To the worship of the church belongs such important things as the preaching of the gospel, the singing of the psalms, the offering of prayers and the return of a portion of God’s bountiful gifts, contributed with cheerful hearts to support the cause of God in the midst of the world. Without any question, each and every one of these aspects of public worship has some necessary contribution to make toward the spiritual well-being of the worshipper.
Not to be overlooked or minimized in this connection is the very significant role of the administration of the sacraments, particularly that of the Lord’s Supper, in the worship of the church. The church stands on the zenith of her worship when she is spiritually active at the table of the Lord. It is here that the covenant fellowship between God and His people, based on the meritorious work of Christ and effected through the mystical operation of the Holy Spirit, is consummated in the highest sense of the word short of eternity.
The blessings of Holy Communion are not automatically and mechanically diffused to each and everyone who is physically present at the Table. On the contrary, these heavenly gifts are earmarked for those alone who are present in the spiritual sense of the word and to arrive at that consciousness involves a mandatory process of self-preparation and self-examination. We speak here of “self-preparation,” not in the sense that we must fix ourselves up to be receptive vessels of heavenly treasures for this we are unable to do, but we use this term as synonymous with “self-examination.” By it we wish to denote that activity of self by which we discover in ourselves the unmistakable evidences of the working of Divine grace and by this we are assured of a place and a blessing in the communion of God.
Of this self-examination our Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper speaks at the very outset. Because of the importance of this examination with a view to the proper celebration of the sacrament and also because of the very real danger (or very dangerous reality) that proper attention is not given to this matter, we will discuss the three parts of the self-examination rather detailedly. Isn’t it quite true that often the Communion Form is read in the service just preceding the celebration of the sacrament as a sort of habitual or traditional thing with the result that very little, if any serious consideration is given to matters at hand. Some churches seek to avoid this by reading the preparatory part of the Communion Form on Preparatory Sunday and this practice, we believe, has merit. It then becomes an aid in the Preparatory Service in concentrating the attention of the congregation on its preparatory responsibilities and when the sacrament itself is celebrated, more direct emphasis can be placed on that part of the Form which speaks of the end or purpose for which Christ hath ordained and instituted the same.
The first part of the true examination of ourselves consists of the following which we quote from the Communion Form:
“First. That everyone consider by himself, his sins and the curse due to him for them, to the end that he may abhor and humble himself before God: considering that the wrath of God against sin is so great, that (rather than it should go unpunished) He hath punished the same in His beloved Son Jesus Christ, with the bitter and shameful death of the cross.”
The knowledge of sin which is the subject of our concern here is strictly experiential. It is not a knowledge about sin and the enormity of it that must of necessity be discovered in this soul searching process but it is the conscious awareness of sin in all of our experiences that is the matter of ponderous concern here. The question here is not whether or not we are aware that the reality of sin exists in the world of our experience but rather whether in all our experiences in the world we recognize sin in ourselves.
This is strictly a personal matter. The Form states, “that everyone consider by himself.” This is important and in the process of self-examination it is very necessary that this exact prescription be followed, for without it the very purpose of this examination is defeated and its goal can never be obtained. A severe warning may be sounded in this connection. It is quite natural and therefore also common-place to find those who can always discover in others an untold number of sins and so to produce an endless list of reasons why this or that brother ought not to be at the table of the Lord. In themselves they see no evil and even fail to recognize the fact that they are sinning in the very act of judging their neighbor and failing to walk with that neighbor in the love of Christ in order that he may be corrected and brought to repentance. But there is nothing salutary in considering the sins of others and gloating over them. This can lead only to a self-complacent pharisaism which is in reality the multiplication of sin upon sin. The instruction is not, “Let everyone look at the sins of others” but it is pointedly “Let everyone consider by himself, his sins . . .” Each one individually is to bring his own heart and soul and walk of life under scrutiny before his own mind and consciousness.
We note further that in this self-examination with respect to the matter of sin, the aim is not to determine whether or not sin is present. We are not to ask ourselves whether we have sin. This is presupposed, and rightly so, to be the case. The fact of sin is readily admitted for it is the child of God that is here subjected to self-examination and his confession is that of the Psalmist in Psalm 51:3-5:
“For I acknowledge my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
But here again we are confronted with a practical problem. The problem involves the making of this confession a matter of experience rather than a truth that is merely acknowledged with our lips. Oh, to be sure, we are ready to acknowledge the reality of sin in a very broad and general way. We do not hesitate to maintain the dogmatical truth concerning man’s total depravity and since the whole world lies in sin and we are also part of that world, we are forced by logical argumentation to concede that sin is also in us. And if a particular sin of ours is brought to light, we even attempt to justify that sin, instead of confessing it, by arguing that we are aware that everyone commits sin. The reasoning seems to be that my sin cannot be condemned and does not need to be confessed because everyone else is guilty of sin too even if their sin is not exposed. On the basis of the rightful claim that everybody sins, we attempt to draw the erroneous conclusion that we do not need to concern ourselves with our individual sins since, in light of the overall picture of sin, these are not so serious after all.
Such reasoning is not only faulty but it is contrary to all that Scripture teaches us. But the significant point in this connection is that this attitude belittles sin. It minimizes it and reducing it to a minimum quantity it becomes impossible for us to seriously probe our heart “to the end that we may abhor and humble ourselves before God.” And this is just the thing that self examination requires. We must be brought not to a general admission of the reality of sin but to a heartfelt confession of sin in us. Such a confession results when, by the grace of God, we are brought to see sin for what it actually is.
Sin is not the same as making a mistake. It is not a miscalculation which results in a faulty conclusion being reached because of some error in our mental processes. Sin is not simply a misjudgment or the neglect of some duty as the result of forgetfulness on the part of, our busy and oft overworked minds. Oh, certainly, sin involves mistakes, miscalculations, errors, misjudgments and neglect but the point is that i the real character of sin is not seen when we look at sin in this superficial way. The vile essence of sin remains hidden when we look at it this way and we are quite easily led then to think that our sin is not so bad because, although we all make mistakes, the majority of our judgments and calculations appears to be quite correct.
Sin concerns the law of God because Scripture points out that “Sin is the transgression of the law.” But here, again we must be on our guard lest we look at that law of God as a mere code in which a certain desired pattern of external behavior is prescribed for us. We then look at ourselves with a sense of (sinful) pride and boast in the claim that we do not steal, murder, lie or participate in those immoralities that are publicly displayed and practiced in the world about us. We go to church on Sunday and keep the Sabbath and to as much as suggest that we would worship an idol of wood or of stone would be offensive and insulting. Although we might admit that if you probe a bit deeper, you would find some imperfection and we dare not deny that there is room for improvement in all of us, yet, we are not such bad sinners for we respect the law of God and externally at least honor it. And we might then conclude that the curse that is due to us because of our failures is not too serious because it can easily be off-set by our many accomplishments that must please God.
If such is our view of the matter, we have not begun to understand sin.
Sin is a horrible monster. It is a terrible, devastating power that perverts our body and soul so that it places us in a moral, rational relationship of opposition to God and to all that is good because God is good. It makes us will and desire what God hates and it causes us to hate what God loves. It is like a venomous poison that infests our whole nature and corrupts our heart so that all the issues of our life as they proceed from that heart are only evil continually. It directs us through all the motions and activities of our nature away from God into death.
If we then consider that God has created us in His own image and likeness and endowed us with the one indivisible calling to love Him and to be devoted to Him with all that we have and with all that we are; and that this dedication of love and service is the essence of life; we must realize that the horribleness of sin is that it deprives us of all this and gives us the very opposite . . . . death! Under the cruel bondage of that power of sin we lie and into the pit of death we have fallen. Sin is our master and him we willingly serve according to the nature inherited from our first parents.
“Let everyone consider by himself, his sins and the curse due to him for them . . . .”
Doing this we cannot and will not pride ourselves in some outward deeds that may gain the praise of men, but we will see ourselves as miserable, wretched sinners who are burdened with such an enormous load of sin that we can never begin to as much as move it. We will see our unfaithfulness, our unworthiness, our perversity and our corruption and realize how justly we are deserving of nothing but God’s holy wrath and judgment. And then sin will become a very disturbing thing in our experience, and this is exactly what must take place within us, for in this way God prepares us to realize the wonder and glory of His redemptive work which He has accomplished in Christ Jesus, our Lord. That consciousness is necessary if we are to celebrate the Supper of the Lord to our comfort and, therefore, the first step in the preparatory self-examination aims to bring us to the conscious realization of the need of the grace of God that bringeth salvation.