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What Is Meant by the Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper

An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXIX, Article 7

by David Bromlow

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

The debate over the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper has its roots deeply embedded in the Reformation where it was a primary source of division among the Protestant churches. Without digging too deeply into the historical details, it is sufficient to say that in response to the gross errors of the Roman Catholic mass–the propitiatory sacrifice, transubstantiation, and the "reservation" of Christ’s body and blood in the unconsumed elements–the Reformation left the Protestant church with three basic views of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. These are generally accredited to their supposed authors: Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin [1].

The Lutheran view, while repudiating the Roman mass is most like it, maintaining that the sacrament is efficacious for salvation and as such Christ is truly present. The actual body and blood of Christ are physically, though invisibly, located in, with and under the elements while they remain fully bread and wine. According to the Zwinglian view, the sacrament is not efficacious for salvation and Christ is not any more present in it that he is at any other time in any other place. It is maintained that the Lord’s Supper has value only as a reminder of the true means of grace–Christ’s sacrifice on the cross–and is to be taken as a memorial of the benefits of His once-for-all sacrifice for us [2]. The Calvinist view strikes a fine balance between the Lutheran and Zwinglian. It rejects Zwinglian rationalism by maintaining that the physical body and blood of Christ are really and truly present in the sacrament making it efficacious for salvation. It also rejects the Lutheran idea that Christ’s body and blood are carnally present in, with and under the elements, favoring instead a "spiritual" understanding of Christ’s presence.

Unlike the Zwinglian and Lutheran perspectives, which are more rigidly defined and concrete, there is much more confusion, ambiguity and disagreement within the Calvinist view concerning what is meant by Christ’s "spiritual" presence. In our modern rationalistic age it is becoming increasingly easy to find sympathy for the Zwinglian perspective within Reformed churches. In fact, the confessional statements concerning this sacrament, while purely Calvinistic, are more frequently receiving a Zwinglian interpretation. This change in interpretation is subtle, but is revealed by asking What is special about Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper? This is illustrated by William Barclay’s answer when posing the question to himself in the context of supposedly rejecting the Zwinglian notion of "a mere memorial:"

The Risen Lord is universally present. He is not present in the sacrament any more than he is present anywhere else. . . . He is not specially present, but we are made specially aware of his presence. . . . The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not so much the place where we realize the real presence of our Lord, as the place where we realize the reality of the real presence of our Lord. The presence is not specially located in the bread and wine, nor in the Church. It is a presence which is present always, everywhere. But the sacrament is the place where memory, realization [and] appropriation end in encounter, because we are compelled to become aware of him there [3].

Although this view is more radical than most in the Presbyterian tradition, it is indicative of a common misconception of what is meant by the spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. This paper will attempt to correct this mistaken interpretation of the Lord’s Supper by examining the Westminster Confession’s statements concerning it, in light of Calvin’s teaching on it and the scriptural proofs for it. This will hopefully reorient us to the intended meaning of both Calvin and his theological heirs, the framers of our Confession.

In chapter XXIX, article 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith we find the definitive Reformed treatment of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. It reads:

Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves to their outward senses.

This paragraph, in order to be properly understood, must be read in the context in which it was written. This article is simultaneously and intermittently avoiding two fallacies: first (the Zwinglian), ignoring Christ’s real, bodily, supernatural presence in the Lord’s Supper; and second (the Lutheran), confusing the manner in which his body and its benefits are communicated to us in the Lord’s Supper. This article then affirms completely that Christ is really, bodily present in the Lord’s Supper and that when we receive it worthily, we truly feed on his physical, glorified body and blood. It also affirms that the manner in which the body and blood of Christ and its benefits are communicated to us is not through some physical means as the Lutherans claim (that in the elements, that which is symbolized is actually contained: the universally present, but localized, invisible body of Christ) but through the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The key to unlocking the meaning of this doctrine as presented in this article is the proper understanding of the word "spiritually." Often this word is either passed over and never dealt with or it is taken to be ambiguous. It too frequently is taken as being in opposition to the Lutheran idea of the physical, bodily presence of Christ. In such a case Christ is thought to be present in Spirit, but not in his true body. However, this is a terrible misunderstanding of the word, and clearly is not what the article means to indicate. This is demonstrated by Calvin’s discussion of the presence of Christ in his Institutes. In Book IV, 17, 7 he writes,

I am not satisfied with the view of those who, while acknowledging that we have some kind of communion with Christ, only make us partakers of the Spirit, omitting all mention of flesh and blood. As if it were said to no purpose at all, that his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood is drink indeed; that we have no life unless we eat that flesh and drink that blood; and so forth.

Such an unwarranted understanding of this word also butchers the plain meaning of scripture when Paul admonishes us through the Corinthians that the cup is "a participation in the blood of Christ," the bread is "a participation in the body of Christ," and that we must be careful to discern the body and blood of Christ, lest we fall under his judgement. (1 Cor 10:16; 11:27-29)

However, Calvin does clarify what is meant by this word "spiritually." In Institutes IV, 17, 12 Calvin compares the Reformed understanding of how Christ’s actual body and blood are communicated to us in this sacrament with the Lutheran and Roman views. He begins his argument by affirming that Christ’s body is in heaven at the right hand of God. However, this does not negate the fact that believers, through this sacrament, actually eat the very flesh and drink the very blood of that same body. It simply determines the manner in which Christ’s body and blood are communicated to us. Not "as if the body of Christ, locally present, were to be taken into the hand, and chewed by the teeth, and swallowed by the throat," but "the Spirit of Christ, who unites us to him, and is a kind of channel by which everything that Christ has and is, is derived to us." Calvin continues at length:

For if we see that the sun, in sending forth its rays upon the earth, to generate, cherish, and invigorate its offspring, in a manner transfuses its substance into it, why should the radiance of the Spirit do less in conveying to us the communion of his flesh and blood? Wherefore the Scripture, when it speaks of our participation with Christ, refers its whole efficacy to the Spirit. Instead of many, one passage will suffice. Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans (Romans 8:9-11), shows that the only way in which Christ dwells in us is by his Spirit. By this, however, he does not take away that communion of flesh and blood of which we now speak, but shows me it is owing to the Spirit alone that we possess Christ wholly, and have him abiding in us.

So we conclude that when we read the adverb "spiritually" in this passage it is not to be taken as in some way opposed to the real, physical or material body and blood of Christ, but as an indication of how that body and blood are communicated to us, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. The Confession does not object to the notion that we really feast on the true body and blood of Christ, but that his body is located anywhere but in heaven. His body is not located in the elements themselves, nor in thousands of churches at the same time, as Luther understood, but rather his body remains in heaven where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. Nevertheless, we understand that the true, physical, glorified body and blood of our savior, while located in heaven at the Father’s right hand, are truly distributed to us and we feed on them to our spiritual nourishment by the mysterious and powerful working of the Holy Spirit.

We end this brief discussion by paraphrasing this article which we have briefly examined:

Whenever someone worthily comes to the Lord’s Table, as they receive the visible elements of bread and wine (which represent Christ’s true body and blood), by faith they also really and truly receive and feed upon the actual body and blood of Christ along with all of its benefits. However, his body and blood are not in any way contained in the elements themselves. Rather by the mysterious and powerful working of the Holy Spirit they are communicated directly to them from Christ’s present location in heaven at the right hand of God. Therefore the actual body and blood of Christ are as really present to the faith of that worthy recipient, as the bread and wine that they are about to consume. But again, the body and blood of Christ are not in any way contained in the elements that symbolize them (for Christ’s body is in heaven), yet because of the supernatural mediation of the Holy Spirit his body and blood are as surely received as the symbols themselves.


1. None of the views accredited to these men are rightfully theirs. Luther was dogmatized by later Lutherans, Zwingli was mischaracterized by his opponents and Calvin was unoriginal. While the Lutheran view is largely the view held by Luther, he was never so dogmatic about it as his theological heirs, who refused to associate with their reformed brothers over this singular issue. Concerning Zwingli’s view, Elmer S. Freeman [The Lord’s Supper in Protestantism (New York: Macmillan, 1945), 62] has shown that Zwingli was not a Zwinglian by quoting from a confession written by Zwingli to King Francis: "If I have called this a commemoration, I have done so in order to controvert those who would make of it a sacrifice. . . . We believe that Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper; yea, that there is no communion without such presence. . . . We believe that the true Body of Christ is eaten in Communion, not in a gross and carnal manner, but in a spiritual and sacramental manner, by the religious, believing, and pious heart." And Calvin’s views were first held by Martin Bucer and several others.

2. Zwingli held to a far lower view of the sacrament than did most of his contemporaries, celebrating it only quarterly, and emphasizing the memorial aspect of the Lord’s Supper. This certainly lends weight to the truncated view that has been accredited to him.

3. William Barclay, The Lord’s Supper (London: SCM Press, 1967), 112.

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

1 Comment »

  1. All my life i understood that the Lord’s Supper was symbolic.To be truthful I never took communion in the Methodist church that i was raised in, because i knew that i was not born again and thus would not eat and drink the elements worthily.
    Years later,when i was born again in a Pentecostal church, i still assumed that the elements were largley symbolic as this made more sense to me and i had an antipathy to any thought of blood and flesh in the communion due to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstansatiation.
    Now i attend a Luthern church and was permitted to take the sacrement of the Lord’s Supper by the pastor.However as i read more of Luthern doctrine ,i became uncomfortable at the concept of the elements having effigacy,so i stopped participating in communion.I also had reservations about the Luthern concept of baptism.
    I would like to postulate a question.When Jesus died rigor mortis would set in meaning that any remaining blood would coagulate in the veins. How,then, would there be any blood to be literally present in the wine?

    Comment by william campbell — April 22, 2008 @ 8:48 pm

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