It seems the Sacraments are a source of confusion to many believers today. Much ink has been spilt on different views of baptism; many blog posts and debates have been had about how often to have communion… but of late, it seems too few people are talking about what the Lord’s Supper actually is.
How should we view the Lord’s Supper? Is it a mere ritual, or is there something deeper behind it?
To find an answer, sometimes the best thing to do is to look to the saints of old. The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper offers the insights of Robert Bruce, one of Scotland’s most influential spiritual leaders from the 16th century. This book collects five of his sermons addressing the sacraments in general, the particulars of the Lord’s Supper and the preparation of our hearts.
To some looking to study this important matter, Bruce’s book might seem like an odd choice. The original sermons were preached in the late 16th century, with the Protestant Reformation in full swing and continuing to sweep across Europe. Because of this, much of the book is focused on refuting the Roman church’s understanding of the Mass while explaining the Reformed (and more specifically the Presbyterian) view.
An extremely beneficial element of his theology of the Lord’s Supper actually comes from Bruce’s understanding of the sacraments in general: They are a “holy sign and seal that is annexed to the preached Word of God to seal up and confirm the truth contained in the same Word” (33). It’s not just that the Lord’s Supper is a symbol or a sign—a concept that we have no problem understanding even today—it’s a seal of a promise.
Communion is more than a reminder of Christ’s death for our sins, his body broken and blood shed. The “mystery,” according to Bruce, is the symbol is the image of the spiritual nourishment we are provided through the gospel—”In this Sacrament we have the fruits of Christ’s death…the virtue of His sacrifice, the virtue of His passion” (72). But we don’t have these alone—we have the substance these fruits “flow and proceed” from. In the Lord’s Supper, then, our spirit is nourished by the person of Christ, who is the one signified in the symbol.
Clear as mud, right?
Admittedly, Bruce’s writing is not the easiest to digest and synthesize. There is much of the theology of the Lord’s Supper he lays out that I doubt I’ve actually got a firm grasp on. Perhaps it’s that Bruce is attempting to describe something that defies proper description. The mystery of the Lord’s Supper is a mystery for a reason—nevertheless, an answer is there and meant to be found. It’s not that Christ’s presence is literally in the bread and wine (or juice depending on conviction) as in the Roman Catholic view; the bread is bread and the wine is wine. The form and substance are one and the same. And yet, Christ is really active and present in communion—there’s more going on than merely going through a ritual.
Like I said, clear as mud.
Or maybe I’m a bit slow.
What I found most helpful, perhaps moreso than his actual teaching on the Lord’s Supper, is Bruce’s teaching about how to prepare our hearts to partake. He takes Paul’s command that every man should examine himself before coming to the table (1 Cor. 11:28) with the utmost seriousness (something perhaps we lack in our modern teaching). He frequently exhorts his readers to examine their consciences, not with a spirit of unhelpful introspection, but out of a desire to truly see where the affections of our hearts lie. I couldn’t help but shudder a bit when I read these words:
Examine whether you have faith or not; examine it by your desire to pray, and by the way you discharge your own private grudges. If you are lacking in these things, remember that a heart void of prayer and full of rancour is a heart that is faithless and meet for hell. (201)
Do you see why careful examination of ourselves is so important? Our lives and our habits reveal more about us than we’d care to admit. Prayerlessness and a tendency toward bitterness (and particularly an unwillingness to be free of it) should be a source of great concern—and so when we find it in our hearts, we ought to flee to the Lord, calling to him as the father of the dying child did, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
That, friends, is what it means to examine yourself honestly. It’s not a cursory view of yourself followed by an excuse or two about why your prayer life stinks (and I say that as one who’s got kind of a crummy prayer life at the moment). Honest examination will lead us to turn to the Lord for help, to strive to reconcile with others; to flee from sin and pursue peace with God. The very things accomplished in that which the Lord’s Supper signifies.
This is a book that requires thoughtful, intentional reading. Bruce’s theology of the Lord’s Supper is meaty stuff. It takes time to digest (and in all honesty, I’m not entirely certain I’ve fully absorbed everything he communicates). Nevertheless, careful students will find his teaching—especially that on preparing our hearts to come to the table—a great blessing.
Title: The Mystery of The Lord’s Supper: Sermons by Robert Bruce
Author: Robert Bruce (edited by Thomas F. Torrence)
Publisher: Christian Focus (2005)
Buy it at: Amazon