Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Practical Thoughts on the Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on August 30, 2013 at 10:41 am

More than a Memory

As a pastor, thinking through the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace has forced me to ask some questions and try to work through some implications. I do not claim to have all the answers but think it would be good to work through some of these questions and implications together.[1]

If the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace wherein the Holy Spirit brings to the souls of believers the benefits of Christ’s body and blood, then it is more than a memory.

John Jefferson Davis says, “…[In] the New Testament period, in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper ‘… there is no intimation that this meal was to be only a reminder of either a past event or an absent loved one.’”[2] Though it is a reminder of a past event, it is more than that. Through the Supper, because it is a means of grace, purchased grace, redemptive grace, sanctifying grace is ushered into souls, special delivery, from our exalted Redeemer by the power of the Holy Spirit. John Willison captures the doctrine well, saying:

Though Christ is not bodily present, yet he is really and truly present in a spiritual and invisible manner. He is present by his God-head, and by his Spirit. He is present by his power and efficacy, communicating and applying the virtue of his death: and thus we are really made partakers of Christ in this ordinance. We partake of the sun when we have its beams of light and heart [sic; “heat”?] darted down upon us, although we have not the bulk and body of the sun put into our hands: so we partake of Christ in the sacrament, when we share his grace, and the blessed fruits of his broken body, though we do not actually eat his flesh with our mouths.[3]

The Supper is more than a memory. It is a means through which Christ comes to souls. “The Lord’s Supper is an occasion when the Lord Jesus feeds the souls of his people, thus making the meal a means of grace.”[4] The people of God need to know this and be reminded of it often.

If the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace through which the Holy Spirit brings to the souls of believers the benefits of Christ’s body and blood and, as a result, souls are nourished, then we ought to think seriously about the corporate attitude or climate during the Supper.

Should the Supper be a celebration? Should there be joy in our hearts while partaking? Should the Supper be like a funeral procession for an absent loved one?[5] Should the Supper be more like a Protestant confessional than an occasion for joy and hope? Should we tell our people to bow their heads in shame, confessing their sins, and if they don’t feel bad enough forbid them from partaking or encourage them not to partake? Or maybe the Supper should be looked upon as a reward for a good week, assuming one passes the test of self-examination? I am thinking here of the misuse of 1 Corinthians 11:28, “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” The context indicates that the primary focus of this examination concerns horizontal divisions in the church (1 Cor. 11:17ff.).[6] We must keep short accounts with fellow church members. Also, it seems to me that the self-examination should take place prior to coming to the Supper, not at the communion service.[7] This way there is time to remedy any problems between church members (or in our own souls). The way Paul states it gives the impression that he expected the self-examination to result in taking the Supper. Maclean agrees:

Paul does not expect self-examination to result in a person not partaking. His comment is, ‘Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat’ (11:28). This expectation is noteworthy given the lax procedures tolerated in Corinth. Paul anticipated that ‘any unworthy Christian would make the necessary amendments immediately’.[8]

In my experience, this verse is often used for individuals to examine, for instance, how many times they read their Bible or how long and fervent their prayers were in the recent past. If they fail the test, a form of self-excommunication is enacted and the Supper is not taken. For some, this may even be viewed as an act of piety and reverence. Though we ought to read our Bibles and pray privately, I do not think that is what Paul had in mind. I rather think that since no one reads their Bibles and prays perfectly, instead of being an argument not to take the Supper it is just the opposite. I agree with Michael Horton, when he says, “The Supper is a means of grace for the weak, not a reward for the strong.”[9] Because it is a means of grace for believing sinners, though seriousness and reverence and awe are certainly appropriate, joy[10] and hope ought to have their place as well because we are feasting upon Christ, further tasting that the Lord is good, and being helped along as pilgrims in a foreign land.

We should be very careful how we fence the table.[11] Under normal circumstances, the only church members under our charge who should be forbidden to partake are those under formal church discipline. For all others, it is a means of grace for weak souls which need to be strengthened. Just as we would never tell believers to stop reading their Bibles because they had a bad week or stop praying because they are not holy enough or feel unworthy, we should not forbid the Supper under normal circumstances. The Supper is a joy- and hope-inducing ordinance. It gives us renewed confidence that our sins are forgiven, that Christ is ours and we are his, and an expectation of more Christ to come.

If the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace through which the Holy Spirit brings to the souls of believers the benefits of Christ’s body and blood and, as a result, souls are nourished, then we ought to think seriously about its frequency.

The Supper is a sacred, covenantal meal. It is a means of grace. But how often should churches take the Supper? Some are re-thinking this issue in our day and are celebrating communion more frequently than in the past. Others, out of concern not to trivialize the sacred (a concern I share), are content with a monthly or less-frequent celebration. But prayer is sacred, and the reading and preaching of the word are sacred and no one (as far as I know) argues from that to less frequent public prayer and less frequent public reading and preaching of the word of God. These words by John Brown of Haddington make this point well.

…I fear it will be no easy task to prove that our way of administering the Supper is agreeable to the Word of God…. That its infrequency tends to make it solemn I do not see, for if it so why not administer baptism but once a year also, as it, in its own nature, is as solemn as the Supper? Why not pray seldom, preach seldom, read God’s Word seldom, that they may become more solemn too?[12]

Horton suggests that a diminished interest in frequent communion is the product of an inordinate emphasis upon “the individual’s inner piety.” He says:

The problem with the pietistic version of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is that in its obsession with the individual’s inner piety, it loses much of the import of the feast as a sacred meal that actually binds us to Christ and to each other. Instead of viewing it first as God’s saving action toward us and then our fellowship with each other in Christ, we come to see it as just another opportunity to be threatened with the law. Instead of celebrating the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb on Mount Zion, we are still trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is no wonder, then, that there is a diminished interest in frequent communion.[13]

Whether Horton is right or not, I do not think the trivializing of the sacred by a too frequent celebration of the Supper argument is valid.

It is clear that the New Testament nowhere commands weekly communion, but neither does it command weekly singing or weekly prayer or weekly preaching, at least not explicitly. We believe in weekly corporate singing (and prayer and preaching) by the church because we believe it is necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture, and rightly so.[14] Singing is an element of public worship and is a means of grace of a sort but only if and when we sing the truths of the word of God. Singing can be conducted more than once, and it ought to be done at least on the Lord’s Day when the church gathers. But we also believe that the Supper is an element of public worship and repeatable, unlike baptism (though we can be reminded of our baptism), and ought to be conducted on the Lord’s Day, at least ordinarily. But how many Lord’s Days per year? How many Lord’s Days per month? These are questions pastors and churches must wrestle with.

The early church apparently celebrated the Supper weekly. The Didache 14:1 says, “On the Lord’s own day gather together and break bread and give thanks.”[15] It appears that the Supper was so important to the early church that the early believers took it weekly.[16] It could be that they made a theological connection between a weekly Lord’s Day and a weekly Lord’s Supper.[17] Whatever the case, it is important to think through the issue of frequency with the fact that the Lord’s Supper, like the word of God and prayer, is a means of grace.

 The Lord’s Supper has links with the past, the present and the future and we need to make sure we are highlighting each when we take the Supper.

The Supper is clearly linked with the past–“Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24-25). The Lord’s Supper is also linked to the present–“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). But the New Testament also links the Supper with the future–“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Cor. 11:29) and “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29 [cf. Rev. 19:7-9]).

These connections with the past, the present and the future (i.e., the three tenses of the Lord’s Supper) provide conceptual links between the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Day. Like the Lord’s Supper the Lord’s Day looks back to redemption accomplished–the Lord’s Supper looking back to Christ’s death and the Lord’s Day to his resurrection. Like the Lord’s Supper the Lord’s Day is a celebration of redemption historically accomplished and presently applied. And like the Lord’s Supper the Lord’s Day is a down-payment of the future, a pledge of the age-to-come. Christ’s resurrection on the first Lord’s Day inaugurated the over-lapping of the ages and since we commune with our Lord Jesus who is in heaven in his age-to-come glorified humanity and further receive age-to-come blessings through the Supper by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s Supper, like the Lord’s Day, is a pledge of more glory to come.

Richard Barcellos
Grace Reformed Baptist Church
Palmdale, CA

[1] Portions of this post come from the last chapter of the author’s The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More than a Memory, forthcoming from Christian Focus Publications.

[2] John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 116. Davis is quoting Martin J. Heinecken.

[3] Quoted in Malcolm Maclean, The Lord’s Supper (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2009), 104.

[4] Maclean, The Lord’s Supper, 172.

[5] Some of these questions come from others whom I have read.

[6] It could go back further to include the issue of Christian liberty and idolatry as well. Commenting on 1Cor. 11:28-29, Michael Horton says, “The context, however, is all-important, as the warning is couched in a disciplinary argument against idolatry and schism.” Cf. Michael Horton, God of Promise (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 157-58 for further discussion.

[7] This is the view of the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 171.

[8] Maclean, The Lord’s Supper, 38. Maclean is quoting Donald Macleod, “Qualifications for Communion” in Banner of Truth, No. 65, 17. Obviously, if the necessary amendments are not made, the person should not partake.

[9] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 819.

[10] Remember, “joy” is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).

[11] Cf. Maclean, The Lord’s Supper, 152. The unbaptized should be told that the Supper is not for them. The church member in good standing should be assured that the Supper is for them, assuming any necessary amendments in light of 1 Cor. 11:28 have been made.

[12] Cited in Maclean, The Lord’s Supper, 235.

[13] Horton, God of Promise, 160-61.

[14] Cf. Ryan M. McGraw, By Good and Necessary Consequence (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012) for a very helpful discussion on the biblical, theological, and historical issues related to WCF I.6, “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” He suggests that “necessarily contained in Scripture” (2ndLCF 1:6) and “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” are functionally equivalent.

[15] Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 365. Interestingly, the Greek text reads Κατὰ κυριακὴν δὲ κυρίου (literally, “And according to the Lord’s of the Lord”). Κυριακὴν (“the Lord’s”) is the same word (an adjective) used in 1 Cor. 11:20 of the Lord’s Supper and Rev. 1:10 of the Lord’s Day. Holmes’ translation assumes an ellipsis, supplying “day” to complete the thought. It appears that The Didache is connecting the Lord’s Day with the Lord’s Supper.

[16] Maclean says weekly communion was the practice of the church until the fifth century. Cf. Maclean, The Lord’s Supper, 101.

[17] See below.

  1. There is much to ponder in this post. As I was reading, I was reminded of a lady I know that will not partake of the Lord’s Supper because she considers herself unworthy. I talked with her about this many times, but to no avail. Of course, the only way any of us are worthy is through the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Himself. He makes us worthy through the imputation of His righteousness in the believer.
    I was also reminded of my own home church, and our practice of only observing the Lord’s Supper once a quarter, which, I think, is way too infrequent. I related to the examples you gave concerning the frequency of Bible-reading, prayer, and preaching the gospel, singing, meeting to worship, etc. All of the means of grace are essential in our lives, and I would love to observe them all, including the Lord’s Supper, more often.

  2. Excellent post Dr. Barcellos!

    Unfortunately, the very ones who bar themselves from Christ’s body and blood because they deem themselves unworthy (and I cannot claim to have always been innocent of this practice), are the very ones that ought to embrace Him. Should the penitent man stay in his state of penance, or should he run to Christ and find deliverance, rest, and joy for his broken soul?

    It seems to be somewhat inconsistent for our churches that hold so firmly to the regulative principle to leave off the Lord’s Supper for weeks and even months at a time. While we are adamant about NOT ALLOWING any elements other than listed in inspired scripture, it seems there is also a positive aspect of the principle that we MUST include those elements listed. As you aptly pointed out, no church (though I suppose there might be some in this crazy world of drive-thru religion) would suggest preaching, praying, or reading the scriptures in our services only once a month, why then abandon this element of worship so often. Maybe the Holy Spirit actually meant to say “as rarely as you do this,…” 😉

  3. Reblogged this on The Reformed Berean and commented:
    Excellent post. Can’t wait for the book.

  4. Pastor Barcellos,

    I have always struggled with the concept of the sacraments as a means of grace, though some definitions of what that means varies. You seem to indicate here that “means of grace” is defined as: “Through the Supper, because it is a means of grace, purchased grace, redemptive grace, sanctifying grace is ushered into souls, special delivery, from our exalted Redeemer by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

    I guess my question is, if it is through the Supper that purchased grace, redemptive grace and sanctifying grace are ushered into souls, is this by faith? And if it is by faith, then its not really though the sacraments. I guess to my thinking the only means of grace (by your definition above) is faith. Can you elaborate on exactly what means of grace means? What is the Biblical evidence for the “means of grace”? (I know that the “Trinity” is not in the Bible but there is enough evidence that warrants it properly).

    Thanks for time and consideration in answering my questions,
    Dan Lane

  5. Pastor Lane,

    I hope you don’t mind me weighing in on your question.

    Aside from Hodges’ and Berkoff’s systematics, both very helpful on the “means of grace”, I have found it useful in my own mind to think of it in the manner the scriptures speak of preaching – preaching of course being a primary means of grace. Paul; tells us that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor 1:21b) and that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom 10:17) in the context of preachers who are sent.

    So then, I can easily understand how the Holy Spirit uses the ordinary means of the ordained minister proclaiming the word through preaching. Men hear as the Spirit uses this means to open deaf ears and impart faith to the heart of man that has been regenerated under this means of preaching. The Spirit communicates grace to the heart!

    Now, if I can understand this, then surely I can understand how teaching and preaching in the church is Christ’s gift to His church to build them up unto the “perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4:11-16). These are the ordained means through which God imparts and strengthens the grace of faith.

    I don’t find it difficult to see then, how God uses these ordinances, appointed and instituted by Jesus Christ, in much the same way as preaching. The Holy Spirit then, when received in a proper manner by a proper recipient, can be expected to work through the means of the Lord’s Supper to strengthen and build up the faith of partakers. We are partakers of Christ’s body, broken for us, and His blood shed for the remission of sins – this should strengthen our faith!

    To paraphrase Augustine, what preaching does for us audibly, the sacraments do for us visibly.

    Hope this helps.

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