Contemporary American culture has few solemn occasions. We prefer our occasions to be flamboyant or hilarious. But the Lord’s Supper is and must be solemn. Jesus introduced it at a solemn time, the Passover meal on the night before His death. Paul shows its solemnity in the warnings he gives to those who would participate in the supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34.
Paul is concerned that Christians in the Corinthian church are not participating in the Lord’s Supper properly, so he writes to teach, correct, and warn them. The supper is the new covenant in Jesus’ death. For Christians, it involves remembering, reflecting, recommitting, and reconnecting with Jesus in all the solemnity of His saving work. Paul reminds them that they must come to the Lord’s table only if they are worthy. What is the worthiness that Paul demands? It is not moral perfection but rather genuine Christian commitment (1 Cor. 11:19). That commitment should be examined and reviewed before communion. We must truly believe that Christ’s death is for us and secures our salvation. We must recognize that our participation in the supper is a testimony and proclamation to the world that we trust His saving work.
If we are unworthy when we come to the table, we become guilty with those who put the Lord to death. Instead of saving us, the death of Christ will condemn us. This is serious indeed. To avoid this horrifying outcome, we must examine and judge ourselves. We must repent.
Our repentance, of course, must itself be genuine: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). In worldly grief, the sinner focuses on himself, as Judas does after betraying the Lord. Godly sorrow focuses on God and our need of forgiveness from Him.
The Westminster Larger Catechism beautifully defines repentance in question and answer 76: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.” This repentance not only is sorry for sin and hates it but also turns away from it to live a new life.
Paul called for godly repentance from those in the Corinthian church who were then unworthy of participation in the sacrament. They had to be reconciled to God and to their neighbor. Paul shows us some of the offenses he has in mind. Some Corinthian Christians had offended God by perverting the supper given them by God into something else (1 Cor. 11:20). They had offended their neighbor with their divisions and airs of superiority (1 Cor. 11:18, 21). Paul calls on them to look hard at their faith and lives, to recognize their sins, and to turn from them.
The self-examination to which Paul calls Christians is at its heart a very personal and individual matter. Each of us can examine only his own heart. But the church can help and encourage that proper introspection. Historically, Reformed churches held what were called preparatory services that featured sermons that helped in the process of self-examination. In the parts of Scotland where the Presbyterians had an annual communion, communion Sunday was preceded by at least four preparatory services during the week. Among the Dutch Reformed, where quarterly communion was common, one of the services on the Sunday before communion was preparatory. These services focused on sin, on the saving work of Christ, on the meaning of the sacrament, and on the nature of true self-examination and repentance.
The life of Jesus—His body and blood offered on the cross—is the only way to salvation. Jesus has promised to meet us, feed us, and renew us through the supper He has given us. To come to such a meal, we need to be properly prepared. Such preparation is not mysterious or difficult. It is pausing to look at ourselves seriously, to believe in Christ sincerely, and to repent where repentance is needed. It can be done in a short amount of time. If we do not believe, if we do not repent, if we do not examine ourselves, we ought not to take communion. But we must never turn our self-doubt or lack of preparation into a virtue as if we were more godly for doubting our godliness. We must heed the call of Christ, who said to His disciples, “Eat.” And if we are His disciples and are not ready, we must get ready.
Heidelberg Catechism 81 helpfully summarizes all of this for us: “Who should come to the Lord’s table?” The answer is this: “Those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, but who nevertheless trust that their sins are pardoned and that their remaining weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to lead a better life. Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves.”