The Sacraments – Who Can Come to the Table?

There are a variety of views on the question of who are the appropriate recipients of the Lord’s Supper. In some churches the practice of “Open Communion” is observed. This means that anyone can partake of the bread and wine, regardless of their spiritual condition. This seems gracious on the surface but is a biblically indefensible position. Others practice “Closed Communion” in which only the members in good standing of that particular church are allowed to partake of the sacrament. The majority of evangelical Protestant churches, however, practice a mixed form of admission to the Table. In general, one must be baptized, a professing believer in Jesus Christ, and usually a member in good standing of a faithful church. Our church falls into this category. Our Book of Church Order instructs the minister to “invite all those who profess the true religion, and are communicants in good standing in any evangelical church, to participate in the ordinance” (BCO 58-4).

Why do we do it this way? Our practice is in order to be faithful to how the Scriptures instruct our observation of the Lord’s Supper. In the Scriptures the sacrament was only observed by those who were believers in Jesus Christ. Jesus only observed this meal with his disciples, and only after Judas had left (Matt 26:21-25, Jn 13:21-35). In the book of Acts, the Lord’s Supper was only observed with believers (Acts 2:42, 20:7). And Paul instructed the church at Corinth in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper to do so as one family in Christ (1 Cor 11:17-34). This was also seen throughout church history. Justin Martyr (110-165AD) wrote in his First Apology that “this food is called among us the eucharista, of which no one is allowed to partake by the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration (i.e. baptism), and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”[1]

The biggest matter at stake is that to partake of the bread and wine when you are not in Christ, it is to declare a lie. You are claiming union with Christ when it is not true. And it brings dishonor to Christ and His Church and judgment on the individual. So, the church has historically fenced the Table from non-believers to protect them from this blasphemy.

But a question that often arises from this discussion is “What about the children?”. Baptism is offered not only to “those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ” but also to “the infants of one, or both, believing parents” (WCF 28.4). If children receive the sacrament of baptism, why don’t they receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper? This is a very good question and helps us to understand better the nature of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are similar in some ways. God is the author of both. They both signify Christ and his benefits to the believer by faith. They are both seals of the same covenant. They are administered by ministers of the gospel. They are to be practiced until Christ returns. But they differ in that baptism is only administered once, while the Lord’s Supper is ongoing. Baptism is a sacrament of our inclusion into the covenant of grace. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of our nourishment and maturation in the covenant of grace.[2]

Paul instructs us in 1 Cor 11:28-29, “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 a judgment on himself.” The believer must examine himself and freely confess his sin to God, trusting in the grace and mercy of Christ for the forgiveness of his sins. If there is unconfessed or undealt with sin, the Christian has a duty to make that right before partaking of the Table (cf. Matt 5:23, 24). For this examination or discerning of the body to take place, it necessarily means that the recipient of the Lord’s Supper is of sufficient age, mental ability, and maturity to examine his own life. Children cannot do this, so they must wait to participate in the Lord’s Supper.

But it is important to see that there is a way. Cornelis Venema notes that there is a path from the baptismal font to the Lord’s Table.[3] That path is not direct, but goes by way of the Word and faith. In baptism we vow to teach our children the doctrines of our holy religion and strive by all the means of God’s appointment to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This is a vow to walk our children along that path, through the Word, by faith, to the Lord’s Table. There is no set or specified age for this. But when they are ready, they will give a credible profession of faith to the elders. And then they will be invited to enjoy the soul food of the Lord’s Supper.

[1] Quoted in, Cornelis P. Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table?: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion (Grand Rapids, Mich: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), 12.

[2] See WLC 176 and 177

[3] Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table?, 148.