In contrast to the Lutheran tradition, the Reformed worked out a thorough understanding of the biblical covenants as the framework within which to understand the sacraments. In the early 1520s, Huldrych Zwingli and others concluded that there is one covenant of grace in redemptive history, variously administered, in which God has promised to be Abraham’s God and the God of his children.
The Reformed also came to different conclusions on the Lord’s Supper. They agreed that in the supper, believers are fed by Christ, but they could not accept the Lutheran confession that Christ’s body is “truly present” in, with, and under the elements. For the Reformed, such a notion fails to account for the biblical teaching about Christ’s ascension, the promise of the Holy Spirit, and the consubstantiality (of the same essence) of Christ’s humanity with ours.
Through the middle decades of the sixteenth century, the Genevans, the Heidelbergers, and the French, Belgic, and Dutch Reformed churches moved beyond Zurich on the supper. From the early 1540s until his death, John Calvin taught that in the supper, Christ feeds the believer on His true body and blood, through faith, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit. The French Confession (1559), the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) confess this high doctrine.
The recovery of the ancient Christian doctrine and practice of the sacraments was so essential to the Reformation that the Reformed churches in Europe and the British Isles spoke of the right use of the sacraments as “marks” of the true church. In article twenty-nine of the Belgic Confession, the French and Dutch-speaking churches confessed that there are three marks of a true church: the “pure preaching of the gospel,” the “pure administration of the sacraments,” and the “use of church discipline.” The phrase “pure administration” of the sacraments was a shorthand way of rejecting both the Anabaptists and Rome.
During the 2017 Reformation celebration, you may hear tour guides say that the Reformers removed sacraments from the church. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Reformation was not vandalism but a recovery of a pearl of great price: the two sacraments instituted by our Savior along with the good news they signify and seal.