Q: What is required to the worthy receiving of the Lord's supper?
A: It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord's supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord's body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves.
1 Corinthians 11:28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is past us for another year, and we've gotten over the humps of some pretty big catechism questions, I hope to catch up and get this blog back on schedule over the next few weeks.
This week's question is a "biggie" as well. Some may not realize the debates around the question of who is worthy to receive the Lord's Supper. Some will argue that if our children are, indeed, members of the covenant community, if they have received the sign of that community, then why should we keep them from the covenant meal? After all, children, even infants, were more than likely participants in the covenant meals of Israel, be it the Passover or the peace offerings. This idea is not a new thought in the Christian church. The practice of including infants in the Lord's Supper is seen very early in the Church's life. And while we do not know if it was the apostolic practice, we do know that by the end of the 2nd century, it was at least a somewhat common practice. But others will argue that the reason we do not include infants in the Lord's Supper is because the meal, according to New Testament texts, requires some level of discernment. This is the position of the Westminster divines, and also the stated position of the Presbyterian Church in America. You can read our position paper on this topic here.
Given the position of the PCA and of the Shorter Catechism, our goal here is to not engage in the discussion of who should partake of the Lord's Supper, but rather, as the catechism asks, what is required of those who would partake. The catechism states that there are several things we must discern before partaking. First, we are to discern the Lord's body. Do we understand what we are feeding on and drinking of when we partake of the elements of the supper? Do we understand that the bread is the body of Christ, broken for us? Do we understand that the cup is the new covenant in Christ's blood, poured out for us, that apart from the death of Jesus Christ, there is no atonement for sin and no forgiveness? We are also to discern, that is, to examine, our own faith. Are we trusting in Christ for our salvation? This is a meal for the people of God. Those who are looking elsewhere for their hope, those who are putting their faith in anything but Jesus Christ should not participate in the meal. Furthermore, we should examine ourselves for the outworking of faith. Do we live lives of repentance, do we see the workings of love-love for God and for our neighbor? This includes the question, "are we at peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ?" This is the context of 1 Cor. 11 where Paul gives the command to examine ourselves. He writes in 11:18 that he hears of divisions among the Corinthian Christians. This should not be! The Lord's Supper is not only a reminder that we are reconciled to God, but also a reminder that, as Paul writes in 1 Cor. 10, because there is one bread, we who are many are one body. If you are not at peace with your brother or sister in Christ, you need to, as Jesus says in Matthew 5, leave your offering at the altar and first be reconciled to your brother. To not do this is to eat and drink judgment upon yourself. Finally, we are to examine our obedience to the commands of God. This is not a question of whether or not we have sinned, but rather, it is to search ourselves to see if we have in us a desire to serve and obey the true and living God. If we do not have this desire to obey, if we do not have evidence of love in us for God and for our neighbor, if we do not live lives of repentance, then we should be questioning whether we have the faith that is required to participate in the covenant meal.
Let me just close with this thought. The table of the Lord is not a table of merit. The process of discerning, of examining yourself, is not meant to keep those who are truly trusting in Christ away from the table. The process of examination is meant to remind us that the Lord's Supper is not just another meal, as the Corinthians were treating it, but rather, it is a means of grace meant to strengthen and encourage, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, to God's covenant people. It is not designed to keep the struggling Christian, the Christian who feels weak in their faith, the Christian who feels beaten down by their struggles against sin, the Christian who is plagued with doubts and fears, away. These are the people who need the meal, who need the spiritual nourishment of the body and blood of Christ, and these are the people who are invited to come! We do not "earn" the privilege to come to the table of the Lord. You don't get to come because, in your mind, you sinned less this week than you did last. Too often, these levels of examination have been used by people to pervert what the Lord's Supper is about. The call to examine ourselves has been twisted in a way that makes people afraid to come to the table. The reality is, everyone who comes to the table of the Lord is a poor and beaten down sinner. The reality is, everyone who comes has, at some point in their life, felt weak in their faith, has struggled to hold on to our confession. We all need the grace that the meal gives us. We all need the repentance and faith that the meal encourages. This meal is given to us because of our weakness, not in spite of it! Or have we forgotten that we have a great High Priest who is able to sympathize? A High Priest who was tempted in every way? Jesus Christ, the giver of this meal, knows our weaknesses and sympathizes with us. So we who are hoping and trusting in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation, who-though we sin often and sin boldly-are living lives of repentance, who, though we fail, truly do desire to live obedient lives for the glory of our God and King, may come and eat and drink! We may come and participate in the great peace offering of God and know that we are at peace with the Father through the Son. We may come and have our souls nourished, our faith fed, and our assurance strengthened as we commune with Jesus and with our brothers and sisters.