Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Assurance and the Lord's Supper

In the first two installments about "preparing our hearts" for the Lord's Supper ("what it DOESN'T mean" and "what it DOES mean"), I looked at some biblical reasons why we should see this sacrament as the means of grace that it is (and also some Catechism questions that speak to the issue). In other words, why our "preparation" for Communion ought not become a means of works!

There is one lingering issue that I want to address regarding the Lord's Supper: the matter of assurance.

If the brunt of our preparation for Communion is focusing on Christ's work on our behalf— even in light of reflecting on our sin and want, and how desperately we need Him— then it is certainly possible that some who endeavor such preparation would occasionally (or even frequently) struggle with questions of assurance of their salvation.

Once again, our Westminster Larger Catechism is so helpful here. Here is question 172:

May one who doubts of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord's Supper?
Answer: One who doubts of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God's account has it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord's Supper, that he may be further strengthened.

I think when most American evangelicals consider the question, "may one who doubts of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord's Supper?" the knee-jerk answer would be a resounding, "NO!" Again, I think this reflects misconceptions about what it means to be "prepared" to take the Supper, and about the Supper itself.

I love how the Westminster Divines correct this mistaken instinct. The bottom line? "He may and ought to come, that he may be further strengthened."

Let's consider two things about this: the reasons why he may and ought to come, and the hope for what the result of his coming would be.

First, why may he come at all (let alone ought to come)? The Catechism gives several reasons:
  • He may have true interest that he isn't yet assured of. Someone who lacks assurance needs to be reminded that their "interest" in Christ (not interest like a hobby or curiosity, but interest in the sense of our inheritance) is not based on their perceptions. No matter what one's sense of "feeling" close to God, assured of faith, etc., one whom Christ has claimed is claimed for good!
  • His own soul's inclinations may contradict his lack of assurance. The Divines point out that someone who is apprehensive about the fact that he isn't in Christ may, by nature of the apprehension, have evidence that he is! Likewise, the desires to be found in Him, and to turn from his sin, are both indicators that, according to God (though not necessarily according to the unassured), he does in fact have saving faith. Why? Because Scripture is clear that none of these come to a man (or woman) apart from the Holy Spirit, and that in fact we, when our souls are dead in our sin, seek out the opposite. The only reason for the inclinations mentioned here is that the Spirit has regenerated the soul of the unassured, has removed his heart of stone and given him a heart of flesh.
  • The Sacrament itself is appointed for such relief. There is a reason why we call it one of the "means of grace"— it is a means by which God communicates and affirms to us His grace. When a believer comes to the Sacrament, he/she may rarely wrestle with assurance or he/she may regularly doubt, but the Supper is itself a way that God ministers to Christians by affirming ("signifying and sealing" is the language the Westminster Divines used) to them that He has poured out His grace for their sins, and reconciled them to Himself. In it, He grants "relief to weak and doubting Christians… that they may be further strengthened."

This naturally leads us into the hope of what may result from the coming of the doubting Christian. What is that result? That they be affirmed in the "promises made," that they be "further strengthened," and that they be generally given greater assurance and hope in their own salvation. In other words, that where they doubt before, they have greater confidence after; where they are weaker in faith prior to coming to the Table, their faith will be stronger afterward.

There is that phrase in-between, that urges, "he is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved." What does this mean? I think it generally points the doubting Christian back to what I have already discussed: that he/she consider the depth and breadth of their sin, and consider also the enormity of the Cross to cover their sin. After all, whether we are conscious or mindful of it or not, all of us are weak in our faith, and have cause to doubt our worthiness (or even to be certain of our unworthiness!)— but all of us likewise have great hope in the effective and finished work of our Savior, who leads us to deeper awareness of our atonement in Him.

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