Monday, 8 May 2017

Robert Bruce and the Lord's Supper

Robert Bruce (c. 1554-1631) was an Edinburgh minister and his sermons on the Lord’s Supper, when published and grasped, became a crucial source in Scottish Presbyterianism of discovering the meaning of the Lord's Supper. In the main he followed the view of Calvin. We need help in understanding what takes place at the Lord's Supper and Bruce's comments should help us. Here is a summary of what he said.

Four purposes
For Bruce, the Lord’s Supper had four purposes. First, it was ‘appointed chiefly for this end, to represent our spiritual nutriment, the full and perfect nutriment of our souls; that as he who has Bread and Wine lacks nothing for the full nourishment of his body: so he, or that soul, which has the participation of the body and blood of Christ, lacks nothing of the full and perfect nourishment of the soul.’

Second, the sacrament is an act of witness both to hostile onlookers and to fellow Christians. It was instituted in order ‘that we might testify to the world and to the princes of the world, who are enemies to our profession; that we might openly avow and testify to them our Religion and our manner of worshipping; and that we might also testify our love towards His members our brethren’.

Third, the sacrament is designed to provide spiritual medicine, to help those tempted to fall or who have already fallen. It was instituted ‘to serve for our special comfort and consolation, to serve as a sovereign medicine for all our spiritual diseases, as we find ourselves either ready to fall, or provoked to fall, by the devil, the flesh, or the world; or, after we have fallen and are put to flight by the devil, and would fain flee away from God; God of his mercy, and of His infinite pity and bottomless compassion has set up this sacrament, as a sign on a high hill, whereby it may seem on every side, far and near, to call them again that have run shamefully away: and He clucks to them as a hen doth to her chickens, to gather them under the wings of his infinite mercy.’

Fourth, the sacrament is an occasion for thanksgiving: ‘render to Him hearty thanks for His benefits, and that He has come down so familiarly to us, bowed the heavens as it were, and given us the body and blood of His own Son; that we might render unto Him hearty thanks, and so sanctify His benefits to us.’

Visible and invisible things
Bruce claimed that there are both visible and invisible things in the Lord’s Supper. The visible things are the bread and the wine. The invisible things are signified by the bread and wine; what is signified is Christ, ‘in this respect, that His body and blood serve to nourish my soul to life everlasting’. It is not just the benefits of Christ’s death that are signified, but also the person of Christ from whom these benefits come.

In the sacrament of baptism, the fruits are forgiveness of sins, mortification of sins, and the sealing of adoption, but the substance out of which these fruits grow is the blood of Christ. Similarly, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the fruits are growth of faith and increase in holiness, but the substance out of which they grow is the body and blood of Christ. Christ is to the soul what bread and drink are to the body. Bread must be eaten before hunger is relieved and drink must be taken before thirst is removed; so Christ must be taken at the Supper before his benefits are experienced.

According to Bruce, the bread in the Supper has a power given to it by the institution of Christ, whereby ‘it is appointed to signify His body, to represent His body, and to deliver His body’. This power remains with the bread as long as the Supper lasts.

For Bruce, it was essential that the ceremonies of breaking the bread and pouring the wine should be done, because they signified what had happened to Christ. Similarly, the distribution, and giving and eating, are essential, as they signify the ‘applying of the body and blood of Christ to thy soul’. Bruce even says that to leave one of them out perverts the whole action.

Real contact with the risen Christ
Because the conjunction between the elements and Christ is secret and spiritual, he must be received by faith. Bruce recognizes that faith does not receive a greater Christ in the Supper than it does from the preaching of the Word, but he does say that it receives Christ better in that the receiver obtains a greater and surer hold of Christ through the sacrament. This happens each time a person takes part in the Supper.

In addition to faith, Bruce argued that the Holy Spirit must be involved in giving Christ to the believer. He notes that the believer has a title to the body of Christ and the blood of Christ, a title that is not negated by their being physically distant, in heaven. Faith is the cord that covers the distance between the believer and Christ and couples them together. Bruce uses the illustration of the sun — we cannot touch the sun, yet are conjoined to it by its rays. The sun is like Christ, and the rays are his virtue and power flowing from his body. These are conveyed to the believer by the Holy Spirit, whom Bruce also likens to a ladder joining the believer and Christ.

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