Synod of Dort

Reformed Churches in South Africa’s standards and the Lord’s Supper

By Simon Jooste

The Three Forms of Unity – the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of the Synod of Dort – represent a summary of what the Word of God teaches. They dedicate a significant amount of space to the official ministry of the Word in the church. For example, the Belgic confession devotes over a third of its space to the authority and sufficiency of the Word and its official use in the life of the church at worship (BC 2-7, 27-35). When it comes to the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, the following points are worth making, which track with the themes outlined above.

First, it is God’s sovereign prerogative to use the means of the church to bring salvation to a world of sinners. Following the treatment of Christ’s incarnation and atonement (BC 17-22), his justification and sanctification of sinners (BC 23-24), his fulfilment of the law and ongoing intercession (BC 25-26), articles 27 through 35 describe where this mediation and intercession of Christ may be found: the holy catholic church and her public and official ordinances. Where does one come into contact with the risen Lord Jesus? It is in the company of a “holy congregation … awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ” (BC 27). In fact, there is “no salvation apart from” this holy assembly. “[N]o one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition” (BC 28). This true church, which all are obliged to join, is recognized by three marks: Word, sacraments and discipline. The false church, among other things, “does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word” (BC 29; cf. BC 33-35). The three marks of a true church are discharged and maintained by officers ordained to govern Christ’s people on earth as his under-shepherds (BC 30-31); those who exercise the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 31).

Second, God serves a church that is made up on weak and dependent sinners (BC 29). While the covenant community comprises Saints headed for glory, they are at the same time by nature inclined to hate God and their neighbor (HC Q/A 5). Even the most holy make a small beginning in new obedience (HC Q/A 114). Therefore, the Christian must look to God for saving and sanctifying grace, continually.

Third, these chief conveyers of grace center on the public ministry of the Word. As we believe and confess:

It is by faith alone that we share in Christ and all his benefits: where then does faith come from? The Holy Spirit works it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments (HC Q/A 65; cf. BC 29, 33-35).

It is though the Word and sacraments that the Holy Spirit focuses the hearts of God’s people upon the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation. The Holy Spirit instructs by the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments confirm the same cruciform promise (HC Q/A 67). 

Fourth, and unlike the Word preached to the ear, the sacraments are “visible, holy signs and seals”. Not only do they bring more clarity to the promise of the gospel, but they also seal that same promise (HC Q/A 66).

Fifth, as a sacrament to be observed on an ongoing basis, the Lord’s Supper’s nature as a mysteriously wonderful “seal” of God’s salvation promises is further worked out in our standards. Indeed, the sign of the Supper reminds the faithful of Christ’s body broken and his blood shed for them. But the Eucharist is more than a sign that jogs the memory. For in the moment of participation, the meal it also serves to palpably assure or guarantee or seal body and blood of Christ to the believer.

First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of him who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood (HC Q/A 75).

The agent of this nourishment and refreshment is the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit of the incarnation is the same Spirit that brings the sign (the elements of bread and wine) and the thing signified (the atoning body and blood of Christ) into mystical union. By means of the Spirit from heaven the Christian is brought into ever more intimate union with Christ’s blessed body. Even though the incarnate Christ is in glory and his church is on earth, “we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone” (HC Q/A 76; cf. 1 Cor. 6:15-17; Eph. 5:29-30).

Finally, while the Three Forms of unity do not prescribe the frequency of the Lord’s Supper observance, the good and necessary inference – by virtue of its nature and purpose – is that it should be celebrated as often as the Word is preached during a called worship service on the Lord’s Day. An arguable direct confirmation of this claim is found in what we believe and confess in Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism. God’s will for his church in the fourth commandment, among others, is to “learn what God’s Word teaches” and “to participate in the sacraments”.

The RCSA book of church order

The RCSA church order Article 63 states: “The Lord’s Supper shall be administered at least every three months.” Read in isolation, one may conclude that this article endorses a theology of infrequent observation at odds with the biblical, church-historical and confessional evidence given above. This conclusion would be misleading on at least three accounts.

First, Article 63 makes provision for those churches that cannot administer the Supper more frequently because of practical reasons. For example, historically churches that are relatively large or have members that commute from a significant distance (such as farmers) have found it difficult to accommodate more frequent observation.

Second, the remainder of the church order sets forth a high view of the ministry of the Word and sacraments by ordained office-bearers, a view congruent with the Three Forms of Unity and the case for frequent Supper celebration (as defended above).

Third, remembering that Article 69 was inherited from the Synod of Dort 1619, which represented a Dutch reformation effort stalled for political reasons, helps one appreciate why the wording of this article might not have been stronger in the direction of greater regularity. All this to say, nothing in our church order precludes frequent, and if not weekly, Lord’s Supper observance.

Rev. Dr Simon Jooste is the pastor of Reformed Church Southern Suburbs.