Communion, Part 3: Is Jesus Really Present In Communion?

Most Christians affirm that Jesus is present in Communion.

But the debate about how he is present is one of the deepest divisions in Christianity. For example, disagreement over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was the central point of division between Martin Luther and John Calvin.

I once preached at a conference for three kinds of Lutheran pastors who refused to partake of Communion together. And Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians have earnestly pursued ecumenical agreement in recent decades. Although they are close in many ways, they still cannot share Eucharist, as official Catholic teaching states: “With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound ‘that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.’”1

Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians teach that real presence means transubstantiation of the essence of the elements into the essence of the body and blood of Jesus, though the attributes are unchanged. So if a chemist were to test the elements, he would find only bread and wine. Anglicans argue for real presence but are content to leave the mode of that presence a mystery. Lutherans believe the real presence is in, with, and under the forms of the bread and wine. No Lutherans use the term consubstantiation for their position, though many others do define it with that word. Reformed Protestants teach a real presence where the Spirit makes Christ present in the service but not especially in the elements.

Many Christians have overreacted to this sacramental understanding, and have reduced Communion to a mere remembrance of some- thing that happened a long time ago. These people follow the teachings of Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531). They understand Communion as a memorial commemoration of the wonderful gift of Jesus’ death in our place for our sins. They insist that Jesus is not present in the elements literally, as taught by Catholicism, or spiritually, as taught by Lutheranism. In such cases the Communion service itself is often nothing more than a graceless ceremony tacked on to the normal church service. It is done quickly to point out that the work of Jesus is completely finished and that he is not present in any way.

We stand more in the Reformed tradition and the teaching of John Calvin. Jesus is not literally present in the elements of Communion but is spiritually present in relationship with the Christian partaking of the elements through the indwelling Holy Spirit. As John Calvin said, “There is no need to draw Christ to earth that he may be joined to us.”2 Instead, he rightly argues that we do not need physical elements to unite us to God, since “the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.”3

In a sense, saying there is spiritual benefit in Communion is similar to saying there is spiritual benefit in being a member of a church. There is great controversy here, but we believe the Bible teaches that the church is the locus of divine life, the very body of Christ and the community of the Spirit.

The followers of Zwingli overlook Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Paul teaches explicitly what is implicit in Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11. Partaking in Communion involves a recognition that for Christians the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice include communion with both God and one another. And in faith Christians are to partake of Communion until one day they see Jesus and sit to eat with him as friends in his kingdom.

1The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 838, quoting Pope Paul VI. Also available online here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p123a9p3.htm.

2John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. McNeill, trans. F. L. Battles, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 1403.

3Ibid., 1370.

This blog was adapted from previous work by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears.


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