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REMEMBRANCE, COMMUNION AND HOPE: REDISCOVERING THE GOSPEL AT THE LORD’S TABLE
J. TODD BILLINGS
WM. B. EERDMANS PUBLISHING CO., 2018
At the beginning of his book, J. Todd Billings presents readers with a wager: “that a renewed theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper can be an instrument for congregations to develop a deeper, more multifaceted sense of the gospel itself.” As a church planter and pastor, I’ve accepted this wager. And it is a wager seven years ago I asked my congregation to embrace. When I was contemplating the call to plant the church I now pastor, one of the worship commitments I asked our core group to embrace was weekly Lord’s Supper. To some this seemed to be an odd request, because they’d had little experience with frequent communion and sacramental celebration didn’t seem like a winning strategy for church growth. Yet what I was deeply convinced of at the time is precisely what Billings presents as the wager, namely, that when the supper has a central place in the life of a congregation, it has the power to bring us into a fuller awareness and experience of the gospel than if it were absent. I can say that this supper wager is one our congregation is glad it accepted.
When the supper has a central place in the life of a congregation, it has the power to bring us into a fuller awareness and experience of the gospel
Perhaps you are skeptical. If so, I have a wager for you, dear reader: Pick up and read! The contribution of this book is not only the clarity and insight with which Billings presents the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper but the way he seeks to persuade us to embrace a deeper piety and practice around the supper. The Reformed tradition in America since the early 19th century has suffered from a bout of sacramental anemia. We affirm the doctrinal truth of the sacraments, but we are not deeply convinced that they really matter, and therefore we lack an imagination for how they are able to structure and guide us into a profounder experience of the triune God. Billings’ book is a huge step in helping us recapture a sacramental imagination by showing how the celebration of the supper is a matter of vital spiritual and practical concern in the life of the church. To this end, Billings makes consistent applications he calls “congregational snapshots” that connect the supper to real-life worship contexts and pastoral scenarios.
YOU CAN’T THINK YOUR WAY TO GOD
In the first two chapters, Billings challenges us to examine what he calls functional theologies in the church and the subtle ways that our thinking about salvation deviates from how we live and operate day to day. According to Billings, you can’t think your way into the right functional theology. You can’t think your way into loving God more. This is why God gives us the Lord’s Supper: It’s a means of grace by which we come into a fuller (i.e., functional) experience of salvation. The supper does this not only through our act of remembering but also by increasing our appetite for God’s Word, reshaping our imaginations and causing us to participate more fully in the triune life of God. Decisive here is not what we do but rather what God does for us when we come to the table with believing faith.
It is important to situate Billings within the horizon of Reformed sacramental theology. He is committed to a view of Christ’s real spiritual presence in the supper. This is the high view of presence in the Reformed tradition fully worked out by John Calvin and expressed clearly in the Belgic Confession. This means what is held out to us by Christ in the supper is the mysterious gift of his very life that is objective and durable and therefore not reducible to or dependent upon our own subjective experience of it. This is what sets the Lord’s Supper apart from being a spiritual technique or church-growth method. Instead the supper is an invitation into intimacy with the triune God, who works on us and in us for our spiritual nourishment.
How exactly does the Lord’s Supper become a divine instrument? Billings highlights three dimensions: remembrance, communion and hope. In remembrance, the supper recalls the once-and-for-all atoning death of Christ and the offer of forgiveness of sins. Remembrance has been the predominant theme of eucharistic celebration in Reformed circles often to the exclusion of other aspects of the supper. Billings affirms this memorial dimension and offers a deep reflection on the spiritual meaning of remembrance in the Bible. However, he wants to especially push Reformed readers to expand their imaginations for the other biblical dimensions of eucharistic celebration. Under the category of communion, the supper focuses our attention on our union with Christ and how sacramental celebration deepens and strengthens us in the reality of that spiritual marriage. In the final chapter, on hope, Billings shows how the supper is an eschatological meal that is given to orient our hearts and desires towards heaven and the final advent of Christ. These chapters are contemporary and pastoral while being rich in historical detail, theological reflection and biblical exegesis.
A COUNTRY YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW
Reading Remembrance, Communion and Hope is like being taken on a sacramental journey into a country that you thought you knew but are then surprised to find a landscape more textured, captivating and inviting of further exploration than you previously imagined. Such is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
And Billings is an excellent guide. This book is easily the best recent treatment of the Lord’s Supper in the Reformed tradition. Billings’ work embodies a ressourcement theology of the Reformation that shows, contrary to popular scholarly sentiment, that there is a robust and vibrant eucharistic theology in the Reformed tradition that can sustain and nourish the church today. You don’t have to flee to Rome, Constantinople or Canterbury to have a deep sacramental piety.
At the same time this is an exemplary work of Reformed catholicity. Billings offers a generous exposition of the supper in the light of the whole Christian tradition that demonstrates continuity and common conviction with other traditions. Even though this is a work in Reformed sacramental theology, like all truly catholic theology, it is a gift to all the churches. What becomes clear as you read this book is that Billings is a theologian-pastor who has a deep love for the church and earnestly desires to see her renewal in the gospel. If you are a pastor, church planter or lay person who desires to have a deeper understanding of why the Lord’s Supper matters and how it can lead you into a fuller experience of the gospel, this book is for you.
Christopher Ganski is senior pastor of City Reformed Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin..