In the absence of frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper, the gap created in the apostolic order of worship becomes rather noticeable. There is a reason why those fundamentalists who stand in the revivalist tradition place the “altar call” or an appeal to make some sort of re-dedication or re-commitment to Christ at the end of the service, after the sermon. When God’s word is proclaimed, we are called to act upon what we’ve just heard. But the absence of the Supper creates what seems to be a rather abrupt ending to worship, and the sense that something is missing gives impetus to those who want to see the preached word culminate in some sort of a call to action, which then takes on a more formal role in closing out the worship service.
This essay is an edited version of the lecture entitled “Frequent Feeding: Communion as Nourishing Worship,” given at the Great Lakes Reformed Conference in October 2023. An audio is version of the lecture is available here: Audio from the Great Lakes Reformed Conference. A YouTube video can be found here: Video from the conference. A downloadable PDF is available here: On the Nature and Frequency of the Lord’s Supper
1n 1555, John Calvin asked the following of the Magistrates of the city of Bern regarding the celebration the Lord’s Supper:
Please God, gentlemen, that both you and we may be able to establish a more frequent usage. For it is evident from St. Luke in the Book of Acts that communion was much more frequently celebrated in the primitive Church, until this abomination of the mass was set up by Satan, who so caused it that people received communion only once or twice a year. Wherefore, we must acknowledge that it is a defect in us that we do not follow the example of the Apostles (John Calvin, Letter to the Magistrates of Berne, 1555).
The practical issues surrounding the nature and frequency of the Lord’s Supper have been with us from the earliest days of the Reformed tradition.
The purpose of this essay is to offer a rationale for the frequent (weekly) celebration of the Lord’s Supper. To accomplish this, I will: 1). Address the idea of the Supper as spiritual nourishment by surveying the biblical evidence which speaks to nature of the Supper, then 2). Consider biblical evidence for frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and then 3). I will briefly address common objections to frequent celebrations of the Supper, before 4). I will wrap up with a discussion of the pastoral benefits of frequent communion.
The key take away from this essay is that nature of the Lord’s Supper defines (or at least it should) its frequency. What the supper is–a spiritual feeding–ought to provide the rationale for when and how often we celebrate it.
The Nature of the Lord’s Supper
We begin by surveying the biblical evidence which speaks to the nature of the Lord’s Supper. As we do so, keep in mind that the Lord’s Supper is instituted during the Last Supper.
To fully appreciate the theological richness of the Lord’s Supper, we must put it in its first century context of table fellowship, and the Jewish Passover–the Old Testament thought world of the New Testament authors. The significance of “table fellowship” in the Mediterranean world of the first century should not be underestimated. To eat with someone at table was, in effect, to be identified by a bond with those with whom you ate.
This is especially significant in light of Exodus 24, when Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel were summoned by YHWH, to go up on Mount Sinai and eat a meal of covenant ratification in his presence. The Exodus 24 account subsequently frames our Lord’s willingness to join in table fellowship with repentant sinners—a scandalous event in the eyes of the Pharisees as evident in Matthew 9:10-13:
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Another consideration is that the Last Supper is a Passover meal, as the gospels indicate (Mark 14:12 ff). Our Lord’s words and actions indicate that he saw the institution of the Lord’s Supper as a fulfillment of the Passover and connected his actions to its fulfillment. The historical development of the Lord’s Supper within the New Testament itself–from the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the gospels to the practice of the “Lord’s Supper” as seen in 1 Corinthians 11 is significant. Paul’s account of the Corinthian Church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper (mid 50’s) was actually written before the gospel writers wrote in the mid 60’s, giving us the account of our Lord’s institution of the Supper during the Last Supper. This explains the different word order in the accounts of Paul-Luke and Mark-Matthew, and demonstrate that apostolic practice (i.e., in the Corinthian church) very closely followed what our Lord commanded in the upper room on the night in which he was betrayed, a decade or so before the synoptic gospels were written.
The Reformed understanding of the Supper in terms of sign/seal (bread and wine), thing signified (forgiveness through his shed blood, the “blood of the covenant”), and sacramental union (our Lord’s words “this is my body”), arises directly from the biblical data. When Jesus speaks of the bread as his body and the wine as his blood, we take him at his word without resorting to confusing sign with the thing signified (in the case of Rome), or inserting words such as “this represents my body,” where they do not belong (in the case of memorialists). As Paul calls Christ the rock (1 Corinthians 10:4), so too, the bread is Jesus’ body—not because the sign is miraculously changed into the thing signified as Rome argues in transubstantiation, but because Christ can speak of the bread (the sign) as the thing signified (his body) using the language of sacraments. Because a true sacramental union exists between the sign and the thing signified, the bread can indeed be spoken of as Christ’s body (Matthew 26:26 ff).
Following Calvin, the Reformed have tried to keep in mind both the reality of Christ’s bodily ascension—wherein Christ’s true human nature is now in heaven awaiting his return (Acts 1:9-11)—and the real presence of Christ’s body in the sacrament (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). It is important to note that the Reformed view (following Calvin) is not some kind of half-way house between Luther’s view of the “real presence” as “in, with and under the bread and wine,” and the Zwinglian trajectory of the “real absence,” which focuses upon the memorial aspects of the Supper.
The Reformed view is formulated in light of Calvin’s doctrine of “union with Christ.” Though Christ’s true human nature is in heaven, nevertheless the believer receives all of his saving benefits because the Holy Spirit has united the believer here on earth to Christ in heaven through faith, so too Christ can be in heaven and the believer can receive his true body and blood, because the same Holy Spirit ensures that those already in union with Christ receive his true body and blood when they take bread and wine in faith (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:23-29). The manner of eating is spiritual, not “carnal.” We truly receive Christ through faith and not by mouth.
In the words of institution, the body of Christ is not brought down to us—i.e., localized on an altar as the Lutherans argue, but the believer is able to feed upon Christ in the heavenlies through the power of the Holy Spirit who ensures that we receive what is promised. The means of reception is faith (the mechanics remain a mystery), since it is the soul not the body that receives the reality of what is promised, as the mouth receives only consecrated bread and wine. When we when eat bread and drink wine, through faith, the Holy Spirit ensures that we receive the true body and blood of Christ which is in heaven because we are in union with him.
There is also a covenantal dimension to the Supper, since each time it is celebrated, God re-affirms his covenant oath to save sinners by bearing the curse for them, and reminds participants that Jesus Christ still enjoys table fellowship with sinners as was typologically set forth in Exodus 24. Given these biblical themes, and the biblical language of “real presence,” in addition to the biblical practice of connecting the word and sacrament (Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 11; Acts 20:7), it is hard to make any kind of a case for a pure memorialism or infrequent communion as is practiced by many Reformed Christians. That Christ is sacramentally present with his people through the Supper as they feed upon him in faith, is at the heart of the biblical teaching and Reformed doctrine regarding the Lord’s Supper. In Article 35, the Belgic Confession confesses that we believe that our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper “to nourish and sustain those who are already born again and ingrafted into his family,” his church. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, 29.1, the Supper is likewise said to be “spiritual nourishment.”
The memorialist position (inadvertently) makes the human testimony of worthiness to partake, or of our testimony to faith in the promises of God, central to the Supper. This inevitably depreciates the fact that the essence of the Supper is a spiritual feeding and a covenant meal, in which God re-affirms his covenant oath. It is the Holy Spirit working through the word, and not a priest or minister that makes the sacrament efficacious for believers. God is the active party (not the “rememberer” nor a priest) whenever the supper is celebrated. We speak of the sacraments as the “visible word.” We ought to see the Supper and the elements of bread and wine as gracious gifts from God—manna from heaven as it were—given to us by God to communicate to us the realities of the blessings of the covenant of grace, through the signs instituted by God. The Supper is not incidental to the Christian life and is a vital part of our sanctification and growth in Godliness.
As for the warning about “discerning Christ’s body in the Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:28-30), the sacrament is not to be viewed as though it were somehow poisonous to the non-Christian, who will get sick and dies by receiving the Supper unworthily. Rather, by not receiving the Supper in faith, the non-Christian places themselves in a position where the consequences of their sin and the judgment of God upon them can become a frightful reality. As Zacharias Ursinus put it, “an abuse of the sign is contempt cast upon Christ himself; and is an offense against his injured majesty.” This is why the Reformed “fence” the communion table or practice closed or “close” communion, to protect those who do not discern the body of Christ in the elements of bread and wine. But all repentant sinners, who are baptized and profess faith in Christ, and seek his saving benefits through faith, are welcomed to the table so that we may demonstrate to the watching world that we are indeed one, just as our Lord himself prayed.
The Frequency of the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper
We move on to address the second point mentioned previously–the matter of frequency of celebration. The most important passage in this regard is Acts 2:42. This passage gives us the earliest picture of the Christian church, “rejoicing in the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit.” Luke describes how the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
In Acts 2, we read that the church in Jerusalem was founded on apostolic preaching. Its members enjoyed the fellowship of others who trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus to save them from the wrath of God, and who recently experienced the events of Pentecost. Calvin, saw this passage as significant for any discussion of the frequency of the Lord’s Supper because Luke establishes “that this was the practice of the apostolic church . . . . It became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Supper and almsgiving” (Institutes, 4.17.44).
Calvin is probably correct–the teaching of the apostles and the fellowship among believers culminates in the “breaking of the bread and the prayers.” The “breaking of bread” is a reference to the Lord’s Supper, which was a distinct activity within the context of the fellowship meal (“table fellowship”) shared by those present. Had Luke been referring to the “fellowship” meal (the ancient equivalent of the modern “pot-luck”) and not to the Lord’s Supper, it would hardly have been worth mentioning.
Luke’s use of the term “breaking of bread” is likely another way of referring to what Paul calls the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:20). Luke uses an early Palestinian name for the sacramental portion of the fellowship meal, not the larger meal in general. In Judaism, “breaking of bread” refers to the act of tearing of bread which marks the beginning of a celebratory meal, never to the whole meal itself.
The fact that the disciples “devoted themselves” is used in at least one ancient source to refer to synagogue worship, which points to a formal (or intentional) activity as opposed to a more casual occasion. The verb “devoted” appears several times in Acts and often means “to attend worship regularly” (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:26; 6:4).