Calvin's Theology: The Lord's Supper

For John Calvin, worship was central to life - it is why man exists. Worship was also central to his understanding of the Reformation, for he believed that the church’s return to true worship was the flowering fruit of all that was being done in his time. Other than the preaching of God’s word, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the sacraments took a central role in Calvin’s theology of worship. About 14 percent of his entire Institutes is directed towards the topic of the sacraments.[1]

And yet Calvin was clear that all true worship hinges on the person of Jesus Christ, especially so when it comes to his theology of the Lord’s Supper. What we do at the Table is not only about what Jesus has done as our sacrificial Redeemer, but it is also about who he is as the Son of God and who we are in Him. And so it is that the Lord’s Supper is God’s gracious way of not only communicating this truth but also nourishing us in assurance of this truth! “Since this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows its figure and image in invisible signs best adapted to our small capacity. Indeed by giving guarantees and tokens he makes it as certain for us as if we had seen it with our own eyes.”[2]

Calvin, in a nod to Augustine, defined Communion as “an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith. And we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.”[3] But what undergirded Calvin’s understanding of Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, was his understanding of our union in Christ.

Keith Mathison, recently writing on Calvin’s understanding of union with Christ and the Lord’s Supper, points out that, for Calvin, a believer first enjoys a mystical union with Christ, namely our becoming one with him through faith and enjoying all the benefits of salvation in all that he is and has accomplished for us. But secondly, believers also enjoy a spiritual union in Christ which is the effect and fruit of that mystical union. “It is an ongoing and progressive union”, says Mathison, “it can grow and be strengthened throughout the believers life.”[4]

And so it was out of this spiritual union that Calvin understood Communion, the body and blood of Christ given to nourish and strengthen believers. Indeed, meditating upon John 6 Calvin noted that “just as bread and wine sustain physical life, so are our souls fed by Christ. We now understand the purpose of this mystical blessing, namely to confirm for us the fact that the Lord’s body was once for all so sacrificed for us that we may now feed upon it, and by feeding feel in ourselves the working of that unique sacrifice; and this his blood was once so shed for us in order to be our perpetual drink.”[5]

In Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians 5:30, a text where Paul explicitly lays out the believers union in Christ, Calvin writes that “as Eve was formed out of the substance of her husband Adam, and thus was a part of him, so, if we are to be true members of Christ, we grow into one Body by the communication of His substance. In short, Paul describes our union to Christ, a symbol and pledge of which is given to us in the holy Supper.”[6] Hughes Oliphant Old notes that for Calvin here, the Lord’s Supper was not just a commemoration of what Christ did on the cross but it was also a communication of himself to us. Calvin by no means saw the bread and wine as transubstantiated in the Roman Catholic sense becoming the actual body and blood of Christ, but rather as a sign and seal of a very real spiritual reality, namely our union in Christ by faith.

Hence, Calvin in his Institutes wrote: “I indeed admit that the breaking of the bread is a symbol; it is not the thing itself. But having admitted this, we shall nevertheless duly infer that by the showing of the symbol the thing itself is also shown. For unless a man means to call God a deceiver, he would never dare assert that an empty symbol is set forth by him. Therefore, if the Lord truly represents the participation in his body through the breaking of bread, there ought not to be the least doubt that he truly presents and shows his body.”[7]

For John Calvin, true worship was only possible by our very real participation in Christ.  This was a covenant relationship secured by the onetime event of his broken body and pouring out of his blood on the cross, but continually assured to us through the broken bread and the pouring of the wine. The Lord’s Supper nourished us in our worship and thus grew us in conformity to our Head! “Godly souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament; in it they have a witness of our growth into one body with Christ such that whatever is his may be called ours... This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him.”[8]

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] W. Robert Godfrey, “Calvin, Worship, and the Sacraments” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, ed. David Hall and Peter Lillback (P&R Publishing), 372.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.1 (Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeil), 2:1362

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.1 (Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeil), 2:1277.

[4] Keith A. Mathison, “The Lord’s Supper” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2017), 666.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.1 (Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeil), 2:1361.

[6] Commentary on Eph. 5:30 in John Calvin, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, trans. T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 208. This quote was found in Hughes Oliphant Old, Holy Communion: In The Piety Of The Reformed Church, ed. John Payne (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2013), p. 61.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.10 (Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeil), 2:1371.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.2 (Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeil), 2:1361-1362.


Stephen Unthank