There is probably no subject where there are more varying views among Reformed theologians and churches than on the significance and observance of the Lord’s Supper. Even the names given to the sacrament show different emphases: the Lord’s Supper, communion, and the eucharist (a thanksgiving meal). Nevertheless, the PC(USA) Book of Confessions is remarkably consistent in its teaching on the Supper. It is a Spiritual feeding on Christ and as such a means of God’s grace.
“In the Supper rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls. Not that we imagine any transubstantiation of bread into Christ’s body, and of wine into his natural blood, as the Romanists have perniciously taught and wrongly believed; but this union and conjunction which we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus in the right use of the sacraments is wrought by means of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus, once broken and shed for us but now in heaven, and appearing for us in the presence of his Father. Notwithstanding the distance between his glorified body in heaven and mortal men on earth, yet we must assuredly believe that the bread which we break is the communion of Christ’s body and the cup which we bless the communion of his blood.
Thus we confess and believe without doubt that the faithful, in the right use of the Lord’s Table, do so eat the body and drink the blood of the Lord Jesus that he remains in them and they in him; they are so made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone that as the eternal Godhood has given to the flesh of Christ Jesus, which by nature was corruptible and mortal, life and immortality, so the eating and drinking of the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus does the like for us.” (3.21)
The Lord’s Supper is not merely symbolic. This teaching is compared to the Roman Catholic Church, which taught that the bread and wine turn into the blood and body of Christ as physical food, the Lutheran Church, which did not teach transubstantiation but did teach that the sacrament is a physical feeding on Christ, and the view of Zwingli (a Reformed theologian), which taught that the sacrament was merely symbolic. John Calvin (Reformed theologian) tried to compromise between the Lutherans and Zwingli by arguing for a Spiritual feeding on Christ. This is the position of the confessions we hold.
This was a compromise document between the Lutherans and Reformed and it follows Calvin’s teaching.
Q. 79. Then why does Christ call the bread his body, and the cup his blood, or the New Covenant in his blood, and why does the apostle Paul call the Supper “a means of sharing” in the body and blood of Christ?
A. Christ does not speak in this way except for a strong reason. He wishes to teach us by it that as bread and wine sustain this temporal life so his crucified body and shed blood are the true food and drink of our souls for eternal life. Even more, he wishes to assure us by this visible sign and pledge that we come to share in his true body and blood through the working of the Holy Spirit as surely as we receive with our mouth these holy tokens in remembrance of him, and that all his sufferings and his death are our own as certainly as if we had ourselves suffered and rendered satisfaction in our own persons. (4.079, w/emphasis)
Second Helvetic Confession:
THE SUPPER OF THE LORD. The Supper of the Lord (which is called the Lord’s Table, and the Eucharist, that is, a Thanksgiving), is, therefore, usually called a supper, because it was instituted by Christ at his last supper, and still represents it, and because in it the faithful are spiritually fed and given drink. (5.193, with emphasis).
The most of the rest of the section on the Lord’s Supper spells out that this means the same as above.
The Westminster Confession of Faith:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this sacrament, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. (6.167, with emphasis)
However, there is a major difference between our confessions and polity in the PC(USA) and it is debated within other denominations:
The confessions teach that children of the covenant cannot participate in the Lord’s Supper until they are of age and discretion to examine themselves or they are silent on the participation of children even though they spell it out for baptism.
We hold that baptism applies as much to the children of the faithful as to those who are of age and discretion, and so we condemn the error of the Anabaptists, who deny that children should be baptized before they have faith and understanding. But we hold that the Supper of the Lord is only for those who are of the household of faith and can try and examine themselves both in their faith and their duty to their neighbors. Those who eat and drink at that holy table without faith, or without peace and goodwill to their brethren, eat unworthily. (3.23, emphasis added).
Q. 81. Who ought to come to the table of the Lord?
A. Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, and who nevertheless trust that these sins have been forgiven them and that their remaining weakness is covered by the passion and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and improve their life. The impenitent and hypocrites, however, eat and drink judgment to themselves. (4.081)
Interestingly, the first preface to the catechism explains that it is to be taught to children in preparation for their admittance to the Lord’s Table.
Second Helvetic Confession stresses self-examination but is silent about the issue of children as far as I could find.
The Westminster Standards addresses the issue in the Larger Catechism:
Q. 177. Wherein do the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper differ?
A. The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper differ, in that Baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord’s Supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves. (7.287, emphasis added)
So Why Do We Allow Children to Come to the Table? (paedocommunion)
Other covenant meals (like Passover) included children of the covenant at the table. Since the Lord’s Supper replaces those sacramental meals, it too should include children. Those Old Testament meals also required self-examination for adults (and presumably self-examination for children to the extent that they could do so). Thus when Paul says that you must examine yourself he is speaking primarily to adults, just as when the Old Testament said the same for other meals.
After all, Jesus told Peter,
“Feed my lambs” (John 21:15)
“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
It is still important that we insist that those who are unrepentant keep from the table. For Scripture says,
“Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:28-29)