What Happens to Non-Christians Who Take the Lord’s Supper?
Today we field two pastoral questions. They are related. The first is from a listener named Ethan. “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for taking my question. My church is considering letting known unbelievers take the Lord’s Supper. The argument is that it points the unbeliever to the Lord’s work on the cross and his future return, a form of outreach. What would you say?” And a similar question comes from a listener named Matt. “Hello, Pastor John. Recently, I have been thinking about nominal church members who participate in the Lord’s Supper. What happens when an unregenerate person eats the bread and drinks the wine? What is the specific sin that such a person commits? I believe it is sinful for such a person to take part. But why is this the case?” Pastor John, what would you say to Ethan and Matt?
Let me begin with something blunt to the first part of the question. If your pastors are thinking of welcoming unbelievers to eat the Lord’s Supper as a way of pointing them to Jesus, you’re probably in the wrong church. That is so far from the New Testament and what it teaches about the Lord’s Supper that it is very difficult for me to think your pastors are seriously submitted to the authority of Scripture, rather than to their own wisdom. That’s my initial, blunt response: it is irresponsible and ignorant at best, and disobedient and cruel at worst, to encourage unbelievers to eat the Lord’s Supper.
Warnings of Life and Death
Now, the reason I say cruel is that the warnings Paul gives to eating the Lord’s Supper unworthily are ultimately warnings of life and death. Here’s what he says in 1 Corinthians 11:27–28:
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. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
“The warnings Paul gives to eating the Lord’s Supper unworthily are ultimately warnings of life and death.”
What will an unbeliever find if he examines himself? He will find unbelief. And that’s precisely what Paul intends for us to find. Has the disobedience of unbelief got the upper hand in our lives? If so, get that fixed and don’t eat this supper, assuming that it doesn’t matter. That’s the whole point of self-examination. So, why would you invite unbelievers into that deadly situation?
Continue reading in verse 29: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Discerning the body means grasping the utter uniqueness and glory of Jesus’s physical body as an infinitely valuable sacrifice for sins — which unbelievers do not do.
Verse 30: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” That’s why I say it is cruel to encourage unbelievers to eat this supper. Verses 31–32: “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”
In other words, true believers who need to be disciplined because of the way they’re eating the Lord’s Supper can be saved, even if they die through a discipline for taking the Lord’s Supper. But what would become of an unbeliever? They are not going to be saved.
When Jesus said and when Paul said that each time we eat the Lord’s Supper, we do it in remembrance of Jesus (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24), they did not have in mind a kind of remembrance that an unbeliever has, of merely remembering that there was such a person as Jesus: maybe there was; maybe he existed — and he died for our sins, or maybe he died for our sins. They meant that we should remember the preciousness of what happened when Jesus died and shed his blood. The memory is a loving memory, a thankful memory — not an unbelieving memory.
Sharing in Christ Together
And this is made much more clear (as if it could be) in 1 Corinthians 10, not 11, but 10:16–22. Not many people go here to get clear about the Lord’s Supper and what it means, but it’s very important. The Lord’s Supper, according to 1 Corinthians 10:16–22, is a participation in Christ. Here’s what it says:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation [a sharing] in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16–17)
In other words, the loaf represents the church, the body of Christ, sharing in, participating in, the life of Christ. This is impossible to conceive of as unbelievers. Verse 21:
You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Corinthians 10:21–22)
In other words, Paul was explicitly dealing with unbelievers who have their kinds of religious ceremonies where they eat and drink, and believers who have our kind of ceremony where we eat and drink, and he’s denying that you can participate in both. It is a tragic misunderstanding of the glorious transaction between Christ and his people at the Lord’s Supper if pastors tried to reinterpret this supper as an evangelistic tool to point unbelievers to Jesus. Tragic.
“Show unbelievers the beauty of the gospel, and tell them that they shouldn’t participate yet.”
The glorious transaction is this: First, there is a remembering of what the foundation of our faith is in the blood and body of Christ sacrificed for us. Second, there is a communion, or as 1 Corinthians 10 says, a sharing in, a participation in, Christ, spiritually, as we feed upon him by faith and are nourished and satisfied in our souls. No unbeliever can do this. And that’s the meaning of the moment. It’s not designed that they should.
‘We Want You’
Let me end like this. Yes, yes, yes, the Lord’s Supper points unbelievers to Christ and makes crystal clear that they are not participants in it — in Christ. They are not participants in forgiveness. They are not participants in salvation. They’re not participants in the second coming of rescue from wrath. That’s what the prohibition from participating communicates as they watch us enjoy Jesus. It communicates, “We want you. We want you, in watching this, to see what you’re missing.”
And, Tony, I can testify, with great feeling, that it works that way. I remember, for example, a man who sat in the balcony right in front of me in our old sanctuary, month after month, year after year, on every communion Sunday. He was an unbeliever with a believing wife. He never missed a Sunday. I knew the man. We had conversations about Jesus. He’s a blatant unbeliever. And during communion, when I said, “If you’re not yet trusting Christ, just let the tray go by and ponder the beauty of the gospel,” I would look right at him when I said those words, right at him, in his face, about forty feet away. We knew each other.
Then, one communion Sunday, he stopped at the door, took my hand, and said, “Pastor, we need to talk.” And at 10:30pm the following Wednesday night, God saved him, and I baptized him a few weeks later. That’s the way it works. Don’t kick the unbeliever out of your services. Show them the beauty of the gospel, and tell them that they shouldn’t participate yet. But oh, may God grant you eyes to see, because we want you to enjoy this with us.