Chapter 29.7, 8
August 3, 2013
vii. 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: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
viii. Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Him, so are they unworthy of the Lord's table and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.
The Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Supper
The remedy to a doctrine of the real physical presence of Christ is not a doctrine of real absence, but a doctrine of Spiritual presence, and paragraph seven presents that old Calvinistic doctrine of the spiritual presence of Christ in the supper. When we are properly receiving the supper (including an examination of ourselves, 1 Cor. 11:28), we are 'inwardly' partaking of Christ while 'outwardly partaking of the visible elements'. The apostle Paul calls this 'participating' or 'fellowshipping' in the blood and in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16) - a concept which usefully challenges conventional assumptions in evangelicalism that the Lord's supper is merely a memorial moment to remember Jesus.
This participation in Christ in the supper is 'by faith' and 'spiritually'. That is to say, when we come to the supper, trusting afresh in Christ and the triumph of his cross, we find Christ present by his Holy Spirit in the supper. And through this meal we by faith receive him, with all the benefits of his death that are reserved for believers. We feed upon him. We are nourished by him. And although that receiving and feeding is not carnal or corporal, it is real and actual.
To state it a different way, and even more emphatically, 'the body and blood of Christ' is not during the supper 'corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine'. Christ is not present in the body or in the flesh. No Catholic, or Lutheran, or 'high Anglican' formula of real presence in the sense of physical presence is correct. But nor are these doctrines necessary! Spiritual does not mean artificial. Spiritual realities are true realities. And so this confession rightly insists that Christ is present 'really, but spiritually' in the supper. He is as 'present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves' are present 'to their outward senses'.
Eating and Drinking Damnation
Along with the theory that Christ is physically present in the supper, came the puzzle of unworthy participants eating the bread of the supper. Did they partake of Christ in the supper? The early medieval answer to the questions was yes, but without benefit. Later theories argued that any participation in the mass had almost automatic benefit. Medieval skeptics about physical presence, and the Protestant Reformers with them, parodied the theory by asking about the mice. Did mice eating the crumbs that had fallen on the cathedral floor also partake of Christ's body? Unlikely, it seemed. But how could the conclusion be avoided?
The Westminster assembly, like the Reformers before them, concluded that 'ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament' but 'not the thing signified thereby'. They get food and drink. They do not get the Saviour or any benefit from him.
Nevertheless, not only is there no positive benefit in coming to the table, there is also real harm. As scripture states so clearly, by unworthy participation in the supper, people become 'guilty of the body and blood of the Lord' (1 Cor. 11:27; c.f., vv. 27-29). That is to say, they drink to their own damnation. 'Ignorant and ungodly persons . . . are unfit to enjoy communion with' the Lord and 'so are they unworthy of the Lord's table. The problem is not simply that unbelievers should not hide in the ranks of believers. It is much deeper than that. This meal speaks of Christian partnership and fellowship and as Paul asks, after all, 'what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? Christ with Belial? God with idolatry? (2 Cor. 6:14-16). Partaking of 'these holy mysteries' while remaining an unbeliever is not merely a mistake, it is a 'great sin against Christ'. Ministers need to speak words that force a serious rethink for non-Christians who assume they are entitled to partake of Christ's supper.
But why does coming to the table unworthily involve eating and drinking damnation? Why is it a great sin? What is so dangerous about a pretended communion with Christ and his church? The answer is found in the great privilege that it is to partake of a meal which so perfectly pictures our participation in Christ. It is intended to nourish Christian faith. To come to the table without that Holy-Spirit-worked faith in the Saviour is to try to seize a gift which can only be given. Coming to the table then becomes the personal symbol of a man or a woman's presumption. The supper becomes an emblem of the arrogance of someone who fancies he or she can fellowship with the Father, without coming through his Son.
Out of concern for unbelievers themselves, we warn them not to partake of the table. We also refuse to invite them to the table because those who reject Christ and his church must not be admitted to the fellowship meal designed for those who accept him and his people. Here, what is true of the membership of the church is true for the sacrament of the church. What Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5 applies to his discussion in 1 Corinthians 11. 'Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed' (1 Cor. 5:6-7). The church and the table need to be 'purged' (1 Cor. 5:13). We must, in the strong words of Jesus for those who reject truth, not 'give dogs what is holy' or 'throw pearls before pigs' (Matt. 7:6). As a serious warning to those who are erring, we must avoid fellowship and warn 'any brother' who is idle and unwilling to be instructed - surely a command which sometimes justifies suspending a member of the church from the communion table of the church, and always justifies insisting that those who come to the table be members in good standing with a church that loves and preaches the gospel of the Triune God (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15).
Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.