Like most people who have come to believe that Reformed theology most accurately reflects the teaching of the scriptures, I was introduced to Reformed theology through TULIP. As I continued to read more of the Reformed confessions and catechisms, I began to see that the Reformers had much more to say about the scriptures than simply the doctrine of salvation. In particular, the Reformers strongly emphasized the role of the sacraments in Christian devotion and piety. Incidentally, my pastor also emphasizes this as well by illustrating how the sacraments (and the other means of grace) strongly aids the Christian in his/her sanctification.
There aren’t many modern books on Reformed Eucharistic theology, but one book that I’ve read (and that I strongly recommend) is named The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory by Richard Barcellos. It is a short book (less than 150 pages) that doesn’t address the historical development of Reformed Eucharistic theology (for a historical theology, I would recommend Keith Mathison’s Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper), but it addresses exegetically how the Lord’s Supper is a present communion with Christ. After reading the book, I would strongly recommend it for those who: (1) grew up in a background that viewed the Lord’s Supper only as a memorial and (2) grew up in a background that de-emphasized the Lord’s Supper (and thus doesn’t view it as an essential part of Christian maturity). The argumentation of the book can be somewhat technical, but I believe that careful attention and prayerful meditation of the argument will bring the reader to deeply appreciate what Christ has instituted for us (as it has done for me).
In meditating on how the scripture alludes to and speaks about the Lord’s Supper, I recognize how multifaceted it truly is. It truly is an oversimplification to simply see it as a memory aid to help us remember what Christ has done for us. The Lord’s Supper is truly multifaceted in that it is connected to the past, present, and future. First, the Lord’s Supper calls us to look back to our redemption accomplished in the past by Christ. For this reason, we are told to “do this in remembrance of Me.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24). It has a memorial element to it, just like the Passover of the Old Testament (cf. Exodus 12, Exodus 34:25, Leviticus 9, and Deuteronomy 16). When we take the Lord’s Supper, we must never forget what we are remembering: the just One dying for guilty sinners that He might bring us into the favorable presence of God. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that redemption has been won for us by Christ, the captain of our salvation who brings many sons to glory.
It is my assessment that even this “past tense view” has been devalued over time. The Lord’s Supper is a public memorial and thanksgiving for God’s mighty acts of salvation. It should speak to our deepest emotions and stir up thanksgiving, serving as a witness to the world that God is gracious. It is a pledge of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love and our pledge of faith in response to God. Principally, it’s an act of affirming the covenant that was established by the redemptive acts of God – first in the Passover and the redemption from Egypt (in a typological fashion) and then finally in the ministry of Jesus and His atoning death and triumphant resurrection. Simply put, the memorial view of the Supper is not just a remembering – it’s a public commitment. Participation in the memorial feast of these events affirms our place in the covenant community. In American terms, to celebrate the Supper is a pledge of allegiance to His Kingdom.
It should also be recognized that the Lord’s Supper has a present spiritual benefit and thus it is not only a memorial. A passage worth meditating about concerning this aspect of the Lord’s Supper is 1 Corinthians 10:16-21:
Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
Based on the immediate context of passage, Paul asserts that participating in the Supper is a present sharing in the blood and body of Christ. Therefore, the Lord’s Supper can be seen as both a memorial and a communion. The immediate question that arises is how does this happen (particularly since a memorial implies that Christ is not present at the Supper). Most of Barcellos’ book is an exegesis of this question and the answer is connected to the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the benefits of redemption to our souls in faith (cf. Ephesians 1:3). In a very real sense, we commune together in or share together the present benefits of His blood and His body given for us long ago. In this way, we would say that Christ is physically absent from the Supper (in the past memorial sense) and spiritually present through the Holy Spirit (in the present communion sense). The tension between the past memorial and present communion views can be resolved beautifully by means of typology. In the past memorial view, we are dealing with the Passover typology (cf. Exodus 12 and 13), while in the present communion view, we are dealing with the typology associated with Mt. Sinai seen in Exodus 24. Consider 24:1-11
Then he said to Moses, ‘Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the Lord, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.’ Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.
In the above passage, the “blood of the covenant” indicates entrance into a covenantal relationship with God. Furthermore, we see that after the covenant was made, the people “ate and drank”, using similar language as the Supper meal. As the Old Covenant has a covenantal meal connected to covenantal blood in the presence of God, so does the New Covenant. When we take the Lord’s Supper, it’s a covenantal renewal meal. The Supper is the covenantal meal up on the top of the mountain in the special presence of God. This does not imply that the Lord’s Supper brings us into covenant with God, but it strongly reminds us that we are in covenant with Him through Christ. Thus, the Supper is a bond and pledge of present communion with Christ and the benefits He purchased for us and gives to us. The Supper enhances the bond, not just individually but as a covenant community. For this reason, the Lord’s Supper has both vertical implications (with our covenant to God in the covenant of grace) and horizontal dimensions (with each other as God’s covenant people). This point serves as a constant reminder that Christian devotion and piety is not solely individual in nature, but it is strongly covenantal in scope as well.
Finally, the Lord’s Supper is connected to the future. In Matthew 26:29, Jesus said,
But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.
In 1 Corinthians 11:26, Paul said,
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
When Paul commands us to proclaim the Lord’s death until His second coming, I don’t believe that he intended it to solely mean that the Lord’s Supper is a perpetual ordinance of the Church. Rather, I believe that Paul suggests that there will be a day in which the Supper will no longer be necessary. This implies that the Lord’s Supper is anticipatory as it points to the day when Christ will drink and eat with us. In other words, there will be a day when the Supper is no longer a memorial, but it will be a full present reality. This should produce an anticipation of what is in store for us after our full redemption. There is a very real prospect held out for us, namely an eschatological marriage feast of the Lamb in the New Heavens and the New Earth (cf. Revelation 19:6-9).
So in summary, there are three tenses of the Lord’s Supper (which gives it a multifaceted nature) – past (the accomplishment of redemption), present (the application of redemption), and future (the consummation of redemption). Now, when I take the Lord’s Supper, I do so in remembrance of Christ’s death. At the Supper, I (along with the covenant community) enjoy present communion with Christ. But as the time of the Supper ends, I look forward to the day when Christ will drink with me and the rest of Church in His Father’s Kingdom. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the past, blesses us in the present, and looks to future feasting with the Lamb with all of its glory. Of course, this discussion is only scratches the surface of the doctrine of the Supper. I pray that we all may develop a deeper understanding of the Supper and that we do not neglect the benefits of this ordinance given to us by Christ.