82. Are they then also to be admitted to this Supper who show themselves by their confession and life to be unbelieving and ungodly?
No, for thereby the covenant of God is profaned and His wrath provoked against the whole congregation; wherefore the Christian Church is bound, according to the order of Christ and His Apostles, to exclude such persons by the Office of the Keys until they amend their life (Heidelberg Catechism).
The Christian Church is constantly assailed on the one side for hypocrisy. One of the first charges made against the visible, institutional church is that it is “full of hypocrites.” On the other side, whenever the church recognizes the problem and takes steps to address it in concrete, practical, visible ways she is criticized as narrow and bigoted. To be sure, there are hypocrites in the church. There are those who profess faith but who do not give evidence of actually possessing genuine faith. Here, as always, we should be careful to use the right measure. When the outside world criticizes the visible church as a bastion of hypocrisy it is because Christians do not conform to whatever it is they think Christians should do or say. At the moment we are criticized for agreeing with our Lord Jesus and with the Apostle Paul on sexual morality. Our Lord explicitly condemned the lust of the heart (Matt 5:28). The Apostle repeatedly condemned homosexuality and heterosexual sin (1 Cor 6:12–20). We are told that we must approve of sexual immorality or face the world’s condemnation as being insufficiently loving. We should be content to be condemned along with Jesus and Paul. At the same time, people frequently justify their refusal to attend public worship services and to join themselves to the visible church on the grounds that the church is full of hypocrites. That usually means, “I don’t want to be bothered to attend” or “I’m angry at ________ (fill in the blank)” and the charge of universal hypocrisy in the church is just a cover for unbelief and disobedience.
Consider this: Someone else is doing something wrong in the name of the law, therefore I am entitled to disobey the law. Does that cohere? Not at all. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that the visible church really is “full of hypocrites.” So what? When our Lord Jesus walked the earth he made it clear that he was not pleased with the state of the visible church. Did he absent himself from it? No. Every indication is that he was in the Synagogue weekly and attended to the temple according to the Mosaic law. The unbelief and disobedience of the Israelites did not keep him from associating with them and worshipping with them. Nor did it keep the Apostle Paul from attending synagogue and preaching to them about the resurrected Christ. Indeed, the Apostles registered a number of objections about the state of the New Testament church after the ascension of our Lord Jesus but never once did they say to the church: well it is so corrupt that you are entitled to neglect it. However frustrated one may be with the visible church, if it is still Christ’s church, if the gospel is purely preached, the sacraments purely administered, and discipline practiced, it is Christ’s church. None of us is more righteous and more holy than Jesus and his apostles.
I mention this as prelude to addressing the teaching Heidelberg 82. We recognize that there will always be some in the visible church who make a profession of faith but who do not actually believe. When those hypocrites show themselves to be such we are commanded by our Lord to exclude them from the Lord’s Table. It is not for unbelievers. It is for believers. The Lord has commissioned the visible church to recognize when someone shows himself by his conduct to be an unbeliever. As I mentioned under Heidelberg 81, our basis for this exclusion is the Apostle Paul’s clear teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:27–32:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
In Matthew 16 our Lord Jesus gave to the visible, institutional church the keys of the kingdom. In Matthew 18 he taught us explicitly how to use them. In 1 Corinthians 5:2 the Apostle Paul explicitly commanded the Corinthians to do as the Lord commanded by excluding an impenitent man (who was guilty of sexual immorality) until such time as he recognized his sin, repented of it, and turned to the Lord Jesus for forgiveness. Paul warned us in 1 Corinthians 11 that the Supper is a holy feast. It is not a mere fellowship meal between believers. This is why it in insufficient to read “discerning the body” to refer to other believers present. In the Supper we are fed by Christ, not by the person sitting next to us. In the Supper we are participating in a great Holy Spirit-ual mystery whereby God the Spirit communicates to us Christ’s true body and blood. We receive that body and blood by faith alone, through the mysterious operation of the Spirit. This is no place for unbelievers, even if they profess faith. This is why so-called “open communion” is such a mistake. Though intended to be inclusive and generous, such good intentions could have disastrous consequences. The Supper is not ours to share. It is not our table, it is the Lord’s. He sets the terms of communion. Though it seems counter intuitive in our inclusive age, fencing the table is an act of love. There are always limits to inclusion. It is inclusive to hand a sharp knife to a small child? No. A sharp knife is a good tool in the hands of a skilled adult but in the hands of a child, it’s a danger to himself and to others. So it is with the Lord’s Supper. It is a gospel blessing to believers but to the unbelieving and impenitent, i.e., to those who refuse acknowledge their sins and to turn from them, it is nothing but a curse.
Note that the catechism says that when hypocrites and the impenitent are permitted to the table “the covenant of God is profaned.” When the catechism says “the covenant” it is referring to the administration of the covenant of grace. God’s covenant, “I will be a God to you and to your children” (Genesis 17) is his gracious promise to redeem all his elect but that promise, that covenant must be administered and it has consequent obligations. Having been freely (graciously) accepted by God for Christ’s sake alone, there are now responsibilities that entail. We pledge obedience to God in response to his grace. We live in union and communion with the risen Christ as members of his church, the Christ-confessing covenant community. The Supper is the divinely ordained sign and seal of confirmation to us that the promises really are true but that sign must be administered as a trust to and in the church. To administer it in a way that contradicts our Lord’s instruction is to profane, i.e., to make common what is holy, what is set apart as belonging to the Lord. In this way the line between the Old Covenant people and the believers before Moses and us is blurry. They too were the covenant people and the same promises were administered to them under types and shadows. We have the reality. Nevertheless, God still administers his covenant of grace to a visible, assembled covenant community. This is why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, says that the history of Israel’s unbelief and abuse of the sacraments was given to instruct us to avoid the same the sins and consequences.
Should we think that people today, after the close of the Apostolic age and after the close of the canon, become sick and die from abusing the Lord’s Supper? I do not know with certainty but certainly we should take Paul’s warning seriously. It seems foolish to test the Lord to see what he might do. Paul’s intent is clear. Unbelievers, hypocrites, and the impenitent ought not to be permitted at the Lord’s Table. Refusing communion to such people might have a truly salutary effect in the truest sense. It may be that should the church say to such a one: “We are sorry to say this but you may not come to the Lord’s Table until you recognize your sin, turn from it and embrace the Lord Jesus in true faith” that he might be struck in the heart, that he might realize the gravity of his situation and he might do those things for which we pray and hope.
In our radically egalitarian age, in our American culture that values autonomy (“I will do as a I please”), obeying the clear and repeated teaching of Holy Scripture will not likely be received with favor. It may seem to some as elitist and narrow even though that is a false judgment of things. It is not elitist to obey him who poured himself out as the Suffering Servant (Isa 52–53; Phil 2). Rather, we must obey God rather than men. We must fear God rather than men. We must serve God rather than men and we must love God first and our neighbor as ourselves. It is not loving to allow a blind man to walk into traffic. I am most grateful for the person who reached out to grab me by the shoulder to keep me from stepping off the curb in front of traffic in the UK. I wasn’t blind but I was looking the wrong way and some (likely) Englishmen saw some Yank about to ruin everyone’s day. It was jarring but truly salutary.
If history is an indication, we are likely going to be criticized no matter what we do so better to obey our Lord and seek his approval rather than the approval of men.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
Thank you for that post, Dr Clark, and at first I thought I had no comment to make. However, I must say this: The Table must be fenced, but not on the criterion of “He must have been baptized by immersion as a believer”; but also, not on the criterion of “He must be a communicant member of OUR congregation”. Clearly known heretics and scandalous professors must be barred, but otherwise, isn’t the responsibility on the attender to examine himself, the warnings having been given, rather than on the local church to bar him because they do not know enough about him – certainly when he is not in a position that Lord’s Day to present himself at the Lord’s Table with a group that does know him better than the local church in question?
The old Reformed sometimes required tokens as evidence of attendance at the service of preparation or a letter of attestation from one’s consistory (session). A believer should examine himself but I don’t think that the final judgment of who may come to the table rests with the individual.
See the link to the several posts on fencing the table.
Sorry, Dr Clark, I didn’t think of handling that bit – It isn’t just the OLD Reformed “used”-ing to do it. The Free Presbyterian C.o. Scotland still hand out tokens after the service of preparation. But the argument then changes to “On what grounds may you refuse a token?” and, whilst there is much to be said for quizzing an unfamiliar applicant before giving the token, withholding it just because the applicant is not in regular attendance there or in another congregation of the Denomination is going further, both than the FPCOS professes to go, and than I believe Scripture teaches that a church should go.