What the Supper Can and Cannot Do: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 30


  1. What difference is there between the Lord’s Supper and the Pope’s Mass?

The Lord’s Supper testifies to us that we have full forgiveness of all our sins by the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which He Himself once accomplished on the cross;1 and that by the Holy Spirit we are engrafted into Christ,2 who, with His true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father,3 and is there to be worshiped.4 But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have forgiveness of sins through the sufferings of Christ, unless Christ is still daily offered for them by the priests, and that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and is therefore to be worshiped in them. And thus the Mass at bottom is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ,5 and an accursed idolatry.

[1] Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 25–28; 10:10, 12, 14; Jn. 19:30. [2] 1 Cor. 6:17. [3] Heb. 1:3; 8:1. [4] Jn. 4:21–24; 20:17; Lk. 24:52; Acts 7:55; Col. 3:1; Phil. 3:20–21; 1 Thess. 1:9–10. [5] See Hebrews chapters 9 and 10; *Matt. 4:10.


  1. Who are to come to the table of the Lord?

Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the suffering and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the unrepentant and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves.1

[1] 1 Cor. 10:19–22; 11:28–29; *Ps. 51:3; *Jn. 7:37–38; Ps. 103:1–4; *Matt. 5:6.


  1. Are they, then, also to be admitted to this Supper who show themselves by their confession and life to be unbelieving and ungodly?

No, for thereby the covenant of God is profaned and His wrath provoked against the whole congregation;1 therefore, the Christian Church is bound, according to the order of Christ and His Apostles, to exclude such persons by the Office of the Keys until they amend their lives.

[1] 1 Cor. 11:20, 34a; Isa. 1:11–15; 66:3; Jer. 7:21–23; Ps. 50:16–17; *Matt. 7:6; *1 Cor. 11:30–32; *Tit. 3:10–11; *2 Thess. 3:6.

The sacraments were the occasion of a great deal of controversy in the sixteenth century at the time the Heidelberg Catechism was written. The Reformed obviously contended with the Roman Catholics, but also with Lutherans and Anabaptists over different aspects of the meaning of the sacraments. These controversies are clearly reflected throughout the Catechism, but nowhere more clearly than in question 80, which directly confronts and rejects the Roman Catholic view of the sacrament.

Over the years, this question has often been viewed as overly harsh and unfair. But these are the views of the Roman church. They do in fact view the Mass as a resacrificing of Christ, and they do in fact adore and venerate the bread of the sacrament. This is only natural, since Roman Catholics teach that Jesus is present in body, blood, soul, and divinity in the bread and wine. One can simply observe the way the Catholic Mass is performed, being very careful not to let any wine be left over, or any bread crumb be spilled, lifting the elements up high and bowing and genuflecting to them, and carrying the elements in procession where people bow to them, to see that this is true. Whether or not this constitutes an “accursed idolatry” or not will depend on one’s theological framework, but the description of the Roman Mass is simply factual.

Having discussed what the Lord’s Supper does and does not do, the Catechism then discusses one final issue, who the proper observants of the Supper are, again a matter of no small controversy. If you believe the Supper is a mere memorial, only a statement I make, there is little reason to restrict who may participate. But the Reformed teach that the Sacrament is a real means of grace, and further that it is an important symbol of our fellowship with Christ and one another. Therefore we restrict participation in the Supper to those with whom we can have a confident belief that they do in fact share that fellowship, so as to not destroy the symbolism of the supper and the fellowship that it presents to us. A meal is a great symbol of that fellowship.

We cannot know people’s hearts to know whether they are true believers. Membership in the invisible church is God’s business and is not discernible by us mere mortals. But we can see who is a member of the visible church, and this is the normal way the Reformed have discerned who it is that passes this test. The one who is part of the outward body, who is under the discipline of the church, is presumed, as far as we can know, to be a true member of this fellowship. God will not hold us responsible for what we cannot know, only for what we can. So we in the Reformed church customarily invite those who are members in good standing of orthodox churches to share in the celebration of the Supper with us, whether or not those churches are themselves Reformed, since we believe that the visible church extends farther than the Reformed church.

There are those that believe that this should include the small children and even infants of believing parents. But this has never been the common practice of the Reformed church. We recognize the Supper to be a symbol of our active participation in the fellowship of the church. Paul teaches the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:27-29) that the one who partakes of the supper without examination and without discerning the body eats in an unworthy manner. Therefore we exclude children until they have undergone a period of instruction and have reached an age of a certain maturity, when they can better understand the nature of the fellowship of the church, founded on the sacrifice of Christ. This is what a “communion in the body and blood of Christ” is (1 Cor. 10:16), and a self-examination requires knowledge and maturity. This is a serious issue, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that members of the congregation have become sick and even died as a result of God’s judgment on them for their abuse of the Lord’s Supper. Further, if we recognize that God’s grace works through faith and not through physical means, then we can know that God’s grace extends to small children and those who are in training perfectly well, even if they do not physically participate in the supper. They can, and should, still participate in faith.

God is not restricted by the means of grace, and can and does work faith and salvation in people, including small children, without the aid of the sacraments at all. But we are bound by God’s ordination, and do not have liberty to administer the sacraments any way we see fit. We must restrict ourselves to what God has taught us in His Word, and can trust that God will work grace in the lives of His people through the means He has appointed.