Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – What is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper? How should it be observed?

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In this chapter, Wayne Grudem surveys another important ordinance or sacrament to be observed by the church, the Lord’s Supper. Grudem begins by discussing the historical context of the Lord’s Supper. Secondly, he discusses the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Later Grudem reviews the different ways Christians have viewed how Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper. Finally, he discusses who should participate in the Lord’s Supper. 

Background of the Lord’s Supper in the History of Redemption

The Lord’s Supper is a meal to commemorate the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and the church’s participation in the message. The people of God often ate and drank to commemorate communion with God. In the Old Covenant, Israel celebrated sacrificial meals. In the wilderness, the leaders of Israel ate and drank in God’s presence (Exodus 24:9-11). In the New Covenant, God continued the tradition with all of God’s people. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in the gospel of Matthew: 

“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’” (Matthew 26:26-29)

The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper communicates several truths including: 

  1. Christ’s Death: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)
  2. Our Participation in the Benefits of Christ’s Death: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’” (Matthew 26:26)
  3. Spiritual Nourishment: “So Jesus said to them, ‘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.’” (John 6:53-55)
  4. The Unity of Believers: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:17).

How is Christ Present in the Lord’s Supper: Three Views

There are several views on how Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper within Christendom: the Catholic view, the Lutheran view, and the majority Protestant view.

The Catholic view of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) is unique. Called transubstantiation, Catholic theology teaches the bread and the wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. This is why Catholics only allow for priests to administer the Eucharist. They point people to 1 Corinthians 11:24 where Jesus said of the bread, “this is my body.” Since Jesus also said “I am the true vine” (John 15:1), so he was not always communicating a literal truth when speaking about himself. 

The Lutheran view of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper is similar to the Catholic view. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession says, “Of the Supper of the Lord they teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed to those who eat in the Supper of the Lord.” The way this is different from the Catholic view is that Chist’s body is “in, with, and under” the elements, but are not the actual elements of the Lord’s Supper.

The majority Protestant view teaches a different idea about the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Most Protestants teach that the bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ and are a visible sign that Christ is present. Just as Jesus promised to be present wherever “two or three were gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20), so also Jesus is with us in the Lord’s Supper in a spiritual sense.  

Who Should Participate in the Lord’s Supper

In Scripture, the Lord’s Supper seems to be reserved only for believers. Paul instructed believers in Corinth, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (1 Corinthians 11:28). This means the person who participates in the Lord’s Supper must be aware of their eating and drinking to examine him or herself – not an unbelieving child or infant.

Application: Missing the Lord’s Supper

It seems the Lord’s Supper is a particular grace the Lord has gifted to the Church. Just as we may eat or drink judgment on ourselves by participating in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:29), so also those who neglect it miss the regular blessings of eating and drinking in the presence of the Lord. As believers, we should aim to participate in the Lord’s Supper whenever possible. In this way, we can more fully connect with the Lord and with each other in a way ordained by God in Scripture. 

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for[a] you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Special Terms

  • Communion
  • consubstantiation
  • Eucharist
  • not discerning the body
  • spiritual presence
  • symbolic presence
  • transubstantiation
  • ubiquity of Christ’s human nature

Resources: Wayne Grudem

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