Heidelberg 81: Who May Come To The Table?

Who are to come to the table of the Lord?

Those who are displeased with themselves for their sins, yet trust that these are forgiven them, and that their remaining infirmity is covered by the passion and death of Christ; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to amend their life. But the impenitent and hypocrites eat and drink judgment to themselves (Heidelberg Catechism, 81).

One of the more challenging aspects of explaining the Reformed confession of the sacraments (covenant signs and seals), in a broadly evangelical setting, to a broadly evangelical religious culture, is that the assumptions of the hearers are always not the same as those of the Reformed churches. As we read the history of redemption, as we understand the external administration of the covenant of covenant of grace there are two stages marked by two signs and seals of the covenant of grace. The first stage is the initiation into the administration of the covenant of grace (circumcision and baptism) and the confirmation or renewal of the covenant of grace. As many Christians think about the church initiation and confirmation are collapsed into one event so that, communion tends to wither. As we understand the history of redemption both stages are important and distinct.

Communion or the Lord’s Supper is the sacrament (covenant sign and seal) intended for those who have been baptized, who have been instructed (catechized) in the Christian faith (including memorizing the catechism and Scripture passages), and who made a credible profession of faith. Those are the external qualifications. The catechism, however, turns immediately to the internal or spiritual qualifications for the Supper. When the catechism was drafted, adopted, and published the external qualifications were not in question among the confessional Protestants (Lutheran and Reformed). Because the Reformed church was a state church in the Palatinate nominalism was a real problem. One year all the citizens of the Palatinate were Romanist. Then they were Lutheran. Now, under Frederick III, they were all Reformed but did they believe? Were they renewed by the Holy Spirit? Did they know personally, genuinely, the greatness of their sin and misery, how they were redeemed from their sins and misery by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone? Were they committed to living lives of grateful obedience, in the grace of God, in union with Christ? Those are the internal, spiritual qualifications for coming to the Holy Supper.

It is not enough merely to say the Apostles’ Creed. One must know what it signifies. One must understand it, assent to it, and embrace all that it represents with true faith. True faith entails knowledge, assent, and trust. Those who truly believe are genuinely sorry for their sins. They acknowledge them before God and struggle against them.

This is why we fence the table. By “fencing” we mean that we invite all those who are members of the true church (i.e., a congregation with the marks of the true church according to Belgic Confession art. 29) to come to the table of the Lord. We challenge those who are present but who do not believe or who have not demonstrated true faith by uniting themselves with the true church not to come to the table of the Lord. Here are some resources on fencing the Lord’s Table.

Those who profess faith but who have not been given new life, who do not yet actually believe, who are not actually, Spiritually united to Christ, are called hypocrites. A great deal has been written about hypocrisy in the church. It is a fact. It exists. It is not true, however, as people often assume, that all who sin are hypocrites. Scripture does not teach that Christians achieve sinless perfection in this life. Romans 7 is just one of many places that leads us away from that error. We understand, with the prophets and the apostles, that all believers continue to sin but those who are born again, who, by grace alone, truly believe embrace Christ their Savior and their righteousness. They know that they stand before God only on the basis of what Christ has done. The impenitent, i.e., one who has to honestly reckon with the greatness of his sin and misery, has yet to do this. If he is a hypocrite, he may pretend to believe. He may wish to be regarded outwardly as a good person but he has not truly seen himself for what he really is before the perfect bar of God’s Holy and relentless law. He has not seen Christ for who and what he really is: the only Righteous One, the only Holy One of Israel who obeyed and died as the substitute for all of the elect in all times and places, the only propitiation (turning away of wrath) for God’s people.

Hypocrites and the impenitent eat and drink judgment to themselves when they come to the table. There is jeopardy at the Lord’s Table. It is not only a table of blessing but, just as baptism signifies God’s wrath against sin in the destruction of the “world that then was” in Noah’s day and the destruction of Pharaoh’s armies in Moses’ day, so too the Supper has two edges. For believers it is a great spiritual feast. For unbelievers it is death. Thus Paul warned the Corinthians that some of them had become sick and even died because they abused the Lord’s Table (1 Cor 11:28, 29). This is why Reformed congregations do not practice paedocommunion or infant communion. Infants may be baptized as they are initiated into the visible covenant community but the Supper has a distinct function. It is not for initiation but for renewal. It is not for those who do not understand but for those who do understand. Are there exceptions? Yes. There are adults with diminished capacity who commune. They’ve given evidence of true faith. Infants are not capable of giving evidence of true faith. Infant communion is the error of collapsing the sign of initiation into the sign of renewal. Because of the two-edged nature of the Supper fencing the table is not an act of cruel exclusion but a gracious act of charity, sparing some from judgment.

Dear Christian, if you believe, if you have professed faith before the elders in a congregation with the marks of the true church, if you know the greatness of your sin and misery and are trusting alone in Christ for your righteousness, come to the table. Receive the true body of Christ, by the operation of the Spirit, through faith alone, and be strengthened by Christ for your struggle against sin as you seek to be renewed daily in grace, putting to death the old man and being renewed in the new.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


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  1. RSC,
    Your link to “resources” is present, however the Red Text to which it is attached is probably not what you had in mind. And that section looks/reads odd because of it.

  2. Thanks, Scott. As usual – good and helpful stuff (including the resources link), especially on a rather controversial and misunderstood part of the church’s worship.

  3. Thank you for sharing HC 81.

    At last… I qualify.

    … Joy unspeakable, and a foretaste of heaven.

    My mind and heart cannot handle any more than this simple answer to the question of who may come to the table.

  4. It seems to me HC81 presents a lot lower bar than the high-jump or even pole-vault bar that is (stereotypically — I may be misinformed) applied by the Dutch reformed tradition! I think it is not hard for an 8-year-old to credibly be repentant of their sins and understand Christ’s substitutionary atonement

    • Hi Rube,

      I should mention that the catechism was to be memorized as part of the catechism process. If a child is able to understand the double-edged character of the Supper, if they understand something of what it means to be fed by the body and blood of Christ, through faith, by the Spirit, then yes. Calvin thought a child should be able to make profession by age 10.

    • I can honestly say I felt I made a credible profession of repentance at the age of least 5 (all glory to God) from being solidly grounded in a Lutheran church where we recited the Apostle’s Creed every Lord’s Day. And then in typical Wisconsin Lutheran tradition, I was confirmed upon completion of nine years of K-8 Lutheran grade school and a somewhat-light requirement of memorization of various sections of Luther’s Small Catechism. Then I could finally come to the table.

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