The Lord’s Supper, Food, Nourishment, Grace, and Symbolism

There is a tendency in modern Christianity to think of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as purely symbolic acts. I believe this tendency is largely due to an overreaction to the Catholic position of transubstantiation and baptismal regeneration. And this is unfortunate, because while clearly transubstantiation and baptismal regeneration are not scriptural, overreacting to one heresy by running away from some aspect of truth is not a good solution.

The church fathers referred to the sacraments as “means of grace”. By this they meant that the sacraments are ways in which God delivers grace to His children, the saved.

This description is most useful because it places the emphasis of the source of grace firmly upon God and not upon some innate magic in the actions of eating bread and wine or being dunked in some body of water. But the danger here is that one could infer from this description that because the sacraments are merely the means of grace it is correct to view them as purely symbolic actions.

And this is true to an extent, but it is true in the same way that it would be appropriate to refer to food as a “means of nourishment”. Think about that for a moment if you will.

The only reason that a man may eat bread or cheese or meat or fruit and receive nourishment from it, is because Jehovah, the Almighty God of Heaven has chosen to bless food with this property. And if in his good pleasure, he should choose to withhold this grace, a man could eat all day and receive no benefit to his body.

It is in this same way that baptism and communion are means of grace. It is not that they are somehow completely different acts from eating, but they are acts of obedience that God has chosen to bless.

And this is comforting. It means that in the same way that food begins to affect us before we eat it, in the same way that we take pleasure in its preparation, in its consumption, and in that feeling of fullness that follows our feasts, so communion and baptism are both physical and spiritual things. The plainness of the bread, the sweetness of the vine, the thoughts and ideas that we associate with these simple elements, and all this contrasted with the knowledge of Christ’s deity and His humanity, his beaten flesh, his bloodied head, and what his crucifixion was accomplishing for us and for the entire world, all of this is part of what we are partaking.

So communion is not ‘merely’ a symbol, except in the sense that all things are symbolic. And communion is a means of grace, in the same way that all the gifts of our Heavenly Father are means of his most tender love for us.

Think of this the next time you break the bread and drink the cup.

As always, feedback is appreciated.

19 thoughts on “The Lord’s Supper, Food, Nourishment, Grace, and Symbolism”

  1. So are you saying that communion involves “real spiritual blessing,” but that such blessing is always inherent to the acts of eating and drinking, when we do so to the glory of God? Or is communion substantially different?

  2. So are you saying that communion involves “real spiritual blessing,” but that such blessing is always inherent to the acts of eating and drinking, when we do so to the glory of God? Or is communion substantially different?

  3. I wasn’t trying to specifically tie regular eating and drinking together into the same thing as communion (but the fact that God chose eating and drinking does tell us something – he could have just as reasonably chose anything else, such as fishing, or stamp collecting – talk about a shot in the arm to philately 🙂

    The reason I chose food as an example of a means of grace is because of the assumed “mundane” nature of the act, and because of it’s physical significance. My primary goal was to illustrate that we place a layer between ourselves and communion that does not exist. Communion is as real a thing as a meal is. By saying it is “merely” symbolic, we diminish the reality of it and we forget the significant symbolism that things like food bear as well.

    I feel like I’m doing the written equivalent of mumbling…
    Thanks for the read and the request for clarification!

  4. I wasn’t trying to specifically tie regular eating and drinking together into the same thing as communion (but the fact that God chose eating and drinking does tell us something – he could have just as reasonably chose anything else, such as fishing, or stamp collecting – talk about a shot in the arm to philately 🙂

    The reason I chose food as an example of a means of grace is because of the assumed “mundane” nature of the act, and because of it’s physical significance. My primary goal was to illustrate that we place a layer between ourselves and communion that does not exist. Communion is as real a thing as a meal is. By saying it is “merely” symbolic, we diminish the reality of it and we forget the significant symbolism that things like food bear as well.

    I feel like I’m doing the written equivalent of mumbling…
    Thanks for the read and the request for clarification!

  5. Good post.

    I grew up believing that communion was just symbolic. Then I went to a Lutheran college, where I heard about the doctrine of consubstantiation. At first I thought it was strange, but it did make me pay attention to what was really happening when I took communion. And communion became more than a symbol. I’m not sure I can find the words to convey it, but now when I take communion, I am connecting with Christ in a different way from normal, everyday experience. And there is a part of me that recognizes this even if I don’t “feel” anything special. In this very real sense, communion has become a means of grace to me.

  6. Good post.

    I grew up believing that communion was just symbolic. Then I went to a Lutheran college, where I heard about the doctrine of consubstantiation. At first I thought it was strange, but it did make me pay attention to what was really happening when I took communion. And communion became more than a symbol. I’m not sure I can find the words to convey it, but now when I take communion, I am connecting with Christ in a different way from normal, everyday experience. And there is a part of me that recognizes this even if I don’t “feel” anything special. In this very real sense, communion has become a means of grace to me.

  7. Thanks for the clarification. I think your point is a good one. Saying that communion is “merely” symbolic is kind of like saying that getting dunked in cold water is “merely” symbolic. Both are real experiences. I like Calvin’s position on communion, in that he says there is a real spiritual blessing for those who take communion in faith, since it’s a means of grace God has chosen to use. No magic, no smoke & mirrors, but a potential remembrance of and meeting with the risen Christ.

  8. Thanks for the clarification. I think your point is a good one. Saying that communion is “merely” symbolic is kind of like saying that getting dunked in cold water is “merely” symbolic. Both are real experiences. I like Calvin’s position on communion, in that he says there is a real spiritual blessing for those who take communion in faith, since it’s a means of grace God has chosen to use. No magic, no smoke & mirrors, but a potential remembrance of and meeting with the risen Christ.

  9. Spot on.

    This is why we are called to examine ourselves before we take communion. Our hearts must be right with God, because it is a very serious matter.

    Cheers.

  10. Spot on.

    This is why we are called to examine ourselves before we take communion. Our hearts must be right with God, because it is a very serious matter.

    Cheers.

  11. Sorry for being really delayed in replying here, but I appreciated this post. I tend toward viewing communion as very symbolic, but there is a risk in that of undermining the significance of the ritual. Even if it’s symbolic, it’s still a means of grace, as you point out.

  12. Sorry for being really delayed in replying here, but I appreciated this post. I tend toward viewing communion as very symbolic, but there is a risk in that of undermining the significance of the ritual. Even if it’s symbolic, it’s still a means of grace, as you point out.

  13. When I take a photograph it serves as a reminder of a past experience and when I look at that photograph the memories return with all the feelings and  enjoyment that were associated with the experience. Communion has served the purpose of reminding a corrupt church that it was Christ who paid for our sin and as a result we can come boldly to the throne of grace.  The means of grace is the cross. The reminder of grace available is communion.  The ‘church fathers’ often refer to leaders in the apostate church married to the world which seeks experience instead of life. Catholicism points to several means of grace to obtain salvation. Among these are infant baptism, marriage communion and the last rites. The interpretation of your message may be taken differently by those with differing backgrounds. So what is “means of grace in your lexicon?

    1. Hi Jim,
      Communion is only for those saved by the cross, so we are speaking of grace that is given to the children of God. Not all grace is saving grace (for who has received no grace at all) and those saved need not be saved again, so I am speaking of grace in that sense. 

    1. Absolutely. This is why I would vehemently disagree with those who say that communion IS grace rather than it simply being a means of grace or condemnation for the saved. If it IS grace, then how can one man take it and receive from it true blessing and comfort in his walk with Christ and another man take it and receive sickness and death?

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