A Supper Sans Ulcers
The medieval church struggled to approach the Lord with confidence through the sacraments. When teaching my seminary class about this, the professor asked, “How can we live the Christian life without getting ulcers?” This is a good question. Maybe you have wondered about this when coming to the Lord’s Supper.
You want to be worthy of the high calling of the Christian life. Then, you hear the warning from 1 Corinthians 11 that eating and drinking in an unworthy manner brings judgment on you. Is it possible to approach the Supper with glad confidence and enjoy it as a means of grace? The answer is yes, and the Westminster Standards offer some helpful guidance.
I suggest that we should confidently come to the Lord’s Supper with precisely the same theology that shapes the entire Christian life.
First, the Standards teach that there are requirements for the Christian life just as there are for the Lord’s Supper. Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) 85 asks, “What does God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?” The answer, summarized, is faith, repentance and diligent use of the means of grace. It is important to notice that WSC 86 and 87 describe faith and repentance as “saving graces.” That is, we can only believe and turn from sin because God graciously grants this to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We have no basis for boasting.
In parallel to this WSC 97 asks, “What is required to the worthy receiving of the Lord’s Supper?” The answer (summarized) is knowledge to discern the Lord’s Body, faith, repentance, love and new obedience. We may confidently conclude that these too are redeeming graces, granted to us by the power of God. Once again, boasting is excluded.
None of us is worthy to approach the Lord. We may approach Him confidently and in a worthy manner both in life and in the Supper by embracing the saving graces of faith and repentance that He gives us. Thanks be to God.
Second, these subjective requirements for communion with Christ should be given full weight as ‘requirements.’ Alternative words, such as ‘suggestions’ or ‘optional extras,’ are not fitting. The sovereign Lord determines what is necessary for approach to His throne and to His table. The Good News is that God gives the grace to meet the requirements. Furthermore, this is rooted in the obedience of His Son, who has fulfilled all covenantal requirements for us. So, sinners that we are, we can approach the throne of grace with confidence in Christ. Likewise, we can approach the Lord’s Supper with such confidence.
I once heard Sinclair Ferguson speak of a guilt-ridden believer in a Scottish church who let the bread and wine pass her by during the service. The pastor, noting this, took the tray of elements and set it before her again and said, “Take it woman; it’s for sinners!” Praise the Lord.
Finally, there are objective requirements for admission to the Lord’s Table. These, too, are gospel graces. Both baptism and a credible profession of faith are required for communion.
The Standards teach that church baptism is required for right use of the Supper. Christ gives the sacraments to the church (WCF 27.1). The Lord’s Supper is served to the church (WCF 30.3). Therefore, since baptism is the sign and seal of admission to the visible church, it is a necessary requirement for right use of the Lord’s Supper (WCF 28.1). What the Standards call the “needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism” (WLC 167) is their description of what it means to walk in a manner worthy of communion with Christ. The Confession declares that anyone who is unworthy of daily, non-sacramental communion with Christ is also and therefore unworthy of sacramental communion with Christ (WCF 29.8). The best preparation for communion is to live in the light of union with Christ each day. It is right and fitting for believers to look to their baptism as one pillar of assurance of salvation, especially in times of darkness and doubt.
A credible, public profession of faith to the officers of the church is also required for a worthy participation in the Supper, according to the Westminster Standards. The promises in the Supper are made to believers (WCF 29.7). According to the Standards, the officers of the Church admit those believers to the kingdom of heaven based on credible penitence and faith in the Gospel. “To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed” (WCF 30.2). We also note that a worthy communicant is one who has not been prevented by the church from coming to the Table. The Standards teach that the officers of the church hold authority to keep unworthy participants from the Table (WCF 30.3; WLC 173). Indeed, it is their solemn responsibility to use the keys of the kingdom “…for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly upon the Church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders” (WCF 30.3).
Church membership is not some grievous burden laid upon the children of God. Church membership is on the one hand a welcome to the family and on the other hand a blessed state of accountability. In church membership, we are welcomed to the family and our names are entered on the roll of God’s people. We can say that we belong! In addition, the church cares about us so much that she will not let us wander away. She will pursue us alike a faithful sheepdog. If we are unrepentant, she will suspend us from the sacraments. Even this is a work of grace, done in the hopes that we will repent and return.
So, what is the answer? “Can we live the Christian life without getting ulcers?” Yes, thank the Lord. Can we approach the Lord’s Supper with gladness and confidence? Yes and Amen.
Brad Evans is pastor emeritus at Presbyterian Church of Coventry and a Southern New England Presbytery pastor-at-large. He continues to preach and teach throughout New England.
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