Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible Elements in this Ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally, and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified & all the benefits of his death: the Body and Blood of Christ, being then not corporally, or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of Believers, in that Ordinance, as the Elements themselves are to their outward senses.
The Second London Baptist Confession, Chapter 30.7
This historic Baptist confession, closely mirroring the Presbyterian Westminster Confession, says that believers "really and indeed" receive and feed upon Christ when they partake of the Lord's Supper in faith. This is so, the Confession continues, because the body and blood of Christ are spiritually present in the ordinance. Is this true, and if so, what does it mean?
Roman Catholicism developed the idea that the bread and wine of the Supper actually become the physical body and blood of Jesus when the priest consecrates the elements. Thus Jesus is present and is truly sacrificed every time the Mass is celebrated. This idea is a failure to recognize the symbolic meaning of the words of Christ when he said, "This is my body" and "This is my blood." Since he was physically present at the table with his disciples when he spoke these words, it is very hard to believe that the disciples thought they were eating Christ's physical body. They could see clearly that the bread was not Christ's body. Instead, Christ used the bread to represent his body. In addition, this idea is a blatant denial of the finished work of Christ on the cross. Christ's work on the cross was sufficient, final, and complete. Any attempt to add to it demeans Christ and distorts the gospel. We must emphatically reject this view.
Martin Luther made some important improvements on the Roman Catholic view. He discarded the idea that the Mass was a sacrifice of Jesus. He retained the idea that Christ was present in the Supper, but he changed the way the Romanists had explained Christ's presence. He argued that the body of Christ was in, with, and under the bread and the wine. Thinking in terms of the physics of his day, he likened this to an iron bar in the fire. The substance of the fire interpenetrates the substance of the bar without changing the substance of the bar. As already mentioned, however, this thinking still fails to appreciate the symbolic nature of what Christ taught when he instituted his Supper. This thinking also forced Luther into teaching that the human nature of Christ was ubiquitous (present everywhere), for if Christ's body can be in, with, and under the bread and wine everywhere throughout the world when the Supper is celebrated, then he must be bodily present everywhere. There is no Scriptural support for this.
John Calvin, the Church of England, and most others who broke away from the Roman Catholic church believed that Christ was spiritually, but not bodily or physically, present in the Supper. The bread and the wine symoblized that Christ was present with his people at the table. As you can see, the Baptist Confession adopted this view.
Yet many contemporary Baptists feel uneasy with the idea that Christ is spiritually present in the Supper. In my personal experience, Baptists have by and large adopted the idea that the Lord's Supper is only a commemoration. It has nothing necessarily to do with the presence of Christ, for Christ is spiritually present everywhere. At its best, this view may not differ all that much from the common Reformed view in practice. The Baptist theologian A. H. Strong taught the commemorative view. Yet in his systematic theology he said nothing against the view of Calvin, while he specifically showed the biblical errors of Romanism and Lutheranism. The contemporary Baptist theologian Wayne Grudem classifies the commemorative view as a subset of the previous view.
However, at its worst the commemorative view degenerates into meaninglessness. Millard Erickson writes, "Out of zeal to avoid the conception that Jesus is present in some sort of a magical way, some have sometimes gone to such extremes as to give the impression that the one place where Jesus most assuredly is not to be found is the Lord's Supper. This is what one Baptist leader termed 'the doctrine of the real absence' of Jesus Christ" (Christian Theology, 2nd ed., 1130). We must avoid this trivializing of the ordinance of Christ. I fear that we do not appreciate the Lord's Supper the way we should. Many believers can go for weeks or months or years without the Lord's Supper and not even notice. Furthermore, many who claim to be Christians can go without church relations, and hence without the Lord's Supper, as if nothing was wrong in their relationship with God. This is a horrible travesty. If we feel this way, it should make us wonder if we even know Christ.
I would like to remind us that the Lord's Supper is symbolic, to be sure, but it is symbolic more like a handshake than like a roadsign. A roadsign merely states factual information. A handshake is a symbolic action in which we participate with someone else (1 Cor 10:16). To use a more directly biblical description, the Lord's Supper is a meal that we share with Jesus Christ and with his people. In it, we commune with the One who is the way, the truth, and the life through the symbols that he has given to us. I hope you come to the Supper hungry to spiritually feed upon all the benefits of Christ's death.