COMMUNION seasons, said Dr John Kennedy, more than a hundred years ago, are ordinarily times of spiritual refreshing for the Lord’s people. We believe that the Lord’s people today find this to be true in some measure even although our day is a “day of small things” spiritually. As another annual round of communion seasons begins in our congregations, it is no doubt the prayerful desire of believers among us that they would again have some blessed refreshing of soul through the sacrament, and that the purposes for which it was appointed would be fulfilled in their own spiritual experience.
We now not only point to the uses and purposes of the Lord’s Supper which are set forth in The Westminster Confession of Faith, but we also gather together some comments made about them by others.
First, the Lord’s Supper is a commemorative ordinance. Its principal purpose is to keep green the memory of Him who loved the Church and gave Himself for it. He has said, “This do in remembrance of me.” The Confession puts this purpose first and says that the sacrament is to be observed “for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death.” 1
“Most wisely, then, as well as most graciously,” said Dr John Brown, ” did the Saviour, who knows our frame, and remembers we are dust’, appoint a positive institution, by which an affectionate remembrance of His dying love might be perpetuated among His followers to the most distant ages.” 2
Brown exhorts believers to remember especially Christ Himself – who He is, what He became for His people, what He did, what He said, and what He suffered – and then more especially His death. “We are to remember that He died, and how He died. We are never to forget that His death was that of a traitor and blasphemer, a felon and a slave – exquisitely painful, peculiarly shameful, divinely accursed.
“And while we recollect the Saviour’s sufferings and death, we must not be unmindful of their cause. . . We must remember how deeply we are interested in these sufferings; that His body was broken, and His blood shed, for our benefit and in our stead; that he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.’
“We are to remember the important consequences of His sufferings and death. And what are these? The expiation of the sins of men, the turning away of the wrath of the Almighty, the magnifying and making honourable of the Divine law, the answering of the demands of justice, the securing of the honour of the Divine character, the vindication of the rights of the Divine government, the ratification of the everlasting covenant, . . peace on earth, and goodwill towards men,’ rapture to the angelic millions, and glory to God in the highest.’ But this is an endless theme!” 3
Secondly, the sacrament is given to be a sign of the covenant of grace, that is, to represent to us Christ and His benefits. How suitable the symbols of bread and wine are for representing before the eyes of the believer what is principally to be remembered at the Lord’s Table – that His holy body was broken and His precious blood shed. It is the desire of those who love His name that in seeing and partaking of these symbols they would have an entrance into the precious truth, “Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25).
Thomas Goodwin says that the sacrament “represents Christ in the most immediate and expressive manner,” and adds, “It represents Christ also as crucified, which is the top and eminent subject of the gospel, (1 Corinthians 2:2). We see Christ glorious and sitting at God’s right hand in heaven, and yet we see Him too as one dying and crucified. Yea, and it is that Christ who is now in glory who is represented as crucified. It is His death that is shewn forth herein; His body broken and His blood shed. Whilst one eye of faith is called to look up to His person as now glorious in heaven, . . . with another eye we look back upon Him as formerly hanging on a tree, bearing our sins in His body, bearing, and representing, and undertaking for our persons. Now, what a sight is this! and what a strong mixture of affections must needs accompany a sight so strange!” 4
Thirdly, the Lord’s supper is intended for “sealing all the benefits therof [that is, of Christ’s sacrifice] unto true believers.” 5 Its purpose is to confirm to them their saving interest in Christ, and to ratify their right to the benefits of His atoning death. The sacrament not only confirms to their eyes and ears, but also to their souls, their possession of the blessings of the covenant of grace. As a seal attached to a legal document is the confirmatory evidence to the beneficiary of his right to, and actual possession of, the benefits assigned to him in the document, so the Lord’s Supper says as it were to the believer, “Christ is yours and therefore all things are yours’.” As a seal of the covenant of grace, the Lord’s Supper authenticates the right of the believer to all the privileges of the covenant.
It is true that the Scriptures themselves give clear evidence that the benefits of Christ have been made over to the believer, but, as Robert Bruce says in his excellent work on the Lord’s Supper, “Seals are annexed to the simple Word . . .to seal up and confirm the truth contained in the same Word. . . There cannot be a seal except that which is the seal of an evidence, for if the seal is separated from the evidence, it can be no seal. . . Thus there cannot be a Sacrament without it adhering to the evidence of the Word. . . Because it is a seal annexed to the Word it persuades you better of its truth, for the more the outward senses are awakened, the more is the inward heart and mind persuaded to believe.” 6 Instructive indeed are these other words of Bruce: “The Sacrament is appointed that we may get a better hold of Christ than we got in the simple Word; that we possess Christ in our hearts more fully and largely than we did before by the simple Word. That Christ may have more room in which to reside in our narrow hearts than He could have by our hearing of the simple Word, and that we may possess Him more fully, is a better thing. Even though Christ is the same in Himself, yet the better hold you have of Him, the surer you are of His promise. The Sacraments are appointed that I may have Him more fully in my soul; that I may have the bounds of it enlarged, and that He may make the better residence in me. This no doubt is the reason why these seals are annexed to the evidence of the simple Word.” 7
Fourthly, the Lord’s Supper is a nourishing ordinance. Growth and fruitfulness in the life of grace are imperative – “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). The believer is to use the means of grace provided so that he “might grow up unto Him in all things” (Ephesians 4:15). Therefore, he is not only to drink the sincere milk of the Word that he “may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2) but he is also to feed upon Christ in the sacrament. Well does the Confession say, “Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this sacrament, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death.” 8
This great benefit is emphasised by William Trail when he says that the Lord’s Supper “is exceedingly suited to increase humility, hatred and dread of sin, watchfulness, contempt of the world, faith, hope, love, gratitude, patience, compassion, meekness, fortitude, and all other holy dispositions. These are obvious and intelligible benefits of frequent communicating, if it be done in a serious, considerate, and reverential manner: for the communion of the body and blood of Christ’ as directly tends to strengthen and refresh the believing soul, as bread and wine do nourish and invigorate the body.” 9
Robert Shaw puts it this way: “A devout participation of this ordinance is fitted to confirm and invigorate their faith, to inflame their love, to deepen their godly sorrow, to enliven their joy, and to enlarge and strengthen their hopes of the Saviour’s second coming, and of the glory then to be revealed.” 10 The children of God therefore desire, in approaching the table of the Lord, to hear and heed His own gracious call, “Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved” (Song 5:1).
Fifthly, the Lord’s Supper is a covenanting ordinance. In partaking of the sacrament, believers covenant or solemnly undertake to perform the obligations they owe to Jesus Christ, the Head of His church and whose name they profess. Their partaking of the sacrament is a pledge of “their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him.”11 The worthy recipients are saying as it were to the David of the New Testament, Jesus Christ, “Thine are we. We engage to be Thine, to walk in Thy ways and do Thy will. We pledge our allegiance to Thee, and to no other.”
A. A. Hodge comments, “We, in taking this pledge, solemnly bind ourselves to entire self-consecration and to all that is involved in the requirements of the gospel of Christ, not as we understand them, but as He intends them. It is a universal principle that all oaths bind in the sense in which they are understood by the persons who impose them. Hence it [the sacrament] is a badge of Christian profession – a mark of allegiance of a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.”12
The rightly exercised believer cannot but feel the onerous nature of this solemn engagement. How necessary then that he lay to heart not only the assertion of Christ, “Without me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5), but also that His gracious promise to His tried and tempted followers is, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 9:12).
Sixthly, the sacrament is one of communion. Partaking of the sacrament by the Lord’s people is “a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body.” 13 It is the prayerful wish of the believer to have fellowship with Christ at His table; and it is the will of Christ that He should hear the voice and see the countenance of His church in His ordinance.
Partaking of the Lord’s Supper, says Dr Andrew Thomson, “is an open testimony of our communion and fellowship with Christ; as we learn from the words of the Apostle Paul, when he is dissuading the Corinthians from idolatry – of having fellowship with devils’ – on the ground that they were already partakers of the Lord’s Table’; and in this way had declared their fellowship with Christ (1 Corinthians 10: 20, 21).” 14
“Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 2:3). How great a privilege! In the sacrament Christ speaks peace and love to His people. John Willison of Dundee, in preaching on the text: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love” (Song 2:4), said that Christ prepares this feast “to express His love to believers, and that He might have opportunity of nearer communion and fellowship with them. At feasts, people have great freedom and familiarity with one another, mutual expressions of kindness, communicating of secrets, rejoicing in one another. O but many a poor soul has been ravished with Christ’s love here, and with the wine of His consolation; He hath made rare discoveries of His love to them.” 15
As Christ manifests His love to His people at His table, so His desire is that they would express their love to Him. It is indeed wonderful that He should condescend to urge His people: “O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely” (Song 2:14).
Then there is the fellowship which believers have with one another in the sacrament. As Andrew Thomson further says, “The Lord’s Supper is an opportunity of holding communion with one another, as believers in Christ; since by eating and drinking the memorials of His death at the same table, we declare our willing participation in all the blessings which His death has secured for us, and our Christian union and friendship, as members of His body, which is the Church.” 16
One of the most distinctive characteristics of the life of God in the soul of man is the exercise of Christian love towards those especially who also have that spiritual life in them. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death” (1 John 3:14). If we have the hope that we belong to this blessed family we surely ought to be conscientious about sitting at this table prepared for the family, the Head of which is none other than “the firstborn among many brethren”.
Finally, let us bear in mind that the sacrament cannot be beneficial to believers if the Holy Spirit is not present. With regard to the sacrament being a seal, Robert Bruce says, “All the seals in the world will not work unless the Spirit of God concurs and seals the same truth in your heart, that the Sacrament seals outwardly.”17 So it is with regard to the sacrament itself: only by the gracious presence and working of the Holy Spirit will it be effectual for the purposes for which it has been ordained. “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:13).
1 The Westminister Confession of Faith, chapter 29, section 1.
2 Discourses Suited to the Lord’s Supper, John Brown D.D., p. 36.
3 Ibid., p. 38.
4 The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D.D., vol. 7, p. 312.
5 The Westminister Confession of Faith, chapter 29, section 1.
6 The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper, Robert Bruce, pp. 40 and 64.
7 Ibid., p. 65.
8 The Westminister Confession of Faith, chapter 29, section 7.
9 A Guide to Christian Communicants in the Exercise of Self-examination, William Trail, p. 21.
10 Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Robert Shaw, p. 295.
11 The Westminister Confession of Faith, chapter 29, section 1.
12 A Commentary on the Confession of Faith, A. A. Hodge, D.D. p. 356.
13 The Westminister Confession of Faith, chapter 29, section 1.
14 A Catechism for the Instruction of Communicants, Andrew Thomson, D.D., Question 51.
15 The Practical Works of the Rev. John Willison, p.306.
16 A Catechism for the Instruction of Communicants, Andrew Thomson, D.D., Question 52.
17 The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper, Robert Bruce, p. 65.