Young Children at the Table? (Letham)

Systematic Theology Here’s a good short summary of why confessionally Reformed churches have historically not allowed young children to participate in the Lord’s Supper:

Recently, a growing number have advocated paedocommunion – giving communion to infants and very young children who have not made a public profession of faith.  Two factors have encouraged this.  One is a new interest in Eastern Orthodoxy, for the East has always practiced paedocommunion.  A second factor flows from covenant theology.  Some argue that since the whole family participated in the Passover and does so in baptism, why should the Supper be different?

However, paedocommunion fits best with positions other than those of the Reformed confessions.  The first fit is with transubstantiation.  If the bread becomes the body of Christ, it follows that whoever eats the bread receives Christ’s body.  Therefore, to deny the bread to infants is to deny them grace.  The other fit is memorialism.  If the Supper is simply a figurative remembrance and not a means of grace, and so not a means of judgment to the unbelieving (1 Cor. 11:27-32), it hardly matters who receives it, since no adverse consequences are likely.

In contrast, the Reformed stress that the Lord’s Supper requires faith, repentance, and self-examination [WLC 177].  If the means of grace can become a means of judgment, discipline, and even of damnation, it is essential that participants be qualified as penitent sinners.  So two qualifications are required for receiving the Supper.  First is baptism, the sacrament of initiation.  Second is profession of faith, for this is essential to feed on Christ, the Bread of Life.  Because the Eucharist is a sacrament of the church, not a matter of private or individual choice, this faith must be tested by the officers of the church to detect, as far as possible, its credibility.

Robert Letham, Systematic Theology, p. 765.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Christians Celebrating the Passover? (Ursinus)

It is a trend in some Christian circles and churches to host and celebrate Jewish feasts or meals that are connected to the Passover.  You don’t have to look too hard online to see what I mean.  I suppose it’s one thing to watch a video or read a book to learn how Jews celebrate the Passover; it’s another thing to actually partake and make these Jewish meals part of church or Christian life.

In Reformed theology we say that the Old Testament’s “ceremonial laws are now abrogated” in the New Testament era (WCF 19.3).  “We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law ceased at the coming of Christ, and that all the shadows are accomplished, so that the use of them must be abolished among Christians (BCF 25).  There is firm biblical reason for this Reformed position.  Zacharias Ursinus comments:

That the ancient Passover, with all the other types which prefigured the Messiah which was to come, was abolished at the coming of Christ, is evident,

1. From the whole argument of the Apostle in the Epistle to the Hebrews respecting the abolishing of the legal shadows in the New Testament. “The priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” “In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old.” (Heb. 7:12; 8:13.)

2. From the fulfillment or these legal shadows. “These things were done that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. A bone of him shall not be broken.” “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” (John 19:36. 1 Cor. 5:7.)

3. From the substitution of the New Testament; for Christ, when he was about to suffer, and die and sacrifice himself as the true Passover, closed the ordinance relating to the paschal lamb with a solemn feast, and instituted and commanded his Supper to be observed by the church in the place of the old passover. “With desire, I have desired to eat with you this passover, before I suffer.” “This do in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:15, 19.) Christ here commands the supper, not the ancient passover, to be celebrated in remembrance of him. As baptism has, therefore, succeeded circumcision, so the Lord’s supper has succeeded the passover in the New Testament.

It may seem interesting and even spiritual to reenact ancient Jewish feasts and meals, but we need to remember that Hebrews tells us not to go back to the copies and shadows of the old covenant (Heb 8: 5, 13).  As Hebrews makes very clear, you can’t have the old and the new together – the old is fulfilled, the new is here, so don’t go back!  Or, like Paul says in Galatians 4:9-11, a Gentile Christian putting himself under the Jewish ceremonies and laws is the same as going back to their pagan religions!  Commenting on Galatians 4:9, C. K. Barrett said, “To go forward into Judaism is to go backward into heathenism” (see also Douglas Moo and F. F. Bruce on Gal. 4:9).

Since we have Christ, the Passover Lamb, and his final sacrifice, we don’t need to sacrifice animals, have altars, celebrate Jewish ceremonies, feasts, Passovers, and so forth.  Instead, we celebrate the Lord’s death by blessing and sharing bread and wine like he told us to do until he comes again (1 Cor. 11:23ff).

The above quotes are found in Zacharias Ursinus trans. by G. W. Williard, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 440.

(This is a re-post from July 2016)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Quarterly (!?!?) Celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Calvin)

The Letters of John Calvin (4 vols.) I’m one of those Presbyterian pastors who believes that celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be done frequently.  In the church I served before, we celebrated Holy Communion once per month.  In the church I serve now, we celebrate it weekly.  To be honest, I’ve never heard anyone who is accustomed to celebrating the Lord’s Supper frequently say, “We should celebrate it less frequently; it’s becoming too ordinary.”  In fact, the opposite is true.  I have heard someone who was ill for around a month say when he made it back to church that he really missed taking the Lord’s Supper!

Each Lord’s Day here we hear a brief explanation of the Lord’s Supper from a different angle.  One Sunday we’ll hear about how Christ was our substitute as he died on the cross for us.  Another Sunday we’ll focus on how his blood cleanses us from all sin.  The next we’ll hear that although Christ is in heaven, we feed on him by the power of the Holy Spirit through the faith he’s given to us.  At a different time we’ll hear the fact that God loves us so much that he gave his only Son to die and save us.  And so on.  It’s a gospel celebration each Lord’s Day; the sacrament echoes the preaching of the Word!

I recently ran across a paragraph of Calvin’s where he talked about this very subject (I mentioned this letter yesterday).  The authorities made the decision to celebrate the Supper quarterly (four times per year).  Calvin, since he was no maverick, submitted to the authority even though he was much more in favor of  frequent use of the Lord’s Supper.  Don’t miss the last sentence of the quote!

In one thing we differ, but the difference is not an innovation. We celebrate the Lord’s supper four times a year, and you thrice. Now would to God, messeigneurs [lords], that both you and we had a more frequent use of it. For we see in the Acts of the Apostles by Saint Luke that in the primitive church they communicated much oftener. And that custom continued in the ancient church during a long space of time, till the abomination of the mass was devised by Satan, and was the cause why people communicated but once or twice a year. Wherefore we must confess that it is a defect in us not to follow the example of the Apostles. 

Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 162–163.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Children at the Lord’s Table? (Knight)

 Historic Reformed theology and practice have always emphasized the fact that the Lord’s Supper is for repentant sinners who’ve professed faith in Christ.  This is why, for example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that in order to receive the Lord’s Supper, a person must examine himself of his knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of his faith to feed upon Him, of his repentance, love, and new obedience (Q/A 97).  This wasn’t just written on a whim or without deep thought.  Reformed theology and practice in this area is based on, among other texts and doctrines, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

In the book Children and the Lord’s Supper, George Knight has a helpful article on this text that explains the historic Reformed position based on exegesis of the passage.  I can’t give all the details here, but I can give some of Knight’s conclusions at the end of the article:

Those partaking [in the Lord’s Supper] are doing so in response to God’s invitation (cf. the repeated ‘do this’ in 1 Corinthians 11:24, 25, followed by the offering of the bread and wine which the participates take and eat and drink… ) Babies cannot so partake by doing this themselves.

Those partaking are to do so ‘in remembrance of me [Christ]’ (1 Cor. 11:24-25).  Babies cannot so partake ‘in remembrance of me [Christ]’.  Furthermore, this remembrance can only truly be done by those who have saving faith.

Those partaking (‘whoever’) are to do so in a ‘worthy manner’ (and not in an ‘unworthy manner,’ 1 Cor. 11:27).  They partake worthily when each one ‘examine[s] himself’ (1 Cor. 11:28), and discerns the Lord’s body represented in the Supper (1 Cor. 11:29).  Babies cannot fulfill these apostolic requirements for all those who are to partake.  Only those who have saving faith can truly fulfill these requirements.

Those partaking are participating in the nurturing of their faith (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16…).  The institution of the Lord’s Supper is given to his disciples and it is reiterated by Paul to the church to be practiced in the church by those who have believed and who can be so instructed and warned.  Thus faith, by implication, is necessary for those partaking to participate in the nurturing of their faith (cf. WCF 29.7).  Therefore, only those who have made a public profession of their faith are to be admitted to the table.

…The result of this analysis of the Lord’s Supper, as it is presented in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 together with the positive and negative consequences, provide a rather clear reason why the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, in obedience to His Word, has not admitted children to the Lord’s Supper solely on the basis of their baptism and without a profession of faith (p.94-95).

This is a slightly edited summary of Knight’s concluding points.  There is more to his discussion, which is worth reading for sure.  There’s also more to the discussion when it comes to children and the Lord’s Table.  For now, please note that the historic teaching and practice of Reformed churches is based on Scripture, not tradition or expediency.

This book, Children at the Lord’s Supper, is a good resource that includes contributions from Ligon Duncan, Joel Beeke, Derek Thomas (and others).  This is a resource that gives further biblical, theological, and historical reasons why Reformed churches require a credible profession of faith before allowing God’s people to the table of the Lord.

Children at the Lord’s Table; ed. Guy Waters and Ligon Duncan (Ross-Shire: Mentor, 2011).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Dear Weak Sinner: Come to the Table! (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.)  I’m so thankful that we don’t have to be superhero Christians to share in the Lord’s Supper.  We don’t have to have a strong, bullet-proof faith, nor do we need to reach a certain level of sanctification to partake in the table of the Lord.  As long as we’re repentant of our sin and at the same time believe that our hope is only in Christ, we can take Holy Communion even when we’ve had a miserable week.  I love how Calvin talked about this in his excellent pamphlet called “A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper.”  Calvin does mention that we have to come to the table denying ourselves and renouncing ourselves to rely only on Christ for salvation.  He also says we should come to the table with love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  He then clarifies:

But as not a man will be found upon the earth who has made such progress in faith and holiness, as not to be still very defective in both, there might be a danger that several good consciences might be troubled by what has been said if we did not prevent it by tempering the instructions which we have given in regard both to faith and repentance.

It is a perilous mode of teaching which some adopt when they require perfect reliance of heart and perfect penitence and exclude all from the table who do not have them. For in so doing they exclude all without excepting one. Where is the man who can boast that he is not stained by some spot of distrust? That he is not subject to some vice or infirmity? Assuredly the faith which the children of God have is such that they have ever occasion to pray — Lord, help our unbelief. For it is a malady so rooted in our nature, that we are never completely cured until we are delivered from the prison of the body.

Moreover, the purity of life in which they walk is only such that they have occasion daily to pray for forgiveness of sins and for grace to make greater progress. Although some are more and others less imperfect, still there is none who does not fail in many respects. Hence the Supper would be not only useless, but pernicious to all, if it were necessary to bring a faith or integrity as to which there would be nothing to dispute about them. This would be contrary to the intention of our Lord, as there is nothing which he has given to his Church that is more salutary.

A few paragraphs later Calvin wrote this:

Nay, if we were not weak and subject to distrust and an imperfect life, the sacrament would be of no use to us, and it would have been superfluous to institute it. Seeing, then, it is a remedy which God has given us to help our weakness, to strengthen our faith, increase our charity, and advance us in all holiness of life.  The use of the Supper becomes more necessary the more we feel pressed by the disease; so far ought that to be from making us abstain from it. For if we allege as an excuse for not coming to the Supper, that we are still weak in faith or integrity of life, it is as if a man were to excuse himself from taking medicine because he was sick. See then how the weakness of faith which we feel in our heart, and the imperfections which are in our life, should admonish us to come to the Supper, as a special remedy to correct them? Only let us not come devoid of faith and repentance. 

The above (slightly edited) quote is found in Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1849). Tracts Relating to the Reformation (Vol. 2, p. 179). Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, p. 178-9

 Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Our Souls Need to Feed on Christ (Horton)

The Lord’s Supper is a great blessing for Christians.  In it, the Lord condescends to feed us with the body and blood of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit by the faith he’s graciously given us.  Paul called it a “participation” or “sharing” in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16).  The Westminster Larger Catechism says that in the Lord’s Supper we “feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not after [in] a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner, yet truly and really….” (Q/A 170).  I like how Michael Horton comments on this:

“According to Rome, baptism washed away original sin in the infant and, to use an illustration, filled the bathtub of grace.  But every time the believer committed a venial (‘little’) sin, grace would leak; a mortal (‘big’) sin could empty the tub altogether!  That’s where the sacraments like communion came in; they could fill the tub up again.  This, of course, is not the view the Protestant Reformers held, and it is, I believe, far from the biblical view.”

“The impartation of grace we find in Holy Communion is not a grace that saves but a grace that restores the believer’s confidence in the Word’s pronouncement, ‘Not guilty.’  Communion is a refueling station not because we continually need to recover lost merits, but because we need our faith in Christ to be strengthened regularly by God’s promise.  We are weak; our hearts are easily cooled, and our souls need to feed on Christ just as truly as our bodies need to feed on bread.”

“Holy Communion strengthens us not only because it symbolizes or represents something great, but because it really is something great.  It is the actual nourishment of Christ himself who offers his body and blood for spiritual food.  To those wearied by a tough week at home or the office or to those whose consciences never let them forget a sin they commit during the week, the Supper is there to communicate Christ and his forgiveness.  There is no conscience that cannot be instructed and overcome by this powerful sacrament.  Rather than using it as a means of filling up a leaky bathtub, we must view it as God’s chosen reminder that we are always and everywhere forgiven people.”

Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, p. 201.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

We Ask You To Abstain

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms Historic Reformed and Presbyterian churches have always “fenced” the table of the Lord.  That is, when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, the pastor and/or an elder says that certain people are not to partake.  The details vary among historic Reformed/Presbyterian churches, but they all do fence the table to some extent.  Even if we might disagree how “high” the fence is, it is proper and biblical to warn the unrepentant and unbelievers not to take Holy Communion.  The Westminster Confession of Faith says it like this:

“All ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him [Christ], so they are unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such [ignorant and ungodly], partake of these holy mysteries or be admitted thereunto” (29.8).  [1 Cor. 11:27-29, 2 Cor. 6:14-16, 1 Cor. 10:21, 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15, Matt. 7:6, etc.]

Thomas Brooks, in The Crown and Glory of Christianity, discussed this topic briefly and gave some helpful citations from church history (slightly edited):

“Chrysostom said that he ‘would rather give his life to a murderer, than Christ’s body to an unworthy receiver, and rather suffer his own blood to be poured out like water, than to tender Christ’s blessed blood to a profane person.’  ‘Church officers are to keep the sacrament pure, as a man would keep a pleasant spring which he drank from clean, not letting the filthy beasts and swine to muddy it.’”

“Justin Martyr wrote, ‘In our assemblies we admit none to the Lord’s Supper but such as being baptized continue in professing the true faith, and in leading such lives as Christ hath taught.’  Martyr taught that these three things were required for those who wish to come to the table: 1) ‘A new birth,’ 2) ‘Soundness in faith,’ and 3) ‘A promise to live well.’”

“Augustine argued that there were horrid sins wrapped up in Adam’s eating of the fruit, much more so are there horrid sins in unbelievers eating the sacrament: pride, rebellion, treason, sacrilege, theft, murder, etc.”

“Aquinas said ‘the majesty of church discipline should never allow this, to let open and known offenders presume to come to the table of the Lord.’”

“Calvin wrote, ‘I will sooner die than this hand of mine shall give the things of God to contemners of God.’”

Again, we might discuss and debate how “high” the fence is around the table, but it is biblical (see citations above) and wise to clearly tell unbelievers and unrepentant persons that they are not to take the Lord’s Supper.  It might not sound politically correct or “nice,” but it is a biblical help in keeping Christ’s church pure, it does keep unbelievers from bringing further judgment upon themselves, and it does guard God’s people from trouble and hardship (cf. 1 Cor. 11).

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church
hammond, wi