the sacraments are helpful

Believers are provided with various ways of growing in grace. These include reading the Bible, praying, and listening to preaching, as well as things like meditation and fellowship with other believers.

The means of grace also include both of the sacraments, and especially the Lord’s Supper, which is specifically designed for ongoing spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

But several things combine to make the Lord’s Supper sometimes seem more of a daunting ordeal than an encouraging channel of strength and comfort. For one thing, it’s in public. Unlike prayer, which you can do in private without ever telling anyone, and nobody ever needs to know how little you benefit from your praying, everyone can see you at the Lord’s Table and is free to form their own opinion of how well you live up to the profession it involves. For another thing, there are prerequisites to meet. Participation requires self-examination, when your heart is deceitful, and the ability to discern the Lord’s body, which can sometimes seem obscure. And then there is its infrequency, which can make it seem like the kind of special occasion that you can’t afford to let slip by without getting the most out of it, piling on the pressure and raising the stakes every time.

Nevertheless, the Lord’s Supper is helpful, and shouldn’t be frightening, to believers.

1) In itself
Everything about the Lord’s Supper is very simple and basic and pitched at very ordinary, basic, lowly faith.
* Its symbols are bread, the staple, and wine, to refresh and cheer up.
* Its symbolised reality is the Saviour who believers already know, trust, and love, considered simply as their source of life and wellbeing who they can’t do without.
* The outcome it’s aiming at is for believers to get to know and love Christ even better.
* Its present context is a meal where they sit down in a friendly, reconciled way with Christ (and secondarily with their local community of people who equally can’t do without him).
* The past it remembers is what Christ did at Calvary for them from love to them.
* The future it expects is where Christ will come again and put everything right, and bring his people to be with him in complete blessedness for ever.
* Its repetitiveness is a straightforward reminder that we can keep coming back for more forgiveness and more help all the time, and that we don’t have to struggle on by ourselves unaided because steady supplies of grace are still available.

2) As a means of grace
In all of this, the Lord’s Supper is God’s chosen method for advancing his people’s spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

It’s God’s chosen method – something he specially set up for the express purpose of making sure his people would be fed, nurtured, encouraged, and drawn closer and closer to Christ. So if God thinks we need it, then our part is to align our thoughts with his and understand that we do need it, and appeal to him to make it have these beneficial effects in our lives. And if God thinks we need it for nourishment, then our part is to adopt the same attitude and treat it not as a scary hurdle but an opportunity to find blessing, interact with Christ, be thankful for redemption, and accept the comfort and nurturing it provides.

3) As only a means of grace
Obviously there’s no “only” about any of the means of grace – they are all gracious provisions from God, where he makes the benefits of an infinitely costly redemption flow into the experience of sinners who deserve the opposite.

But we don’t approach all the means of grace with the same kind of reluctance and anxiety, even though it’s the same God who ordained them all, the same Lord we hope to meet and be blessed by, the same Mediator we rely on, and the same Spirit who enables us to engage and benefit. Instead, believers are ready to acknowledge that they can’t survive without prayer, or the Bible, or preaching – even though these activities, like the Lord’s Supper, also require their own preparation of heart beforehand, and search out the secrets of the hearts of those who engage in them. We can’t make our sinful unworthiness a reason to abstain from praying, or reading the Bible, or attending sermons – we know that as unworthy sinners we need these means of grace and can’t hope to become anything other than more sinfully unworthy if we don’t use them.

This same rationale applies to the Lord’s Supper. Granting that there is a key difference between the Lord’s Supper and other means of grace in that it’s incumbent on everyone to read the Bible (etc) whether they’re saved or not (whereas the Lord’s Supper is specifically reserved for those who have already met the Lord they’re meant to be remembering at the Table), the Lord’s people will be missing out on the help and blessing that the Lord thinks they need, if they neglect to participate in this means of grace. If they feel spiritually weak, or prone to falling into temptation, or distant from the Saviour, they need to know that spiritual strength and persevering grace and a closer walk with God comes from going and participating in the Lord’s Supper, not avoiding it. If they need spiritual nourishment and growth in grace, that’s exactly what the Lord’s Supper is ordained to provide them with.

Viewing the Lord’s Supper specifically as a(nother) means of grace might, perhaps, go some way to negating the various other considerations which form themselves sometimes into too large obstacles to participating. Although there is an element of public profession in this sacrament, for example, other people’s opinions aren’t the main thing. Although too there is an element of self-scrutiny, the fact that I know I’m not a great example of what a Christian should be is equally not the main thing. What needs to override thoughts like these is the fact that this is a means of grace – the Lord has set it up to bring blessing to his people, and if I’m one of his people then this is grace and blessing that I need, and won’t get from anywhere else.

4) As a place where faith can relax
The life of faith is a struggle. There is a constant battle to look beyond and above the things that are seen and temporal – our natural habitat of what is tangible, material, earthly – to things that are unseen and eternal. We have to love someone who we’ve never seen, and venture to trust him on his bare word, and find our comforts in facts and activities (like atonement and intercession) which we can’t directly observe. Our material possessions and earthly relationships may well be helpful to us in this life, but faith itself is not strengthened by what we can see or handle or taste with our bodily senses.

The only exception to this rule is in the sacraments. In both the sacraments, and especially the Lord’s Supper, God himself has arranged it so that things we can see and handle and taste – here, bread and wine – are helpful to faith. Faith, which must normally struggle to get past the tangible to the intangible, the immaterial, the ethereal, is permitted to receive strength and take courage and draw comfort through the bodily eating and drinking of ordinary bread and ordinary wine in the sacrament. Whereas in everyday life, faith and sense are opposed, in the sacrament the Lord has ordained for these sense-able signs to be a means of applying Christ and his benefits to the souls of his people for their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace. The bread, broken and tasted and eaten, and the wine, poured out and tasted and swallowed, are vivid symbols of Christ’s body ‘broken for you’ and his blood ‘shed for you’ – Christ as he supplies all the believer’s spiritual life and spiritual wellbeing.

So although the more strongly faith is acting when the believer takes part in the sacrament, the better, the sacrament isn’t meant to be a severe test of how much faith you can muster up or an alarming demand for faith to pitch itself as high as it can. It’s just that, where faith is already in exercise, stretching out to Christ and receiving from him and feeding on him, the sacrament will be a place to lean more heavily on him and draw more from him and take a firmer hold of him. The point is that Christ and his benefits are communicated in the sacraments, by definition in a way that only faith can grasp, but also, by God’s ordinance, in a way that grants comfort and help to the soul.

~ ~ ~

Participating in the Lord’s Supper is never something to do lightly. But there’s a difference between taking it seriously and being too afraid of it to benefit from it. If someone has Christ for their Saviour (and is of age, and not ignorant, and not scandalous) then they should feel both the weight and the kindness of their Saviour’s requirement to take part in this ordinance in remembrance of him – this sacrament is a special gift from him, and it’s designed to be helpful.

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9 thoughts on “the sacraments are helpful

  1. That’s a lovely post. In our church (part of the OPC), we have the Lord’s Supper monthly. We also use both table wine and grape juice for those who can’t drink wine for medical reasons or because they need to stay away from it for other reasons. One of the things I appreciate most about Communion is when the pastor fences the table.

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  2. I do personally think we would do better to have the Lord’s Supper more often within a congregation. Most congregations have it twice a year, although most people can theoretically access the sacrament more often than that by attending other congregations. The interaction between congregations is a good thing which it would be a pity to lose, but there would also

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    • Oops, posting from my phone and its tiny screen has got the better of me.
      … there would also be benefits, I was going to say, within congregations if they had it at home more frequently.

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  3. By people having communion at home, do you mean in their private homes or do you mean in their home congregation? Except for shut-ins (in which case the minister and an elder would come into the home to administer the sacrament), private communion in a person’s home would be strictly frowned upon. Hence my question.

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  4. In their home congregation! There’s a very clear principle that the sacrament should be joined to the Word, to the extent that I don’t think it’s ever administered outside the context of a sermon (the ‘action’ sermon), even in the case of shut-ins.

    If I hadn’t been thwarted by the limitations of my phone and internet access, I’d wanted to run a couple of questions past you as well! One thing was that people sometimes worry that having the Lord’s Supper as often as monthly would reduce the amount of teaching about the sacrament, since the tendency is allegedly to stop having sermons specifically relevant to the occasion and instead tag the sacrament on to the end of an ordinary sermon. At the moment, our people might not have the sacrament very often, but should have a decent grasp of the doctrines it symbolises, whereas perhaps some congregations who have it much more frequently might not be so clear on what they’re doing or what it’s for. Would that be an unnecessary worry, in your experience?

    And also, re fencing the table, what would be the main justification for this? We do it, and take it seriously, and I don’t object to it, but I’m curious about how it fits in with our understanding of the sacrament. Is it perhaps something similar to the distinct days of the traditional communion season, where the general requirements are clear (approach the table with confession, self-examination, thankfulness, etc) although the precise way that a church discharges its responsibilities on this front is not stipulated (whole days devoted to different spiritual exercises vs general pulpit exhortations, eg).

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    • I can’t speak for other congregations, of course but, in our congregation, we have communion monthly, as I said. In my experience, I think that our people have had good instruction as to the theological meaning of communion, and I don’t think having it monthly detracts from that. Just the opposite, I would say. Sometimes we’ll have a specific communion sermon (we did this month, for example) and sometimes we don’t. Either way, we have a well-instructed congregation and I think our people are very comfortable with, and look forward to, having communion monthly. So: yes, I think it’s an unnecessary worry (although each congregation is different).

      Regarding fencing the table, the main justification for it is to try to prevent, as far as is humanly possible, having unbelievers and Christian-but-unrepentant persons from coming to the table. And our pastor is very good at fencing the table! On the Sunday before communion Sunday (we usually have it the first Sunday of each month), there is a statement in the bulletin (do you have bulletins over there?) reminding the congregation that the next Sunday is the Lord’s Supper and that they should spend time during the week mentally and spiritually preparing themselves for it.

      By the way, some in our denomination think we should have communion weekly instead of monthly. But, each congregation may make up its own mind about this.

      My question: is there a specific reason why communion tends to be quarterly in your part of the world? Just curious.

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  5. Re monthly – that’s reassuring. That’s what I’d have thought – that losing a sense of deliberateness about the sacrament and its significance isn’t a necessary consequence of more frequent communion – it’s really just bad practice which could arise anywhere, regardless of how in/frequently the sacrament was adminsitered.

    Fencing – yes, that’s how I understand its purpose. If we take it that it’s the elders’ responsibility to prevent people wrongly sitting at the table, that responsibility can be rightly discharged in various ways, including by the pastor fencing the table, or publicly articulating the criteria that should be used for assessing whether people qualify to sit at the table.

    Re specific reason for communion only every six months – not that I know of. One practical consideration is that if we insist on having the full 5-day season every time the sacrament is administered in a congregation, then it isn’t really feasible to have it very often in any given place. Connected with that, there is also the habit of having one or two additional ministers to assist with the preaching load over these five days, which means that those assisting ministers have to arrange pulpit supply for their own congregations in the meantime. Aside from logistics, there is I think a real lack of confidence about how it would be possible to preserve the ‘specialness’ of the sacrament if we had it more often. In my personal view, the 5-day arrangement is less of a must-have and more of a nice-to-have, and I don’t think there is an inevitable link between doing something frequently and descending into formalism. But that’s by the by. I suppose the twice-a-year pattern is just a well-established custom which everyone’s used to and which hasn’t yet outlived its usefulness (in that it does have its own benefits).

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    • It occurs to me that the twice-a-year pattern might have originally become established due to the difficulties of physical travel back in the Olden Times (before even I was born!). It could take a long time to travel to the communion site by horse or on foot – and then add in bad weather, bandits, etc., and one can understand why twice-a-year became the norm. As for the 5-day length: well, it took people back then so long to get there that it justified making communion a more-than-one-day event.

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