Question: "What is memorialism? What is a memorialist?"

Answer: Memorialism is a view of the Lord’s Supper that sees communion as a remembrance of what Christ did on the cross. To the memorialist, the elements of the Lord’s Supper are symbolic—the bread represents Jesus’ body, and the cup represents His blood. In memorialism the elements of communion themselves have no literal or mystical connection to Jesus’ body.

Memorialism was formally articulated by Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli, and his teaching went against the Catholic view and Martin Luther’s. The Catholics taught transubstantiation, the view that the bread and wine are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ upon consecration by the priest. Luther taught consubstantiation, the view that Christ is spiritually present at the taking of communion—He is “with, in, and under” the bread and wine. The elements remain bread and wine, but Christ is actually present in them, co-existing with the elements. For Zwingli and the memorialists, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial to the body and blood of Christ (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24–25), and there is no actual consumption of His physical body and blood. Christ cannot be physically present at communion since He is in heaven at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 8:1; 10:12).

Central to the debate between differing views of the Lord’s Supper are Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26 –28). In that passage, Jesus calls the bread “my body” (verse 26) and the cup “my blood of the covenant” (verse 28). Memorialists view Jesus’ words as metaphorical and that He was teaching His disciples to remember His sacrifice on the cross.

Important to the memorialist view is 1 Corinthians 11. Twice in that chapter, Jesus says to partake of communion “in remembrance of me” (verses 24–25). Paul then says that “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (verse 26). Thus, communion is a proclamation of the gospel, a “showing” or a “telling” of what our Lord did for us.

Jesus once told the crowds that He is the “living bread” and that, in order to have eternal life, they must “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” (John 6:51, 53). Many of the Jews present misunderstood and asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (verse 52, CSB). Jesus was not stating that a person must eat His literal flesh and drink His blood to be saved. As He later affirms, His words are spirit (John 6:63); i.e., He was speaking spiritually. A person does not gain eternal life through eating the Lord Supper; rather, eternal life comes through trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 10:9–10; 1 Corinthians 15:2–4). Partaking in the Lord’s Supper is a memorial in that it reminds Christians of Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross for the sins of the world.

Great and important men throughout the centuries have had memorials built in their honor: a statue, an obelisk, a pyramid, an arch. But Jesus, the greatest and most important man in history, desired no such thing. In the greatness of His humility, Jesus specified what His memorial was to be: a simple meal shared with friends. The world doesn’t need another statue, but it does need to remember what Jesus’ sacrifice meant. The world needs the gospel, beautifully pictured in the bread and cup of communion. Memorialists rightly hold that the bread and wine (or juice) of the Lord’s Supper are important symbols of Jesus’ broken body and His blood poured out to atone for mankind’s sin.