Paedocommunion and the Reformed Confessions Part Three: The Proper Recipients of the Lord’s Supper

Though it might seem that our extended discussion of the Reformed confessions’ view of the sacraments has taken us far afield of the specific question of paedocommunion, the position of the confessions on this question can only be understood within the broader framework of its doctrine of the sacraments in general. The insistence of the confessions that the recipients of the Lord’s Supper be professing believers arises out of their general teaching regarding the nature and power of the sacraments. When the confessions insist upon the presence of faith on the part of the recipient of the Lord’s Supper, they do so for reasons that correspond to their more comprehensive view of the sacraments.

As we have noted in the foregoing, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, because it is a visible representation and confirmation of the gospel promise in Christ, requires faith on the part of its participants. Because the sacrament visibly signifies and seals the promises of the gospel, it demands the same response as the gospel. No more than the gospel Word does the sacrament work merely by virtue of its administration (ex opere operato). Only by a spiritual eating and drinking by the mouth of faith does the sacrament work to communicate Christ to his people. Therefore, the Roman Catholic teaching of an objective presence of Christ in the sacramental elements, irrespective of a believing response to the gospel Word which the sacrament confirms, is rejected. Not only does this Roman Catholic view improperly identify the sacramental sign and the spiritual reality it signifies, but it maintains that Christ is objectively present before, during, and even after the administration of the elements whether or not those participating (or not participating) actively accept the gospel in faith and repentance.

In the Reformed confessions, moreover, the kind of faith that is competent to remember, proclaim and receive Christ through the Lord’s Supper is carefully defined. Before members of the church may receive the sacrament, they have a biblical mandate to engage in self-examination. This self-examination requires that the believers test their faith against the normative requirements of the Word of God. Essential to such faith are the acknowledgment of the believer’s sin and unworthiness, the recognition that Christ alone by his mediatorial work has made atonement for the sins of his people, and a resolution to live in holiness and obedience to his will. In this way believers are called actively to embrace the promises of the gospel that the sacrament visibly confirm in the same way as they respond to the preaching of the gospel. Furthermore, it is the duty of the ministers and elders of the church to oversee the administration of the sacrament, preventing so far as they are able those from participating who are unbelieving or living an ungodly life. Since Christ has instituted the sacrament for the purpose of nourishing the faith of believers, it would violate the nature of the sacrament to invite the unbelieving or the impenitent to partake. Unworthy participation, that is, participation on the part of those who have not properly examined themselves or who are unbelieving, would profane the table of the Lord and be contemptuous of its ordained purpose.

Since this feature of the Reformed confessions’ teaching touches directly upon the propriety of paedocommunion, we need to take particular note of the confessions teaching regarding the proper recipients of the sacrament.

The Belgic Confession, after noting that the recipient of the Lord’s Supper receives the body and blood of the Lord “by faith (which is the hand and mouth of our soul),” speaks directly to this subject.

[W]e receive this holy sacrament in the assembly of the people of God, with humility and reverence, keeping up among us a holy remembrance of the faith and of the Christian religion. Therefore no one ought to come to this table without having previously rightly examined himself, lest by eating of this bread and drinking of this cup he eat and drink judgment to himself. In a word, we are moved by the use of this holy sacrament to a fervent love towards God and our neighbor. (Article 35)

According to the language of this article, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper requires the active engagement of its recipients. Only believers, who are capable of remembering the faith and the Christian religion, may come to the Table in order to be nourished and fortified in the way of faith and love. With an obvious allusion to the apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11, this Confession also insists upon a proper preparation on the part of believers for the reception of the sacrament. Only those who have previously examined themselves should partake of the bread and the cup, lest they should eat and drink judgment unto themselves.

In its extensive treatment of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Heidelberg Catechism also expressly addresses the question of those for whom the sacrament is instituted.

Q. For whom is the Lord’s supper instituted? A. For those who are truly displeased with themselves for their sins and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake of Christ, and that their remaining infirmity is death; who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and amend their life. But hypocrites and such as turn not to God with sincere hearts eat and drink judgment to themselves.

It is important to observe that the three marks of true faith, which are identified in this question and answer, are the same as the three general headings of the Heidelberg Catechism. This is not accidental, since the purpose of the Catechism is to provide an instrument for the instruction of the children of believers in the Christian faith. True faith always includes three elements: (1) a conscious awareness of the believer’s sin and misery; (2) an understanding of the person and work of Christ, who satisfied for the believer’s sins by his cross and passion; and (3) a Spirit-worked readiness on the part of the believer to live in gratitude to God. When the children of believing parents, who have received the sign and seal of incorporation into Christ through the sacrament of baptism, are instructed in these principal elements of the Christian religion, they are being invited to respond in faith to their baptism and to come believingly to the Lord’s Supper. Though this is not the place to answer the objections of proponents of paedocommunion, the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism does not seem to create an artificial and unnecessary barrier before children who might otherwise be received at the Lord’s Table. All believers who are received at the Lord’s Table come in the same way and with the same obligations. Consistent with the nature of true faith (cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q. & A. 21), all believers who come to the Table of the Lord in order to be nourished in faith are expected to come believingly. If the sacrament is to be used to strengthen faith, it is only appropriate that those who receive the sacrament do so as professing believers.

That this is the consensus view of the Reformed confessions is also evident from the Westminster Standards. In Chapter XXIX.vii of The Westminster Confession of Faith, the necessity of a believing participation in the Lord’s Supper is clearly affirmed: “Worthy receivers [of the Lord’s Supper], outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death.” Since the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament that nourishes faith, it requires faith on the part of those who receive it. Perhaps the most relevant statements of the confessions in respect to the question of paedocommunion, is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism. In answer to a question about the difference between the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Larger Catechism states:

The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper differ, in that Baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord’s Supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves. (Q. & A. 177)

According to the Larger Catechism, baptism and the Lord’s Supper differ in terms of what they signify and seal. Baptism signifies and seals to its recipients their regeneration and ingrafting into Christ. The Lord’s Supper signifies and seals to its recipients their continuance and growth in believing union with Christ. Whereas baptism is administered but once to believers and their children, the Lord’s Supper is administered often “to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.” Though the Larger Catechism does not spell out what it means by the expression “of years and ability to examine themselves,” it transparently reflects the confession and practice of the Reformed churches, which has historically required a public ceremony of profession of faith on the part of the children of believing parents prior to their reception at the Lord’s Table. The purpose of such a profession of faith by the children of believing parents is to confirm publicly the kind of faith demanded by their baptism and to be the occasion for admitting them to the Lord’s Table.

Conclusion

The uniform testimony of the Reformed confessions is that, though the children of believing parents ought to be baptized as a sacramental sign and seal of their incorporation into Christ, they may only receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper upon an attestation of their faith in the gospel promise. Even though the practice of paedocommunion is not expressly rejected in these confessions, their general understanding of the nature and purpose of the sacraments stands opposed to this practice. Two emphases in the confessions especially militate against the practice of paedocommunion.

The first emphasis is the confessions’ insistence that the sacraments do not communicate the grace of Christ apart from the preaching of the gospel, in relation to which they are confirming signs. The principal means whereby Christ dwells among and communicates himself to his people is the preaching of the gospel. Through the preaching of the gospel, the Holy Spirit produces faith in the hearts and minds of believers. Indeed, the saving power of the gospel Word is only communicated to those in whom such faith lives by the working of the Holy Spirit. Because the sacraments are visible signs and seals of the gospel promise, their effectiveness, like that of the Word they visibly proclaim, also requires a believing reception on the part of their beneficiaries. Just as the gospel Word is received through faith, so the sacramental pledges and seals of the gospel require faith on the part of their recipients. Though the children of believers are to be baptized, since they together with their parents are included in the covenant community, their baptism summons them to the same believing response that the gospel Word demands. Baptism, no more than the Lord’s Supper, does not work by its mere administration. It only serves to confirm and bolster faith, which is principally worked by the Holy Spirit through the gospel. Therefore, consistent with their emphasis upon the priority of the Spirit’s use of the preaching of the gospel to produce faith, the confessions insist that the route from the baptismal font to the Lord’s Table can only be taken in the way of an active response of faith. To argue that baptism alone is a sufficient basis for admitting the children of believers to the Lord’s Table, would require a substantial change in the way the confessions understand the use and effectiveness of the sacraments in relation to the preaching of the Word.
The second emphasis is the confessions’ view of the difference between the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Whereas baptism is a once-for-all sign and seal of incorporation into Christ and His church, the Lord’s Supper is a frequently administered sign and seal of the gospel that nourishes faith, which the Spirit produces by means of the Word. Because the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is designed to nourish and strengthen faith, it requires a prior attestation of the presence of such faith on the part of its recipients. Though the language may be a little misleading, the Lord’s Supper, unlike baptism, requires for its proper reception an active and believing participation in Christ. Believers are summoned at the Table of the Lord to “take, eat, remember and believe.” The purpose of the catechetical instruction of children of believing parents is to prepare them to make a credible confession of faith, which in the traditional practice of the Reformed churches is effected by means of a “public profession of faith.” Unless such faith has been publicly attested, the children of believers are not yet prepared to make proper use of the sacrament that Christ has appointed for the specific purpose of nourishing faith.

Admittedly, the Reformed confessions do not stipulate a particular age at which such a profession should be made. Nor do they spell out in detail the kind of instruction in the faith that ought ordinarily to precede a mature profession of faith and admission to the Lord’s Table. However, they clearly insist, in keeping with the nature of the sacraments in general and of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in particular, that the straight line that leads from the baptismal font to the Lord’s Table includes along the way a confirmation of the baptized believer’s embrace of the promise of the gospel. Though baptism summons the children of believers to faith and therefore to the Table of the Lord, it does not constitute a sufficient condition for their admission to the Table. Baptism summons its recipient to faith, whose presence must first be publicly attested before the believer comes to the Table of the Lord.

To state the matter in a different way, the admission of children to the Table of the Lord without a prior attestation of their faith would require a substantial change in the historic Reformed understanding of the nature and use of the sacraments. If advocates of paedocommunion are able to demonstrate that such a change is demanded by the teaching of Scripture, then the confessions should be revised, of course. This is the obvious implication of the church’s confession that the Scriptures must always remain the supreme standard for the church’s faith and practice. Our consideration of the Reformed confessions, however, indicates that advocates of paedocommunion bear a significant burden of proof to show the basis for and extent of such revisions that this practice would require. No one should be under the illusion that anything less would be required.

Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.

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