Eating the Words of Life: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 29


  1. Do, then, the bread and the wine become the real body and blood of Christ?

No, but as the water in Baptism is not changed into the blood of Christ, nor becomes the washing away of sins itself, being only the divine token and assurance thereof,1 so also in the Lord’s Supper the sacred bread2 does not become the body of Christ itself, though agreeably to the nature and usage of sacraments it is called the body of Christ.3

[1] Matt. 26:29. [2] 1 Cor. 11:26–28. [3] Ex. 12:26–27, 43, 48; 1 Cor. 10:1–4.


  1. Why then does Christ call the bread His body, and the cup His blood, or the new testament in His blood; and the Apostle Paul, the communion of the body and the blood of Christ?

Christ speaks thus with great cause, namely, not only to teach us thereby, that like as the bread and wine sustain this temporal life, so also His crucified body and shed blood are the true meat and drink of our souls unto life eternal;1 but much more, by this visible sign and pledge to assure us that we are as really partakers of His true body and blood by the working of the Holy Spirit, as we receive by the mouth of the body these holy tokens in remembrance of Him;2 and that all His sufferings and obedience are as certainly our own, as if we ourselves had suffered and done all in our own person.

[1] Jn. 6:51–55 (See Question 76). [2] 1 Cor. 10:16–17 (See Question 78).


Lord’s Day 29

Eating the Words of Life

The question of whether or not the bread and wine of the supper actually become the physical body of Christ was a hot one in the days when the Catechism was written, and remains a major point of disagreement between various Christian bodies today.  The Roman Catholics of course hold that by the priest’s words of consecration, the bread actually is changed, by a miracle, into the flesh of Christ, though it retains the appearance of bread, and likewise the wine actually becomes His blood.  This belief is supported Biblically by Jesus’ words in the institution of the Supper, “this is My body,” and in John 6 when Jesus repeatedly asserts that eating His flesh is necessary for eternal life.

The Lutherans also assert the physical presence of Christ in the elements of the supper, though they differ with the Roman Catholics in asserting that the flesh of Christ does not replace the bread, but exists “in, with and under” the bread, so that the bread remains and the flesh is there as well.

The Reformed rejected both of these schemes as bad readings of the texts in question, as logically inconsistent and as denying or undermining the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  A great deal has been written on the subject of the real presence of Christ examining the views of these other groups in detail, and it would be impossible to do them justice here.  It suffices us here to note that if the physical eating of Christ is necessary to forgiveness of sins, then justification by faith alone cannot be true.  The sacrament is, as question 79 says, a “visible sign and pledge.”  Thus the sacrament well agrees with the requirement of faith; rather than by muddying the waters with some other obligation for justification in addition to faith, the sacrament functions to even more emphatically push us toward faith in Christ, and to strengthen that faith when we have it.

Jesus said in John 6:53, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”  If partaking of the Lord’s Supper is physically eating the flesh of the Son of Man, then this passage and the others like it in John 6 are clearly making this physical act necessary to salvation.  But in many other places in John, and indeed throughout the Scriptures, Jesus advances belief in Him as the one and only requirement for salvation.  In John 11:25-26, Jesus tells Martha at the grave of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”  He mentions no other conditions.  And Paul tells the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.” (Acts 16:31)  Did Paul leave something out?

It’s not difficult to reconcile these passages to John 6, if we understand Jesus’ statement about eating His flesh in a figurative sense.  Right in John 6, Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life.” (v. 47)  And in verse 63 He says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”  Either Jesus gives conflicting requirements for salvation in different places, or else His statement regarding eating His flesh should be taken in a figurative sense, and there is plenty of indication right in John 6 that this is the correct way to read it.

The Lord’s Supper is a powerful statement of faith in Christ.  When you bite into something and take it into your mouth, you are committed, all-in.  Either good or bad, you are going to experience the quality of whatever you have just eaten.  What a powerful illustration of what it means to believe in Jesus!  Faith is a full commitment.  We take the truth of Jesus deep into ourselves when we truly believe.  We imbibe His words and His teaching, which become part of us and shape us.  Above all, the truth of His broken body and shed blood, broken and shed for us, is food and drink to our souls, giving us life and raising us from the dead.

Jesus says that the words He gives us are spirit and life.  Words are not taken into a person or become part of that person by physically chewing them, but by believing them.  Faith alone unites us to Christ and all His benefits, a truth powerfully and visually taught by the Lord’s Supper.