The Evangelical Fall From The Means Of Grace

By Dr. R. Scott Clark - Posted at The Heidelblog:

The prayers had been offered, the promises read, and the psalm sung. Two princes stepped forward to receive Communion, but the deacon refused to give them the cup. The superintendent of the city’s pastors ordered a second minister present to take the cup from the deacon and give it to the nobles, and a struggle for the cup ensued. Outraged by the deacon’s insubordination, the superintendent excommunicated him on the spot. This nasty business occurred in 1559 in Heidelberg, Germany. The minister was the Lutheran theologian Tilemann Hesshus (1527–88), and the deacon was a Zwinglian named Klebitz.1

As ugly and sub-Christian as it was, the story of the Communion combatants of 1559 reminds us of a time when men took seriously the means of grace, and it presents us with a sharp contrast to our own times. Few evangelical Christians or churches in our time are so devoted to the Supper as to be willing to argue about its proper use, let alone physically struggle for the cup. Why? It is because we have become practically anti-supernatural and simultaneously super-spiritual in our theology, so that we are, on the one hand, bored with God’s ordinary means of grace (the sacraments) and on the other hand have stopped believing that God can and does use those means to accomplish His purposes. That is to say, we are guilty of a sort of unbelief.

We have replaced the sacraments with spiritual exercises of our own making. A survey of virtually any evangelical bookstore finds dozens of books on spirituality, self-denial, church growth, and recovery from various addictions. Some of these contain useful advice; so did some of the medieval handbooks of spiritual direction. But few of them contain the Gospel, and almost none of them make any reference to the use of the Lord’s Supper as a means to Christian growth.2 Even Reformed churches that confess the Supper to be one of the two divinely instituted means of grace (media gratiae) normally serve the Supper only quarterly.

This essay is something of a continuation of a nineteenth-century debate in Reformed theology. The various revival movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to push the Lord’s Supper to margins of Reformed piety. For various other reasons some nineteenth-century Reformed theologians became suspicious of what they regarded as Calvin’s overly mystical view of the Supper. In turn, the German Reformed theologian J. W. Nevin criticized the influence of revivalism and realism on Reformed theology and defended Calvin’s views. 3