, Christ is really and truly present with his people at the Table.

Calvin spoke of real spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper in a similar way: “There is no ground…for any individual to charge us with holding that he is absent from us [at the Table]…but, dwelling in us by his Spirit he raises us to heaven to himself, transfusing into us the vivifying vigour of his flesh.”[1]

Don’t misunderstand. Faith is vitally important to receive the true benefits of the meal. Paul begins this section with a confession of the Lordship of Christ (1 Cor 8:4-6). However, the need for faith in the participants does not make the Supper subjective. Instead, the objective reality of the bread and wine depicts the objective feeding on Christ that is offered to all who are united to him. That is to say, the effectiveness of the Supper does not depend on us, how much faith we have, or how holy we feel in that moment. It depends on our union with Christ himself, who truly and uniquely brings his church into his presence when they gather together at the Table.

If you understand what is actually happening at the Table, you might understand why the medieval church moved in the direction that it did. If God uses the elements of the Supper, when combined with faith, bring us into the very presence of the risen Christ, we could easily fall into a temptation toward idolatry, exalting and eventually worshiping the elements themselves. Perhaps this is why Paul warned the Corinthians to flee from idolatry (1 Cor 10:14).

But again, most Christians in the West today are guilty of the opposite extreme. We see the Supper as no big deal, something to do every so often, at our leisure in the way we want. To be fair, if we have the sentimentalist view I described above, this is understandable. If communion is nothing but a God-given time to remember the death of Christ, then it is important, but not essential.

We have the Bible on our phones and computers, so can read the Passion account whenever it strikes us. Isn’t this a better way to remember the death of Christ? Or we have easy access to many different multimedia depictions of the crucifixion. Take your pick from the more subdued, reverential view of Charlton Heston’s “Ben-Hur” to Mel Gibson’s graphic depiction in “The Passion of the Christ.” If our only goal is to better remember the death of Christ to produce a certain feeling, we have many options that weren’t available to the earliest Christians.

But what if something unique is actually happening when we come to the Table as a church? What if we really and truly are spiritually participating in the blood and body of Christ? What if he is really and truly present with us--or better, we are really and truly present with him?

Perhaps when Paul warns the Corinthians against taking the cup in an “unworthy manner” (1 Cor 11:27), his warning is for those who do not understand what the Lord’s Supper actually is. It is the corporate feast that God uses to bring us spiritually, but no less truly, into the presence of the risen Christ. When we do not “discern the body” (1 Cor 11:29), we fail to recognize that we are entering into the very spiritual presence of the risen Christ as a corporate church. Therefore, we treat it glibly, not realizing the glory of that occasion.

So I am not afraid of the “s-word.” Christ has given his church the two sacraments as a means of grace, that he might strengthen and nourish our faith. In fact, I’m more and more convinced that one of the greatest weaknesses of the modern evangelical church is our low view of these sacraments. They are not magic wands that automatically dispense God’s grace, but they are certainly not irrelevant to the growth of any Christian’s growth in grace.

However, if we reclaim a truly catholic, Reformational, and what I would call biblical view, then maybe our indifference toward the Supper will change. With our brothers and sisters who’ve come before us, we might long to come weekly and feed on the body and blood of Christ and be nourished in our faith through our real communion with the risen Christ.[2]


[1] John Calvin, “Mutual Consent in Regard to the Sacraments; between the Ministers of the Church of Zurich and John Calvin, Minister of the Church of Geneva” in John Calvin Tracts: Containing Treatises on the Sacraments, Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Forms of Prayer, and Confessions of Faith, Volume Second Henry Beveridge trans (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849 [1554]), 240.

[2] See also: Brandon D. Smith, "The Lord's Supper Is More than a Memory."