Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. Pastor John, as you know, Scripture gives us pretty clear prohibitions around the Lord’s Table. And, given these parameters and the stern warning passages of the New Testament, a listener named Reuben writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, how do I know if I’m holy enough for Holy Communion? Under what circumstances would a professing Christian not participate in the Lord’s Table?”
Let me suggest three answers or three kinds of answer based on three different passages.
“You shouldn’t eat the Lord’s Supper if you are unwilling to renounce sin and humbly hold fast to Jesus.”
1. First, you can know you shouldn’t eat the Lord’s Supper as a professing Christian if you have been excommunicated by your church. That is obvious. But he asked: What are the situations? And 1 Corinthians 5:9–11 says, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother.” Now, that is what he asked about: professing Christian.
So, here we have a professing Christian committing fornication — probably — somehow living in sexual immorality or greed or idolatry or a reviler, drunkard, swindler: not even to eat with such a one. So, clearly they cannot be at the Lord’s Table. So, that is the first answer. If you have been excommunicated, you shouldn’t eat the Lord’s Supper. Go down the street and eat the Lord’s Supper at a loosey-goosey church.
2. The second answer is that a professing Christian shouldn’t eat the Lord’s Supper if he is presently, at that moment of communion service, unwilling to renounce Satan and sin, and to humbly hold fast to Jesus as his supreme treasure and only hope in this life and the next. And yes, I am assuming that genuine Christians can have moments like this. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:27–29 — this is the key text — “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” So, you don’t want to do that. “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks” — second phrase — “without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
“Make reconciliation and sanctification a priority before eating the Lord’s Supper.”
So now, I don’t think the phrase “in an unworthy manner” means we ever deserve the Lord’s Supper, but that there is a fitness or suitableness between the Lord’s Supper and our condition. And that fitness is not perfection on our part. Rather, it is a renunciation of sin and a making war on it — a renunciation of Satan, a hearty embrace of Jesus. That is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. The new covenant in the blood of Jesus is the forgiveness of sins. We heartily embrace Jesus as our substitute and our treasure and our sacrifice and our Lord.
And the other phrase — “without discerning the body” — may refer to the body of Jesus represented in the bread, or it may refer to the body of Christ as the people of God. In either case, the implication is that we are failing to see and act on the sanctifying implications of the body of Christ for the body of Christ. And we are holding fast to some compromise with sin in the way we relate. If that is true, then we shouldn’t eat.
Well, what should we do? And that leads me to my last suggestion.
3. Matthew 5:23–24 says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember 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.” And I think the clear implication is that, if we find ourselves in a sinful relationship holding fast to a sinful thought or a feeling or a grudge, we should make reconciliation and sanctification a priority above eating the Lord’s Supper. Get things right and then come and eat.
“Don’t become so perfectionist that you fear to eat the Lord’s Supper lest you receive condemnation.”
Now, let me end like this, having said all that. I want to avoid a terrible situation I saw in Germany when I was there forty years ago. I saw twelve people taking the Lord’s Supper out of a parish of ten thousand, and I asked the pastor, “Where is everybody?” And he said, “There is a long tradition here of being afraid to eat the Lord’s Supper.” In other words, I want to avoid the terrible situation in which we become so perfectionist that we are afraid to eat the Lord’s Supper lest we bring condemnation on ourselves. Clearly, the apostle Paul knew that we are all sinners and he intended for us to regularly eat the Lord’s Supper.
So, if we are members of a true church in good standing and if we are not holding fast to known sin, but are renouncing sin and hating it and fighting it and turning to Christ as our treasure and hope and substitute and punishment and righteousness, then we should eat.