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What is the Lord's Supper? (Part IV)

To understand the biblical and Reformed conception of the Lord’s Supper, it’s important to recognize the sacraments as a “visible word.” When we come to worship, we come to read the word, hear the word, pray the word, sing the word, and also see the word. When we define the sacraments this way, what we mean is that there is visually represented to us, both in a baptism and the Supper, the contents of God’s promises to us in Scripture.

In this way, the sacraments confirms for us what God teaches us in the Bible. Hence, Calvin was drawn to the conclusion that it was utter nonsense to ever observe the sacraments apart from the preaching of the word—then it lost it’s purpose. He called the sacraments without a sermon nothing more than a “bare phantom.” Here’s what he writes in the Institutes:

The sacraments supplement God’s word. This is not because the word is not secure enough in itself, or that intrinsically it is in need of reinforcement. For it is nothing less than God’s truth, which itself is so sure and certain that it cannot have a better confirmation than itself. The sacrament is added simply to confirm us in God’s word, for our faith is so small and feeble that unless it is buttressed on all sides and sustained by every means, when pushed and pummeled it is badly shaken. And because we are so ignorant and so obsessed by earthly, carnal things that we can neither grasp nor conceive anything spiritual, the merciful Lord accordingly accommodates himself to our untutored minds so that even by theses material elements he leads us to himself, and helps us to discern in the flesh itself what pertains to the spirit.

What Calvin is teaching us is that far from their being something wrong with the word, there’s something wrong with us! We are weak, doubting, faithless creatures. And yet God is so gracious to us. He condescends to us in the sacraments. He strengthens the weak sermon of his servant by providing a visual reminder in the Supper. He feeds his sheep twice over when the Lord Supper is celebrated and observed—what a great provision!

As we prepare to partake of the Lord’s Table next Sunday, think of how God gives us His truth not only audibly, but visually. While our life this side of heaven is one of faith, and not sight, yet God gives us a glimpse—literally—of the vista of heaven in the Supper. Praise God for His visible word.

Jonathan Cruse