A very common attitude that I have seen these days is that the Lord’s Supper is not a gospel issue. Therefore, issues surrounding the Lord’s Supper are peripheral, not central. I wish to challenge this assumption rather sharply. It came to a focus for me after reading this outstanding book on the Lord’s Supper. The fact is that the Lord’s Supper is gospel proclamation. Take 1 Corinthians 11:26 as proof of this: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” That word “proclaim” is a preaching word. The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the gospel every bit as much as preaching itself is, though the mode is different. Reformed theology has always tied Word and Sacrament together. Calvin believed that not only does the Lord’s Supper signify and seal the Word of God, but the preaching helps us to understand the sacrament.
A second swath of evidence is the myriad of books that the Reformers wrote on the Lord’s Supper. They wrote more books about the Lord’s Supper than they wrote about justification, Scripture, or worship. Obviously, the Reformers did not think of the sacraments as peripheral at all.
Mathison argues that one of the reason why the Lord’s Supper has become a peripheral issue for evangelicalism is that the true view of Calvin has given way to the early Zwinglian view. We have relegated the Lord’s Supper to something we do in our own minds as a pledge of our devotion to Christ, almost completely forgetting that it is a means of grace. Of course, the Lord’s Supper (abbrev. “LS”) is not something in which we are passive. However, the LS is a means of grace, not just a pledge. The LS is therefore in the same category as prayer and preaching, NOT in the same category as recitation of creeds, or profession of faith, or singing of hymns.
Mathison also posits that Calvin’s view is not something actually held much today (though he sees a resurgence), even by those who claim to hold to it. Calvin’s view can be summarized this way: 1. Jesus Christ is physically located in heaven; 2. Therefore we do not masticate Christ with the physical mouth (we don’t have bits of Christ floating around in our intestines), but the spiritual mouth, which is faith; 3. We feed on Christ’s actual body and blood, though not in the bread and wine; 4. The Holy Spirit bridges the distance between Christ and us through our union with Christ; 5. God communicates Christ to us through this means of grace; 6. The sign is connected to the thing signified, but is distinguished from it, such that unbelievers get nothing, but believers get Christ; 7. By “spiritual presence” Calvin does not mean that Christ is present to us only in a spiritual way, but rather that the whole Christ (including His physical body!) is given to us by the Holy Spirit through our union with Him.
Before you jump on this summary by saying that it is absurd, you should read Mathison’s book. It is an excellent cure for the incipient memorialist, pietist (as opposed to pious), non-means-of-grace understanding of the LS that is so prevalent today.