John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper – An Act of Faith

John Calvin restored faith to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Faith as an instrument by which Jesus Christ is received in the Supper was nonexistent, indeed nonessential, in the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation which held sway for over 1,500 years before Calvin was born. The purpose of the Savior in instituting his Supper—the strengthening of the faith of the elect—gradually fell away in the Roman Catholic mass until in Calvin’s day it was not found or preached anywhere in any land where Romish tyranny dominated. In restoring faith to the Lord’s Supper, John Calvin restored the Supper to its proper place in the life of believers and returned it to the simple, magnificent ceremony of the Scriptures. For this mighty work of Calvin, the Protestant Reformed churches are indebted to him.

Calvin considered this to be the principal purpose for which the Lord instituted his Supper: “In order to sign and seal in our consciences the promises contained in his gospel concerning our being partakers of his body and blood, and to give us certainty and assurance that therein lies our true spiritual nourishment, and that having such an earnest, we may entertain a right reliance on salvation.”[1] Notice the words “sign and seal,” “certainty,” “assurance” which he uses. This is the work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers of working faith in the gospel and nourishing faith through the sacraments. Pay attention also to the pronouns “us,” “our,” “we,” which, written in regards to those who have the Spirit working in them, signify nothing else, or less, than that the nourishing potency of the Supper is worked in the children of God. It is for the elect alone that Jesus gave his Supper, for they alone possess faith.

Faith is required in partaking of the Lord’s Supper for two reasons. In the first place, the communion believers share with their Savior is a “spiritual mystery which cannot be seen by the eye or comprehended by the human understanding.”[2] Therefore, Christ, in consideration of their limited and earthly intellect, gave the signs of bread and wine to signify to his people the reality and substance of their communion with him. The reality is that in his passion and death they have salvation and eternal life; the substance of the sacrament is Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient bread of life by which their souls are nourished.[3] Hear Calvin’s words: “[In the Lord’s Supper] He offers himself to us with all his benefits and we receive him by faith.”[4] The great mystery of celestial fellowship with Jesus through the sacrament can be grasped only by faith. Echoing Calvin, the Belgic Confession in Article 35 affirms,

…For the support of the spiritual and heavenly life which believers have, he [God] hath sent a living bread, which descended from heaven, namely, Jesus Christ, who nourishes and strengthens the spiritual life of believers when they eat him, that is to say, when they apply and receive him by faith in the Spirit.[5]

In the second place, partaking of the Holy Supper demands faith because the presence of Jesus in his Supper is spiritual. This is the only possible manner in which he can be present, for his body is now ascended into heaven, in triumph at the right hand of God Almighty, from whence he will return only at the time appointed by the Father (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51; Matt. 24). Neither is it conceivable that Christ is not present at all in the signs of the Supper, for “to deny that a true communion of Jesus Christ is present in the Supper is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy not to be listened to.”[6] This statement by Calvin is undoubtedly a withering condemnation of the position of Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli believed that the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial feast in which the bread and wine act as stimulants to the mind to contemplate the death of Christ and which in no way contain the body and blood of the Savior. Therefore, it can only remain that Jesus is spiritually in the bread and wine. To believe this requires faith, for our eyes see and our mouth savors only bread and wine. Again, hear the reformer of Geneva: “What then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.”[7] Christ’s body is given to us through his Spirit and only through his Spirit, as John 6:63 makes plain, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”

Since faith is required to receive Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper, Calvin holds that those who are unbelieving do not receive any benefit from the Supper because they possess no faith. This teaching is in keeping with, and indeed it flows from, the doctrine of double predestination which is at the center of Calvinistic and Reformed theology. Calvin does not deny that the sacrament is extended to all men, hypocrites and believers both, just as the call of Christ’s gospel to repent and believe Jesus the Savior goes out to the elect and to the reprobate; rather, Calvin denies that the sacrament imparts any benefit when it is consumed in unbelief, even as the gospel preached in time hardens the hearts of those whom God has rejected in eternity. Rather, says Calvin, that to those who eat the sacrament without any strengthening of faith (because no faith exists to strengthen), who hold the sacrifice of Jesus in contempt, who “rush like swine to take the Lord’s Supper”, the bread and wine are a “deadly poison” because by eating that which signifies salvation in Jesus Christ alone, they condemn themselves by that which is an activity of faith.[8] In keeping with the teaching of Calvin, the Protestant Reformed Churches affirm the same in their Declaration of Principles:

It follows from this [Article 35 of the Belgic Confession, whose sections concerning the institution and efficacy of the sacrament for believers only were quoted immediately before this statement] that both the sacraments, as well as the preaching of the gospel, are a savor of death unto death for the reprobate, as well as a savor of life unto life for the elect. Hence, the promise of God, preached by the gospel, signified and sealed in both the sacraments, is not for all but for the elect only.[9]

In order to partake of the Supper in faith, the believer must first be assured that he possesses real, true, and living faith. He does this through self-examination. The second of three parts of this examination, as explained in the Reformed “Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper,” makes this plain: “That every one examine his own heart, whether he doth believe this faithful promise of God that all his sins are forgiven him only for the sake of the passion and death of Jesus Christ…”[10] This Form, with its comprehensive treatment of examination, is the legacy of John Calvin. Calvin restricted the act of examination to two points: whether the believer is truly repentant for his sins and whether he believes the promises of God as read in Scripture and explained in the preaching.[11] However, Calvin does not teach that the believer must come with perfect faith to the Supper. The Netherlands Reformed congregations, who claim to be in the tradition of John Calvin, teach this and cause great trouble and even terror in the souls of their members, who can never seem to find that perfect faith and thus may never come to the Supper of the Lord. This is an evil thing, and not at all in line with the teaching of John Calvin. Calvin taught that faith is indeed necessary to benefit from the Supper; perfection is not, because believers approach the Holy Supper to have their faith strengthened. The children of God may not let either their own unworthiness (revealed to them by examination) or perceived unworthiness in others hinder them from joyfully devouring the Lord’s Supper. “For,” says Calvin, “if we allege as an excuse for not coming to the Supper, that we are still weak in faith or integrity of life, it is as if a man were to excuse himself from taking medicine because he was sick.”[12] Rather, the imperfections of their faith and life should spur the faithful ever more fervently to seek the solace of the Lord’s Supper as a means to lift them closer to Jesus. Believers must send up as a continual prayer to God John 6:34: “Lord, evermore give us this bread!” and Mark 9:24: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!” The Heidelberg Catechism asks and answers the question in Lord’s Day 30, Q/A 81, “For whom is the Lord’s Supper instituted? For those who are truly sorrowful for their sins, and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake of Christ, and that their remaining infirmities are covered by his passion and death; and who earnestly desire to have their faith more and more strengthened…”[13]

Moreover, Calvin adds that if believers would have their faith strengthened in the Supper, this faith must first be nourished by the Word of God. There must be preaching to accompany the sacrament. Solid, biblical, Reformed sermons spoken by Christ through his ambassadors and rightly dividing the Word of truth along the lines of double predestination must go before the celebration of the Supper. The Word publicly proclaimed must be the call to repent and be turned to Jehovah, the chief means of grace, the first application of the death of Christ and its benefits to the life and soul of the believer, and the crier to the unbeliever of his damnation. Calvin trumpets: “Nothing more preposterous could happen in the Supper than for it to be turned into a silent action, as has happened under the Pope’s tyranny.”[14]

It was from the Pope’s tyranny that John Calvin liberated the Holy Supper. Calvin rejects root and branch the doctrine of transubstantiation, which doctrine was as vigorously defended by Rome in his day, as it is proudly proclaimed by the Holy See in our own time. So vigorous was Calvin’s denunciation of transubstantiation because he realized that it turned the popish mass, called an accursed idolatry in the Heidelberg Catechism, into a faithless action. This was because the mass was believed to impart salvation and forgiveness of sins in the very act of partaking of the bread and wine, since they were believed to be the true body and blood of Jesus Christ. Through only this physical consuming of the bread and wine, the spiritual reality of salvation was imparted; no faith was necessary to receive Jesus into the soul.

This obnoxious doctrine raises two important implications. First, if all that exists in the mass is the body and blood of the Savior after consecration by the priest, and no faith is necessary to receive Christ in the elements, then unbelieving partakers, though they are far from God and enjoy no salvation in his Son, no assurance of faith, and no desire for communion with Jesus, receive the whole sacrament. Not only that, but because the Eucharist is believed to impart salvation and forgiveness of sins, unbelievers may possess some assurance of favor with God when they receive the bread and wine. Secondly, the faithful people of God coming to have their faith strengthened by the Supper, are cruelly robbed of all spiritual refreshment when they are forced to content themselves with a merely physical presence of their Savior and a partaking of him only by the mouth and stomach. What assurance is in bread? What assurance is flesh, even the flesh of Christ himself, if his Spirit is not present to comfort and encourage, to sanctify and stir to praise? The great evil of the mass is that it chains believers to this world. It chains the children of God to that which can be touched and felt with the earthly senses, instead of lifting them up through the Holy Spirit of Jesus to enjoy communion with him in celestial bliss. Now hear Calvin’s dismissal of the mass: “Away then with this stupid fiction, which fastens men’s minds and Christ to bread!”[15] And echo his holy bellow damning the foundation of the mass, the doctrine of transubstantiation: “Therefore, we conclude, without doubt, that this transubstantiation is an invention forged by the Devil to corrupt the true nature of the Supper!”[16]

John Calvin, we conclude, without doubt, restored faith to the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ. Faith, as it is the only instrument with which we receive Christ in salvation, is also the only means by which he is received in his Supper. And not by all men, for not all have faith; only to the elect does the true benefit of the Supper come, for they alone possess faith. For the Protestant Reformed Churches, standing in the Reformed tradition with the heritage of the reformer of Geneva, this teaching of John Calvin is a precious treasure. We must shudder as we see many nominally Reformed and Presbyterian churches in our age sell their birthright, not for a mess of pottage, but for an empty symbol of bread and wine. This they do by forsaking the truth of Scripture as defended by John Calvin and rushing to pledge again their faithfulness to the Vatican and beg the pope’s forgiveness for separating from his whorish church in the Reformation. The Protestant Reformed denomination will have none of this. We unashamedly confess with John Calvin: “We shall think, that the worthiness [of us to come to the Supper], which is commanded by God, consists chiefly in faith, which reposes all things in Christ, but nothing in ourselves.”