Bavinck On The Lord’s Supper As A Means Of Grace

MEMORIAL OR SIGN OF UNION WITH CHRIST?

In a moral and rationalistic view of the Lord’s Supper, this meaning does not come into its own. For in the first place, while the Lord’s Supper is also a memorial meal, it is that only on the basis of the fact that Christ instituted bread and wine as signs of his body and blood. Of primary importance in the Lord’s Supper is what God does, not what we do. The Lord’s Supper is above all a gift of God, a benefit of Christ, a means of communicating his grace. If the Lord’s Supper were only a memorial meal and an act of confession, it would cease to be a sacrament in the true sense. In that case, like prayer, it could only be obliquely and indirectly called a means of grace. The Lord’s Supper, however, is on the same level as the Word and baptism and therefore must, like them, be regarded first of all as a message and assurance to us of divine grace.

Second, Christ does not make bread and wine in general the signs of his body and blood, but does this specifically with the bread and wine he has in his hands and distributes to his disciples. And he does not say that they must only view that bread and that wine as his body and blood but expressly states that they must take, eat, and drink them as such. He makes of these elements a meal in which the disciples consume his body and blood and thus enter into the most intimate communion with him. This communion does not merely consist in their sitting at one table, but they eat one and the same bread and drink one and the same wine. Indeed, the host here, in granting the signs of bread and wine, offers his own body and blood as nourishment and refreshment for their souls. That is a communion that far surpasses the communion inherent in a memorial meal and an act of confession. It is not merely a reminiscence of or a reflection on Christ’s benefits but a most intimate bonding with Christ himself, just as food and drink are united with our body.

Third, in the Lord’s Supper we indeed do not receive any other or any more benefits than we do in the Word, but also no fewer. Now in John 6:47–58 Jesus expressly states that, in the Word and by faith, we eat his flesh and drink his blood and so receive eternal life. Now, though in John 6 there is no direct reference to the Lord’s Supper, this pericope may still serve to explain the second sacrament. By the Word and by faith we enter into an intimate communion with Christ, his body and blood, such as exists between the food a person eats and the person who eats it. This is not only the teaching of John 6 but also that of all the Scriptures. Neither the Word nor faith literally imparts that communion, but God has obligated himself to impart to those who believe his Word his fellowship in Christ and all the benefits associated with it.

Calvin, accordingly, correctly remarked against Zwingli that the meaning of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood is not exhausted by believing. Believing is a means, a means that is even temporary and destined to become seeing, but the communion with Christ engendered by it goes much deeper and endures forever. It is a mystical union that can only be made somewhat clear to us by the images of the vine and the branch, the head and the body, a bridegroom and his bride, the cornerstone and the building that rests on it. It is this mystical union that is signified and sealed in the Lord’s Supper.

The Christian church almost unanimously upheld the teaching of this mystical union as the import of the Lord’s Supper. Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic, Lutheran as well as Reformed believers are agreed in affirming that in the Lord’s Supper there occurs an objective and real communication of the person and benefits of Christ to everyone who believes. But among themselves they diverge widely over the manner in which this communication takes place. The first three groups cited above are not satisfied unless the body and blood of Christ are also physically and locally present in the signs and received and consumed orally. The Reformed, however, teach that, while Christ is truly and essentially communicated to believers, this occurs in a spiritual manner, and this in such a way that he can be received and enjoyed only by the mouth of faith. And for this position Scripture furnishes abundant evidence.*

*Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2008). Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (567–568). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

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About lalvin1517

I'm married with two children and pastor McCall Baptist Church in McCall, Idaho.
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