Has God instituted an ordinance for His church that includes the promise of judgement if practiced wrongly by believers? The words spoken at the time of the Lord’s Supper reveal much about the views of the pastor speaking them, whether he believes this to be true or not. Some see little reason to warn the church against unworthy partaking of the Supper. We know, for instance, that those who practice paedocommunion believe no real self-examination is needed beyond affirming one has been baptized. There are others who go so far as to say that self-suspension from the Table is sin and that believers must come unless explicitly prevented by church censure.
In studying this issue and speaking to people, I have found there is a fairly direct correlation between how a person thinks 1 Corinthians 11 applies to the church of our day and their views on warnings at the Table. If a pastor believes Paul’s instructions and warnings in 1 Corinthians 11 are primarily local instructions, he will see negligible benefit in repeating the call for self-examination and words of warning at each administration of the Lord’s Supper. He may even see the warning as onerous, since it could cause God’s people to hesitate to come to His sacrament out of dread. If, however, a pastor believes Paul’s instructions contain the apostolic tradition given for all churches, he understands it to be dangerous not to warn God’s people against unworthy participation. For a careful exegesis of the relevant passage, I would recommend Dr. George W. Knight III’s article.
What is the Reformed position on pronouncing this warning over the Table? How did our fathers view this sober call for self-examination throughout the centuries? I have compiled some witnesses from both the past and present:
Heidelberg Catechism 81, Q. For whom is the Lord’s supper instituted?
A. For those who are truly sorrowful for their sins, and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake of Christ; and that their remaining infirmities are covered by His passion and death; and who also earnestly desire to have their faith more and more strengthened, and their lives more holy; but hypocrites, and such as turn not to God with sincere hearts, eat and drink judgment to themselves.
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.40, on “Self-Examination”
By this, as I understand, he means that each individual should descend into himself, and consider, first, whether, with inward confidence of heart, he leans on the salvation obtained by Christ, and with confession of the mouth, acknowledges it… because it behoves us to contend and seek, with all our heart, daily to increase our faith.
Calvin’s Institutes, 4.17.42
If we ponder and meditate on these things, we may be shaken, but will never be overwhelmed by such considerations as these, how shall we, who are devoid of all good, polluted by the defilements of sin, and half dead, worthily eat the body of the Lord? We shall rather consider that we, who are poor, are coming to a benevolent giver, sick to a physician, sinful to the author of righteousness, in fine, dead to Him Who gives life; that worthiness which is commanded by God, consists especially in faith, which places all things in Christ, nothing in ourselves, and in charity, charity which, though imperfect, it may be sufficient to offer to God, that He may increase it, since it cannot be fully rendered.
Westminster Large Catechism 174, Q.What is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper in the time of the administration of it?
A. It is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, that, during the time of the administration of it, with all holy reverence and attention they wait upon God in that ordinance, diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions, heedfully discern the Lord’s body, and affectionately meditate on His death and sufferings, and thereby stir up themselves to a vigorous exercise of their graces; in judging themselves, and sorrowing for sin; in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, feeding on Him by faith, receiving of His fullness, trusting in His merits, rejoicing in His love, giving thanks for His grace; in renewing of their covenant with God, and love to all the saints.
Westminster Directory for Publick Worship, Of the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper
Next, he is, in the name of Christ, on the one part, to warn all such as are ignorant, scandalous, profane, or that live in any sin or offence against their knowledge or conscience, that they presume not to come to that holy Table; shewing them, that he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself: and, on the other part, he is in an especial manner to invite and encourage all that labour under the sense of the burden of their sins, and fear of wrath, and desire to reach out unto a greater progress in grace than yet they can attain unto, to come to the Lord’s table; assuring them, in the same name, of ease, refreshing, and strength to their weak and wearied souls.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Shorter Catechism, 6. Do those who wilfully resolve to continue in sin receive unworthily?
Yes: For what hast thou to do to take My covenant in thy mouth, seeing thou hatest instruction, Ps. 50:16,17, And do those receive unworthily who have no regard to Christ in what they do? Yes: for they say the Table of the Lord is contemptible, Mal. 1:7. Are they that do so guilty of a great sin? Yes: they are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, 1 Cor. 11:27. And are they in great danger? Yes: for they eat and drink judgment to themselves, 1 Cor. 11:29. But shall weak believers, who bewail their unworthiness, be encouraged? Yes: for He will not break the bruised reed, Matt. 12:20.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7
That is best for us which is best for our souls, by which the heart is made better, though it be unpleasing to sense. Sadness is often a happy means of seriousness, and that affliction which is impairing to the health, estate, and family, may be improving to the mind, and make such impressions upon that as may alter its temper very much for the better, may make it humble and meek, loose from the world, penitent for sin, and careful of duty… It will follow, on the contrary, that by the mirth and frolicsomeness of the countenance the heart is made worse, more vain, carnal, sensual, and secure, more in love with the world and more estranged from God and spiritual things.
Fisher’s Catechism on WSC 97, Q. 1. What preparatory duty is here required of those that would partake of the Lord’s supper?
A. It is, that they examine themselves, 1 Cor. 11:28, “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.”
Fisher’s Q. 5. Is this the duty of every man, or of some only?
A. It is unquestionably the duty of every man: “Let a man examine himself;” that is, every man and woman, without exception, whether they think themselves gracious or graceless.
Fisher’s Q. 27. What risk do they run who omit to examine themselves as to the above graces, before they come to the Lord’s table?
A. They run the risk of coming unworthily.
Body of Divinity, Contained in Sermons on the Assembly’s Catechism, Rev. Thomas Watson, Are all to come promiscuously to this holy ordinance?
No; for that were to make the Lord’s table an ordinary… These elements in the Supper having been consecrated by Jesus Christ to a high mystery, represent His body and blood; therefore there must be preparation; and if preparation, there must be first self-examination. Let us be serious in examining ourselves, as our salvation depends upon it. We are curious in examining other things; we will not take gold till we examine it by the touchstone; we will not take land before we examine the title; and shall we not be as exact and curious in examining the state of our souls? We must examine ourselves before we come, because it is not only a duty imposed, but opposed. There is nothing to which the heart is naturally more averse than self-examination. We may know that duty to be good which the heart opposes. But why does the heart so oppose it? Because it crosses the tide of corrupt nature, and is contrary to flesh and blood. The heart is guilty; and does a guilty person love to be examined? The heart opposes it; therefore the rather set upon it; for that duty is good which the heart opposes.
The Shorter Catechism Explained and Proved by Scripture, Thomas Vincent, Q. 6. Who are they that come to the Lord’s table unworthily?
A.2. Such also come to the table of the Lord unworthily, who, although they are gracious, and have habitual preparation, yet take no care, by self-examination, prayer, and meditation, to attain actual preparation, whereby they displease God, and lose also the benefit of the ordinance.
The Christian’s Reasonable Service Vol. 2, Wilhelmus à Brakel
When believers make themselves unworthy of the Lord’s Supper by giving offense, living in strife and hatred, or cleaving to a given sin to such an extend that prior to the event they do not wish to make a full resolution to part therewith, they sin in a double measure and out to humble themselves deeply before the Lord. Let such remain in the sanctuary during the administration of the Lord’s Supper, stand afar off, and observe the partaking of the Lord’s Supper by believers. Let them thus mourn by themselves and think, “I may not be among them.”
Illustration of the Exercise of Warning and Invitation, or Fencing the Tables, Thomas Houston
The ordinance of the supper is distinguishing and sealing… All pains should be taken to discriminate character, and to deter the ignorant and ungodly from coming in a thoughtless and presumptuous manner to partake in a sacred feast, from which they can derive no real benefit, but will only aggravate their sin and increase their danger. Even when this has been done, formal and lukewarm professors are so prone to deceive themselves, and are so ready to assume “the form of religion,” while they “deny the power thereof,” that it is requisite to speak words of conviction to the conscience when persons are on the point of coming forward to the ordinance of the Supper; and, at the same time, weak, timid, and discouraged Christians require to have the invitations and promises of the Word so presented, that they may be able to discover their warrant and welcome to partake of the feast of communion… The ignorant, the unbelieving, the impenitent, and the disobedient, are plainly inadmissible to the Lord’s Table… [S]uch as being impenitent, not only willfully break God’s commandments, but are living habitually in the allowed omission of any commanded duty, are unprepared for communion in the ordinance, and are justly warned against the sin in this state of partaking in it.
Addresses at Fencing the Tables, Robert Murray M’Cheyne
I tell you, brethren, if there is a man or woman here who is coming to the Lord’s Table, who are not seeking deliverance from all sin, then you have no right to come to this Table; you are like Judas, who was a thief and kept the bag, and kept what was put in it… Some of you may say, God forbid that I should part with every sin. It is but a little one; I cannot part with my money, I cannot part with my pleasures, I would come to the Lord’s Table. Well you may come, but you come uninvited; nay, you come against the Master’s will.
ARP Directory of Public Worship 8.c.5
In the name of Christ, and by His mercy and love, the minister shall call to partake in the sacrament all who humbly place their trust in Christ, are truly sorry for their sins, and by His help endeavor to lead a holy life… They should be encouraged to examine themselves concerning their spiritual need, their faith in Jesus Christ, and their intention to be obedient to Him… Those who are impenitent should be warned against partaking of the sacrament while still holding fast to their sins; lest they partake in an unworthy manner, and eat and drink judgment on themselves.
OPC Directory for Public Worship III.C.3
“If you are not trusting in Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you are not a member of a faithful Christian church, if you are not living penitently and seeking to walk in godliness before the Lord, then I warn you in the Name of Christ not to approach the Holy Table of the Lord.”
What is the Reformed consensus? The one administering the Supper must call for self-examination, warn those who would come with presumption or glaring hypocrisy not to come, but also encourage those who are fearful and weary from sin to come and find comfort and mercy in Christ. This is no easy task, but it is the duty of the watchman of Israel to faithfully warn the people, lest God require their blood from his hand (Ezek. 33).
Those who commune toddlers and those who teach it is sin for the believer to self-suspend may believe they are being generous and gracious with God’s sacrament, but I would argue both actually practice a form of forced communion. What great violence this does to the meaning of the Supper, which seals active, vital communion with Christ. What a departure from Christ’s intent, Who said, “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you,” (Luke 22:15). The blessing of the Sacrament is for those who hunger and thirst after His righteousness. The principle of self-suspension is seen in the wording of Larger Catechism Q. 173, “May any who profess the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s Supper, be kept from it?” Inherent in this question is the understanding that it is not necessary to keep someone from the Table who does not desire to come. They suspend themselves.
The bottom line is that most of this historic witness is easily cast off by those who believe the instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 to be local instructions. This is the crux of the whole question. If one believes Paul’s instructions to be primarily local, much of the above language will be regarded as onerous and unneeded. If, like these witnesses, one believes Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 to include the apostolic tradition handed down by Jesus Christ, the above warnings are vital for the blessing and safety of God’s people.
Rev. Blake Law grew up in Chapel Hill, NC. He attended UNC Greensboro, where he met his wife Sarah. After some years in the Army, Blake graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte in 2015. He now pastors Calhoun ARP in Calhoun, Louisiana and serves on the presbytery State of the Church committee. Blake and Sarah have three sons and three daughters.