Friday, December 10, 2010

Am I Worthy?

By Todd Matocha*
Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper for the good of the church. Yet, how often are the souls of believers anxious and troubled at the table? Generally speaking, the practice of communion has taken on a negative tone. More time is spent fencing the table than feeding the sheep. How unlike the encouraging view of Calvin who claimed that “souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament.” [i]  

The Supper is a glorious transaction between the Triune God and his church. The Father promises to give His incarnate Son through the mysterious work of the Spirit. In return, the church is invited to take and eat by faith. 
Bread and wine are fitting signs of this transaction. They represent all that is needful to sustain and nourish the physical body. In a similar way, the flesh and blood of Jesus provide that which is necessary to sustain and nourish the soul. Thus, an analogous relationship exists between the bread and the body of Christ.

It is dangerous to confuse the sign and thing signified, as if no difference exists between the two. This is the problem of Roman Catholicism. However, it is equally dangerous to stress the differences to such a degree that the signs are emptied of meaning. The latter seems to be the dominant view among evangelicals today. Serious questions need to be asked about the view that treats the Supper merely as a time to remember Christ and His death. How does an exercise of the mind help Christians struggling with doubt and sin? Is such a practice consistent with the biblical doctrine of faith and union with Christ? 

A starving man presented with a loaf of bread can remember how good bread tastes and how nourishing it is to his body. However, until he takes and eats that bread, it will profit him nothing. Is it any less true for the Christian? The soul hungering and thirsting for Christ will find little comfort in thinking about the importance of His death. It is one thing to remember that Christ died and quite another to know that I am united to Him in that death. Any view that stresses the importance of a mere mental exercise is inadequate to meet the deep spiritual needs of Christ’s people. 

Calvin realized the danger of emptying the signs of meaning. In Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper he wrote, “All the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless- an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.” [ii] In other words, if Christ is not present then we are wasting our time.

The bread and wine are not empty signs. They function as aids to faith, providing the believer with a visible representation of an invisible act of God. This can be illustrated in the baptism of Jesus. As he came up from the water “the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him.”  What is the significance of the dove? Obviously, the Holy Spirit is not a bird. The dove is a sign revealing to the eye a hidden work of God. Just as the dove comes down, so too the Holy Spirit, secretly yet truly, came upon Jesus.

Similarly, as bread and wine are received in the mouth for the nourishment of the body, Christ is received in the heart by faith to nourish the soul. Robert Bruce, successor of John Knox, helpfully communicated this to his congregation at St. Giles: “I do not call them signs because they only represent something. I call them signs because they have the Body and Blood of Christ so conjoined with them. Indeed, so truly is the Body of Christ conjoined with the bread, and the Blood of Christ conjoined with the wine, that as soon as you receive the bread in your mouth, you receive the Body of Christ in your soul, and that by faith.” [iii] The lesson to learn from this is that signs are not empty; they are always accompanied by the truth they signify.[iv]

This high view of the Supper takes the focus away from us and puts it on Jesus Christ Himself as the sole source of salvation. We come to the table, spiritually hungry and malnourished, and receive that true bread from heaven which gives life to the soul. We come full of sin and guilt and receive the one whose blood was shed to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. We come as those dead to the author and giver of life.

Who is worthy to participate in such a glorious feast? The Supper is a visible demonstration of the gospel. Requirements for worthy participation are no different from those of church membership: repentance of sins, faith in Jesus Christ as saviour and baptism. All members of the church who have made a public profession of faith have a right to sit at the table of the Lord. 

When church leaders fence the table, they must not set the bar higher. Every member in good standing should be strongly encouraged to partake. This holds true whether one practices open or closed communion. Fencing the table has two functions, one positive and the other negative. First, it should open the table wide to all of God’s true people, the church. Second, it should close the table to everyone else.

Fencing the table is not a tool to distinguish between the spiritually strong and the spiritually weak within the church. It is not a means of separating the visible church from the invisible church. Nor is it to replace proper church discipline. Calvin warned:
...it will most frequently happen, that sins are not so notorious as to justify proceeding to excommunication; for though the pastor may in his heart judge some man to be unworthy, he has not the power of pronouncing him such, and interdicting him from the Supper, if he cannot prove the unworthiness by an ecclesiastical judgment. In such case we have no other remedy than to pray God that he would more and more deliver his Church from all scandals, and wait for the last day, when the chaff will be completely separated from the good grain. [v]  
In an attempt to purify the church, some may do more harm to weak and frail, yet true, Christians. I am not aware of a single hypocrite who has heeded the words of warning during the communion service and refrained from partaking. However, I know of many “bruised reeds” and “smoking flax” who have been broken and quenched by such misdirected warnings. Shouldn’t we be more willing to accept a Judas at the table, as Jesus did, than deny a Peter? 

Far too often the practice of fencing the table has turned believers within on a vain quest for subjective evidence to prove their worthiness. Have I enough faith in my Saviour? Am I putting to death sin as best I can? Do I love my neighbour as I ought? Such a practice is more fitting for a legalistic Pharisee than a needy sinner (Luke 18:9-14). It is torturing tender consciences.

Biblical self-examination is always consistent with the gospel message. It encourages us to look within to see our sickness and need. However, it never stops there. Next, it forces us out of ourselves to find a remedy, One Who can meet that need. We must never allow self-examination to devolve into morbid introspection. It has a glorious end, to lead us out of ourselves so that we can rest wholly in Christ. 

If we are looking for something within to qualify us for the table, we will always be disappointed. Calvin, in a masterful piece of pastoral counsel wrote: 
Therefore, this is the worthiness — the best and only kind we can bring to God, to offer our vileness and (so to speak) our unworthiness to him so that we may be lifted up by him; to accuse ourselves so that we may be justified by him; moreover, to aspire to that unity which he commends to us in his Supper; and, as he makes all of us one in himself, to desire one soul, one heart, one tongue for all.... How could we, needy and bare of all good, befouled with sins, half-dead, eat the Lord’s body worthily? Rather, we shall think that we, as being poor, come to a kindly giver; as sick, to a physician; as sinners, to the Author of righteousness; finally, as dead, to him who gives us life. We shall think that the worthiness, which is commanded by God, consists chiefly in faith, which reposes all things in Christ, but nothing in ourselves. [vi] 
What about those with doubts and lack of assurance? When considering the role of faith it must be remembered that the presence of faith, not the quantity of faith, is what matters. Even the weakest of faith in Christ is still saving faith. Church leaders should avoid language that suggests that doubt and lack of assurance disqualifies someone from the Table. The Westminster Larger Catechism provides helpful guidance on this particular issue. 
Question 172: May one who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord’s supper?
Answer:  One who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God’s account hath it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labour to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord’s supper, that he may be further strengthened.
 If you are a Christian who has refrained from taking the Supper because of doubt or a sense of unworthiness then I would encourage you to rethink your position. To turn away from the sacrament is to turn away Christ. It is tantamount to a rejection of the gospel itself. Surely you would think it absurd for a starving man to refuse food when it is offered. Is it any different when spiritual food is offered to the soul of a weak and needy Christian? 

It is my hope that the church will recover this high and encouraging view of the Lord’s Supper. By feeding on Christ our fears and doubts will be replaced with joy and delight. This is good news indeed. 

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 [i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1361-62.
 [ii] John Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments. (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 170.
 [iii] Robert Bruce, The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper. Edited by Thomas F. Torrance. (London: James Clarke & Co. Limited, 1958), 44.

[iv] Central to Calvin's doctrine was the idea that Christ was substantially given, in his flesh and blood, to believers. [Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1996), 203.] It was Christ’s flesh that provided the Christian with spiritual nourishment.  He wrote, “The flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself.  Now who does not see that communion of Christ’s flesh and blood is necessary for all who aspire to heavenly life?” [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1369]  This teaching was indistinguishable from that of his rivals, Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  In a debate with the Lutheran theologian, Tileman Heshusius, Calvin wrote, “He unworthily includes us all in the charge of teaching that the bread is the sign of the absent body, as if I had not long ago distinctly admonished my readers of two kinds of absence, to acquaint them that the body of Christ is indeed absent in respect of place, but that we enjoy a spiritual participation in it, every obstacle from distance being surmounted by his divine energy.  Hence it follows, that our dispute relates neither to presence nor to substantial eating, but only to the mode of both.” [Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 509-510.] Calvin’s objection to the Lutheran and Roman Catholic doctrine did not concern the real and substantial partaking Christ’s flesh and blood, but rather the mode by which one partook.

Two Christological principles guided Calvin’s thinking. He firmly believed that the Christ with whom we commune is at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Therefore, any teaching about the presence of Christ must not detract from his heavenly glory. Calvin also resisted any teaching about Christ body that was “inappropriate to human nature.” [Calvin, Institutes, 1381-1382.] The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ violated these principles and, therefore, were rejected.

Key to his teaching on the real presence was the work of the Holy Spirit. [“Even a cursory reading of the Institutio reveals that Calvin’s approach to the believer’s union with Christ is tied to two central considerations — the work of the Holy Spirit and the faith of the believer. What is objectively given by the Holy Spirit is subjectively received by faith.” (William B. Evans, Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Eugene Oregon:  Wipf & Stock, 2008), 14).] .Although Christ remained in heaven and the believer on earth, a real participation was possible. Calvin explained, "[As] to our having substantial communion with the flesh of Christ, there is no necessity for any change of place, since, by the secret virtue of the Spirit, he infuses his life into us from heaven.  Distance does not at all prevent Christ from dwelling in us, or us from being one with him, since the efficacy of the Spirit surmounts all natural obstacles.” [Calvin, Treatises, 518-519.] Christ was not to be found locally, in the bread or the wine. Rather, the elements act as signs revealing the secret work of the Spirit. [Calvin, Institutes, 1381.] This teaching is consistent with Paul’s doctrine in Romans 8:9-11 and Ephesians 3:17.
 
 [v] Calvin, Treatises, 181.
 [vi]   Calvin, Institutes, 1419-1420.
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*EDITOR'S NOTE: Todd Matocha is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff, Wales (a member church of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales). This article was first published in the Banner of Truth Magazine, December 2010.