Michael Horton’s Understanding of the Lord’s Supper

From God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology:

Salvation and the Sacraments

God of PromiseThe Holy Spirit brings to fruition the “new creation” in Christ. Horton uses speech-act theory in relationship to God’s work in the world, “The Father speaks, the Son is spoken, and the Spirit brings about in history the effect and perfection of this speech” (137). The Father planned salvation, the Son accomplished salvation through His life, death, and resurrection, and the Spirit applies it personally to people. How does the Spirit apply it? He applies it through our faith. But where does faith come from? God’s Word. The preaching of the Word creates faith in believers. A Christian’s faith is then confirmed by the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments are signs and seals of God’s covenant promises.

The ceremonies surrounding the sacraments belong to the world of covenant-making (137). Horton writes, “Every time we witness a baptism or receive Communion, God is shaking hands on the deal he has made with us” (137). His hands are the “larger” hands, which enfold ours in this divine-human hand shake. While we must believe the promises given in the covenant, God makes good on them (138). Both the OT and the NT confirm the identity of the sacraments as “signs and seals” of the covenant, which is tied to covenant ratification (138). The sacraments are tied directly to the covenant.

There is a big difference between “religion” and Christianity. Religion tries to placate God through moral efforts, while in Christianity the point is to be, “Summoned and addressed by and bound to the covenant Lord” (139). Therefore, God’s Word is central. Genesis 3:8-10 illustrates the primacy of God’s Word. God’s presence comes as both bad and good news. For those who are rightly related to the Lord, His presence is a blessing. However, to not be rightly related it to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

When we talk about God’s presence, we’re not really talking about “space.” God is everywhere; He’s omnipresent. When we talk about being “near” or “far” from God, we’re talking about our relationship to Him (139). Our problem can be summed up with this question: “Where is God for me, for us, given where we are (in sin and death)?” (139).

Whenever Israel took God’s grace for granted, the result was idolatry: a “god” could be near without bringing judgment for our sins (140). (See the golden calf incident in Exodus 32). When Moses intercedes for the people, God’s presence is the response to Moses’ need for reassurance (141). It is God’s presence, not Israel’s righteousness, which is the distinctive mark of Israel.

Moses has an opportunity to gain greater intimacy with the Lord after this incident. Although Moses wants to see God’s “face,” God shows Moses His “back”—which comes in the form of words: an announcements of His glory and goodness (141-42). God’s full presence would be terrifying to sinful creature so He accommodates to our weakness through His words.

God’s face is equivalent with His presence. Thus, when God’s face is “lifted up” and shines on people this a good thing. When it is not, it’s not a good thing.

Paul goes on to argue that God’s presence is found in His Word, as is confirmed in Colossians 1 and Romans 10. “The presence of God is to be sought in His Word and God’s gracious presence is to be sough particularly ‘the word of faith'” (143).

“Only in the consummation is the full presence of God seen, and than in the face of the glorified Son” (cf. Rev. 1:16) (143).  Name, word, proclamation, promise, and presence are covenant words.

Passover and the Lord’s Supper: Covenant Meal

In the Bible, meals often signify the making of a covenant. Recall Moses, Aaron and the elders eating with Yahweh (155). The Bible also ties ritual “cutting” to the actual making of the covenant: “The sign and the thing signified were viewed neither as identical nor in isolation” (155). For example, circumcision could stand in for the covenant. The term “Passover” could stand for the whole Passover event in which later generations identified with the original generation that experienced it. Furthermore, the vassal in a covenant could invoke the suzerain for help. Calling on the name of the Lord is a covenant term for calling on the help of a stronger king. The covenant, therefore, is not only secured (i.e. made) through spoken words, but also through actions. The Passover meal did not create the covenant, but rather confirmed that, yes, there is a covenant with God, and, yes, we are His people.

There is a distinction, yet unity, to the sign and what it signifies: “Paul represents the sign and the thing signified as distinct yet united” (156). The union of the sign and what it signifies is covenantal and centers on the mediator. Paul further shows the unity of the sign and what it signifies by showing that those who eat sacrifices are participants in the altar upon which those sacrifices were made (1 Corinthians 10:18). Eating “united” the participants to the “god” of the altar.

Horton argues for a “third way” between two errors. The first error is “sacerdotal” (Roman Catholic) error: failure to distinguish the sign from the reality. In this view, no sacrament actually exists because the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. (Thus, they’re no longer bread and wine). The reality obliterates the sign. The second error is the “memorialist” error, which doesn’t recognize any union between the sign and the reality. There is no sacrament here either, because all that is left is the sign itself. The sign does not get attached to the reality: “They are not themselves regarded as the occasions of God’s powerful witness and work” (157).

Horton then analyzes how each view treats the “warning” of 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. The Roman Catholic Church views it as a warning against the wrong view of the Lord’s Supper. You must acknowledge transubstantiation. The memorialist views it as a warning to “rigorous self-examination.” Are you “holy” enough to partake in Communion? (157). Looking at the wider context of 1 Corinthians 8-10,  the Reformed view shows us that the main point is that the, “Sacred meal unites the participants into one body” (158). After the words of institution, Paul gives the warning in 11:27. What he means is that, “One cannot worthily receive the body and blood of Christ in the supper while destroying the body of Christ that is the church” (158). For Paul, the warning of examination is all about how we treat each other in the church. Horton shows from Scripture that, “Wherever there is a discussion of unity in the New Testament, the sacraments are close at hand” (159- Ephesians 4:5; Galatians 3:26-28; 1 Corinthians 10:17; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

The Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal. Communion confirms God’s pledge to us (“I am Your God”). It is also a “family meal”—a confirmation of our pledge to God and each other (159).  Communion has “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions. We have “fellowship” with Christ in the meal and thus it binds us in “fellowship” with each other.

The Lord’s Supper as covenant meal has practical implications. First, it unites believers together and does away with worldly divisions. When viewed as a “memorial,” it becomes too focused on the individual and we lose the corporate character of communion. The memorial view also becomes too focused on being threatened by the Law. Consequently, memorialism undercuts the joy of the Supper and causes churches not to want  to celebrate it that often. When it is view corporately, however, we gain joy because it is a foretaste of the divine marriage supper of the Lamb.

Worthiness to partake in the Supper does not depend on the individual clearing his/her conscience. According to Horton, if an individual is not excommunicated by the church, then they are a worthy recipient of the Lord’s Supper, “We need to make clear to our congregations that they cannot excommunicate themselves. After all, excommunication does mean to keep from communion. Yet we do not have this right to excommunicate ourselves” (161). The sacrament is not given to the individual who determines whether they are worthy, but the sacrament is precisely given to strengthen weak faith. Since the sacrament is good news visibly demonstrated (see St. Augustine), then the “worthy eating” is about reverence for what’s taking place, and not divisions within the body of Christ (162).

Spiritual disciplines help us grow. But the Word and sacraments are the means of grace. While we come to God in prayer, God comes to us through Word and sacrament! We cannot bestow grace upon ourselves, only the King can bestow His favor on His subjects. Nothing we do through our own efforts can confirm God’s promises in our lives. Only God can do that. This is why He comes to us and commands us to preach the Word and observe the sacraments (162).

What Do Sacraments Do?

Too often, discussion of the sacraments get caught up in a philosophical question of, “How can material things convey invisible grace?” (163). Roman Catholicism answers: The spiritual obliterates the material (transubstantiation). Memorialism says: material things cannot, so it’s just a remembrance.

We need to think in covenantal terms, not philosophical ones. The bread and wine joined to the Word of God by the Spirit are connected to the heavenly reality. They seal the covenant like the blood shedding and covenant did in the Near Eastern worldview. There is no contrast between spirit and matter. When kings in the ANE pronounced blessing and curses “on the head of a ram,” they weren’t saying that the actual substance of the ram changed, but its use. Now the ram was designated as the “federal head,” it represented the political body connected to the god on behalf of the people.

Furthermore, grace is not a substance, but a personal attribute (164). Grace is God’s own attitude and action that He shows to those who deserve only judgment. If we think in terms of a king bestowing favor rather than a substance being infused into the soul, then much of the confusion is cleared up (164).

The contrast is then not between the material and spiritual but between “this age” and the “age to come.” In this age, we are under constant assault in our consciences. But in the age to come, we will be with Christ. The amazing truth of the gospel is that the age to come has broken into this age through the giving of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-15). Now, the Holy Spirit brings believers into communion with the physically absent Redeemer (John 14:26). To say that our communion with Christ is spiritual is not saying that it’s opposed to matter. Rather, what we’re talking about it is that it refers to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes us participate in the semi-realized new creation (164). The presence of God in this age is a “coming presence.”

The bread is consecrated and thus set apart by words. The words aren’t directed toward the bread, but to the hearers. They are for our benefits. Calvin writes: The sacrament consists of a visible sign, which is connected somehow to the reality. We need to receive this promise by faith. Through faith, we are actually made partakers of Christ’s flesh and blood. Why would Christ command us to eat bread if we didn’t actually participate in Christ’s body and blood?

Calvin speaks of the analogy of bread and flesh. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ condescends down to their level. The Reformers believed that our faith needed these physical sacraments to be sustained. Furthermore, God responded to Abraham by giving him a sign and seal of the covenant (165).

The Reformed Confessions hold to two truths. First, Christ is ascended bodily and therefore is not present in, much less as, the elements. Second, believers nevertheless receive this same Christ. But they received Him in heaven where he is seated on the Father’s right hand. The agent who brings us up to heaven so to speak and makes us commune with Christ is the Holy Spirit (166). We receive in Christ both His divine nature and human (bodily) nature. Thus, the Lord’s Supper is a mystery. The Spirit, takes that which belongs to Christ and gives it to us. The Spirit cries out in our hearts “Abba! Father!” but also effects our communion with the ascended Lord (166).

Communion confirms God’s promises, “The Lord’s Supper is at first God’s certification of His unyielding oath” (167). Christ died for us as the words of institution say. Through our eating and drinking, the new covenant is reconfirmed and supports our faith. It is the actions of God that make the sacraments effective, not our own works (167). The benefits offered by the sacraments are the same the gospel: Christ and all his treasures. The sacraments point to and reconfirm the promises of the gospel (167). The Reformers did not deny the reality of the presence of Christ. They just redefined it biblically. It was a union of the sign and the reality. The Reformed hold that the real presence of Christ is there in the whole of the Lord’s Supper, not just the elements themselves. In the supper, we have the signs and the realities they signify.

God’s presence in the Lord’s Supper is not a question of space, but of relationship (170). God is present, He is near, and He comes in peace. The Lord’s Supper not only looks to the past, but to the future. We look to the coming of Christ (1 Corinthians  11:26). There is close unity between the covenant word and the sacramental ratification (171). The Holy Spirit is our down payment/guarantee and will make us share in the world to come.

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