The Sacraments: Divine or Human Acts? (Part 3)

See Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t already.

I have previously argued that the sacraments/ordinances are not primarily to be considered acts of God by which he confers grace to us (as he does through the preaching of his Word), but rather human responses of faith to the Word of God that has been preached. In particular, I considered how Scripture speaks of baptism in the last post. Today I will focus on the Lord’s Supper.

It is significant to note that the passage the provides the most detailed instruction about the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), the apostle Paul focuses primarily on what we do in the act. This is the case not only for the tradition that he quotes (very similar to that recorded in Luke’s Gospel), but also for the instructions that he adds to it:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:23-26)

Note three observations here:

1. Jesus cannot be speaking of his literal body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. The main reason I say that is because when he speaks about the cup, he does not say, “This is my blood.” Instead, he says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” So far as I know, no one, including Roman Catholics and Lutherans, believes that he is speaking literally there. The cup is not literally the new covenant, but rather a representation of it. In the same way, I believe that when Jesus says, “This is my body,” he is speaking of the bread as representative of his body.

The reason this observation matters is because it shows that the focus of this passage is not on grace we might receive from God through the physical act of ingesting the physical body and blood of Christ. That view of the Supper, I would argue, actually detracts from the gospel itself by placing our focus on the bread and the cup, rather than on Christ crucified for us, to whom the bread and the cup point us.

2. Eating and drinking is an act of remembrance. I have heard a number of people ridicule Zwingli’s “memorial view” of the Lord’s Supper as a “mere memorial” or “mere symbol,” as though putting the word “mere” in front of a noun constitutes a serious argument against it. No, the New Testament says nothing of a “mere” memorial or “mere” symbol; it speaks of a very powerful and meaningful memorial and a very powerful and meaningful symbol in the Lord’s Supper. We should not be too quick to dismiss Zwingli’s view, especially in light of the fact that Scripture explicitly affirms that we are to eat and drink in remembrance of Christ! And that really is the point here: that the act of eating and drinking is something that we do as an act of faith, turning our hearts and attention back to the cross.

3. Eating and drinking is an act of proclamation. But we don’t just look back. We also anticipate. We proclaim the Lord’s death by eating and drinking “until he comes.” We are the ones who remember, and we are likewise the ones who proclaim through this symbolic action.

In the Lord’s Supper, believers are the primary actors, responding in faith to the Christ who was crucified for them. The ordinances are not the Word in another form; they are occasions for human beings to respond to the Word.

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