Friday, November 23, 2007

A New Dimension of Division Between Reformed & Lutheran on the Supper?

The standard take on the difference between Lutherans and Calvinists on the supper focuses on the local presence of Christ in the sacrament. Lutherans affirm that Jesus' body and blood are present in the elements; Calvinists deny a local presence. So Calvinists affirm that Jesus body and blood are "spiritually" present in the sacrament, while Lutherans affirm that Jesus' body and blood are truly present, being received "not only spiritually by faith, but also orally -- however, not in a Capernaitic manner, but because of the sacramental union in a supernatural and heavenly manner" (Epitome, art. VII.6).

As important as this argument may be, there does seem to be a second point of disagreement, at least between Lutherans and the take of some more modern, more sacramentally-inclined Calvinists, regarding what the Supper does.

In a recent post here, Reformed pastor Doug Wilson presents what I think is a relatively modern Reformed take on the Supper as a "covenant-renewal" ceremony. Here's how he presents it:

"The heart of this ritual is the oath-taking implicit in it. The oath is what makes this ritual a sacrament. No oath, no sacrament. As we make our vows, as we renew covenant with God, we are doing so in the heavenly places, and we are doing so in the power and authority of the Holy Spirit.

. . .

In this oath, which you are about to renew, you are solemnly engaging to be the Lord’s, along with all that you have and are. And God, for His part, is solemnly engaging to take up your part, as you trust him, working out His sovereign will, working and willing in accordance with His good pleasure. And that is a meal that you can partake in with great joy."

I posted some time ago questions about what it means that the Supper is a "covenant renewal ceremony." I won't reiterate those questions here.

Rather, I want to focus on what the Supper does. Wilson's answer would seem to be in the first sentence above, "The heart of this ritual is the oath-taking implicit in it." As I understand Wilson's explanation, for him, the Supper constitutes an oath by which Christians offer to God the promise that they are wholly his. (Or, perhaps more accurately, in the Supper, Christians are renewing their promise to God that they are wholly his.)

I certainly do not deny that Christians wholly belong to God. Yet I disagree with the notion that the "heart" of the Supper is that, every time Christians partake, they renew their promise to God to do everything he wants them to do. All of the action in this understanding of the Supper is on man's side -- what humans offer to God.

This is very different than the Lutheran understanding, which looks at the Supper and does not see human obedience being promised to God, but rather sees God's forgiveness being offered by God to man on account of the promise that Jesus kept. Man's only obligation in the Supper is to receive the forgiveness that is offered there. As I wrote in my earlier post (o.k., so I'm reiterating a little), Jesus Christ made and fulfilled the covenant with God, so we do not have to. Christians are third-party beneficiaries of the covenant between God and the second Adam, Jesus Christ. (This, incidentally, is a covenant that does not need to be "renewed.")

When we receive the Supper, we receive God's forgiveness in the bread and the wine:

"The promise of the New [Covenant] is the promise of the forgiveness of sins, as the text says, 'This is my body, which is given for you'; 'this is the cup of the new [covenant] with my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Therefore the Word offers forgiveness of sins, while the ceremony is a sort of picture or 'seal,' as Paul calls it (Ro. 4.11), showing forth the promise. As the promise is useless unless faith accepts it, so the ceremony is useless without the faith which really believes that the forgiveness of sins is being offered here.
. . .
"[The remembrance of Christ in the Supper] is rather the remembrance of Christ's blessings and the acceptance of them by faith, so that they make us alive. . . . The principal use of the sacrament is to make clear that terrified consciences are the ones worthy of it, and how they ought to use it" (Ap. art. 24.69-70, 72-73, emphasis added).

In the Supper, it is not I initially who offers and God who receives, but it is rather God who offers and I who receive. The Supper is not about humans obligating ourselves to God, but it is about humans receiving the fruit of what God freely chose to obligate himself toward humanity -- the forgiveness of sins. It seems to me that the question of who offers what to whom in the Supper is a question at least as important as the question of Christ's presence in the Supper.

After all, Christ sacrificed his body and his blood to secure forgiveness for me. I therefore receive that forgiveness when I receive his body and his blood in the Supper.


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