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Theology > Church > Ordinances of the Church > Principles Related to the Lord's Supper



Various terminology is used to speak of this act observed by the Church for two millennia:

the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42, 46).

the Lord’s Table (I Cor. 10:21).

the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 11:20).

Eucharist – from the Gr. word eucharistia (I Cor. 11:24), meaning “giving of thanks” or “thanksgiving”; speaks of Jesus giving thanks before He gave the bread and the wine (Matt. 26:27; Mk. 14:23; Lu. 22:17, 19); term used by Orthodox, Roman Catholics and frequently by Episcopalians.

Communion – from the Gr. word koinōnia, (I Cor 10:16), meaning “sharing” or “fellowship”; speaks of sharing fellowship with Christ and with other believers; term is mostly used by Protestants; also called Holy Communion.

Mystery – word preferred by the Eastern Orthodox.

Sacrament – from a Latin word meaning “sacred”; the word generally refers to an act that communicates or is the medium of grace for the one who performs the act; used by Roman Catholics.

Mass – term used by the Roman Church; specifically it refers to the elements becoming the actual body and blood of Christ; the appearance of the elements is unchanged but the essence becomes different.

Sacrifice or Symbol

Four basic interpretations will be briefly presented:

Roman – view is transubstantiation (term was coined in 1140 by Pope Alexander III), meaning that the elements maintain the same appearance but are essentially changed into the very body and blood of Christ by the consecration of the Priest; the substance is the body and blood of Christ, while the accidents, that is, the appearances, are bread and wine; in the words of Aquinas there is “a substantial conversion” (Summa); Luther accused Aquinas of establishing his view of transubstantiation on Aristotelian philosophy rather than on Biblical teaching; additionally, grace is imparted “by the work performed” (ex opera operato); thus, the act is a real sacrifice by which grace is conveyed.

Note: While the Eastern Orthodox Church does allow the possible concept of transubstantiation, it does not require that understanding, and the word “change” is preferred to “transubstantiation”; Orthodoxy’s view is more of the mystical presence of Christ in Communion, and while accepting the change the Orthodox Church has never defined the change.

Note: The Mass which is a continual sacrifice is inconsistent with the Biblical teaching of the one and only sacrifice of Christ which is sufficient for sin (Heb. 10:10).

Lutheran – view is consubstantiation (term used by Luther’s opponents, but never by Luther), meaning that the elements are not changed into the body and blood of Christ, but “the true body and blood” (Luther) of Christ are actually present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine (Formula of Concord: “under the bread, with the bread, and in the bread”), that is, Christ permeates the elements; the Formula also affirmed that “human senses and reason do not comprehend” this fact; thus, the act does not constitute a sacrifice; Luther defended two sacraments, and spoke of the meal as a testament.

Note: Luther did not view the sacrament as a sacrifice.

Reformed – view is spiritual, meaning that the elements are not changed into the body and blood of Christ but that Christ is really spiritually present in the meal; Calvin agreed with Augustine that the observance was “a visible form of an invisible grace”; in the Institutes Calvin wrote: “one may call it a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign”; Calvin gave emphasis to the work of the Spirit in the observance whereby the faith of the believer is nourished; while Calvin accepted the idea of symbol, he rejected the idea of an empty symbol; the communion of the believer with Christ is both a mystery and a miracle.

Zwingli – view is a memorial or ordinance, meaning that the meal is essential a remembrance or an obedience to the Lord’s command, with the elements in both cases being symbolic; he felt that the body of Christ could only be in one place, and stated that the meal was a sign and that the sign and the things signified could not be the same thing, therefore, the bread cannot be the literal body and the blood cannot be the literal blood; the elements must be understood figuratively; the words, “this is My body” mean “this signifies My body”; thus, the meal is a memorial, whereby the believer remembers Christ and affirms his obedience to Christ.

Anabaptist and Baptist – through the observance there is no special or saving grace communicated; before one could partake there must be believer’s baptism by immersion; from this the idea of closed communion developed among some Baptists; another variant view that developed is the use of grape juice rather than wine.

Thoughts on Sacrifice or Symbol

The act is not an act of sacrifice, but an act of obedience; the sacrifice of Christ is one, and the sacrificed is finished.

No priest is needed to consecrate the elements; a simple prayer of thanksgiving by any believer is sufficient.

There is no saving efficacy in the act; the doing of it does not convey soteriological grace, because the believer is saved exclusively by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; it is not what we do but what He did—His past act not our present acts; the believer is saved by the doing and dying of Christ—His person and His work.

The words, “this is My body” mean “this signifies My body”; it is not necessary nor proper to take them in a literal sense; it is like Jesus referring to Himself as a “Door” or as a “Vine”—He represents or signifies a door or vine; on the occasion of the Last Supper the apostles certainly did not understand the words in a literal sense; such a concept was not even suggested by Christ.

NOTE: Statements by the early Church Fathers imply the presence of Christ in and with the act, not that the elements are actually transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ. Transubstantiation was a much later interpretations that was read back into earlier writings.

NOTE: The Supper was instituted at the Passover Meal which was highly symbolic; from this fact, it would seem that Jesus instituted something symbolic, rather than instituting a literal observance at a symbolic observance.

QUESTION: If in the Eucharist today the elements are changed, were they changed by Jesus in the Upper Room?


The early Church required baptism for those who received the elements; only a believer who had been baptized could participate in the observance.

Because of this fact, I tend to think of the ordinances more as the ordinances of believers than the ordinances of the Church. Baptism can be any place and any time, and the Supper can be any place and any time. The only requirements are that both be done by believers in the name of Christ. The following guidelines seem to be appropriate:

Only those who have professed faith in Christ and have been baptized should partake of the bread and wine.

Any believer may partake of the elements, with or without other believers.

No priest is needed to consecrate the elements; a simple prayer of thanksgiving by any believer is sufficient.

The observance can be done by any believer at any time.

Each believer is to take both elements.

General Observations

The observances was instituted by Christ (Matt. 26:26-30; I Cor. 11:23-26).

The observance is the Lord’s - it is about Him and because of Him; “the Lord’s Table” (I Cor. 10:21); “the Lord’s Supper” (I Cor. 11:20); and “in remembrance of Me” (I Cor. 11:24-25).

The observance speaks of Christ’s death – broken body and shed blood; “My body” and “My blood” (I Cor. 11:24-25).

In the observance there is an identification with Christ – eat His body and drink His blood (Matt. 26:26-28; Jo. 6:53-57).

Only those who have professed faith in Christ and have been baptized should partake of the bread and wine.

The act is a remembrance (I Cor. 11:24) and a communion, a sharing in fellowship (I Cor. 10:16) by believers.

It is to be done when the Church comes together (I Cor. 11:17-20), but also any believer may partake of the elements himself, with or with other believers (I Cor. 11:18, 20).

It is to be done frequently, but no specific schedule is given (I Cor. 11:26); the earliest reference is to the daily act (Acts. 2:46) and later to a weekly act (Acts 20:7); the guide is “as often” as you eat and drink (I Cor. 11:26).

Each believer is to partake of both elements (Matt. 26:26-30; I Cor. 11:23-26); the elements to be taken are bread and wine, or wine mixed with some water; grape juice or other liquids, as a general practice, should not be used.

The elements are to be taken in a worthy manner (I Cor. 11:27).

Before taking the elements a believer is to “examine himself” (I Cor. 11:28).

The observance looks backs – speaks of the Lord’s death; it is an act of testimony (I Cor. 11:26, “you proclaim the Lord’s death”).

The observance looks forward – it is an act of anticipation (I Cor. 11:26, “till He comes”; the meal creates an expectation of the Lord’s coming.

The observance is associated with “the new covenant” (I Cor. 11:25).

The observance is a preaching—“you proclaim the Lord’s death” (I Cor. 11:25).

The elements—bread and wine—were used by Christ in a symbolic sense to speak of His body and blood, and were never intended to be understood literally.

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