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.

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.


How the Father Feeds His Children: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 28


  1. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper that you partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises:1 first, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

[1] Matt. 26:26–28; Mk. 14:22–24; Lk. 22:19–20; 1 Cor. 10:16–17; 11:23–25; 12:13.

  1. What does it mean to eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ?

It means not only to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life eternal;1 but moreover, also, to be so united more and more to His sacred body by the Holy Spirit,2 who dwells both in Christ and in us, that, although He is in heaven3            and we on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone,4 and live and are governed forever by one Spirit, as members of the same body are governed by one soul.5

[1] Jn. 6:35, 40, 47–48, 50–54. [2] Jn. 6:55–56. [3] Acts 3:21; 1 Cor. 11:26. [4] Eph. 3:16–19; 5:29–30, 32; 1 Cor. 6:15, 17, 19; 1 Jn. 4:13. [5] Jn.14:23; Jn. 6:56–58; Jn. 15:1–6; Eph. 4:15–16; Jn. 6:63.

  1. Where has Christ promised that He will thus feed and nourish believers with His body and blood as certainly as they eat of this broken bread and drink of this cup?

In the institution of the Supper, which says: “The Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”1And this promise is also repeated by the Apostle Paul, where he says, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion

of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, so we being many are one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.”2

[1] 1 Cor. 11:23-26. [2]1 Cor. 10:16–17.

Lord’s Day 28

How the Father Feeds His Children

The Catechism’s approach to the Lord’s Supper is similar in structure to its approach to baptism.  It emphasizes the spiritual promises that lie behind the physical form of the Supper, and teaches us that the Supper exhibits or presents those promises to us when we partake.  What are those benefits?  The Supper is just what it is called, a supper.  It is a symbolic meal.  We eat in order to have life, nourishment and refreshment, and God has not only provided for our physical life (with food and drink) but also for our spiritual life, and that life is nourished by the life of Christ, by the vital force of His resurrected and glorified humanity, communicated to me by the Holy Spirit and received by faith.  Eating the bread itself is not the way this life is communicated to me, but it is the sign God has given us of that feeding.

Question 76 of the Catechism uses a similar pattern as in question 70, which asks about the meaning of the symbol.  There, first the role of Jesus’ death is emphasized, the forgiveness of sins in His blood which is held out to us in baptism.  But also, the work of the Spirit is added in.  Baptism also holds out to me the renewal and consecration by the Spirit which is exhibited in baptism.  Likewise, question 76 first relates the benefits I receive from Christ’s death and resurrection as they are pictured to me in the bread and wine.  I eat the body and drink the blood of Christ by embracing, by faith, the death of the Lord on my behalf, to the forgiveness of my sins.  In addition to this forgiveness, the sacrament points me to the ongoing work of the Spirit in my life, who strengthens and enlivens my spirit with the power of the risen Lord, uniting me to His body, working His life in mine, so that I become more and more like Him.
The Lord’s Supper, like Baptism, teaches me these promises, but also seals them to me.  That means that I am being given a confirmation that if I truly believe the promise, then I can be confident that its benefits are mine.  It’s like a stamp of approval.  The Lord Himself commanded us to remember this ceremony, as the Catechism reminds us in question 77, and we can thus have a reminder and a confirmation that the promise of the gospel comes from the Lord.  Jesus did not give us these two sacraments in vain.  They will achieve what He seeks to accomplish through them. The Supper promises us that the Lord will sustain and nourish us throughout our wilderness journey, and make us always more like Himself, and whenever we partake of the supper, see it observed or contemplate it throughout our lives, we can have confidence that the Lord will keep His promise.

The Lord’s Supper is a great demonstration of what the psalmist says in Psalm 103, that He is merciful to us, and pities us like a father pities His children.  I know that if I were to tell my children on Thursday night that they need to remember Sunday morning not to run out of the church service when it’s over, that there’s no way they’re going to remember it come Sunday morning.  I need to tell them right at the time, and if I want them to remember it, I need to repeat it a lot.  Likewise, the Lord knows our weakness, and He mercifully reminds us over and over, and in different ways, of the content of the gospel and the confidence we can have in that promise.

God gave us two sacraments for a reason.  They emphasize different things.  Baptism occurs once only at the beginning of our lives as Christians, and the recipient is entirely passive, while the Supper is observed continuously in the Christian life and is something the participant actively cooperates in, taking the bread and cup from the hand of the minister and eating.  This points us also to a difference in the standards for admitting one to the two different sacraments, and begins to help us understand why the historic doctrine of the church has been to baptize infants but not to admit them to the Table of the Lord until a time of instruction is completed.  We will talk more about who is to be admitted to the Table in two weeks.

We ought not set aside or disregard what the Lord has instituted.  The Lord’s Supper is a wonderful tool to confirm and strengthen our faith, and God’s people should diligently and gratefully make use of it.  If the Lord thought we needed it, we should not second-guess His provision for us.  He knows we are weak and inconstant; by ourselves we would not last a day in the faith, just as we would not expect our children to be able to feed and care for themselves.  So God’s people must not despise the means He has given us to keep us secure in the faith.

God’s Wisdom in the Use of Appointed Means: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 27


  1. Is, then, the outward washing with water itself the washing away of sins?

No,1 for only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sin.2

[1] 1 Pet. 3:21; Eph. 5:26. [2] 1 Jn. 1:7; 1 Cor. 6:11.


  1. Why then does the Holy Spirit call Baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins?

God speaks thus with great cause, namely, not only to teach us thereby that just as the filthiness of the body is taken away by water, so our sins are taken away by the blood and Spirit of Christ;1 but much more, that by this divine pledge and token He may assure us that we are as really washed from our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water.2

[1] Rev. 7:14. [2] Mk. 16:16; *Acts 2:38.


  1. Are infants also to be baptized?

Yes, for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God,1 and through the blood of Christ2 both redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents,3 they are also by Baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be engrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers,4 as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision,5 in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed.6

[1] Gen. 17:7. [2] Matt. 19:14. [3] Lk. 1:14–15; Ps. 22:10; Acts 2:39. [4] Acts 10:47 [5] Gen. 17:14. [6] Col. 2:11–13.

God’s Wisdom in the Use of Appointed Means

Lord’s Day 27 at first appears to take up two different questions regarding baptism, but they are closely related.  The second question, of the baptism of infants, cannot be properly understood until the first question is answered.  That first question is whether the waters of baptism remove sins of themselves.

They do not.  If they did, then justification by faith alone would be a lie.  Forgiveness of sins and justification are two expressions for the same thing, and if we are justified by baptism, then we are not justified by faith alone.  Faith is the sole instrument of our justification, meaning faith is the means God uses to unite us to Christ and to His saving work, so that our sins are forgiven us.  Baptism is not the way we are united to Christ, else it would be possible for one who is baptized but does not believe in the gospel (and the Scriptures and experience tell us there are many) to be either saved without faith or to be united to Christ and still sent to hell.

But this is a long way from saying baptism is an empty ceremony without any purpose.  Just because some make too much of it does not mean we should make too little.  God does not tell us to do things for no reason, just for the enjoyment of watching us jump through hoops.   Baptism is a visual demonstration to us of our salvation, that our sins are thoroughly washed away from us, so that we who were red like crimson will be white as snow.  Beyond that, it is a promise, a “seal” from God.  If we believe the promise of the gospel, the benefits held out to us in baptism, the forgiveness of sins and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit will certainly be given to us.   Baptism is therefore primarily a message from God to us rather than, as is often believed, something we are saying to God.  God uses that physical message to call His elect to Himself in faith.

It’s in this light that we can understand why infants are baptized.  It is not because we think baptizing them removes their sin in any sense.  When a child is born into the church, he is given the promise of the gospel through the sacrament of baptism, which identifies him as a member of the church and holds out the promise to him every day of his life.  The message of baptism, though it is delivered one time, is not a one-time message.  It is a constant truth and reality, one which is sometimes apprehended and believed immediately, and sometimes not for many years.  Sometimes, sadly, those who receive the message never believe it at all.  But the child of the believer is a part of the church just as the child in the Old Testament was a part of Israel and received the sign of membership.  It is not an empty promise, either.  Though we have no promise about every baptized child coming to faith, it is an undeniable fact that the most common way that God has always preserved and propagated His church is through believing families, through mothers and fathers raising their children to faith.  Baptism is the beginning of the process.

Those who believe in the baptism only of adults often (and consistently) view their children as pagans to be evangelized.  But the Reformed treat their children as Christians to be discipled.  God did not place them in our homes by accident, and until they declare themselves by word or deed to be unbelievers, we will treat them as believers.  Among many other passages, Paul’s instruction to children to obey their parents “in the Lord” supports our contention that children should be treated as members of the church, and the several examples in the New Testament of household baptisms provide further evidence.  Jesus famously declared the kingdom of God to include little children, and we have no right to exclude those whom Christ includes.

In the sacraments we see how the external instrument mirrors the internal work, how the physical points to the spiritual.  What is happening with the physical elements points to the work the Spirit of God is doing internally.  Not in all cases, of course; many, lacking faith, will receive the sign but not the Spirit the sign points to.  That in no way undermines the true effectiveness of the signs that God has appointed, since they are not intended for the reprobate, but for God’s elect.

God is calling to Himself a people, and He is cleansing and purifying that people to be fit to be in His presence.  Though the internal work of the Spirit of God is the crucial element of the process, God created us physical beings, with physical senses, and He places us in families, communities, and nations.  Being a wise and powerful God, He uses everything He has created to achieve His ends with those He has chosen for salvation, for He did not make a mistake in making us as He did.  When He desires to save a person from wrath, He will prepare the circumstances by which that person will hear the gospel of Christ; perhaps He will bring them missionaries, or Christian friends, or very commonly, place them in families where they will hear that gospel.  And He will call them to faith through their whole person- their intellect, their emotions, their physical senses.  In all this He shows Himself to be a good and glorious God, making use of all He has created to accomplish His intentions toward His people.