Calvin’s Theology: The Lord’s Supper

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the sacraments took a central role in Calvin’s theology of worship.

What we do at the Table is not only about what Jesus has done as our sacrificial Redeemer, but it is also about who he is as the Son of God and who we are in Him. And so it is that the Lord’s Supper is God’s gracious way of not only communicating this truth but also nourishing us in assurance of this truth! 

 

For John Calvin, worship was central to life – it is why man exists. Worship was also central to his understanding of the Reformation, for he believed that the church’s return to true worship was the flowering fruit of all that was being done in his time. Other than the preaching of God’s word, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the sacraments took a central role in Calvin’s theology of worship. About 14 percent of his entire Institutes is directed towards the topic of the sacraments.[1]

And yet Calvin was clear that all true worship hinges on the person of Jesus Christ, especially so when it comes to his theology of the Lord’s Supper. What we do at the Table is not only about what Jesus has done as our sacrificial Redeemer, but it is also about who he is as the Son of God and who we are in Him. And so it is that the Lord’s Supper is God’s gracious way of not only communicating this truth but also nourishing us in assurance of this truth! “Since this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows its figure and image in invisible signs best adapted to our small capacity. Indeed by giving guarantees and tokens he makes it as certain for us as if we had seen it with our own eyes.”[2]

Calvin, in a nod to Augustine, defined Communion as “an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith. And we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.”[3] But what undergirded Calvin’s understanding of Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, was his understanding of our union in Christ.

Keith Mathison, recently writing on Calvin’s understanding of union with Christ and the Lord’s Supper, points out that, for Calvin, a believer first enjoys a mystical union with Christ, namely our becoming one with him through faith and enjoying all the benefits of salvation in all that he is and has accomplished for us. But secondly, believers also enjoy a spiritual union in Christ which is the effect and fruit of that mystical union. “It is an ongoing and progressive union”, says Mathison, “it can grow and be strengthened throughout the believers life.”[4]

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