Sacraments: Divine Means of Grace


Sacraments: Divine Means of Grace

Augustine Suh

The church is the eschatological community.[1] The church is a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God that powerfully breaks into the present from the future through Jesus the Messiah. The church bears testimony in word and deed to the coming kingdom, which Christ will consummate at his return. As the eschatological community, we, the Christian church, affirm the centrality of the Word and the Sacraments in the daily life of the church. Sacraments are a means of grace given by God for the church in its pilgrimage to the kingdom of God. The sacraments are God-given instruments by which we confirm our participation in the grace God offers us through Jesus Christ. Through them we celebrate God’s salvation in Christ and are strengthened by God on our journey of faith. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were both immediately instituted by Christ himself.[2] Before we talk about these specific practices, we’ll embark on a general understanding of sacraments.

Sacrament or Ordinance: A Brief History

The term sacrament is an extra-biblical word going back to the Latin word sacramentum which often carries the meaning of a military oath of obedience. In the West, Latin Christians such as Tertulllian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD) saw in this word the central significance of these rites.[3] The sacraments were viewed as a testimony of the good news of redemption through Jesus Christ.

The theology of Augustine of Hippo (354 –430) has special significance in the development of Sacrament theology. He defined a sacrament as “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” A sacrament has two sides: the outward sign and the inner reality which the sign signifies. These two come together through the power of the Holy Spirit. The sacrament has no efficacy in and of itself, but it must be linked to the word and to faith. For example, Augustine said, “Take away the word, and the water is nothing but water.”[4] So he put emphasis on “the inner acceptance of the grace offered in the sacrament.” [5] His basic understanding of the sacrament is symbolic. He does not look for God or grace in external things, but rather urges us to turn inward.

In the late Middle Ages (the 14th and 15th centuries), a magical understanding of sacraments developed. They were believed to be able to infuse divine grace into the participants regardless of their personal faith. This was expressed with the Latin phrase ex opere operato which means that the observance of the sacraments work automatically and infuse grace so long as the right words are said and the right actions performed. Church life, therefore, centered on the practice of sacraments (sacramentalism). And the ordained priests were seen as the chosen instruments of divine grace. They were believed to be endowed with a special authority to transform the physical elements used in the sacraments into a spiritual reality. For example, the bread and wine after having been consecrated by the priests, were seen as Christ’s body and blood transformed into reality that would infuse grace apart from the personal faith.

Sacramentalism was vehemently criticized by the Reformation.[6] Luther and Calvin were very clear that there is no sacrament apart from faith. Sacraments demanded faith on the part of the participant. Calvin’s understanding is very similar to that of Augustine: the outward sign becomes an instrument or means of grace when united with the preaching of the Word and a decision of faith.[7]

While Calvin and Luther rejected sacramentalism, they didn’t belittle the sacraments; rather, they respected them highly. They affirmed that Christ is present when the church celebrates the Lord’s Supper. The bread and wine remain as signs and are not changed into the spiritual reality they signify, but they do communicate this reality to people of faith and repentance. This is evident also in the teachings of Martin Bucer, who played a significant role in the Strassburg Reformation.  

It’s interesting to note that to the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, the outward sign becomes not a means of grace but a testimony to grace. In the radical Zwinglian view, sacraments become signs of faith and commitment.

The radical wing of reformation believed that the term “sacrament” contained too many magical overtones of medieval sacramentalism. And certain radicals including the Anabaptists and the English Baptists preferred the term “ordinance” to sacrament.[8] An ordinance, being derived from the verb “ordain,” is simply a practice which Christ mandated. In this understanding, the ordinances are signs of obedience, which are basically human acts rather than divine. An ordinance offers a means for us to testify to the spiritual truths symbolized by it. Following this radical understanding of sacraments, many Free Church thinkers conclude then that sacraments are merely acts of obedience and not spiritual means of grace.

In more recent times, theologians argue that the correct understanding of sacraments should be rediscovered. Sacraments are more than just human acts. A Congregationalist theologian P.T. Forsyth maintained that the external symbols in the sacraments are more than signs. “They are the word, the gospel itself, visible, as in preaching the word is audible”.[9] And Karl Barth saw Jesus Christ himself as the only sacrament and regarded sacramental rites as a witness to the wonder of God becoming human in Jesus Christ.[10] He shares a similar perspective like Zwingli and the Anabaptists in seeing the sacraments as occasions for obedience to Jesus Christ. For example, he rejected infant baptism which ignores the volitional side of receiving the rite of baptism. At the same time, Barth affirmed the Reformed faith that views sacraments as a means of grace. So he tried to build a bridge between the Reformed faith and the Anabaptist tradition. In his view, the sacraments of the church do not confer God’s grace, but are the human response to the grace of God, who works in his own way using the sacraments of the church.[11]

Meaning and Significance of Sacraments

There are only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospels: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[12] Since sacraments are fundamentally ordinances of Christ, each rite carries out the command of Christ.  And every sacrament consists of two elements: an outward tangible sign, and an inward, spiritual grace signified by the sign.[13]

In baptism,

  1. the outward visible and tangible sign is water;
  2. the inward, spiritual grace signified is (i) dying to sin by the immediate power of the Holy Spirit, and (ii) the union of the baptized with Christ (having been united with Christ receive all the blessings of the new covenant including regeneration, forgiveness, justification, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification).

In the Lord’s Supper,

  1. the outward tangible signs are bread and wine: the bread broken, and the wine poured out;
  2. the inward spiritual grace signifies (i) Christ crucified for us and giving himself to us, and (ii) union with Christ, the indwelling of the Spirit, and all the spiritual blessings of the sacrificial death of Christ.

A sacrament serves as a sign and seal.[14] A sign is a symbolic representation of a specific reality. A seal confirms and authenticates. As a sign, a sacrament symbolizes the gospel by depicting the all-important story of Jesus and our union with him. It represents the blessings of Christ and the new covenant. As a seal, a sacrament confirms the blessings of the new covenant. Salvation and all the benefits of Christ’s redemption are offered upon the condition of faith. In the sacraments God visibly and tangibly pledges himself to us with his grace, if we believe and obey. The sacraments are a visible confirmation of the covenant of grace.

A sacrament also serves as a pledge and a badge. It represents God’s covenant faithfulness to us and our obligation to obey him. It marks us as the divine property and binds us to the Lord. Moreover, sacraments are badges of our confession which mark a visible difference between those who belong to the church and the rest of the world.[15]

Having said that, we should keep in mind the eschatological orientation of the sacraments. Baptism signifies that we are dead to sin and yet alive to God through faith in Christ. Through baptism, we break away from the old order of things and enter the realm of the coming kingdom of God. This includes our glorious transformation at Christ’s return and our participation in the glorious fellowship with God. The Lord’s Supper is a kind of spiritual food that strengthens us in faith and hope as we journey on in our pilgrimage to the kingdom of God.

Knowing this, we should not devalue the sacraments of the church. A Reformed theologian Eugene Osterhaven warns us against belittling the sacraments. If we neglect the sacraments because of their material nature, it’s like adopting Gnostic Christology and rejecting Jesus Christ because of his humanity. Those Christians who depreciate the sacraments “reject a gift that God has given to God’s people for the enrichment of their spiritual life and the strengthening of their faith.”[16]

The sacraments are very beneficial for the church. The goal of both, the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments, is to direct our attention away from ourselves to Christ crucified and risen. The purpose of the sacraments is to take our focus away from our own experience, performance and imagination, and guide us to the cross of Christ.[17] We cannot overemphasize the spiritual blessings of the sacraments. “Through Word and sacrament God actually gives that which he promises in his gospel – forgiveness of sins, freedom from the tyranny of sin, and eternal life.”[18]


At the same time it is important to keep in mind that the efficacy of the sacraments depends upon God’s promise, but not upon the piety of the participant or the person who administers them. The efficacy of the sacraments depends upon the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit who is always present and uses the sacraments as his instrument. Therefore, we can hope that God will hear our cry for mercy and send his Spirit upon those who are baptized into his death and resurrection and who eat and drink of the communion in faith and repentance.



Baptism: Affirming God’s Promise and Our Identity

Holy baptism is the essential sacrament for the beginning of the Christian life. It is connected with our initiation into the universal, invisible church as well as the local, visible church. Why do we practice baptism? We practice baptism because it is the command of Christ in his final commission (Matt. 28:29; cf. Mk16:15-16).

The Meaning of Baptism

As we practice baptism, we give symbolic expression to important truths.

1) Baptism is a sign. Baptism expresses the verbal content of the gospel in a nonverbal, visual form. Baptism is a powerful form of proclamation of the truth of what Christ has done. Baptism signifies the following:[19]

  • Our spiritual union with Christ. Baptism is a “word in water” testifying to the believer’s participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the most significant meaning of baptism according to Romans 6:3-5 (cf. Gal3:27). Baptism illustrates our death to the old, sinful life and our being raised to new life in Christ. Cf. imagery of water as death: Exodus (1Cor10:1-2), the flood (1Pet3:19-21). 
  • Regeneration. One is regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit (Titus3:5)
  • Remission. One is forgiven of sins (Mark1:4; Acts2:38; 1Pet3:21)
  • Receiving of the Spirit. Baptism is also connected to the new birth and the receiving of the Spirit (1Cor12:3). To be united with the Risen Christ means that the Holy Spirit is now present in us; he is the pledge and power of our future resurrection (Rom8:11; 2Cor1:22; 5:5; Eph1:13-14).[20]
  • An element of discipleship (Matt28:19). Through baptism, the baptized becomes a member of the visible church; moreover, he is now on the path of obedience to Christ.

2) Baptism is a seal. Baptism is used by the Holy Spirit to assure us of the spiritual reality of our having become a new creation. The spiritual realities that are confirmed by baptism include forgiveness of sins, baptism into Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, and being a temple of the Holy Spirit.

3) Baptism is a testimony of faith that one has been united with Christ in his death and resurrection. It is a public proclamation of one’s commitment to Christ. Baptism confirms our covenant with God. When we receive baptism through faith in Christ, we replace former world allegiances with a new allegiance to Christ as Lord. And when we respond to God’s grace in Christ through baptism, we pledge ourselves to God. Through it we declare our intention to follow the pathway of discipleship (Zwinglian emphasis).

4) Baptism locates us in the body of Christ (1Cor12:13). Through baptism, we enter the community of believers. Since this rite is a symbol of our new allegiance to Christ as Lord, it places us within the church, which is the community of those who confess Christ as Lord. We Christians are not lonely individualists. As baptized people we are members of the universal church made visible in the local congregation. We belong to the one church which is the eschatological community. We all share the same “past-present-future” history of the coming kingdom of God.

Baptism is a means of grace. As a sign it visually expresses our union with Christ in his death and resurrection and all spiritual benefits. Through the Spirit, baptism as a seal confirms Christ’ grace for us. It provides the occasion of a public testimony. It incorporates us into the body of Christ. All these spiritual benefits are appropriated through baptism when connected with faith.

Baptism as a Divine and Human Act

We have seen the basic meaning of baptism. Now there are different views on how the meaning of baptism is realized. There are two sides regarding how baptism works: divine and human. While those who practice infant baptism emphasize the working of God in baptism, those who practice the believer’s baptism stress a human response in baptism.

  1. Emphasis on a Divine Act

Traditionally most churches put emphasis on the divine side of baptism. Baptism is seen as the divine work of God. In the medieval ages, people taught baptismal regeneration: Baptism brings a person from spiritual death to life. They teach that the rite of baptism itself conveys grace to the person baptized, while faith is not necessary (ex opere operato). Here, baptism is a means of saving grace. According to this view, baptism is not simply a picture of our being united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Rather, it literally unites us with Christ (Rom. 6:3-5). The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church share this view that one is born again in baptism.

Most Protestants, however, deny baptismal regeneration. Among Protestants, many Lutherans see baptism as the sign of God’s grace for an individual prior to personal faith. While agreeing to this view, Reformed tradition sees baptism in the context of covenant theology.[21] Baptism is the sign and seal of the covenant which God has established with his people. The covenant or God’s promise of grace is the basis of justification and salvation. Salvation is not accomplished through baptism, but through the grace of election. Based on covenant theology Reformed theologians insist on infant baptism. A key step in this argument is that baptism in the NT is a sign of the new covenant just as circumcision was the sign of the covenant in the OT.[22] In the Reformed position, the human side, namely faith, is also important. Baptism is the act of faith by which we are brought into that covenant and hereafter experience its benefits. The act of baptism is both the means of initiation into the covenant and a sign of salvation.

  1. Emphasis on a Human Act

Those who insist on believer’s baptism tend to stress the human side of baptism. This view sees baptism as a human response to God’s grace. Some stress that baptism is a divinely given means by which we personally respond to the gospel.[23] Others see it as a public testimony to an inward faith. It is a token, an outward symbol of the inward change that has been effected in the believer.[24] It is a public confession of personal faith. We continue to practice baptism simply because Christ commanded it (Matt. 28:19-20) and because it serves as a form of proclamation. It confirms the fact of our salvation to ourselves and affirms it to others.

Some groups, however, took a further step in viewing baptism merely as human response. They regard baptism as optional rather than required for church membership.

  1. Baptism as a Divine-Human Act

In order to have a more balanced view of baptism, we must take into consideration both the human and divine sides of baptism. God takes initiative only out of grace, which is the divine side. And we who receive his unmerited grace are to respond to his covenant by faith and obedience.

Baptism as an ordinance focuses on the human side. Baptism as our commitment is a sign of obedience to Christ who gave this ordinance. Baptism is the divinely given means by which new believers make initial public confession of faith in Christ (Zwinglian emphasis).

Baptism is at the same time a divine act. It is what God does for our benefit. Our Lord Jesus commanded this act because he wanted to bless us through this ordinance. First of all, baptism seals his covenant of grace in our hearts as we participate in baptism (Reformed emphasis). The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith to live in faithfulness to our Lord.        

This divine and human act of baptism can be expressed through an illustration of a public wedding. For a couple getting married, reciting vows in the presence of witnesses, the wedding becomes a day to remember. It is the highlight of their initial commitment to each other. Their covenantal love is strengthened by the public declaration to love each other throughout life. Similarly, the Holy Spirit uses our baptism to strengthen our commitment to Christ.[25]


The Proper Subjects of Baptism

The question of the subjects of baptism has been the most controversial issue in history of baptism theology. Who can be properly baptized? This is more specifically a question of whether to hold to infant baptism or believer’s baptism.

In order to answer to this question, we need to understand the relation between faith and baptism as witnessed in the New Testament. Some passages regarding baptism are: Mark 16:16 connects salvation with faith rather than with baptism: “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” John 3:5 doesn’t teach baptismal regeneration (as taught by the medieval church): to be born anew is to be born of the Sprit. According to 1Peter 3:21, baptism saves only in that it is an act of faith acknowledging dependence on Christ. There are a number of passages that link repentance and baptism (Acts 2:37-38; 3:17-26; 16:30). Baptism is an expression or a consequence of conversion, not the other way around. The early church considered faith and baptism two sides of an undivided whole. Those who believed were baptized and became church members. Baptism is the initial outward confession of inward faith. So baptism is a public confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. The proper subjects of baptism in the New Testament are those who confess faith.[26] 

Pedobaptists (those who support infant baptism) try to find references to the practice of infant baptism in the New Testament (e.g. Acts10:24; 16:15; 16:31-34; 18:8; 1Cor1:16). But many scholars now conclude that the NT nowhere offers a clear case of an individual’s being baptized before exercising faith.

Those who advocate believer’s baptism appeal to the New Testament to defend their position. The early church primarily practiced believer’s baptism. In addition to this biblical argument, they reject infant baptism as an inferior or dangerous practice. The reason is that infant baptism is reduced to a mere baby dedication or is overblown to a regenerative act.[27] Infant baptism destroys the concept of church as fellowship of believers. Infant baptism is detrimental for the child because it denies the divinely given means of declaring personal faith in Jesus Christ later in life.[28] It fosters separation of faith from baptism in that baptism happens before confessing personal faith in Christ.

The most critical problem here is that infant baptism doesn’t convey the New Testament meaning of baptism. Since personal faith in infant baptism is not present, how can baptism be meaningful? Pedobaptists attempt to understand personal faith differently. Luther spoke of infant faith meaning that faith is present in the babies at infant baptism. Infants may possess an unconscious faith (Matt. 18:6; 19:14; Mark 10:14: Luke 18:16-17; 1:15). Or it is the faith of the parents that is involved when a child is baptized (In Roman Catholicism this problem does not occur because in baptism faith is not really necessary). The Reformed churches speak of collective faith (the faith of the baptizing community) or substitute faith (the faith of the parents). For them, infant baptism is “a sign of covenant responsibility as a community of faith and most especially as parents of this child.”[29] Thus, infant baptism points to the future time when the child will come to believe in Jesus Christ and confess personal faith.

But here is the question: do all these proposals consider the New Testament meaning of baptism seriously? Biblically speaking, baptism is primarily a divinely ordained means by which new believers publicly declare personal faith. Therefore, believer’s baptism is simply more biblical. Consequently believer’s baptism is to be the standard practice of baptism in the church.

If infant baptism is not desirable, what is the alternative for babies of believers? “Baby dedication” is preferable to infant baptism which lacks the participant’s personal faith. This also requires a later baptism dependant on the individual’s faith, meaning they would later choose to be baptized.

But we don’t condemn those who practice infant baptism. For there are two aspects of baptism: the confession of the believer and God’s covenant grace in baptism.  In case of infant baptism, the divine aspect is still there, while human response lacks. And we should consider that regeneration does not always coincide with baptism; regeneration can occur before, during, or after baptism. Therefore, when we tolerate infant baptism, we practice it with reservation of confirmation later in life; those baptized as infants must later confirm their baptism by personal faith.[30]

The Mode of Baptism

The question of the proper mode of baptism is historically less explosive, but controversial. There are three major modes churches have practiced: immersion, pouring, and sprinkling.

Traditionally, most Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church practice sprinkling, although they often allow immersion. Some Baptist groups use pouring. While the Eastern Orthodox Church baptizes babies by immersion, the Baptist tradition has been the strongest advocate of immersion.

Immersionists have appealed to the New Testament: the predominant (but not only) meaning of the Greek term baptizo is to dip or to plunge under water. See John 3:23; Mark 1:10; Matt3:16; Acts 8:36.[31]

For non-immersionist, the descriptions of the New Testament baptisms do not explicitly state what happened in the act. And the meaning of the word baptizo is broader than its literal sense. It is used sometimes in a figurative sense (Mk7:4; 10:38-39; Lk1138; 1Cor10:2).[32]  

Is a specific mode of baptism central to the rite? As for many immersionists, immersion is the only allowed mode. But some critics say that what makes baptism is the presence of water and the divine name pronounced, but not the amount of water.[33]

We can be flexible regarding the mode of baptism. Sprinkling can have certain symbolic value, namely, the cleansing from sin by sprinkling (Tit3:5; Heb10:22; 1Pet1:2; Ezek36:25; Isa52:15). Pouring can symbolize the coming of the Spirit (Joel2:28; Acts2:1-2, 38). But many scholars including non-immersionists conclude that immersion symbolically shows the meaning of baptism. Baptism originally signifies believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom6:3-5). Submersion in water symbolizes death, and the bursting forth out of water signifies resurrection life. Therefore, while immersion may not be the only valid form of baptism, it is the form that most fully preserves the meaning of baptism.

Administration of Baptism

It is a great sin to neglect the ordinance of baptism. For its observance is commanded. And the grace promised is not only offered, but really conferred by the Holy Spirit when the rite is united with faith.

Salvation is, however, not so inseparably united to baptism that only the baptized are saved, or that all the baptized are saved. The meaning and grace of baptism is not always accomplished with the moment of administration of it; the grace is conveyed to the recipient in God’s appointed time.

It is not necessary for Baptism is to be administered more than once to any person, and it could be harmful. It is because of the symbolical significance of the rite. (a) It signifies believers’ spiritual union with Christ. (b) It is the rite of initiation into the Christian Church. (c) It is to be remembered, not to be repeated. But sometimes, re-baptism is permissible if a person, who was baptized without a personal faith in Christ, comes to faith and wants to declare his inward faith by baptism.
The Lord’s Supper: Reaffirming God’s Promise and Our Identity

In contrast to baptism, which can occur only one time since it is the rite of initiation, we observe Communion repeatedly – yearly, quarterly, monthly, or weekly or more often. We observe the Lord’s Supper because it was commanded by Jesus to be the lasting commemoration of his sacrificial death on the cross (Mt26:26-29; Mk14:22-25; Lk22:14-20; 1Cor10:16; 11:23-26). Communion is a means by which God sustains us in the community of faith. When we participate in Communion, God’s promise and our new identity in Christ are reaffirmed.


The traditional Roman Catholic calls it “Mass,” which has originally been derived from the closing word of the Latin liturgy (“missa”). In order to replace the Catholic misconception of this rite as an offering to God, the Reformers substituted the name “the Lord’s Supper” (1Cor11:20). The term “the Lord’s Supper” emphasizes this rite as an ordinance of our Lord. It is an ordinance Christ has given for us to follow. Alternately, the evangelical church refers to this rite as “Holy Communion,” or “Communion,” thereby we emphasize the dimension of our fellowship with Christ and with one another in the faith community. In ecumenical discussions we often use the term “Eucharist” which is derived from Greek eucharisto meaning “to give thanks” (Matt26:26-29; Mk14:22-25; Lk22:15-20; 1Cor11:23-26) and dating to the patristic era. The term Eucharist expresses that the act is a joyous celebration of thanksgiving for what God has done and will do.

The Presence of the Lord in the Celebration (A Brief History)

There are points of Agreement: it is establishment by Christ (Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1Cor. 11:23-29); there is the necessity of repetition (Luke; 1Cor. 11:24-25); it is a form of proclamation: it signifies the fact and meaning of Christ’s death; it gives a spiritual benefit to the partaker; it is to be restricted to followers of Christ; there is a horizontal dimension in the rite.

Despite universal agreement of the church, there is wide disagreement about the theology underlying the practice. The question about the presence of the Lord at the celebration came to heated debate in the Reformation: In what sense is Christ present at the communion he ordained?

  1. The traditional Roman Catholic: Transubstantiation

The council of Trent (Tridentinum 1545-1563) taught that, as the priest consecrates the elements, an actual metaphysical change takes place.[34] The substance of the bread and wine - what they actually are – is changed into Christ’s flesh and blood. Despite the lack of change in accidents (color, taste, and texture remain those of bread and wine), the substance have indeed undergone a transformation. They became the actual body and blood of Christ. All who participate in the Mass (=the Holy Eucharist) literally take the physical body and blood of Christ into themselves.

This theory of transubstantiation formed the theoretical foundation for understanding the Mass as a sacrifice. According to this view, the communion involves a sacrificial act: In the Mass a real sacrifice is again offered by Christ on behalf of the worshipers in the same sense as was the crucifixion.

When a qualified clergyman follows the proper formula, the elements (bread and wine) are completely and permanently changed into Christ’s body and blood. The sacrament was regarded as a cause of an actual infusion of grace. The rite became a human act, a sacrifice offered to God. In this way, the Eucharist became a sacrificial offering to God in its own right.

In the traditional administration of the sacrament, the cup was withheld from the laity, being taken only by clergy: the main reason was the danger that the blood might be spilt.

  1. The Protestant Reaction

The Reformers vehemently rejected the Roman Catholic view. For them, the sacrament was not a cause of an actual infusion of grace. Nor could the rite be offered to God as a sacrifice. Here are three viewpoints.

  1. The Lutheran view

Luther insisted that the Eucharist was a sign of God’s promise given to faith. In contrast to the Reformed churches and Zwingli, Luther retained the Catholic conception that Christ’s body and blood are physically present in the elements. What Luther denied was the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. The elements remain bread and wine. But the body and blood of Christ are present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine (consubstantiation). 

Luther rejected other facets of the Catholic conception of the Mass, in particular, the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice. Since Christ died and atoned for sin once and for all, there is no need for repeated sacrifice.[35]

Luther also rejected sacerdotalism (the belief that atoning sacrifices for sin require the intervention of a priest). The presence of Christ’s body and blood doesn’t result from the priest’s actions. It is instead a consequence of Jesus Christ’s power.

What is the benefit of the sacrament? Luther insisted that by partaking of the sacrament we experience a real benefit: forgiveness of sin and confirmation of faith.

  1. The Zwinglian view

Another great Reformer U. Zwingli was at work in Switzerland. Since he was not so firmly rooted in medieval theology as was Luther, Zwingli proposed an even more radical break with the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

He claimed that the Lord’s Supper is a commemoration. It is a vivid act of remembrance through which we commemorate Christ’s sacrifice. Zwingli put his strong emphasis on the role of the sacrament in bringing to mind the death of Christ and its efficacy on behalf of the believer.

Rather than our Lord being physically present in the bread and wine (Luther), Zwingli argued that Christ is spiritually present. He resides in the believing community who remember the Lord’s sacrifice. Christ chooses to be present because believers have gathered in his name.

What is the value of the sacrament? Its value lies simply in that we receive the benefits of Christ’s death by faith. The Lord’s Supper is only one of the ways in which we can receive these benefits by faith, for its effect is no different in nature from that of listening to a sermon.

  1. The Reformed view

The great Geneva Reformer, John Calvin, holds with Luther in teaching the real presence of Christ in Communion. He taught that “we are truly made partakers of the real substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ” when we receive the Lord’s Supper in faith.[36]

The Reformed view holds that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper but not physically or bodily. Rather, his presence in the sacrament is spiritual or dynamic. Calvin spoke of Christ’s spiritual presence in the elements. The heavenly Christ meets the believers in the bread and wine. But this great communion with Christ is facilitated by the Spirit. The Sprit of God conveys to us the communion of Christ’s flesh and blood.[37] The Holy Spirit unites us with the Lord who was raised and ascended. It is by the Spirit and only by the Sprit that Christ dwells in us (Rom. 8:9-11).

What is the value of the sacrament? Partaking of the bread and the wine spiritually nourishes true believers who receive them by faith. The Holy Spirit brings them into closer connection with the person of Christ. The elements of the sacrament not only signify or represent the body and blood of Christ; they also seal the love of Christ to believers, giving them the assurance that all the promises of the covenant and the riches of the gospel are theirs.

Who brings the benefit of the sacrament? A genuine objective benefit of the sacrament is brought to the sacrament by Christ himself, not by the participant or officiator.

The Meaning the Communion

1) The real presence of Christ                                                     

As we have seen above, the Reformers spoke of the real presence of Christ. We should acknowledge the real presence of Christ not simply in the elements (bread and wine), but in the whole communion celebration. How do we understand the presence of our Lord in the communion?

A change occurs, but it is in the hearts of those who believe, not in the elements. In this sacred meal the Spirit of God descends into our midst, as Calvin pointed out. Grasped by the Spirit, we are elevated into the presence of Christ as we participate in an act of repentance, praise and thanksgiving along with our fellow believers.

In the Eucharistic meal Christ is more vividly present than in any other ceremony of the Christ.[38] We adore the living Christ who dwells with us and in us in an intimate way as we eat of the bread and drink from the cup. We feed upon Christ spiritually as we eat and drink of the material elements that become signs of his real presence in our midst.

In the Eucharistic celebration the table becomes an altar on which we present praise and thanksgiving.[39] It is also an altar in the sense that the Lord’s Supper represents the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In this Holy Communion we make contact with this sacrifice through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, we should look forward to the Lord’s Supper as a time of relationship and communion with Christ, for he has promised to meet with us. We should think of the sacrament in terms of his promise and the potential for a closer relationship with him (Matt. 18:20; 28:20; John 14:23; 15:4-7).[40] What takes place is not simply a remembrance of a past occurrence in history, but the experience of the Living Lord in the present, and an anticipation of his future appearance. What occurs is a divine-human encounter in which we are given both a fellowship of Christ’s suffering and death and a foretaste of his coming glory.

2) Various Dimensions of the Communion  

There are various dimensions in which we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.[41] First, it is a commemorative meal remembering events of salvation in the life and death of Jesus. Second, it is an eschatological banquet anticipating the glory of the coming kingdom. Third, it is the divine fellowship we have with Christ and with our fellow believers in him through the Spirit. Fourth, it is a joyous occasion of praise as a sign of our thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ.    

A) The Remembrance. As the designation "the Lord's Supper" suggests, the celebration draws our attention to what God has done. In fact, this past orientation is foundational to the significance of the meal.[42] The Lord’s Supper is in particular a reminder of the death of Christ and its sacrificial character on our behalf.

a.1) The Lord’s Supper is a commemorating meal. By means of this celebration, we fulfill our Lord's command, "Do this in remembrance of me." Read Lk22: 14-20; Mt26: 26-28; 1Cor11: 24-25. In this way, we enter into the story of our Lord. We vividly remember Jesus' significant life and death. We sit with the disciples in the upper room and recall Jesus' teaching about his death. We call to mind the table fellowship he shared with sinners, which stood as a sign of the kingdom. We remember as well our Lord’s sacrificial death, his humble service to others and complete obedience to the Father. As we commemorate, the Spirit rekindles our devotion for the Lord, renews us in our commitment to discipleship, and strengthens us for living as Christ's followers in the present.

a.2) As a remembrance of Christ, the Lord's Supper is likewise a gospel proclamation. Through our eating and drinking, we proclaim in a symbolic manner "the Lord's death" (1 Cor. 11:26). We proclaim that Jesus sacrificed his life for us. This is reenacted in the broken bread which indicates the giving of his body and in the poured wine which refers to the shedding of his blood.

The poured wine refers to the giving of Jesus' life for sin in order to seal a new covenant between God and his people, for "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb. 9:22; Mark 14:24 or Matt. 26:28). Through our eating and drinking, we confess that Jesus suffered and died for us, and specifically for me (John 6:54).

B) The Hope. The Lord’s Supper is an eschatological banquet, pointing forward to the consummation of the kingdom of God at the second coming of Christ. The Reformers of the sixteenth century correctly emphasized the remembrance of Jesus' death in the Communion. However, they did not sufficiently underline its equally significant aspect: the Communion is a meal of hope. This dimension was rediscovered in the twentieth century, which marked a turn to the future in theology in general and eventually in ecclesiology in particular.[43]

The Communion as an eschatological feast anticipates the glory that is yet to be revealed to us. This future dimension is evident in Jesus' promise at the institution of the Lord's Supper: Mt26:29 reads, "But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." See Mk14:15; Lk22:18; 1Cor11:26.

When in the Lord's Supper we commemorate the great saving event of Jesus' death, this event occurs in the context of Jesus' promise of a future "drinking anew" in the kingdom. Therefore, it directs our attention to the future. In the Lord's Supper we remember Jesus' sacrificial death, but we remember this event in view of his promise of the coming kingdom. Therefore, the significance of the Lord's Supper lies in its relationship to the future as grounded in the past.[44]

Since the Lord’s Supper is linked to the future fulfillment of Jesus' promise, the past event of Christ's death constitutes our identity. As we partake in the Lord's Supper, this act is to draw us into the future. There we meet the risen Jesus who will one day give us resurrection.

C) The Union and Fellowship. The Communion symbolizes the unity of believers with our Lord and with one another.

c.1) Jesus promises that we too will participate in a grand communion with our Lord in the eschatological community of God. Through the Holy Spirit, an eschatological fellowship becomes a present reality. Our Lord comes among us and communes with us. In this sense the celebration is an experience of present communion with our Savior.

And through our presence at the Lord's Table we publicly confess our loyalty to Christ. Through this act, we affirm once again our commitment to the Lord we made at our baptism. As this occurs, the Spirit declares and strengthens our unity with Christ. For this reason, our participation in the Communion carries grave ethical implications. It is a reminder that we can serve no other gods (1 Cor. 10:18-22), that no other loyalties can take the place of Christ.

c.2) The Lord’s Supper is intended to express the unity of all believers in the one body. The one loaf of bread symbolizes this oneness of the fellowship (1 Cor. 10:17). As we eat together from the single loaf, we confess that we together participate in communion with Christ. This aspect of the celebration also entails an ethical demand: we belong to each other and consequently are to be concerned for the welfare of one another.

D) A Joyous Thanksgiving. The Communion is an occasion in which we present our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. The term Eucharist emphasized this aspect of the Communion. It is a sign of our gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. 

Administration of the Holy Communion

  1. Importance of our presence at the Lord’s Supper

The Communion must become a significant aspect of the worship life of the church. We should also give due consideration to the question of our presence at the table. Above all, the Communion is an ordinance. When we observe the Lord's Supper as an act of obedience, it serves as a repeated affirmation of loyalty to our Lord. By our participation in this act of commitment, the Holy Spirit powerfully reminds us of our covenant with God and one another, and of our participation in the community of God.

Through the Lord's Supper the Spirit also strengthens us for Christian living. Through the repeated symbol, the Spirit reminds us of the good news of forgiveness in Christ; the Holy Spirit refreshes us in the midst of our failure and sin. At the same time, through our eating and drinking, the Spirit reminds us of Christ's power available each day and thereby encourages us to employ this divine resource. As the Spirit reminds us of Jesus' soon return, he provides motivation to hopeful, watchful service until that great day.

  1. The proper administrator

The Lord’s Supper has been entrusted to the church, and is to be administered by the church that is not a hierarchical, yet an orderly community. Since the Bible teaches that all believers can come to God through Christ without any human mediation, the qualification of proper administrator is a question of church regulations. Therefore, those who have been chosen and empowered by the church to supervise its worship service are to conduct the Lord’s Supper as well.

  1. The appropriate recipients

The Holy Communion is open to all who are baptized and profess faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is essentially the receiving of Christ's completed work on our behalf. In regards to the Lord’s Supper, a personal relationship with Christ is an indispensable prerequisite. Those who participate should be believers in Christ. In principle, the participants should be baptized members, since believers are to be baptized. But the baptism as a criterion of the appropriate recipients should not be taken in a legalistic sense.

Each participant should be mature enough to be able to discern the meaning of the Lord’s Supper (1Cor. 11:29). Every individual should carefully ascertain his or her own understanding and spiritual condition. If we eat and drink in an unworthy manner, we will be bringing divine judgment upon ourselves (1Cor11:27-30). But we should not misunderstand this warning. But Paul here doesn’t ban “unworthy participants” because everybody is an unworthy sinner. If anyone is a worthy participant, it is only through grace that he shares in the body and blood of Christ. Therefore, the warning here is against unworthy participation. It means that we should participate in the Communion by faith and in repentance. Self-examination should lead us to prompt repentance and faith before participation in the Lord’s Supper. If self-examination reveals broken relationships with God and our brothers and sisters, we should decisively act and promptly fix and reconcile these broken relationships. Therefore, the churches should encourage their members to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper ahead of time.[45] The Lord’s Supper will then be an occasion of recommitment of oneself to the Lord and to his body. Then we will look to our worthy participation ahead with greater anticipation.

The church should withhold the bread and cup from those who are known to be living in blatant sin. In other cases, it is probably best to leave to the individuals the decision as to whether they want to participate.

  1. The elements to be used

If our concern is to duplicate the original conditions, we will use the unleavened bread of the traditional Passover meal and wine. If our concern is the symbolism, we might use a loaf of leavened bread and grape juice. While some local food and drinks have been proposed as a substitute for traditional elements, the use of weird substitutes for variety should be avoided. The traditional use of bread and wine should be retained because they maintain the original reference to Jesus Christ, who instituted the sacrament with these elements.[46] Anyway, our chief concern should be how to reenact the biblical meaning of the Lord’s Supper, not reenact the literal event only. There are benefits of using “one loaf” and “one cup,” in which all partake (1Cor. 10:17). This visualizes not only Christ’s body broken and his blood shed for us, but also pictures the unity of the participants. As the community of Christ we all share in one body of Christ.   

  1. The frequency of observance

The Bible doesn’t prescribe how often the Lord’s Supper is to be observed. In the early church the ordinance was observed every time the church came together. There are different traditions regarding the frequency of observance: yearly, quarterly, monthly, or weekly or more often. The Reformer Calvin urged the churches to celebrate the Communion frequently. For him its weekly observance was most desirable, but his practical proposal was a monthly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.[47] How often should we celebrate this sacrament?

Some argue that whenever the whole body of the church assembles for worship, Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated as part of the act of worship.[48] The Communion, however, is not essential for a worship celebration, although it is a high point of the worship service. In actuality, the Lord’s Supper has the effect of bringing preconscious beliefs into consciousness. We should therefore observe it often enough to prevent long gaps between times of reflection on the truths it signifies.[49] If the time gaps between its celebrations grow too long, we would miss abundant benefits it promises to provide for our spiritual life. Therefore, it seems preferable to celebrate this sacrament at least once a month so that we can receive the spiritual benefits promised in it.

In addition to its regular observance at the local church, the celebration of the Communion is highly recommended whenever the body of Christ assembles for worship from different local churches. The Communion will put the focus of the gathering on our Lord and Savior who broke his body for us and shed his blood for our forgiveness, renewing our hearts. And it powerfully proclaims the unity of individual Christians in one body of Christ as the eschatological community sharing one story of the coming kingdom of God.


[1] Eschatology means doctrine of the last things. The church is eschatological in that it signals the beginning of the end time. The church has been created by the coming Kingdom of God in Jesus the Messiah. It testifies to the kingdom of God that is through Jesus Christ both present and future. The New Testament witness about the arrival of the future kingdom is well described by a New Testament scholar G.E. Ladd in his book The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids, 1974); W.G. Kummel, Promise and Fulfillment: The Eschatological Message of Jesus, trans. (London, 1971); J. Moltmann masterfully presents a messianic, future-oriented ecclesiology: The church is “the messianic people destined for the coming kingdom…In the power of the Holy Spirit the church experiences itself as the messianic fellowship of service for the kingdom of God” (J. Moltmann, Kirche in der Kraft des Geistes, trans. The Church in the Power of the Spirit (London, 1977),  p.289); S. Grenz also sets forth the doctrine of “church” in the context of the coming kingdom of God (S. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God). Cf. H.J. Kraus.

[2] Cf. regarding the number of the sacraments see footnote 12.  

[3] R. Wallace, “Sacrament,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 965; see also S. Norman, Sacrament, in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, 2003); this historical overview is indebted to D. Bloesch, The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 148ff.

[4] Cited in Calvin, Institutes IV, 4; cf. D. Bloesch, The Church, 149.

[5] B. Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, tans. F. E. Stoeffler (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 138.

[6] The start of the Protestant Reformation is usually dated in 1517, when M. Luther published The Ninety-Five Theses

[7] See Calvin, Institutes, IV, 14, 1-17.

[8] Cf. S. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 514f.

[9] Cited in D. Boesch, The Church, 151. From F. T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments, 244.

[10] Cf.  K. Barth unfolds the teaching of the church regarding baptism in his Church Dogmatics IV,4.  

[11] D. Bloesch, The Church, 153.

[12] There is disagreement about the actual number of sacraments. In the Council of Lyons (1274), the medieval church affirmed the seven sacraments as the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church: baptism, confirmation, the Lord’s Supper, penitence, unction, orders, and  marriage. The Council of Trent (1562) insisted on this position. The Reformation, however, reduced the number to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Cf. Westminster Larger Catechism, question162.

[13] Cf. Calvin, Institutes, IV, 1-6; Westminster Confession of Faith, XXVII; Larger Catechism 168.

[14] Westminster Catechism of Faith, XXVII 1; this Reformed emphasis is very helpful for us to understand the meaning of sacraments.

[15]  Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith; A.A. Hodge. A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith with Scripture Proofs.

[16] M, Eugene Osterhaven, “Sacrament” in Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith; cf. Bloesch, 174.

[17] Michael Horton, In the Face of God, 146.

[18] M. Horton, 219; Bloesch, 175.

[19] Refer to a Reformed emphasis; cf. A.A. Hodge, A Commentary on Westminster Confession of Faith.

[20] Cf. Grenz, 522.

[21] Cf. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology; R. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith.

[22] Reformed theologians base their argument on the covenant God made with Abraham: God made a spiritual covenant with Abraham and with his seed (Gen. 17:7). Since the OT covenant remains in force, if children were included in the covenant, then they are today. But the question is this: “If anything has taken the place of external circumcision, then, it is not baptism but internal circumcision” (Erickson, Christian Theology, 1109). A question to be raised is: Has circumcision passed? Was not circumcision a seal of the covenant given to Israel a covenant people? According to many scholars, circumcision had nothing to do with the Gentiles from the very beginning.

[23] Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, 263-305; cf. Grenz, 526.

[24] M. Erickson, Christian Theology, 1107ff.

[25] Grenz, 527.

[26] See Grudem, Systematic Theology; Erickson, Christian Theolgy; Grenz, 528 and references there.

[27] Cf. S. Grenz; H. Cook, What Baptists Stand For (London, 1958).

[28] Strong, Systematic Theology, 957.

[29] Cited in Grenz, 526. From Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 219.

[30] Pedobaptists usually insist on the rite of the Confirmation in which the baptized declare their personal faith later in life.

[31] See “Baptism” in TDNT; “Baptizo” in Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon; cf. the word hrantizo means “to sprinkle.”

[32] Cf. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953).

[33]  Cf. Grenz, 530f.

[34] At this juncture, I basically follow Erickson (Christian Theology, 1123ff) who provides a good summary of four views on the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper during the Reformation.

[35]  M. Luther, de captivitate babylonica ecclesiae, trans. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in Three Treatises (Philadelphia, 1943). 

[36] Cited in Grenz, 535. From Calvin, Short Treatise on the Holy Supper, trans. JK.S. Reid, in Calvin: Theological Treatises, vol. 22 of the Library of Christian Classics (London, 1954), 166. 

[37] Calvin, Institutes IV, 17,12.

[38] Calvin, Theological Treatises, 144-146; Bloesch, 161.

[39] D. Bloesch, 161.

[40] M. Erickson, 1130f.

[41] D. Bloesch points out four dimensions (The Church, 161); cf. S. Grenz, 536.

[42] S. Grenz, 535f.

[43] J. Moltmann presents a Messianic ecclesiology in his stirring book, Kiche in der Kraft des Geistes (Chr. Kaiser: Muenchen, 1975), trans. The Church in the Power of the Spirit. He develops the Lord’s Supper from an eschatological perspective pointing out the future dimension of the sacrament. Cf. also Hans Joachim Kraus, Systematische Theologie (Neukirchen, 1984).

[44] Cf. Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology; Grenz, 538.

[45] Allison, Sojourners and Strangers (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 407.

[46] Cited in Allion, Sojourners and Strangers, 400. From G. Wainwright, Doxology, 134.

[47] Cf. Allison, 399. See reference there (Calvin, Articles concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva 1537).

[48] Cf. Allison (399) concurring with Ben Witherington, Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the Theology of the Lord’s Supper (Dallas: Baylor University Press, 2007), 137.

[49] Erickson, 1134.