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.