The Lord’s Table (Not Altar)

One of the many deep, theological, biblical, and practical differences between Roman Catholic churches and Reformed churches is the understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Rome teaches that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine become Christ’s actual body and blood which are then offered on the altar as a sacrifice.  “The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice. …In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 2, Article 3, various sections).

The entire discussion would fill a book, but suffice it to say here that the confessional Reformed response completely resists the ideas of “sacrifice” and “altar” when it comes to the bread and wine of Holy Communion.  The Heidelberg Catechism shows how Rome’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper throws a dark fog over the gospel:

“…the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have their sins forgiven through the suffering of Christ unless Christ is still offered  for them daily by the priests. It also teaches that Christ is bodily present in the form of bread and wine where Christ is therefore to be worshiped.  Thus the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry” (Q/A 80).

I like how Herman Bavinck talks about the altar, the sacrifice, and the Lord’s Supper based on Hebrews.  (The quote at the end of Bavinck’s paragraph is from Calvin’s Institutes.)

“The difference between the worship of the Lord and that of the New Testament consists…in the fact that temple and altar, priest and sacrifice, are no longer in earth but in heaven.  The Jerusalem that is above is the mother of us all (Gal. 4.26).  This is where Christ, our eternal high priest, has entered on our behalf (Heb. 6.20) after having by one sacrifice accomplished an external redemption (9.12), to appear before the face of God for us (9.24).  There Christians have their sanctuary, into which they enter with boldness through the blood of Jesus (4.16, 10.19, 12.22).  Here on earth we merely meet among ourselves, a meeting in which there is no room for sacrifice (10.25).  The only altar Christians have is the cross on which Christ brought his sacrifice (13.10; cf 7.27, 10.10).  From that altar, that is, from the sacrifice brought on it, they eat when by faith they have communion with Christ and his benefits.  Believers have to bring no sacrifice other than the sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that praise his name (13.15).  The Lord’s Supper is a sacrificial meal, a meal of believers with Christ on the basis of his sacrifice and therefore one that must be served on a table, not an altar.  ‘This is indeed very certain: that the cross of Christ is overthrown, as soon as the altar is set up.”

Well said.  Based on that summary of Hebrews, I also agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith (29.2) which says that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not an offering or real sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.  Rather it is a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice he offered, once for all, on the cross as well as a spiritual act of thanksgiving and praise.  “The Popish sacrifice of the mass is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of his elect.”

The above quote by Bavinck is found in volume four of Reformed Dogmatics (p. 566).

shane lems

12 Replies to “The Lord’s Table (Not Altar)”

  1. I wonder if our first priority ought to be another. Not only the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand, and the churches born of the Reformation on the other, built confessional identities around disparate understandings of the Eucharist, to the point of anathematizing, persecuting, and killing each other on that basis; so did many churches born of the Reformation among themselves.

    If we now realize that culture wars of this kind among Christians are scandalous to believers and non-believers alike, and a sin against the Holy Spirit, how do we confess the truth as we understand it, fearlessly and unapologetically, without going down the road once again of selecting a Christian tradition other than our own as a convenient punching bag and flailing away?

    I happen to be more Lutheran than Reformed in my understanding of the Lord’s Supper. I share the deep misgivings Luther had vis-a-vis Zwingli’s spiritualism. I would love to be corrected, but I believe Bavinck moves in Z’s direction. I am happy to develop the understanding I believe to be more faithful to the witness of Scripture with fellow Christians, but only if I am confident that I am not going to become a fellow Christian’s punching bag in the process.

    But are we mature enough as Christians to carry on a conversation on these matters with sufficient respect and awareness of the vagaries of history and tradition? My question is an honest one.


    1. John, I read your blog just after I had written somrthing else on this subject, and I felt compelled to mention something. Shane and I have differences, especially when it comes to things like church government, baptism (I am Reformed Baptist and Congregational), and recently I discovered that he and I do not share the same ideas on counseling those who suffer from depression, but I am always excited to see another one of his blogs in my inbox. We differ greatly in some points, but we learn from one another. I am not always right, and neither is Shane. We are both sinners saved only by grace! God intends us to learn from one another, explaining the scriptures to one another more fully, and sharing the truth in love. We are to build one another up, not tear one another apart. It is, however, most important that we base our convictions upon the sure foundation of the Word of God, and not the traditions of men. Are we mature enough? I certainly hope so.


    2. John: nice to see you drop by again.

      You touched on a lot of points in your comment, so hopefully my answer touches upon them all.

      First, when you said “first priority,” I gather you mean that our first priority should be charity in discussion and life. I can agree that we should be charitable. Certainly we should not break the commandments when we debate, dispute, and disagree with other Christians/churches/traditions. “Love one another” comes to mind. This conversation is, I suppose, all about getting along with those who have different beliefs.

      Second, there might be a time for sharp and blunt language (as long as it is based on truth). For example, Paul wasn’t always concerned with starting “culture wars.” I’m thinking specifically of his missionary journeys and epistles (shaking his clothes off at the Jews in Corinth, or saying the Galatian Judaizers were preaching a false gospel, etc.). When it comes to the gospel, sometimes this type of wording (as in the confessions quoted above) is appropriate even if the world doesn’t like it or if it rattles the cages of various Christians or those who call themselves Christians. Defending the gospel is also a high priority!

      Finally, I too am in disagreement with Zwinglianism. And I have to say that though this one paragraph above might not have shown it, Bavinck did stand in line with a confessional Reformed view of the Supper, that it is much more than a memorial or reminder like the 4th of July. He wrote many more pages on the Supper. For his view, you can just read Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 76 and 79.

      I pray for maturity to discuss these things with civility, moderation, and charity. At the same time, I suppose I don’t really care if someone uses me for a punching bag. I hope my blog post wasn’t making you into a punching bag. I certainly didn’t mean it that way.

      Thanks for the note,


    3. I was about to make a comment along the lines of the one offered by John Hobbins but he has said what I intended to say. I am as appalled by the Protestant destruction of Catholics and Roman Catholicism as I am by the Roman Catholic destruction of Protestants and their faith. The dogmatic certainty that the “popish” adherents were committing idolatry by believing that the Eucharist is the flesh and blood of Christ, and then punishing them as idolaters, is one of Calvinist Protestantism’s biggest blunders and scandals. In my opinion, John 6 can be read either in a Protestant or Roman Catholic interpretation. Protestants need to have a better sense that Catholics can honestly and sincerely hold their Faith’s creed on the Eucharist without being classed as death-deserving idolators. There is arrogance on both sides. There should be instead, charity and dialogue.


  2. I highly would recommend Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4. It is a most valuable reference tool, even for myself (Reformed Baptist). For those who may be of the same persuasion as I, it is interesting to note that the 1689 London Baptist Confession, chapter 30, is worded slightly different than the Westminster Confession, chapter 29. The LBCF, in paragraph 2 states, “…the popish sacrifice of the mass, as they call it, is most abominable, injurious to Christ’s own sacrifice the alone propitiation for all the sins of the elect.”


  3. I could agree that many differences spring from “the vagaries of history and tradition” and that it is often hard to tease these out from differences which spring more directly from misusing scripture, but if that can be demonstrated, that is, that a certain doctrine does not properly reflect the Bible’s teaching, and in fact, in its implications implicitly nullifies certain Bible teachings, then it is not simply “a convenient punching bag”. The Reformers showed that the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist was unscriptural and in deadly error, and I think they were right. Bavinck, as usual, is clear and concise in his exposition.


    1. I would like to quote again from the 1689 London Baptist Confession, chapter 30, Paragraph 6: “That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, commonly called transubstantiation, by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant not to Scripture alone (Acts 3:21;Lk 14;6,39), but even to common sense and reason, overthrows the nature of the ordinance, and has been, and is,the cause of manifold superstitions, yea, of gross idolatries “( I Cor. 11:24,25).
      There are some things we must take a stand for, for the sake of the truth of the Word of God, whether it offends others or not. The truth in love – but nevertheless – the truth as revealed in the Scriptures. Here we must stand!


  4. Christs altar was His life and death and resurrection. The Supper is the table our faith is strengthened and confirmed by communing by faith with Christ and His benefits. It is not his altar in any sense.


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