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What is Holy Communion? Is It the Real Presence of Christ or Simply a Memorial of His Death?

There are many doctrines which separate Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Justification, Papal Infallibility and the Magisterium, just to name a few. The Protestant Reformers attacked each and every one of these doctrines, demonstrating quite handily that the Roman Church either ignored the clear teaching of Scripture or flat out denied it. 

With other doctrines, the lines drawn by the Reformers were not as clear. While the Reformers excoriated the doctrine of Eucharistic Transubstantiation, they did not always agree about the specifics about what was actually happening (spiritually and even physically) in communion.

First of all, what is Transubstantiation? Roman Catholics (as well as Orthodox, Coptic and many Anglicans) believe that the bread and wine (the Accidents) in communion, or the Eucharist actually BECOME the body and blood of Jesus. 

Most Protestants, especially Evangelicals think this doctrine is really weird. Why would Jesus turn the bread and wine into his actual flesh and blood for us to consume? It sounds so bizarre!

The View of Communion in the Reformation

During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers, like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli actually thought a LOT about this subject. Keep in mind that they were Priests in the Catholic Church before leaving the Roman Catholic Church.

In broad strokes, it might be helpful to know that the primary Reformers actually held different views about this subject.

Luther rejected Transubstantiation, but developed a similar view, called Consubstantiation. In his view, the bread and wine didn't turn into or become the body and blood of Christ, but that Christ was still present IN and AROUND the bread and wine (thus the preposition, “con” which means “with”)

In other words, Luther agreed with Rome that Christ is really present in and with the taking of communion. Maybe it is simplistic to say it this way, but Luther believed that we partake of Christ because He brings the bread and wine Himself and His graces are given to His people when they partake.

At one meeting, in Marburg, while arguing with Ulrich Zwingli about the issue, it is reported that Luther took his knife and carved the words of Jesus into the wooden table... “This IS my body.” Put very simply, Luther believed in the REAL PRESENCE of Christ in communion.

Calvin took one step away from this view. He believed that God's graces are present in communion, and that Christ Himself is present in communion, but not physically present. He did make the case that in communion, we are united to Christ in a very special way.

Zwingli took yet another step away from the Roman view and the Real Presence of Christ in communion. Arguably, Zwingli was the father of the modern Evangelical view known as the “Memorial View.”

Zwingli did not say that Christ is not present with His church in communion. He just argued that Christ is present with His church always. Communion does not confer any graces to God's people any more than say, fellowship does after the service. He believed the importance of communion is to remember what Christ has done for us in his work on the cross.

As mentioned, this is the view of almost every Evangelical in the world today. I myself preached this view and held this view and practiced this view for 20+ years.

So, which is true? Is Christ present in Communion, in a special way, or isn't He? It's kind of an important question, don't you think? 

Before I answer this question, I want to challenge my Evangelical brothers and sisters to ask yourself a simple Jesus style question.

Where did you get the Memorial view of Communion? Most Evangelicals I know would answer that question simply, “I got it from the Bible.” After all, both Jesus and Paul said, “Do this in REMEMBERANCE of me.”

Problems with The Memorial View of Communion

There are several problems with this interpretation.

1. Jesus Said More on the Subject

That is not all the Bible says about it. In John 6, Jesus told His disciples (along with Jewish leaders who were present),

“Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54, ESV).

That sounds really weird, right? It sounded weird to Jesus' followers as well. In fact, right after Jesus preached this sermon in the Synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus' disciples “heard it and they said, 'This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (v. 60). A few minutes later, John tells us in v. 66, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him.”

Loony indeed. In this chapter, Jesus sounds like He is teaching some sort of cannibalism. Is it not at least interesting that throughout the history of the first, second and third century church, the church was often accused of cannibalism, on account of their secret rite (ceremony) of communion?

The retort I have most often heard from Evangelicals when you even bring up John 6 is simply that "Jesus used figures of speech".

Well yes. Of course Jesus used figures of speech. Jesus said, “I am the door” but he wasn't actually a door was He? No.

But as it turns out, some of His figures of speech took on a reality that cannot be explained by the human mind. No logic will suffice. When Jesus said “I and the Father are one,” we all believe He was speaking of the Trinity. But no human logic can fully explain the Trinity. Any and all attempts at analogy fall desperately short.

Through John the Baptist, Jesus affirmed that He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Was Jesus a real lamb? Yes and no. Metaphysically, he was not a lamb. He was human. But in a REAL SENSE, He was a lamb, even as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “For Christ, our Passover lamb has been sacrificed.”

In addition, Jesus also connected His own flesh to the Manna, which God gave from heaven. The Manna was "real" (but it was not from earth, it was from heaven) and it was given to sustain the life of God's people. So too, as Jesus taught, “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:58).

As Evangelicals, I would argue, we have a really hard time with the notion of “What is real?” We are definitely children of western philosophy more than we are children of the eastern categories. We have inherited the tendencies of our fathers who came out of the Enlightenment (or better: Endarkenment!)

We often don't see logic as being Godly, but as being the ONLY Godly way of thinking. We are also highly materialistic. If you can't see it, it isn't real.

My good friend, Doug Van Dorn (Along with Matt Foreman) recently wrote an excellent book on the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament. In terms of understanding God's presence, this book will rock your world-view. I highly recommend it. You can get it here on Amazon (no affiliate links present).

2. Where Did the Memorial View of Communion Come From?

The second problem with the Memorial view of Communion is its origin.

Ask yourself this question. If the Memorial view of Communion is the Biblical view of Communion, wouldn't it make sense that the view was taught some time before Zwingli and the Protestant Reformation?

Didn't the Church Father's read the Bible as well?

Can you find me ONE Church Father (early or late) who espoused anything like the Memorial view of Communion? Just ONE?

In short, you can't. Don't waste your time.

In my view, the Memorial view of Communion is completely anachronistic. It is reading our view, or interpretation back into the Scriptures. It is not an historical view. No one taught it or thought it until around the time of the Reformation.

3. The Memorial View of Communion Robs the Church of the Love and Presence of Christ

Jesus does not love the Church as a good boss loves his employees. Nope. He loves the Church as a husband SHOULD love His bride. We are the Bride of Christ, and when Jesus comes to us, He comes to give us everything we need (His graces) in order to be cleansed in our conscience and feel ready and fit to be united to Him.

As Evangelicals, we think that this only happens through the ministry of His Word. It DOES happen through the ministry of His Word. But His Word is not enough.

Wait. What? Did I just say that “His Word is not enough?” Yes. I said it.

The Written Word of God is NOT Enough


When God commanded His people to bring sacrifices into the Tabernacle and Temple and to sacrifice them on the altar, was that His Word? Of course. He commanded it.

But you can't write down a ceremony. You have to do it.

In the same way, in the New Testament, God has given us ceremonies and festivals. I won't argue number here, but almost every Evangelical agrees that Jesus commanded two ordinances, Communion and Baptism.

By the way, somewhere in the history of this change, we changed the language from “Sacraments” (which is a ceremony that actually confers something) to “Ordinances” (which basically means "commands").

Why? We don't like ceremonies. We like words. But words are NOT ENOUGH! Word have NEVER been enough. They were not enough for Cain and Able and they are not enough for us.

Allow me one more rabbit trail here, before I get to the main point.

The Frequency of Communion

Why do Evangelicals (and now many other Protestants) take communion only once per month, or twice per year, as in some traditions?

Surprisingly, the answer is not in Scripture. It is in history.

During the Protestant Reformation (especially the later Reformation), the church had a problem. New Protestant churches were popping up all over the place, but there weren't enough Pastors to preach and administer the Sacraments (Baptism and Communion).

Some Pastors in some places became circuit riders. They were only able to get to a particular local church maybe once per month or less.

THAT is the origin of occasional Communion. Nothing else.

Regardless of your view of Communion, these circumstances almost never apply. There is NO REASON that you should not be taking communion every time you meet together for worship.

Although it is a separate post, the Sacraments, and especially Communion... ARE THE WORSHIP OF GOD! They are not addons to be tacked on to the end of a service once per month. Modern Evangelicals think of "worship" as the singing time. Not so! Singing is a PART of worship, but worship involves the whole liturgy that literally and figuratively lifts us up to heaven into the very throne room of grace! 

If you take nothing else from this post, please, I beg of you, take Communion seriously. Enter the presence of God with “reverence and awe” through the Body and Blood of Christ, because God is “a consuming fire!” (Hebrews 12:28-29).

In summary, I am going to give you the two (essentially two) views of Communion in a way that anyone can understand.

The Two Views Summarized

1. In the Memorial view, God's written Word says... Come and take Communion because of what God has done for you through Christ on the cross. This is what He has done. This is what He is doing. This is what He will do. Come because we remember what He has done.

2. In The Real Presence view, Christ, the Living Word says... Come, sit with Me, think upon Me, adore Me, taste of Me, for I will give you everything you need to sustain you in this life and forevermore. I will protect you from the wrath of God, because in my presence, not even the smoke shall harm you.

Taste and see that the Lord is good!