The Bible teaches two important but paradoxical truths about the Lord’s Supper: it is both a means of grace and it can harm those who eat it. The Lord’s Supper can be richly nourishing. Through the Supper believers grow into their experience of union with Christ. Holy Communion assures us of Jesus’s sacrificial love, frustrates fleshly lusts, and sustains us in the hope of eternal life. In the Supper believers “really and indeed . . . feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death.”[ii] But the Lord’s Supper can also be dangerous. Unbelievers eat and drink to their condemnation (1 Cor. 11:30). God is provoked by those who attempt to partake “of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21).
The Lord’s Supper must be eaten by some people, but not all. So who should commune?
The Lord’s Supper Is for Believers
The Lord’s Supper is only for believers. Because the meal is a genuine “participation in the blood of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16), communion by an unbeliever is blasphemous. Communing unbelievers mock the blood that they refuse to find refuge in. The Supper is a family meal meant only for Jesus’s brothers and sisters. No one should come to the Supper who is using religion to disguise ungodliness. No one will benefit from the Supper who is leading a double life or refusing to publicly confess their dependence on Jesus Christ. Still, the Lord’s Supper is sometimes misunderstood as if it were compensation for attaining elite spiritual status. But Scripture’s standard for communing is far more basic. Here’s how the catechism describes those who may not commune: hypocrites, unrepentant, unbelieving, ungodly. For non-Christians the Supper is a warning to agree with the law’s righteous condemnation against sinners (1 Cor. 11:31), to “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14), and to rest in the crucified and risen Christ.
But don’t miss this: the Lord’s Supper is for all believers. It isn’t for the spiritually elite. In fact, those who think of themselves like this are deceived. Believers must remember that “the Supper is a means of grace for the weak, not a reward for the strong.”[iii] You must “not allow the weakness of your faith or your failures in the Christian life to keep you from this Table. For it is given to us because of our weakness and because of our failures, in order to increase our faith by feeding us with the body and blood of Jesus Christ.[iv] Believers are simply sinners trusting in Jesus for salvation. Everyone who hates their sins and who worries that their sins make them unworthy to lift their eyes heavenward (Luke 18:13) should come to the Supper. Everyone who trusts that their sins are forgiven only for the sake of Christ should come to the Supper. Everyone who regrets how little they resemble Jesus, but wants to be more like him, should come to the Supper.
Self-examination is meant to keep unbelievers from the table, and to help weary and hungry believers long for the Christ who feeds them in this meal.
The Church Should Fence the Table
Some churches leave the individual to decide whether to come to the Supper. But “open communion” can create a crisis of personal indecisiveness. Without guidance from Christ’s appointed leaders, repenting and believing Christians can waffle with doubt, agonizing over their sense of unworthiness. Elders should impress upon believers under their care that it is God’s will for them “to participate in the sacraments” (Q&A 103) The oversight of spiritual leaders also offers greater protection against improper communing which would “dishonor God’s covenant and bring down God’s wrath upon the entire congregation” (see 1 Cor. 11:30–32).
“According to the instruction of Christ and his apostles, the Christian church is duty-bound to exclude” from the Supper certain “people, by the official use of the keys of the kingdom, until they reform their lives.” Church elders must watch over the congregation and will give account to Christ for how they shepherd (Heb. 13:17). One way the elders care for the flock is by regulating who comes to the table. The Lord gives elders authority to distinguish between believers and unbelievers, between those who must and those who must not come to the table (Matt. 18:17). Elders invite to the table those who have publicly declared that they are repenting of their sins and trusting in Jesus Christ. Through public profession of faith the elders share church members’ responsibility of examining and judging themselves and “discerning the body” of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27–29).
What about Children?
Some Christians advocate a view called paedo-communion, or infant communion, believing that even little children of believers should commune since they are members of the covenant of grace. But this practice contradicts important data. God expects communicants to do several things that require reasonable maturity: remember Jesus (1 Cor. 11:24, 25), examine and judge oneself (1 Cor. 11:28, 31), and discern the body (1 Cor. 11:29). For this reason the early church required communicants to publicly profess their faith after receiving religious instruction. Even participation in the Passover—the predecessor of the Lord’s Supper—“required a measure of understanding and discernment” (Exod. 12:26–27). The church, therefore, “is biblically warranted to require a rite of public profession as a way of ensuring the presence of faith, which is the mouth whereby Christ is received in the sacrament.”[v] By this standard the church welcomes very young covenant members to actively reflect on the wondrous work of Christ as they learn to better understand the mystery of the Eucharist and prepare to publicly profess Christ and come to the table.
The communion table belongs to the Lord, not to us. And he has set rules for who communes and appointed officers for helping the church honor those rules. People who think they can satisfy God’s demand of holiness by their own righteousness should stay away from the Lord’s table until they have humbled themselves and publicly committed their life to Jesus. Believers who know that Christ is their only hope and their source of life and strength should come often, finding in Jesus everything they need for body and soul.