Covenant Renewal Worship and The Lord’s Supper

Introduction

The Lord’s Supper belongs at every Lord’s Day service because in Christianity the gospel is a way of life. By eating the bread and drinking the wine, God’s people dine upon the fullness of Christ’s sacrifice. In this way, the Lord’s Supper brings together objectivity and subjectivity for God’s people. Through union with Christ, the Christian imitates the same range of capacities as Christ, who learned obedience through what he suffered (Heb. 5:8). In other words, not only does suffering precede glory (Rom. 8:18), but our sanctification is rooted in Christ’s suffering, enabled by Christ’s sacrifice, and made actual by Christ’s Passion. Christ’s propitiation fills the sinner’s soul with light and power; with faith and forgiveness. In the Supper, the participant’s union with Christ is harvested and the glory appropriated. Eating the bread and drinking the wine may occur in a fleeting moment, but the symbolism of the elements establishes God’s people in the victory song of eternity. The physical elements remind weary sinners that none of these gospel promises are abstractions.

One of the features of Covenant Renewal Worship is that the Lord’s Supper is taken every Lord’s Day. God people gather on Sundays to renew the covenant through the call to worship, confession of sin, consecration, communion, and commissioning. Covenant renewal is not complete without the Lord’s Supper, which seals the covenant renewal with a common meal. The Apostle Paul explains, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7f). The Passover was a covenant memorial meal (Ex. 12:14). It was connected to the tenth plague, which was the death of the firstborn. When Yahweh saw the blood on the doorposts, he remembered the covenant and passed over the people. Christ is the Passover Lamb of the New Covenant. Jesus institutes the Supper with sacrificial words, saying the bread is His body and the wine is His blood (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Just like in the Old Testament when the animal’s blood was separated from the body, so too in the Lord’s Supper are the bread and wine taken separately.

The modern Christian, with materialistic assumptions, wonders what is accomplished by eating a piece of bread and taking a drink of wine. Does it do anything? Do the elements create future obedience? God wouldn’t give grace through my work of eating and drinking, would he? Why would God prescribe such a strange ritual? It’s for the same reason he took on human flesh—he is obliging himself to our limitations. Humans struggle to understand what they can’t empirically observe, which is why people struggle to believe spiritual things. This is why God came to earth in the form of a man. And it’s why Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper for the church. The Lord’s Supper is another act of divine condescension. Christians hold the bread and wine in their hand and consume them. It’s the gospel analogy that we can see, taste, smell, and touch to remind us of the body and blood of Christ. The elements are not changed into Christ. Neither are they grace vitamins that magically hit the bloodstream fifteen minutes after consumption. The bread remains bread and the wine remains wine, but they become nourishing signs of the body and blood of Christ. This requires further explanation.

Participation[1]

Jesus called the bread and wine of the supper “my body” and “my blood” (1 Cor. 11:24ff). These are pictures, such as when Jesus said, “I am the door,” or “I am the good shepherd.” But it is more than that according to John 6:53-58,

“Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live forever.” (KJV)

What is the purpose of drinking and eating Jesus’ body and blood? First, to dwell in Him (vs. 56). Second, to live by him (vs. 57), that is, to have union with Christ. Third, to receive eternal life (vs. 58). 

The Apostle Paul says the cup and the bread are “a participation in the blood of Christ” and “a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16f). Notice that the elements themselves participate in the body and blood of Christ. The word koinonia is translated as “participation,” and it refers to the relationship of the elements to the body and blood of Christ. Peter uses the same word to speak of our participation in Yahweh’s divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

What does all this mean? There is a relationship to the believer’s union with Christ and “participation” is the partaking of the elements, which participate in the body and blood of Christ. The church eats from the “one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Who is that one bread? It is Christ. It’s not that the physical or essential properties of the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ, as the Roman Catholics claim. Rather, it’s a mystery that in the Supper the church receives from Christ substantially. It is through this meal that we partake of our union with Him. Calvin considered this the purpose of the Eucharist: union with Christ. All of this is in the context of enjoying the glory of God. We minimize Jesus’ words by calling them pictures, but what other picture does He give over and over again? John Calvin explains in his Short Treatise on The Lord’s Supper:

“All benefit which we ought to seek from the Supper is annulled, unless Jesus Christ be there given to us as substance and foundation of all . . . the communion which we have with the body and blood of our Lord . . . is . . . symbolized by visible signs . . . but in such a way that it is not a bare figure, but joined to its reality and substance . . . the sacraments of the Lord ought not and cannot at all be separated from their reality and substance. To distinguish them so that they be not confused is not only good and reasonable but wholly necessary. But to divide them so as to set them up the one without the other is absurd.”

Preaching

Augustine taught that the Sacraments are the visible words of God, which is why the preaching of the Word belongs with the taking of the Supper. During the sermon, the minister distributes the Word of God to the people. The preached word needs tangible witness, and the elements need explanation. During communion, the minister distributes the bread and wine to the people, who, by their eating, not only express agreement with the gospel but participate in the sacrificial death of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). When the congregation sups without preaching, they are susceptible to a false understanding of the Supper. When the congregation receives preaching without the Supper, they are susceptible to false activity. Separation of Word and Sacrament maps closely to the evangelical problem of separating faith and works. 

Frequency

Communion can’t be quarterly for the same reason faith in the gospel can’t be only quarterly. Nourishment for eternal life doesn’t work like that. For God’s people, faith in Christ is an ongoing and persevering reality, which the Spirit nourishes by ministering the sanctifying presence of Christ to his people. In the Supper, we are eating and drinking the significance of the fact that through faith, when Christ died, we died, and when Christ was raised, we were raised. Eating the Supper reinforces the reality of the believer’s union with Christ. And it also reinforces their participation in (and discernment of) the body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:29). This is one of the reasons that Reformers Martin Bucer and John Calvin wanted to restore the practice of weekly communion in Strasbourg and Geneva.[2]

Corporately

Why does the congregation take the bread and wine together, at the same time, on the instruction of the minister? Why not have congregants get out of their chairs, retrieve the elements, and latibulate for a time of quiet reflection before they individually consume the Supper? The reason is that the church has a sacred unity in Christ. The Eucharist reinforces this unity, but not when every single person stands before God alone. For the body of Christ to take the Supper individually, rather than corporately, says something untrue about Christ. The temptation of the autonomous self is to envision itself first and foremost as belonging nowhere else to no one else. Taking the Supper together each Sunday reminds God’s people that they belong to the body of Christ.

Just like family gatherings are incomplete without gathering at the table for a meal, so too is the gathering of Christ’s family incomplete without gathering at the Lord’s Table. It’s not a family meal if the oldest child retreats to his bedroom to eat, the father sits down in front of the television to eat, and the rest of the family scatters to their preferred corner of the house. Eating and drinking are the central images of life. Jesus is the Bread of Life because God made us to eat. And because God made us to eat, he invites us to His Table. Like any good father, God delights to feed his children. The assumption is that “when you come together as a church” on the Lord’s Day you do so to eat the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:18, 20, 33, 34). The fear that taking Communion weekly makes it too rote and routine is nonsense for the same reason parents don’t limit hugs and meals to their children in the fear it will become routine. The neglect of a central role of the Lord’s Supper during the service has created a race of small men who have a small appetite for Christ.

Conclusion

Christ is life. He entered this world to give his life so that we might be alive. The grace of communion, therefore, is God’s people eating the bread of life, which is the gift of life. It’s not the divinization of human life, but the restoring of it—be holy as God is holy. In other words, the children of God are being sanctified. At communion, God gives the bread and the wine through the minister. We don’t bring anything to God. He brings to us mercy where none is deserved. The blind dullness of our corrupt nature requires that we present ourselves to the Lord’s Table weekly, to remember and declare the Lord’s death until he comes, a death through which we receive free mercy and grace.

Bibliography

Jeffrey Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship (Moscow, ID; Canon Press, 2003), 68, 219.

Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville; Westminster John Knox, 2002), 109-146, 163.

A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, as quoted in William Crockett’s Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation (Collegeville, MN; Liturgical Press, 1989)

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Here are some of our other articles about Covenant Renewal Worship


[1] This section of the essay is attributed to Matt Carpenter.

[2] Calvin argued that the entire congregation should participate in the sacrament every week, but was unable to convince everyone to change entrenched practices. He settled for monthly observance.