The Bible teaches Christ’s Spiritual presence at the Lord’s Supper. This position, or one similar to it, had held privilege of place among Christians until the nineteenth century. Yet for many today, the Spiritual presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper represents suspect doctrine.
I want to argue that the Bible makes the case that in the Supper by faith the Spirit nourishes our soul, heightens our experience of Christ (since the Spirit is the Lord’s Spirit), and cements our unity with the body of Christ, the church.
For clarity’s sake, I am not talking about theories of how Christ is present (transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or impanation). Nor do I intend to make the argument for the Supper as an instrument of grace. I am speaking about the general idea that Christ through his Spirit acts through our faith and in the symbols of the bread and cup.
Here are nine biblical arguments for Christ’s Spiritual presence at the Supper.
The bread and cup are Christ’s body and blood
First, when Jesus instituted his Supper, he said: “‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:19–20).
Whatever one’s view on the exact nature of “is” is, most can agree on the following. First, the bread and cup somehow are the body and blood of Christ. Second, this meal signifies not just Christ’s broken body (bread) but also God’s new covenant (blood). A new covenant brings a new relationship with God and his people. Third, the Supper should happen “in remembrance of me.”
As some have argued, “remembrance” here does not mean mental cognition alone. The term remembrance (ἀνάμνησιν) signals an active identity forming act (e.g., Billings 2018: 114). Remembering the great acts of God through Scripture entails a dynamic change of life and mindset, from sin and nothingness to God and active obedience.
In sum, Christ identifies the elements with his body and blood, a new relationship with God, and a new way of living. One must decide how the elements are Christ’s body and blood, how God relates to us because of it in a new way, and how our lives our changes through it.
The simplest answer is that the Holy Spirit by faith acts to nourish us, grow us, transform us, and abide in us through the Supper. By his abiding in us, the Paraclete as the Spirit of Christ makes Christ abide in us.
The most complicated answer is the literalistic one. The elements actually become the matter or substance of Christ’s flesh and blood. But Christ also calls himself a door. And nobody thinks he transubstantiates into gopher wood.
The word door signifies the reality that Christ opens the way to God. And the bread and cup signify our peace with God by faith through which the Spirit acts to nourish our souls.
Christ’s body and blood have fellowship with the bread and the cup
Second, Paul asserts that the bread has fellowship with the body of Christ while the cup has fellowship with his blood Paul. He explains: “The cup of blessing that we bless—is not the cup fellowship (κοινωνία) with the blood of Christ? The bread which we break—is not the bread fellowship (κοινωνία) with the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).
Whatever the exact relationship here (e.g., impanation), the elements of the Supper must have some spiritual relationship. A physical relationship seems excluded since the bread and wine symbolize union with Christ (see John 6). And union with Christ occurs Spiritually.
The Lord’s Supper unites us to the body of Christ
Third, Paul develops the notion of fellowship at the Supper by writing, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body since we all partake (μετέχομεν) of one bread.”
How can “we all” become one physically? The answer is that we cannot. Hence, we Spiritually unite by God’s Spirit among us. If the Supper Spiritually unites Christians as the body of Christ, how can it not also unite us Spiritually to the Head of the body?
The reason why the one bread makes us one body (v. 17) follows from the bread having fellowship with Christ’s body (v. 16). So we have a spiritual union with Christ’s body, the church, through the bread which fellowships with Christ.
Paul Contrasts demonic food with the Lord’s Supper
Fourth, when Paul discusses the Lord’s Supper, he contrasts the Supper with eating meat offered to idols. The latter makes one participate spiritually with demons.
He says of Israel, “are not those who eat the sacrifices fellowshipping (κοινωνοὶ) in the altar?” (1 Cor 10:18). He then turns to eating food offered to idols: “I do not want you to be fellowshipping (κοινωνοὺς) with demons” (1 Cor 10:20). Finally, he warns, “You cannot partake (μετέχειν) of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor 10:21).
The key words “fellowship” and “partake” that Paul uses of the Supper (vv. 16-17) also describe spiritual adultery by eating at the table of demons. And if eating demonic food means demonic fellowship and if demons are spiritual creatures and if God is Spirit, then it follows that Christ Spiritually presents himself in the Supper.
The natural inference is that the Lord’s Supper leads one to participate Spiritually with Christ.
Eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood means we abide in him
Five, Jesus claims that those who eat his body and drink his blood abide in him. The Lord says: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
As Calvin notes, Jesus speaks about the reality that the Lord’s Supper symbolizes: union with Christ. Of John 6, Calvin explains that Jesus “intended that the holy Supper should be, as it were, a seal and confirmation of this sermon” (Comm. on John 6:54).
So if the Lord’s Supper points to union with Christ, then he must somehow be present during the Lord’s Supper. We experience Christ at the Supper Spiritually. Calvin explains that in the Supper, “we may also feel his power in partaking of all his benefits” (John Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.11, 1372).
Disciples recognize Jesus the moment he breaks bread
Six, in Luke 24, Jesus teaches that the Word and Supper will make him present after he ascends to heaven. He does so by explaining how the Scriptures testify of himself as well as by having a meal with Cleopas and another disciple.
The moment he breaks the bread, he disappears and only then do the disciples truly see him. Luke records, “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:31-32).
Luke 24 teaches that when Christ ascends, we can see him through the Word and through the Table.
John 13-17 speaks of the reality of the Lord’s Supper
Seventh, John does not record in the institution of the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper. Instead, during the Last Supper, John’s Gospel records five chapters that speak about the same reality of the Lord’s Supper (Chs 13–17): the presence of the Holy Spirit in light of Christ’s local absence.
John wrote his Gospel 25 to 35 years after the synoptic Gospels and about 45 years after Paul’s letters. By the time John wrote, the institution of the Lord’s Supper formed a central pillar of Christian worship. Likely, this time gap explains why John does not record the institution of the Supper.
And John’s Gospel, being written many years after the other three Gospels, often adds theological reflection to the events and moments of Jesus’ life. The Last Supper discourse in John 13-17 does not seem to be an exception.
For these reasons, John’s description of the Spirit as “another Helper” (Christ being the first Helper) likely serves to deepen our understanding of the Last Supper as well as the Christain life in general.
The whole setting of the Last Discourse revolves around the question of how the disciples can continue when Jesus leaves them: “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come” (John 13:33).
But lest the disciples despair, Jesus commits to ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth (John 14:16–17).” Since Jesus is “truth” (14:6), then the “Spirit of truth” means the Spirit of Jesus.
When Jesus says that he will send another Helper, he means the Spirit replaces Jesus’ local presence on earth with a Spiritual presence among his body, the church.
And since the institution of the Supper famously happens during the Last Supper, then John’s Gospel may provide a framework to understand Christ’s Spiritual presence in the Supper. Christ Spiritually abides with us, that is, the Spirit of Christ abides with us and unites us to Christ.
The promise to worship in Spirit
Eighth, Jesus promised that worshippers would worship God in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24). To worship in Spirit must mean to worship in the Holy Spirit. And this happens because Christ sends the Spirit in his place through which Christ abides with his disciples until the end of this age. He does, after all, promise to be with us until the end of this age (Matt 28:20).
Since the Lord’s Supper plays a central role in Christian worship, it must be done “in Spirit.” This reality fits with the Spiritual presence view.
God created humanity to use sensible objects as spiritual signs
Ninth, God placed the tree of life in the garden when he created humanity. The tree Adam and Eve to see, smell, touch, and eat its fruit. But it also gave spiritual life for exile from the tree and the garden meant not only physical death but also spiritual death.
Even before the Fall, God provided sensible signs to bespeak spiritual realities. The Lord’s Supper fits into a world where God uses such signs to signify God’s grace. (See Calvin on Genesis 2 and 3 where he makes a similar argument).
The 1559 Gallic Confession is an important Reformed Confession of Faith. It represents the Genevan strand of the Reformation. John Calvin had a hand in the document. Since it so clearly defines of the Lord’s Supper, I will end the article by quoting it here:
XXXVI. We confess that the Lord’s Supper, which is the second sacrament, is a witness of the union which we have with Christ, inasmuch as he not only died and rose again for us once, but also feeds and nourishes us truly with his flesh and blood, so that we may be one in him, and that our life may be in common.
Although he be in heaven until he come to judge all the earth, still we believe that by the secret and incomprehensible power of his Spirit he feeds and strengthens us with the substance of his body and of his blood.
We hold that this is done spiritually, not because we put imagination and fancy in the place of fact and truth, but because the greatness of this mystery exceeds the measure of our senses and the laws of nature. In short, because it is heavenly, it can only be apprehended by faith.
XXXVII. We believe, as has been said, that in the Lord’s Supper, as well as in baptism, God gives us realty and in fact that which he there sets forth to us; and that consequently with these signs is given the true possession and enjoyment of that which they present to us.
And thus all who bring a pure faith, like a vessel, to the sacred table of Christ, receive truly that of which it is a sign; for the body and the blood of Jesus Christ give food and drink to the soul, no less than bread and wine nourish the body.