Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa. Previous article in this series: January 15, 2008, p. 179.
We have seen that the Lord’s Supper has been instituted for sincere believers, and that all others are forbidden to partake of the sacrament. Those sincere believers are clearly identified by Holy Scripture, so that as we examine ourselves there can be no mistaking the signs of whether we belong. The Heidelberg Catechism in Question and Answer 81 summarizes the biblical description of those proper partakers with three significant characteristics.
The Proper Partakers
In the first place, sincere believers are “those who are truly sorrowful for their sins.”
Notice, the Lord’s Supper is not for those who are perfect. The sincere believer is not one who is perfect. After all, Christ came not to save the righteous, but to bring sinners to repentance.
The Lord’s Supper was instituted for redeemed sinners and therefore for those who are truly sorrowful for their sins. Such sorrow is not merely a sorrow that comes from being caught and being sorry for yourself. It is not merely a matter of coming to grips with the effects that your sins have had upon others. When you are truly sorry for your sins, you are sorry because of the great offense you have committed against God. It is a sorrow because of the breach you have made in the relationship between you and your chief Friend, the Holy One who has saved you.
Sorrow for the offense against God, the God whom you love—that is true sorrow for sin. That must be our sorrow if we are to partake of the Lord’s Supper to our spiritual benefit.
In the second place, a sincere believer not only knows the need for forgiveness, but also trusts that his own sins are forgiven him for the sake of Christ.
We need that forgiveness. Surely we need that forgiveness! Our sins rise up against us, prevailing day by day. So we know the same experience as the psalmist. We cry to God, not as a matter of custom or superstition, but out of our heartfelt need, as a matter of spiritual hunger and thirst, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” If you do that, then you are ready to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
So complete is that sacrifice of Christ and the forgiveness of sins, that even our remaining infirmities are covered by that death of our Savior. We need not daily to offer Christ for the forgiveness of sins. We desire rather to offer ourselves in thankfulness to God for this great salvation He has given us in Christ!
For that reason, thirdly, sincere believers “also earnestly desire to have their faith more and more strengthened, and their lives more holy.” This stands to reason. The one who is truly sorry for his sins, who seeks after God, who sees the forgiveness that is only in Christ’s perfect sacrifice and shed blood, is one who also wants to be sanctified. He fervently desires to be pleasing in God’s sight!
That is also inevitable. This is an inseparable part of the life of the Christian, and therefore of the proper partaker of the Lord’s Supper. That is a matter of sincere Christianity.
The insincere person will continue to walk in bitterness and enmity toward his neighbor. But the sincere believer knows the calling of love, and fervently seeks to live that way, finding it impossible to partake of the holy sacrament when walking in hatred and sin.
The sincere believer knows his own weaknesses and sins, and desires to have his faith more and more strengthened, and his life more holy. Coming to the table in that way, you can partake of the Lord’s Supper with the spiritual fruit that your faith is indeed strengthened, and you receive the assurance that you are a partaker of Christ’s life.
There is one more matter that must be taken into account in the consideration of the proper administration and partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and that is this: the seriousness of the holy Supper and its sacred nature requires that the church, through her elders, defend the proper administration of this ordinance of Christ.
While each individual partaker has the calling properly to partake and carefully to examine his own heart and life before coming to the Lord’s table, the elders of the church also have a duty to guard the table.
In many churches today there is no guarding of the table by the elders.
Many churches just say, “Come.” Even in many Reformed and Presbyterian churches, you will find a general invitation to partake of the Lord’s Supper when the sacrament is administered. All confessing Christians are welcomed to the table. The responsibility for their partaking and for their life is left entirely to them.
But that individualistic invitation is not the Reformed conception.
The Reformed faith always views the church organically. The Reformed faith, therefore, emphasizes the unity of believers in the fellowship of the Lord’s table. That unity is to be under the oversight of the elders ordained and instituted by Christ.
A careful consideration of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth demonstrates that truth and shows that participation in the Lord’s Supper may not simply be left to the individual.
We partake as one body. And when God’s covenant is profaned by one member, His wrath is kindled against the whole congregation! That was evident in Corinth, as Paul wrote in I Corinthians 11. There is a historical setting to what Paul writes there concerning the sacrament. The church at Corinth had been guilty of profaning the Lord’s Supper! The congregation had allowed sinners to come to the table without regard to repentance. They had left it to the individual, as a matter of individual conscience. And those living in fornication (I Cor. 5) still thought it was quite all right that they partake! Seeing the gross profanation of the Lord’s Supper by the Corinthian church, the apostle gave explicit instruction in chapter 6 that the church is called to make judgments and to remove those who walk in impenitence. The church must make that judgment through the elders, whom God has appointed for the oversight of the church.
The failure to do so led to the apostle’s description in I Corinthians 11:30: “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” Notice that. He does not say, If only each man would judge himself as an individual. That also is true. But “if we would judge ourselves.” There must be a certain watchfulness for one another. That is part of the communion of saints. And where that is not done, the whole congregation comes under the judgment of God for its corporate guilt in knowingly allowing an impenitent sinner to profane the sacrament. Those who would breach the fellowship by their sinful walk must be excluded.
How is the oversight of the church exercised?
If Scripture does not allow for “open” communion, where anyone may partake who confesses to be a believer, what is the alternative?
Attendance at the Lord’s Supper must beclosely guarded.
In this connection the apostle makes an important point in I Corinthians 10:16-17. There he points out that the Lord’s Supper also symbolizes the unity of the one body of Christthat is partaking of it. He is not speaking of the unity of the whole church throughout the world. He is speaking of the unity of thecongregation. He returns to the same figure in chapter 12 when he refers to the local congregation in Corinth as the body of Christ.
From this we learn that the Lord’s Supper brings to expression the unity that the members of a particular local church, the body, have in Christ their Savior. That is why each local congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper, administering the sacrament under the oversight of her own elders. We do not all gather in one huge gathering in Jerusalem once a year, as the Jews used to gather for the Passover. Rather, the Lord has instituted the sacrament as a symbol of unity for each local congregation.
That is why the Lord’s Supper may never be separated from the local church and its ministry of the Word. The Westminster Confession, in chapter 29, Article 3, states explicitly that the Supper is to be given “to none who are not then present in the congregation.”
What does this mean, then, for visitors?
It does not mean that no visitors may be admitted, although it must be remembered that the sacrament is not primarily for visitors, but for the congregation itself.
But it does mean that any visitor who will partake must be able to express his unity with the particular congregation where the sacrament is being administered.
That unity is a unity in the truth, first of all. That is seen already in our confessions of faith. When we come to years of discretion, and confess our faith as members of the church, we confess before God and the entire congregation our unity in the faith. So in our own Protestant Reformed Churches the question is asked, “Whether you acknowledge the doctrine contained in the Old and New Testaments and in the Articles of the Christian faith and taught here in this Christian church to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation?” To that we answer with a heartfelt, “Yes.”
That is the entire basis for our unity as a congregation—the truth of the gospel as taught here in this Christian church.
If we do not believe that, if we do not agree with that, we will detract from the unity of the church. We will bring schism to the table of the covenant. That is why the elders must be certain that those who will approach the Lord’s table with us are one in the faith.
The elders have to answer for any whom they will admit to the table. They are able to do so easily with their own members, for they know them. But for visitors, there must be proper grounds for admitting them. Historically it was the practice in Reformed churches to admit only those visitors who came from sister congregations and brought with them an attestation, i.e., a written testimony from their consistory that “they are members in good standing.” If people came without such an attestation and there were no witnesses to their being members in good standing of a sister congregation, or if they came from some church of which the elders had no knowledge, they would not be permitted to partake.
That is not to judge the hearts of the visitors concerned. It is not even to enter judgment over the church from which they come. It is simply a confirmation of the teachings of the inspired apostle that the sacrament is, first of all, for the local congregation and under the oversight of her elders; and secondly, that the elders cannot be expected to take responsibility for those people whom they do not know, nor of their churches. If they were to admit them to the table, leaving it up to the individual conscience, they would be making a mockery of the oversight with which God has charged them, and of the unity of the church.
The Twofold Effect of the Sacrament
Just as with preaching and baptism, there is a twofold aspect of the sacramental operation of God, a saving and a condemning operation. In the administration of the sacraments, as well as the preaching, the minister functions as the mouthpiece of God, and God accomplishes His own sovereign good pleasure, whether in saving or in hardening. And in the partaking of the Lord’s Supper the congregation acts: believing, eating and drinking with the mouth of faith; or not believing, and eating and drinking judgment to themselves.
The unbelieving who partake profane the sacrament by taking to themselves that which was instituted only for the faithful. They profane the covenant of God by taking to themselves the signs of the covenant and making God appear as if He were the Father of the wicked. So they trample underfoot the blood of Christ, not discerning the Lord’s body, and treating the elements as if they were mere bread and wine. The consequence is that they are hardened and condemned.
But for the believer who partakes properly, conscious of being a partaker of the covenant of grace, the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace whereby God nourishes and strengthens his spiritual life. There we find joyful fellowship in the life that is ours in Christ Jesus. That is communion, the blessed sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.