Tag Archives: Lord’s Supper

Supervised Lord’s Supper

Each month Faith in Focus, the official magazine of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, has a column entitled “Letters from New Zealand.”  This column features historical correspondence from D.G. Vanderpyl, a long-serving elder in the RCNZ and, at one time, their stated clerk.  The February 2018 issue sees Vanderpyl commenting on the supervision of the Lord’s Supper in the RCNZ.  He notes (writing in September 1978) that the RCNZ practices “closed communion.”  The elders supervise admission to the table and only those admitted by the elders are permitted to partake.

Vanderpyl shares a number of reasons why Reformed churches have a closed Lord’s Supper with supervision by the elders:

Elders have the responsibility to superintend (shepherd) the Church of Jesus Christ to see that all things are done decently and in order, 1 Cor. 14:40, Acts 20:28-31, 1 Thess. 5:12-13, Heb. 13:17, and 1 Peter 5:1-4.

Open communion means that the session [a.k.a. consistory] must measure with two different standards:  Local members are under the continuous disciplinary supervision of the session while the visitors are permitted to come to the Lord’s Table without any exercise of supervision on the part of the session.

At open communion elders have no prior knowledge of who partakes of the sacrament, which allows for the possibility that visiting communicants may not have made a credible profession of faith earlier, may be living in open sin, or may even be under discipline elsewhere, all of which desecrates the Lord’s Table.

Open communion contradicts the Church Order, Articles 66 and 91 (Reformed Church of Australia), which specify that the session must ascertain whether those who come to the Lord’s Table are qualified to do so, namely, those who have professed their faith publicly and who are in good standing in the church.

Open communion contradicts the necessity of discharging and receiving members in orderly fashion by means of a letter or certificate from sister churches.

Open communion contradicts the commandments of love (Matthew 22:37-40) which indicate that, in order to love God and the neighbour properly, concern for the neighbour should include that he not be guilty of eating or drinking judgment upon himself (1 Cor. 11:27ff.).

Open communion prevents conscientious members from exercising their right to come to the Lord’s Table because they do not wish to share responsibility for an improper celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30ff.).

All good reasons worthy of our consideration!  The continued practice of closed communion in churches like the CanRC and FRCA is not, historically speaking, idiosyncratic or arbitrary.

Admitting Guests to the Lord’s Supper

In the broader Reformed/Presbyterian context, it is common to fence the Lord’s Supper with a verbal warning only.  Typically that means that the minister makes an announcement inviting any guests to participate who are communicant members in good standing in an evangelical church, or something to that effect.  For some years, this was one of the sticking points that obstructed the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Eventually, an agreement was reached which paved the way for full ecumenical relations between the CanRC and the OPC.  You can find that agreement here.

Last week, amongst the Canadian Reformed Churches, a Classis Central Ontario was held.  Admission to the Lord’s Supper was on the agenda.  We find this reported in the press release (find the full document here):

The Classis ad hoc committee submitted a report on the Lord’s Supper admission as mandated by CCO June 10, 2016. The report, which included an appendix from Burlington Fellowship, was deemed admissible. A discussion ensued. Classis having reviewed the committee report, decided that Burlington-Fellowships practice of inviting guests with only a strong verbal warning from the pulpit is not in line with the Church Order.

I mention this without any further comment at this time, except to say that I agree with the classis decision.


Is Your Worship Reformed?

Reformed Church Service

Some years ago, I sat through a worship service of a neighbouring church that wasn’t Reformed.  What struck me most was where the emphasis fell in their worship.  The proceeedings began with music.  A band was on stage with singers.  They sang several praise and worship-type songs.  Eventually, the worship leader said, “Now that the worship is over, our pastor is going to come up and give his message.”  The brief “message” was rather anti-climactic following the emotional “worship experience.”  The focus at this church seemed clear enough.

One of the distinctives of Reformed churches is the doctrine of the means of grace.  This doctrine, when conscientiously maintained, also makes Reformed worship distinctive.  You can tell you’re at a Reformed church when the doctrine of the means of grace is taken seriously and applied to the church’s worship.  The focus in a Reformed worship service is on the ministry of the Word and sacraments.  Let’s look at how these things work as means of grace and why they need to remain our focus.

The first means of grace is the reading and preaching of the Word of God.  Scripture is opened, read, and expounded.  The law of God is applied to the congregation.  The congregation is made aware of its sin and misery.  That has the dual purpose of making us humble in the presence of a holy God and then also driving us to the cross of Jesus Christ.  This application of the law takes place with the reading of the Ten Commandments, but also through the reading and preaching of other Scriptures.  The gospel is also applied to comfort the congregation.  God’s people are encouraged with the promises of his love and salvation in Jesus.  This takes place in many Reformed churches with the Assurance of Pardon, but then of course also through the reading and proclamation of God’s Word.  Finally, the will of God as expressed in his law is also brought to bear on a thankful congregation.  We are taught God’s good will for our lives and shown how to demonstrate our love for this gracious God who has so deeply loved us.  This too happens through the reading and preaching of Scripture.

Scripture is a means of grace because this is how God plans to bless his people when he meets with them.  His intent is to bless them through his Word.  Through his Word, the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard.  It’s heard as he rebukes, as he comforts, and as he instructs.  When done faithfully, we do not not merely hear a human voice when a minister preaches.  Faithful preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God — “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as it what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thess. 2:13).

The other means of grace is the administration of the sacraments.  Reformed churches administer the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper, following the command of Christ and his apostles.  Baptism is administered as the sacrament of initiation.  Through baptism, we are publicly admitted into God’s covenant and church.  Through baptism, we are given the sign and seal of God’s covenant promises.  God is demonstrating a gracious stance towards those who receive baptism.  However, at each baptism, the entire congregation is encouraged with God’s grace.  We are all visually reminded of how our gracious God first approached us and took us for his own.  You see, baptism not only speaks to those directly involved in the baptism (the one being baptized, the parents), but the entire congregation!

The Lord’s Supper is administered as the sacrament of nutrition.  It is common for many to view the Lord’s Supper merely as a memorial, akin to placing flowers on the grave of a departed loved one.  The Reformed view includes a memorial aspect, but it is far richer.  At this sacrament, Jesus Christ is truly present in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit.  He is present to bless believers who partake of the bread and wine in faith.  He will refresh and nourish them, strengthening their faith.  Through the Lord’s Supper, we are truly fed by our Saviour himself.

The sacraments are means of grace because this too is how God wants to bless his people as they meet with him.  He wants to continue giving them the opposite of what they deserve in view of their continuing sinfulness.  He claims these sinful people for his own and he nurtures them with spiritual food and drink.  Moreover, our gracious God knows that the Word is often received with weakness.  Hearing alone is difficult for us as sinful creatures.  So, in his grace, he adds these two multi-sensory sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Now why are these means of grace at the center of a Reformed worship service?  Why are these things the focus and emphasis?  It goes back to the covenant of grace.  The covenant is a relationship between God and his people.  Who stands in the center of this relationship?  Not me or you.  No, Jesus Christ stands in the center as the Mediator of the covenant.  He is the one who “greases the wheels” of this relationship.  If a worship service is reflective of this covenant relationship, shouldn’t Christ and his ministry stand central?  Shouldn’t the focus be on Christ as he ministers to us with the Word and sacraments, as he “greases the wheels”?  There is a distinctly Reformed logic to our focus on the means of grace and it has everything to do with the covenant of grace.

Yes, of course, there is still a place for our response in prayer and song.  The covenant relationship is two-sided and God expects that his people will respond to him.  By virtue of the covenant, there must be a back and forth in our worship services.  That’s not an issue.  No one has ever said that prayer and song should be done away with in Reformed worship.  The question is:  where is our focus?  What is at the center?  What is the main attraction in a Reformed worship service?  The distinctly Reformed answer, drawn from Scripture, has always been:  the means of grace, Word and sacrament ministry.  With an emphasis on Word and sacrament ministry, the means of grace, your worship will be Reformed — which is to say, biblical.

Guido de Brès & Communion for the Sick

The sacraments were designed by God to strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ.  As we go through life, we experience trials and difficulties that sometimes challenge our faith.  In those sorts of times, we can be glad that our Father has given us the sacraments to nourish us, and to confirm us in the promises of the gospel.  Historically, however, the Canadian Reformed Churches have withheld the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper from those who are shut-in and unable to attend a regular public worship service.  Those who might benefit from it the most have been unable to.  Until recently.

Recent Decisions

In 2006, the Canadian Reformed Church at Smithers brought an overture to a Classis Pacific West, requesting that the Church Order be amended to accommodate administering the Lord’s Supper to those who are shut-in because of sickness or old age.  The suggested revisions maintained that the sacrament would be administered in the context of a worship service by a minister and all other agreements in the Church Order with regards to admittance to the sacrament would be followed.  The Classis Pacific West of October 10-11, 2006 agreed to pass on Smithers’ overture to the next Regional Synod West.  Regional Synod West 2006 considered the matter and agreed to forward it to General Synod Smithers 2007.

Synod 2007 decided that it was not necessary to revise the Church Order to accommodate the administration of the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins.  The Synod agreed with and took over these considerations of Regional Synod West 2006:

1)      It is not the number of attendees nor the venue that constitutes a “public worship service,” but the presence of office bearers together with congregation members (‘the form of the church’).

2)      The current recognition of the form of the church in multiple places can by extension be applied to extraordinary circumstances in the congregation, in the sense that the consistory could have a worship service for those who cannot come to the normal gathering.  In principle this does not differ from a consistory calling the congregation together at two times (e.g., because the building is too small, necessitating two services back to back) or calling the congregation together at two locations (e.g., because members live too far apart).

3)      Consistories are responsible for the pastoral care of the members.  If in the consistory’s judgment a shut-in member requires the encouragement contained in the Lord’s Supper, the consistory ought to do what it can to provide that encouragement.

4)      While the administration of the Lord’s Supper does belong to the churches in common, it remains debatable whether or not a revision of certain Church Order articles is needed.

Essentially then, Synod 2007 gave the green light to Smithers and other Canadian Reformed churches to provide the Lord’s Supper for shut-ins.  Despite three appeals, Synod 2010 upheld the decision of Synod 2007.

An Older Discussion

This issue has been discussed before in our history.  I recently came across it in a debate that was held between Guido de Brès and a Roman Catholic bishop.  The author of the Belgic Confession was in prison in Valenciennes, awaiting his date with the executioner.  He had been charged with celebrating the Lord’s Supper contrary to the order of the government.  On May 22, 1567, Francois Richardot came to visit and debate with de Brès.  He had hoped to change his mind and yet bring him back to the Roman Catholic fold.

The debate centered on the differences between the biblical Lord’s Supper and the Roman Catholic mass.  About half way through their session that day, de Brès said the following:

Inasmuch as you say that the mass is the Supper of the Lord Jesus Christ, I really want to know why the priest does other than what Christ has done and commanded to be done.  Christ was seated at the table with his disciples.  He preached and admonished from the Word of God.  He was not at all disguised in a get-up like a priest.  He did not speak in an unknown language.  He took the bread and after having given thanks to God, he broke it and distributed it to his disciples.  And likewise the cup, saying, “Drink from it all of you.”  He did not have an altar, but a table.  He did not sacrifice, but ate and commanded to eat.

De Brès’ strategy in this debate was to constantly come back to the differences between the way the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in Scripture and the way the mass was done by the Roman Catholic Church.

In his response, Richardot latched on to what he thought was the weakness of de Brès’ position in the words quoted above.  De Brès had noted that this was a communal meal, celebrated by Christ and his disciples.  Bishop Richardot responded:

…I say that the mass is such a wonderfully praiseworthy thing, that every time that it is said, that communion is held, I eagerly desire it.  And if anyone should ask for it, it should not be refused him.  If there should be a priest who has the devotion to celebrate it, should he be prevented from this blessing because there are no other communicants?  That would not at all be reasonable.  And certainly you are greatly to be condemned for cruelty and inhumanity.  Pardon me that I speak thus about your refusing the sacrament for the poor sick, which is a thing totally repugnant to brotherly charity and to the manner of the early church, who allowed it to be taken to the sick.

For our purposes it is the mention here of communion for the sick that draws our attention.  The bishop alleged that the Reformed churches forbade giving the Lord’s Supper to those who are shut-in and that this was cruel, inhumane, unloving, and out of step with the early church.

A short time later, de Brès came back to this point and gave his response to the bishop:

As for you accusing us of inhumanity for not giving the sacrament to the sick, I confess that it has been done some times before.  But whether it is lawful, based on what I have said, I cannot see a good reason.  It is not a sacrament designed to be given to just one person, since it is a communion of many who should receive it together, and not just one.  However, I would not be too strict if some believer being sick requested to receive this sacrament and if several others were prepared to receive it with the one making the request, and if it were the custom of the church, I would not, I say, condemn such a custom.

At first glance this response appears to reflect some ambiguity on the issue.

A Well-Considered Position

On the one hand, de Brès was a careful student of the early church fathers.  His extensive knowledge is revealed not only in his debates and other writings, but also in the Belgic Confession and its many patristic allusions, quotes, and paraphrases.  When he says, “I confess that it has been done some times before,” he is giving some deference to the early church.  However, he quickly adds that it is difficult to rationalize the lawfulness of this practice.  That statement should be understood in the context, however, of a number of aberrant practices.  For instance, in the medieval church there was the practice of reserving consecrated bread/wafers to be received later by the sick.  They would receive it privately, typically without any explanation or any accompanying administration of the Word (see John Calvin’s Institutes 4.17.39).

De Brès insisted that the sacrament, by its very nature, was not designed to be taken by one person all by himself or herself.  It is called “communion” for a good reason.  A communion of one would be an oxymoron.

However, de Brès recognized the danger of being overly rigorous with regards to those who are sick and shut-in.  The normal practice should be communion with all the other believers in a public worship service.  But he did not exclude the possibility of allowing a believer to take the Lord’s Supper outside of that context, provided that it would be done in a communal setting, and with the approbation of the church.  He would not stand in judgment over that kind of carefully circumscribed celebration for those who are shut-in.

The bishop dropped this particular issue at this point in the debate and so no more was said.  If we had the opportunity to ask him, undoubtedly de Brès would say more.  What exactly he would say has to remain a matter of speculation.  Unfortunately, besides the Belgic Confession, de Brès only wrote two major books and a few other shorter writings and, so far as I know, this matter is not addressed in any of these other works.

What is clear is that, under carefully delineated conditions, the author of the Belgic Confession was prepared to allow those shut-in to receive communion.  Of course, Guido de Brès does not have the last word on this matter.  He was but a man and men can and do err — see his own statement on that in Belgic Confession article 7:  nothing is “of equal value with the truth of God.”  Nevertheless, the historical record demonstrates that the position taken by Synod 2007 falls within the range of positions taken by our Reformed forefathers on this issue.

Lutheranism and the Lord’s Supper

As I was recently preparing for a sermon dealing with Lord’s Day 18, I had the opportunity to explore again the background to QAs 47 and 48.  As you may know, the Heidelberg Catechism was written in Germany and first published in 1563.  It is unusual:  a Reformed catechism emerging from a predominantly Lutheran context.  Some of the substantial disagreements between the Lutherans and the Reformed are discernible in the Catechism and Lord’s Day 18 is one of the most notable places – after all, we have here four QAs on the ascension.  Compare that with one QA on the resurrection in Lord’s Day 17.  There was obviously something going on in the historical background that made extra attention on this point necessary.

The Ubiquitarian Error vs. the Calvinist Heresy

If you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ve heard plenty of catechism sermons on Lord’s Day 18.  Likely you’ve heard that this issue goes back to the Lord’s Supper.  Indeed, it does.  But more fundamentally, it goes to the issue of where Christ’s human nature can be found today.  It is an issue of Christology (the doctrine of Christ).  In fact, this is one of the most significant questions in Christology.

The Lutherans were historically known as ubiquitarians – they held that Christ’s human nature is ubiquitous, which means that it is present everywhere.  The Reformed were historically known as sacramentarians – they held that Christ’s human nature is only in heaven, but he is spiritually present at the Lord’s Supper on earth.  The Reformed spoke of the “ubiquitarian error.”  The Lutherans returned the favour and even did one better, referring to the Reformed position as “the Calvinist heresy.”

Many commentators and preachers of the Catechism have said that the Lutherans held to this error in order to shore up their doctrine of consubstantiation.  So, for instance, J. Van Bruggen in his Annotations to the Heidelberg Catechism wrote that the Lutheran teaching is to be rejected because “it leads to a misconception of the Lord’s Supper in the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation, i.e. that Christ is BODILY present in, with, and under the symbols of the Lord’s Supper” (131).

Richard Muller is a well-known historical theologian at Calvin Seminary.  He’s written many helpful books in his field.  Among them is his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms.  In his article on consubstantatio, Muller notes that this was a doctrine of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper that dates back to the Middle Ages.  It was taught as a possibility by Duns Scotus, John of Jandun and William of Occam.  Says Muller, “According to the theory of consubstantiation, the body and blood of Christ become substantially present together with the substance of the bread and wine, when the elements are consecrated” (80).  He says that this is not to be confused with the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s human nature in the Lord’s Supper.  The medieval doctrine of consubstantiation proposed that Christ is present locally.  In other words, you could draw a line around the bread and say that Christ was right there.  You could spill some wine on the table, carefully draw a line around the puddle, and say that Christ was present right there in that very place.

However, the Lutheran doctrine of real presence says something different.  There is a real presence, but it is illocal.  “Illocal” is an unfamiliar word to us.  Immaterial beings (such as angels) have an illocal presence.  That means you cannot draw a line around the presence of an angel.  Angels are present, but they cannot be limited to a certain spot.  According to classical orthodox Lutheran theology, so it is with the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  Christ is there in his human nature, but not in such a way that you can pin him down to a certain spot – he has a real, illocal presence.  It should also be noted that the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is different from his presence elsewhere in the world.  It is a presence “specific to the sacrament….bound to a particular promise of God given in the words of institution.”  In the Lord’s Supper, he is present “definitively and sacramentally” (Muller, 242).

Can You Make This Simple for Me?

As I was reading this, I began to think about the poor Lutheran pastor who has to somehow teach this to his flock.  It sounds quite complicated.  How would he do it?  To answer that question, I turned to Concordia: the Lutheran Confessions, a Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord.  This volume was published by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), one of the two more conservative and confessional Lutheran churches in North America (the other being the Wisconsin Synod).  If you want to understand the Reformed churches, you would turn to the Three Forms of Unity.  If you want to understand Lutheranism, a good place to turn is the Book of Concord.

The first thing to note is that this is a large book of over 700 pages and in those pages you will search in vain for even one mention of the word “consubstantiation.”  “Transubstantiation” (the Roman Catholic view) is there and critiqued, but no where do we read something like, “Lutherans hold to a doctrine of consubstantiation.”  Rather, they describe their position as “sacramental union” (470).

It is true that the Lutherans believe that Christ’s human nature is present everywhere.  In reference to the ascension, Martin Luther understood the words “at God’s right hand” to mean everywhere (488)  — God’s right hand is his almighty, omnipresent power.  So, when speaking about article 8 of the Formula of Concord, the editors of Concordia explain:  “Does the human nature of Christ share in the divine attributes so that Christ, according to both natures is present everywhere, even under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper?  The biblical position, explained in this article, is clearly, Yes” (491).  Likewise, elsewhere we read this: “Lutherans believe that the true body and blood of Jesus are actually present (under the bread and wine), distributed, and orally received in Holy Communion” (487).


Whether that position can fairly be called consubstantiation is a matter of debate.  When it comes to the root or etymology, consubstantiation simply means something like “with the substance.”  The human nature of Christ is “with the substance” of the bread and wine.  So, from an etymological perspective, consubstantiation might be an appropriate description of the Lutheran view.  However, if one digs deeper into Lutheran theology, it becomes clear that there is only a superficial similarity with what has historically been termed “consubstantiation.”  It would be akin to calling Arminians “Reformed” because they hold to a doctrine of election.  There are only superficial similarities between the Arminian and Reformed views of predestination, and similarly there are only superficial similarities between the Lutheran view of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper and the medieval doctrine of consubstantiation.  Moreover, according to the Wikipedia entry on the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, “It is occasionally reported that the LCMS and other Lutherans teach the doctrine of consubstantiation. Consubstantiation is generally rejected by Lutherans and is explicitly rejected by the LCMS as an attempt to define the holy mystery of Christ’s presence.”

None of that takes away from the real and serious differences between the Lutherans and ourselves.  It also does not take an iota away from what the Catechism says in QAs 47 and 48.  There is a real and significant error being addressed there, one that continues to divide us.  The Lutherans also continue to recognize the divide.  In fact, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord rejects and condemns the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism.  They reject and condemn the teaching that “Christ is present with us on earth in the Word, the Sacraments, and in all our troubles, only according to his divinity.  This presence does not at all apply to his human nature” (494).  That sounds like it is directed at our Catechism and given that this was written in the late 1570s, it is entirely possible.

Undoubtedly, some of this is quite detailed and complex.  I have struggled to understand it myself for over ten years.  What is important for us to know and believe is that Christ is in heaven with our human flesh.  He is here on earth with his “divinity, majesty, grace and Spirit.”  Unlike the Lutherans, we don’t believe that Christ’s human nature is here on earth right now in any way.  But unlike much of the broader Christian world (what used to be called “evangelicalism”), we also believe that Christ is really present when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  He is present in Word and Spirit to bless us.  It is a sad thing that for over 400 years we haven’t been able to agree with the Lutherans on these points.  May God quickly bring the day when we will at last find “concord” with them.