The Cup of Salvation: The Lord’s Table as a Thanksgiving Feast
I will take the cup of salvation...Psa. 116:13
In ancient times, a king customarily held a feast following a great victory. At the feast, he would lift up and drink deeply from a cup of wine as a symbol of deliverance and thanksgiving. In the Lord's Supper, God's people lift up and drink deeply from the cup of thanksgiving for salvation through Jesus Christ.1
By faith we taste the efficacy of Christ's blood to cleanse from all sin (1 John 1:7), and become partakers of every covenant mercy (1 Cor. 11:25). We bring our poverty to Christ's riches, our guilt to his reconciliation, our bondage to his liberation.
When the Lord's Supper is administered in psalm-singing churches, communicants often sing Psalm 116. Few songs more aptly express the character of the Holy Supper as a thanksgiving feast.
I love the Lord, the fount of life and grace; He hears my voice, my cry and supplication, Inclines His ear, gives strength and consolation; In life, in death, my heart will seek His face.
Thou, O Jehovah, in Thy sovereign grace, Hast saved my soul from death and woe appalling, Dried all my tears, secured my feet from falling. Lo, I shall live and walk before Thy face.
What shall I render to Jehovah now For all the riches of His consolation? With joy I'll take the cup of His salvation, And call upon His name with thankful vow.
I am, O Lord, Thy servant, bound yet free, Thy handmaid's son, whose shackles Thou hast broken; Redeemed by grace, I'll render as a token Of gratitude my constant praise to Thee.2
I Love the Lord
Participation in the Lord's Supper requires saving faith to please God. Christ has appointed this supper only for believers. Romans 14:23 says, 'He that doubteth is damned if he eats, for he eateth not of faith; for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.' Arguing from the lesser to the greater, if this is true of an ordinary meal eaten before God, how much more is it true of a sacramental feast?
In the Lord's Supper, we come to Christ, hearing, seeing, drinking, eating, trusting, and thanking him for what he has done. All these activities are very physical, and can be outwardly completed without an inner work of faith. But in order to participate fully in this meal of grace, we must have faith in the sovereign God, who 'so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish but have everlasting life' (John 3:16). We must trust in Christ, nailed to the cross and lifted up to die. 'As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness' (John 3:14), to save his people from 'death and woe appalling'. Eating and drinking, we still will starve without faith.
The Fount of Life and Grace
We must believe that Christ is 'the bread of life' (John 6:35). To believe on him is to have everlasting life (John 3:36). Christ is 'the fount of life and grace'. But how is this life received by the people of God? According to John 6:54-55, 'Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life ... for my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.'
Some conclude from these words that the bread and wine of the Holy Supper in some mysterious way are changed into the literal flesh and blood of Christ. But Christ's bodily ascension into heaven makes that physically impossible. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, 'With respect to his human nature, he is no more on the earth' (Q. 47).
Rather, we feed on Christ by faith. As the Puritan George Swinnock said, 'First, faith must look out for Christ; secondly, faith must look up to Christ for grace; thirdly, faith must take Christ down, or receive him and grace'.3Charles Bridges described Christ as the diamond that shines in the bosom of every sermon. Likewise, to the believer, Christ is the diamond embedded and displayed in every Communion feast. As Richard Baxter said, 'Nowhere is God so near to man as in Jesus Christ; and nowhere is Christ so familiarly represented to us as in this holy sacrament.'4
People who come to the Lord's Supper without faith in Christ receive a bit of bread, a sip of wine, and the fearful threat of being punished for intruding where they do not belong (1 Cor. 11:29). As unbelievers, they cannot feed on Christ in their hearts.
What Shall I Render to Jehovah?
The believer who partakes of the Lord's Supper is not merely a passive recipient. As a partaker of 'all the riches of His consolation', the communicant is moved to give thanks to the Lord. This thankful response is the very soul of the sacrament. Sadly, this has not always been recognized. In some traditions the Lord's Supper is regarded as itself a sacrifice for sins, as an addendum to Christ's sacrifice at the cross. What Christ did at the cross is thus regarded as neither final nor all-sufficient.
The New Testament, with feet firmly planted in the rubble of the Old Testament temple, destroyed according to Christ's judgment (Matt. 24:2), says, 'It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins' (Heb. 10:4). Not only is the temple gone, but the sacrifices there never actually atoned for sin. They only pointed to Christ, God's appointed and effectual atonement. Thanks be to God, no more sacrifices are needed, for, 'Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation' (Heb. 9:28).
The sacrament of the Lord's Supper recalls a sacrifice already consummated upon God's altar. It only remains for communicants to give thanks to God for that sacrifice, and to live in the enjoyment of the many benefits purchased by Christ in offering up his body and blood on the cross.
With Joy I'll Take the Cup
In the Holy Supper, the benefits of salvation are set before the believer as a cup of the finest wine, sparkling to the eye, sweet to the taste, and able to make the heart glad. The believer is invited to take this cup and drink deeply from it. Refreshed by this heavenly drink, the believer calls upon the name of the Lord with renewed faith and devotion.
The Psalms mention two cups that God sets before man. One is God's wrath poured out against sin.
Psalm 75:8 says, 'For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them.'
So dreadful is this cup that even the Lord Jesus feared to drink of it, and so he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane: 'O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me' (Matt. 26:39). Nonetheless, Christ accepted this fearful cup, saying, 'The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?' (John 18:11).
Because Christ drank the cup of wrath down to its bitter dregs, another cup is now offered to us, 'The cup of salvation' (Psa. 116:13). The Lord Himself is now 'The portion of (our) cup' (Psa. 16:5). This is the cup that runs over (Psa. 23:5). Here is Paul's inspiration for describing 'the cup of the new covenant' (see 1 Corinthians 11:25), as 'the cup of blessing which we bless' (1 Cor. 10:16). In the Holy Supper, we take hold of Christ as the 'cup of the new covenant'. We thankfully recall how the eternal Son of God left the Father's throne to become an infant for us. We see how Jesus lived as a man among sinners for thirty-three years, bearing our sins, sicknesses, griefs, and sorrows. We look into the face of 'a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief' (Isa. 53:3), and are overwhelmed by what he has done for us. He carried the cruel load of our sins to Golgotha, suffered humiliation and shame in nakedness upon the cross, descended into a hell of suffering, cried the bitter cries of dereliction and thirst, and surrendered all to the cold and silent tomb.
I Am, O Lord, Thy Servant
Nothing greater could have been done for us than what Christ did. 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends' (John 15:13). Christ purchased our salvation at a great personal cost. Because of his sacrifice, we belong to our faithful Saviour, body and soul, in life and in death. 'Whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's' (Rom. 14:8). Our response at the communion feast is not complete until we acknowledge the full weight of Christ's claim, saying, 'I am, O Lord, Thy servant.'
When we, by grace, accept our status as the servants of Christ, we discover wondrous, authentic freedom. 'Truly I am thy servant,' the psalmist says, adding, 'Thou hast loosed my bonds' (Psa. 116:16). Christ's servants are 'bound yet free'. Calvin says that true Christian freedom is 'a free servitude and a serving freedom. Those who serve Christ are free. We obtain liberty in order that we may more promptly and more readily obey God.' 5
Bound yet free, we thank the Father for choosing us in Christ from the stillness of eternity past to save and preserve us for eternity future. Bound yet free, we thank the Son, who in love consented to be the Mediator of the covenant, and 'being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross' (Phil. 2:8). Bound, yet free, we thank the Spirit of Christ, whose power quickened us in Christ when we were in the grave of sin, whose blessing on the preaching of the gospel led us to Christ on the cross, whose witness moved us to embrace Christ as the only Saviour, and whose very presence now lives in us to make us like Christ. With the cup of salvation in hand, we confess with Samuel Rutherford:
I know not which divine Person I love and must thank the most, but this I know, I love and need each of them.
What shall we render to God for all he has given us? Powerless to repay our great debt, we can only receive his free gift, call upon his Name, and offer ourselves to him as living sacrifices, confessing, 'Redeemed by grace, I'll render as a token of gratitude my constant praise to Thee.' More than this we cannot do; less than this we must not do.