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More than half of car accidents happen within five miles of the driver’s home. Familiarity and routine can make the driver less alert and less aware of the significant present reality: “I am maneuvering a metal machine that weighs four thousand-plus pounds at more than sixty miles per hour.” A similar phenomenon can set in with respect to the Lord’s Supper. Do we truly consider the significance of what is taking place? Do we know what we ought to be doing at the time of administration? The supper is routine for most Christians and, sadly, many approach the Lord’s Table as a mid-morning snack before the football game. But many Christians I know give thought to the supper and take seriously that the Head of the church instituted this sacrament as a perpetual obligation for His body. Similarly, they take seriously Paul’s admonition of examination before partaking (1 Cor. 11:28–29; see Westminster Larger Catechism 171). But what to do during the supper is another question. To be sure, Scripture doesn’t prescribe particular actions for what we are to do during the supper. Nevertheless, the Westminster divines were astute to derive principles from Scripture that can guide our focus as we come to the table, as we see in Westminster Larger Catechism 174:
It is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, that, during the time of the administration of it, with all holy reverence and attention they wait upon God in that ordinance, diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions, heedfully discern the Lord’s body, and affectionately meditate on his death and sufferings, and thereby stir up themselves to a vigorous exercise of their graces; in judging themselves, and sorrowing for sin; in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, feeding on him by faith, receiving of his fullness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace; in renewing of their covenant with God, and love to all the saints.
In this article, we will distill the Larger Catechism’s answer into seven distinct instructions.
1. Wait on God. If we are to obtain any benefit from the sacrament, it will be the Lord’s doing. We must not presume upon the Lord to dispense grace to us in the act itself (ex opere operato). We wait, for it is “only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them” that the sacrament becomes an effectual means of salvation (Westminster Shorter Catechism 91). Therefore, we assume a posture of faith in the One who has promised to nourish us in this ordinance.
2. Observe the sacramental elements and actions. According to Christ’s prescription (Matt. 26:26–28; 1 Cor. 11:23–29), the minister is to perform certain sacramental activities at the supper’s administration: (1) consecrating/blessing; (2) breaking (bread) and pouring (wine); and (3) distributing and receiving. We can be confident that Jesus did not perform perfunctory and insignificant rituals. These actions serve a purpose—to draw our minds and hearts upward to the risen Lamb who was slain for our sins. Therefore, it’s necessary to diligently observe both the elements and the actions. Pay close attention to the breaking of the bread. Taste the bitterness of the wine. Christ intends these symbols to draw you to affectionate meditation on His death and sufferings.
3. Sorrow for sin. Contemplating sin and contemplating atonement are two sides of the same coin. Meditation on the sufferings of Christ engenders grief over sin. As Jonathan Edwards stated, we “contribute nothing to [our] salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”
4. Feed on Him by faith. The means by which we feed on Him are the elements of bread and wine. Through receiving and consuming the elements by faith, we are symbolically appropriating the benefits of Christ and trusting in His merit. United with the gracious host by faith, we commune with Him in His blessed presence by faith.
5. Rejoice in His love and give thanks for His grace. When Hezekiah reinstituted the Passover in Israel, the people kept the feast with “great gladness” and “thanksgiving” (1 Chron. 30:21–23). Gladness and thanksgiving are the intended posture and outcome of the supper. Jesus commanded His disciples to partake “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24–25). Such remembrance of our Lord ought to provoke gladness and gratitude.
6. Renew our covenant with God. In Exodus 24:8, when Moses threw the blood onto the people, he said, “Behold the blood of the covenant.” Moses instructs the people to behold the blood that is being sprinkled on them, for in the blood, the covenant—and all its sanctions, stipulations, and promises—are shown forth. Similarly, in the blood of the new covenant—symbolized in the wine—Christ’s death is shown forth (i.e., displayed visibly) and we are reminded of the covenant relationship we enjoy with God in Christ. Specifically, we are in a covenant of grace with God, whereby the Lord has promised salvation to all who embrace Christ by faith alone. To renew our covenant with God, then, is to renew our commitment to receive and rest upon Christ alone. This is not akin to the notion of “recommitting our lives to Christ.” Rather, it is a renewal of our desire and resolve to be found in Christ alone and to walk in new obedience with our covenant-keeping Lord.
7. Renew our love for the saints. When Paul admonishes the Corinthians for corrupting the supper, he begins by saying, “When you come together . . .” (1 Cor. 11:18, 20). The supper isn’t a private meal or act of personal devotion. It’s a communal meal—hosted by Christ for His bride (Ps. 23:5; Luke 14:7–24; Rev. 19:6–10). Therefore, when we partake of the supper, it’s not ideal to close our eyes and pretend we’re in our personal prayer closet. We ought to observe and taste the elements together; pray together; rejoice together; renew our love for and obedience to the Savior together. Christ has given us this meal to show forth His death together until He returns. Few things exemplify that unity for which He prayed (John 17) more than His people’s renewing their commitment to love one another around His table.