I received an email from a prospective member this week with an excellent question stemming from our Statement of Faith. She asked, “What does it mean when it says we should prepare for the Lord’s Supper with “self-examination to ensure holiness before God.”
The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper serves at least four (but arguably more) purposes in the life of the church. I’ll spend the bulk of this post addressing the fourth point, since it addresses the question at hand.
1. The Lord’s Supper preaches the gospel.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26).”
There are no perfect people at the Lord’s Table. We are all debtors to grace. The preaching of the gospel from the Lord’s Table is meant to reinforce for us that we are, indeed, great sinners, and Christ is a great Savior!
2. The Lord’s Supper remembers Christ.
“Do this in remembrance of me (1 Cor. 11:24).”
We are all prone to forgetfulness and apathy toward the precious promises of the gospel that are ours in Christ. The Lord’s Supper reminds us of God’s great love for us, of Christ’s victory over sin through his death and resurrection, of his interceding for us today as a Great High Priest, and of his imminent return for us.
3. The Lord’s Supper is for love and unity.
“So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another (1 Cor. 11:33).”
The church in Corinth had been fractured by sinful pride. “Divisions” and “factions” had grown within the church, leading to the “humiliation” of “those who have nothing (11:17-22).” This cannot be! Because the Lord’s Supper preaches the gospel to us and leads us to remember Christ, it promotes unity in the Body by reinforcing that we are all equally sinful and saved at the foot of the cross. No member has a means to boast over another member. We can only “boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:14).” Therefore, the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace that helps us selfless love and serve one another just as Christ has loved us (John 13:34-35).”
4. The Lord’s Supper is for self-examination.
“Whoever, therefore, eat the bread of drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup (1 Cor. 11:27-28).”
If Paul is not demanding sinlessness on the part of those at the table, then what does it mean to take the Supper in an “unworthy manner” and to what, exactly, are we to “examine.”
First, “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).” We don’t take the Lord’s Supper in order to be or to stay saved. Rather, it is a means of grace by which professing Christians may be assured that they are saved. “Do I treasure what these elements signify–that Christ loved the Church and gave herself up for her?” “Do I feel a godly remorse for sin–not just ‘bad’ things that I do, but ‘good’ things that I do with bad motives?” “Do I hate my sin and desire repentance?” “Am I trusting in the blood of Christ alone to receive forgiveness from my sin and his righteousness alone as the means by which I stand acceptable before God?”
If a person’s answer is consistently and characteristically “no” to these kinds of examining questions, he or she may not be a Christian. For a non-Christian to sit at the Lord’s Table would be to “eat…and drink…in an unworthy manner.” The Lord’s Table forces us to regularly ask ourselves, in the context of Christian community, “Am I what I say I am?”
Second, we are to examine the nature of our love for others in our local church. As stated above, the Lord’s Supper was given the local church as a means of grace to encourage unity and love among the members (1 Cor. 11:17-22, 33). Is our commitment to the Body in keeping with our confession? This examination has both a negative and a positive side to it:
Negatively, “Have a done or said anything that has worked to the detriment of the church’s unity? “Have I failed to ask for forgiveness or to forgive others?” “Have I spoken harshly to others, failing to give them grace?” “Have I been cliquish and divisive in my relationships?”
Positively, “What am I doing to promote love and unity in our body? How does the gospel (signified by what I am eating and drinking) compel me to actively live out my confession by pursuing the spiritual good of other members in this church?” As one pastor put it, “You may love studying theology, but if you refuse to give a little old lady a ride to church, you’re probably not a Christian.”
The Lord’s Supper leads us to examine our conduct among the members of our church and is a means of grace whereby Christians are encouraged to actively promote a kind of gospel community that validates their gospel confession (contra the Corinthians). In so doing, we “ensure holiness before God.”
All that being said, the only individuals that would be “fenced” from taking the Lord’s Supper with our church are non-Christians and those under church discipline who have been “ex-communioned.”
If, however, upon examination, a member is convicted of personal sin that has caused disunity in the church, he or she may personally decide to contentiously (according to their own conscience) refrain from partaking until the relationship(s) have been restored. Love and unity among God’s people is more important than a mechanical, hypocritical participation in the practice–“If you are offering your gift at the alter and there remember that that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 6:23-24).”
I pray that God would use this means of grace in the life of our church to continually produce in us a gospel-centered, Christ-like love for one another to the glory of God alone.