This past week, at our church plant’s Thursday night gathering, we took some time to talk about the importance of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the believer and the church.
We looked at our philosophy of ministry, which says,
The ordained rites of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are faith-nourishing signs that tangibly portray Gospel realities to believers. As such, they are not to be neglected, devalued, or misused, but, rather, are to be guarded, administered conscientiously, and cherished as gracious gifts from Christ.
Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20; Acts 22:16; Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:23-27; Gal 3:27; Col 2:12; Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 3:21.
I want to follow up on that discussion here in this post.
Often times, in the more baptistic, non-denominational, believers’-church-tradition circle in which I find myself, the Lord’s Supper is seen as nothing more than a cognitive aid for rehearsing the sacrificial death of Jesus. We call this the memorial view of the Supper: the Supper is a means of remembering (hence “memorial”) the death of Christ.
Now, I don’t want to downplay the importance of simply remembering Christ’s work on our behalf. But I do want to ask, What is that “remembering” suppose to look like and involve? What does the New Testament have in mind when it talks of this “remembering.” Is it merely a recall, a cognitive exercise like running scenes from the Passion of the Christ in your head? Or is it something more like what we refer to today as “preaching the truths of the Gospel to yourself”?
I think it is especially helpful at this point to consider the role of the Lord’s Supper as a sign. A sign is something that points to another reality. In this case, that something is the saving death of Christ. The bread and wine, Christ says, represent his body and blood given in death for us. In other words, the Lord’s Supper is a sign through which God points us to the saving realities of the Gospel that the elements visually and tangibly portray — the saving death of Christ. And as a God-instituted sign, it is also then an assurance-supplying, faith-nourishing divine pledge of the saving realities it signifies, i.e., Jesus really and truly does save by this death.
It is in this sense — as a sign and pledge — that I want to speak of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace and as something more than a mere memorial. Or, I suppose we could reverse that and say, this is how I understand that nature of the remembering that is supposed to happen in this memorial.
As I say in my personal statement of faith,
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are New Covenant signs instituted by Christ and perpetuated by the apostolic church that visually and tangibly portray Gospel truths and serve as a divine pledge and confirmation of those things depicted therein. In this sense—not that in their very performance they convey the graces depicted therein, but that they nourish believers’ faith in the Gospel—they are means of grace.
 Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; Gal 3:27-29; Col 2:11-12.  Mt 26:26-29; 28:19; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26.  Acts 2:38, 41-42; 8:12, 36-38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:5; 20:7; 22:16; Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 1:13-17; 10:14-22; 11:17-34; Gal 3:27; Eph 4:5; Col 2:12; 1 Pet 3:21.  Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20; Acts 22:16; Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:23-27; Gal 3:27; Col 2:12; Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 3:21.  Gen 9:8-17; 17:10-14; Ex 12:13; 13:8-10; 31:13, 16-17; Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom 4:11; 6:3-4; 1 Cor 10:16; 11:23-27; Gal 3:27; Col 2:12; Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 3:21.
A lot of confusion revolves around the nature of the Lord Supper — what it is and what is “does” — such that it is necessary to pause and clarify things in case there remains any confusion.
Let me be clear, I do not believe that the Lord Supper provides us with any grace we do not already have in Christ. In other words, it is not a means of special grace. However, it is a special — Christ-instituted — means of the grace we have in Christ by faith. I do not believe that the mere act of performing or participating in the Supper automatically gives grace any more than simply hearing the Gospel message makes one a Christian. Nor do I believe that the elements are transformed into Christ’s physical body and blood; in my opinion, that’s simply not defensible from the text of scripture.
What I do believe, however, is this: The Gospel is the means by which we receive God’s saving grace by faith. Thus, insofar as the Lord’s Supper portrays this Gospel in visual, tangible, and symbolic form (which is precisely what it does; cf. its function as a sign), it is a means or vehicle of that Gospel-grace parallel to the verbal proclamation of the Gospel (although not apart from that preached Gospel which makes its symbolism clear). In the Supper, in other words, this grace-giving Gospel, and by extension all of its saving promises (or pledges), are “presented” to us and held out to us to be received by faith. In this way, when faith in the Gospel is present, the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, a means by which our faith in Christ, our embrace of Gospel’s truths, our assurance of forgiveness, and our joy in our salvation are nourished and strengthened.
As John Stott says,
Augustine’s designation of the sacraments as ‘visible words’ (verba visibilia) supplies an essential clue to their function and value. They too speak. Both Word and sacrament bear witness to Christ. Both promise salvation in Christ. Both quicken our faith in Christ. Both enable us to feed on Christ in our hearts. The major difference between them is that the message of the one is directed to the eye, and of the other to the ear. … The ministry of Word and sacrament is a single ministry, the Word proclaiming, and the sacrament dramatizing, God’s promises.
This view is in line with historic baptistic theology, especially its more reformed expressions. See the following words from the 2nd London Baptist Confession of 1689:
The supper of the Lord Jesus was instituted by him the same night wherein he was betrayed, to be observed in his churches, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance, and shewing forth the sacrifice of himself in his death, confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits thereof, their spiritual nourishment, and growth in him, their further engagement in, and to all duties which they owe to him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other.
The outward elements in this ordinance, duly set apart to the use ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that truly, although in terms used figuratively, they are sometimes called by the names of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ, albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
Unfortunately this is not the popular baptist view today — a mere memorial view. But this view — a memorial as sign and pledge view — is a more historic baptist position.
(Note: I would handle baptism in nearly identical categories. But to tackle baptism in this way would require separate elaboration because of the unique pop-theology missteps currently jumbled up with it.)
For more info — because there is a lot more that could be said — please see this sermon I delivered on the Lord’s Supper based out of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.