Sunday leftovers: communion and transubstantiation

One of the dominant views about the biblical ordinance of communion is what is called “transubstantiation.”  The term comes from the Latin terms trans (meaning “change”) and substantiation (meaning “substance,” or “essence”).  The view is that the bread and cup of communion substantially become the literal body and blood of Christ.  The outward form is obviously still bread and wine, but the essence of those forms is transformed into Christ’s body and blood.

This view is primarily derived from John 6:54, where Jesus says, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  The supposition from these words is that through the act of communion, the participant receives the grace of salvation.

However, this is a faulty view of Christ’s teaching.  First of all, the parallel verses indicate that the words “eat” and “drink” are being used synonymously with believe in v. 47 (the same parallel also exists in v. 40) —

In other words, Jesus is talking about the means to receiving eternal life; He doesn’t intend them to be taken literally, but to be understood as a figure of speech for belief (as He directly says in vv. 40, 47).  It is likely that Jesus was using this figure of speech to hide the truth from the unbelieving (v. 66), as he often did in his teaching (e.g., Mt. 13).

But there are even more reasons not to take Jesus’ words literally:

  • These words were spoken a year before Christ instituted the ordinance of communion, making it unlikely that He was referring to it here.
  • John does not record the account of the Lord’s Supper, making it less likely that the readers would read that story back into this one.
  • When Jesus instituted the ordinance of communion (Mt. 26:26, 28; Mk. 14:22, 24; Lk. 22:19-20), He used similar terminology with the verb “is” — “this is my body…this is my blood…”  Yet the disciples understood those statements figuratively and not literally.
  • The word “flesh” is not used in any of the communion accounts (the Gospels or 1 Cor. 11) to refer to the Body of Christ.
  • The term Jesus uses for “eating” is a graphic term that means “gnawing” and “chewing.”  This, along with the reference to drinking His blood would have been horrifying to strict keepers of the Law (cf. Gen. 9:4ff; cf. also Lev. 17:10-14).
  • Jesus is primarily addressing unbelievers in this passage (note v. 66) and communion is for believers only.
  • If it is taken as communion, then communion is the sole means by which eternal life is granted (v. 54), which is contrary to all of Scripture.  Salvation is granted by grace through faith alone, not through any external means, like communion.
  • If life is granted through communion, then it was granted immediately at the utterance of Christ’s words, and there would have been no need for the resurrection, which Jesus said (v. 54) was still necessary for life to be imparted or realized.

Communion is a wonderful gift to the church by which we corporately remember the work of Christ to produce salvation for those who believe in Him.  It is a means of remembrance for believers; it is not a means of imparting saving grace to unbelievers.

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