17 March 2013 by Tony Dibble-
Much confusion surrounds the mystery of the Lord’s Supper. This is because it is exactly that: a mystery. It also arises from a failure to appreciate how Christ could hold the bread and wine physically in front of His body, yet maintain that it was His body and blood that He held.
The LORD’s Supper is a “sacrament”, a Latin term for the Greek “mysterion” which was a secret now revealed. The secret was the death of GOD’s Son through which fallen man might be restored eternally to GOD.
The catechism of the Church of England defines a sacrament as an outward sign of an inward spiritual grace. This is not very different from the definition in the Roman Catholic catechism. This is because St Augustine was the source of the definition. The Westminster Shorter Catechism of the Presbyterians defines a sacrament as a holy ordinance instituted by Christ where, by physical senses, Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed and applied to Christians.
2. Development of the Concept of Sacrament
St Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in the 4th Century (he is not to be confused with St Augustine of Canterbury who at the end of the 6th century introduced Christianity from Rome to England) identified 30 sacraments. Peter Lombard, who became Bishop of Paris in the 12th Century, put the number of sacraments at seven. Three centuries later (in 1439) the Church Council at Florence adopted Bishop Peter Lombard’s classification of seven sacraments. The reformers in the 16th century reduced the number of sacraments to two. Their basis for doing this was Christ’s commands to “DO THIS’ in the LORD’s Supper and “GO…BAPTISING” in the Great Commission.
During the 19th century there was a revival of Catholicism in the Church of England and the mystery of the LORD ’s Supper was one of the spiritual attractions for some Anglicans to embrace the Catholic faith. This led the Church of England to reduce the emphasis on the spiritual mystery of the union with Christ during communion.
3. What a Sacrament Means
Externally, a sacrament is a visible sign of GOD’s grace and is an outward profession of a Christian’s faith. Internally, a Christian knows that God has pledged His grace to man. It is GOD’s signature that He will complete all that He has promised in the New Covenant, attained by the finished work of Christ.
From the definitions of the three church catechisms, a sacrament therefore has 3 attributes:
a) it is ordered by Christ;
b) it has an external sign or emblem;
c) it is associated internally with GOD’s grace.
A sacrament is not a ritual but neither should it be taken lightly. A sacrament is a means of grace. And just what is grace?
Grace is GOD’s constant approach to man favourably, a favour which he does not deserve nor earn. This favour is seen in GOD giving His Son, and His Son’s working for man’s redemption.
A sacrament does not exercise a human power. Instead, a sacrament is a sure sign and pledge of GOD working in us, pointing to the direct work of God in the Christian. It also represents man’s pledges to GOD at the same time as it represents GOD’s favour to man.
The emphasis on the sacraments involves faith and receiving them in a proper manner. Faith does not transform the sacrament. Instead, faith enables a person to appreciate GOD’s provision for him. Proper reception by us of the bread and wine requires more than a casual or habit towards the sacrament. It requires a total understanding of the union with GOD for His glory.
4. Reflection in Worship
Thomas Watson in “The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper” wrote in 1665 that we should come to the LORD’s Supper in the following five ways:
i) by examining our hearts seriously in the light of GOD’s word; this means that we must know that the heart is desperately wicked above all things and ask GOD to give us a new heart as much as a new spirit which He has promised;
ii) to have a serious attitude in our hearts; we have to be serious about the LORD’s Supper: it is not a customary weekly ritual;
iii) to know GOD as He is made known in the Bible and to know His full greatness; knowing not just intellectually but knowing relationally, personally;
iv) to be repentant in our hearts towards sin; this means a complete turnaround and not a partial or temporary change of heart but a radical and total transformation amounting to an upheaval;
v) to be sincere in our hearts: to be honest about the whole celebration and put nothing but only GOD first over and above everything and everyone.
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