I Corinthians 11:27
July 11, 2007
There are two dangers we face whenever we come to the Lord’s table. The first danger is that we will feel that we are not worthy to be here. And the second danger is that we will feel that we are worthy. The first danger is the sin of despair. The second danger is the sin of presumption.
Those who are guilty of the sin of despair are sometimes new Christians—people new to the faith and new to the church. Or they are people who have been away from God for a long while and now are coming back to him. Or they may be Christians who struggle with doubt or fear or discouragement and feel that they are therefore somehow disqualified from taking communion.
On the other hand, the people who are guilty of the sin of presumption are almost always the very best people in the church. They are the people who know the Bible, who know the gospel, who know the grace of God. They are the ones who’ve been in the church almost from the day they were born.
A Memory Too Good or Not Good Enough
For those who are guilty of the sin of despair, the real problem is that their memory is too good. When they come to the Lord’s Table, a thousand images rise up in the mind. A thousand dim events from the past come back to haunt them. All the skeletons of all the locked closets of the past come rattling out and their voices cry out, “You are not worthy. You are not worthy. You are not good enough to come to the table of the Lord.” And so there is that feeling on the inside that when the time comes they ought to pass the elements by because they are simply not ready, not good enough for something as sacred as the Lord’s Supper.
On the other hand, the people who believe they are worthy commit the sin of presumption. Their problem is that their memory is not good enough. They take pride in the fact that they are active in the church and that they do the work of the Lord and that they are visible and easy to spot on Sunday. They are very righteous people. They are very good people. They do not think about their sins very much for they know their sins are forgiven.
We face these twin dangers of despair and presumption every time we come to the Lord’s table. This is a very serious event. It is no small thing that we do and we’re not doing it just because it’s Sunday or just because we have to do it. We’re do it because it is holy and sacred. We call this an ordinance which means it is an order from the Lord Jesus Christ. If you call this a sacrament you are saying that here we meet the Lord Jesus Christ in great and new and rich power. Whether you use the word ordinance or sacrament, you are clearly indicating that this is something which is of high and holy and great spiritual significance.
So, we have two dangers that face us whenever we come to the Lord’s Table—despair and presumption. Let me say right up front that of those two sins, presumption is by far the more dangerous sin to commit. If you are under a weight of sin and if you feel you are not worthy, then I am sure that you are very much aware of that right now. You feel the weight of sin and that weight makes you feel unworthy. But if you are guilty of the sin of presumption, almost certainly you are not aware of it at all.
The Crusty Ex-Marine
I speak first of the sin of despair. Whenever I think of this, I can’t help but have my mind goes back a man in my first church in California. He was a crusty old ex-marine who had come to faith in Jesus Christ later in life. Every Sunday he would come to church and sit about four or five pews back on the right hand side of the sanctuary. I would start preaching and pretty soon he would bow his head. He wasn’t praying; he was going to sleep. I would finish my sermon and he would shake his head and wake up. He’d come by after the service, shake my hand and say, “Good service, Pastor. Great preaching.” He and I were close friends. He taught me how to play cribbage and every once in a while I would go play cribbage with him. He would beat me nearly every time. He was a good man. We were buddies.
But let me tell you something interesting. Every time we had communion in the five years I was his pastor, whenever we came to that point in the service when communion would be served, there would be a prayer or a hymn and he would get up from his pew and go to the back and step outside the church until the service was over. The reason he did that was not to be disruptive in any way. He did it because he did not feel worthy to take something as holy and as sacred as the Lord’s Supper, so he would absent himself from those proceedings every single time.
There are a great many people who feel that way. You flip through the pages of the past and think “I wonder if I should take communion because there is someone I have not yet forgiven and I wonder if I should really take it until I have forgiven them.” That’s a lot more common than we might think. You may come to church with ghosts from the past, hidden skeletons, and memories of things you’ve said this week—angry words you wish you could take back, deeds you wish you had not done, deeds of kindness that you know now you should have done. And some of you have memories going back weeks and months and years, some so very deep that when you begin to think about the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, those things seem to rise up out of the past and cry out, “Guilty! You’re evil. You’re bad. How can you dare to take the Lord’s Supper?” My heart goes out to you if you feel that way. After all, who among us would dare to stand and say, “I am worthy to take the Lord’s Supper?” Who would dare to say, “I am so clean, so pure that it’s okay for me to come?” Isn’t it true that we’re all sinners? Isn’t it true that we all fall short of the glory of God? And is there anyone here who really, really can say “I’m worthy?”
What Does God Want?
What is it that God wants from us? What does God require from us before we can take the Lord’s Supper? Does he want us to promise that this time we’ll be good? Does he want us to promise that this time we’ll try harder? Does he want us to promise that this week we’re going to be better than we’ve been before? Is that what God wants from us?
This is the Word of God from the Psalm 51:16-17.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
And these words from Psalm 34:18.
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
What does God want? More promises? More money? More promises of goodness? No, no, a thousand times no. There is nothing we could say that would make any difference. He doesn’t want us to promise we’ll be good because he knows we won’t be good. He doesn’t want us to promise to be better because he knows we won’t be better. That’s just the reality of it. He doesn’t want any more sacrifices from us. What does God want from us? “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Ruth Bell Graham
Several weeks ago Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham, went home to be with the Lord. After she died, I recalled a passage she wrote in a wonderful book entitled It’s My Turn. In one of her chapters she quotes from her journal … from a day when she was burdened with many cares … from a day when she felt totally inadequate as a mother and wife. These are her words:
I am a weak, lazy, indifferent character; casual when I should be concerned, concerned when I should be carefree; self-indulgent, hypocritical, begging God to help me when I am hardly willing to lift a finger for myself; quarrelsome where I should be silent, silent where I should be outspoken; vacillating, easily distracted and sidetracked.
Thou knowest how soon my mind
from Heavenly things to earthly
is drawn aside.
How oft I fail and fall.
I have found tremendous comfort in this old hymn:
Come ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded,
Sick and sore;
Jesus, waiting, stands to help you,
Full of mercy, love and power …
Let not conscience bid you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
“What would I do,” wrote Chalmers, “if God did not justify the ungodly?”
And “What would I do,” said Thomas Boston of Scotland, “but for the imputed righteousness?”
There it is. All that I am not, He is; all that I am and should not be, He forgives and covers. (pp. 104-105)
There it is–the doctrine of justification in one simple question. “What would I do if God did not justify the ungodly?” Ask yourself that question. What would you do? Where would you go? Where would you be if God were not willing to justify the ungodly? And it is because of that great doctrine—justification by faith alone—that any of us sinners can come to the Lord’s Table.
We do not come because we are worthy.
We are not worthy and nothing we could do would ever make us worthy.
We come because Christ is worthy.
We come because of the imputed righteousness of Christ.
We come because God justifies the ungodly.
So when we come to the Lord’s Supper and when we wonder what God requires, let us remember these words:
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
If you feel your need of him, if you trust wholly in Jesus alone, you can come and he will not turn you away.
I am not saying that your sins don’t matter. Your sins do matter. I’m not trying to say that your sins aren’t important. Your sins matter so much that Jesus Christ died for them. That’s what the Lord’s Supper is all about. Despair is not a sin unless it keeps you from coming to Jesus Christ. If the guilt and the memories and the hesitations and the doubts are so great within that you wonder if you are worthy to come to the Lord’s Table, I have good news for you. You’re a wonderful candidate for the grace of God.
The Sin of Presumption
I speak secondly of the sin of presumption. This is a different ball game. This is trickier. The sin of presumption is a lot more difficult to get your hands around because it is the sin of church members. The sin of presumption happens whenever you take something that is important and treat it as if it were unimportant. It’s when you take something which is high and holy and sacred and treat it as if it is casual and of no account. It’s when you take something which ought to have your full attention and you treat it as if it were just routine business of the day. It’s what happens when you come to church on Sunday, see the elements on the table, and respond, “Ho, hum. It’s just the Lord’s Supper again.”
These are the words of the Lord through the Apostle Paul:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning 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 (1 Corinthians 11:27-32).
Many people think that what Paul is saying is that before you come to communion you’ve got to clean yourself up. They have the idea that it means that you’ve got to make sure that all your sins are confessed. They think you must clean up the inside so that you are ready to come to the table. And they think that if you come to the table with any sins unconfessed you are not worthy to take the Lord’s Supper.
Your Ladder Is Leaning Against the Wrong Wall
Some people think we have to be worthy before we can take the Lord’s Supper. Such a thing is impossible. Such a thing is inconceivable. Such an interpretation cannot possibly be right. How could it be that we could make ourselves acceptable to God? How could it be that you could somehow clean yourself up? How could you ever be sure that you’ve confessed all your sins? You can never be that sure about that. If you’re going to wait until you’re worthy, you will wait forever and you will never come to the table of the Lord at all. If you think because you have prayed and prayed and prayed you have somehow climbed up the ladder of God’s acceptance, my friend, your ladder is leaning up against the wrong wall. That’s not how it works.
It’s the grace of God. You either come by the grace of God or you don’t come at all. In ourselves we are unworthy and by ourselves we are unworthy. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves worthy of this table. Jesus has already done it. He’s already died. He’s already risen from the dead. When you put your trust in him, he makes you worthy and he declares you righteous and you are justified in the sight of God and you are free to come to this table.
Just Juice and Crackers?
But what does the text mean? Very simple. Paul says, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner“ (11:27). The phrase “in an unworthy manner” is just one word in the Greek. It’s an adverb. It’s not a noun. It’s not an adjective. It’s an adverb. It’s not talking about who you are. It’s talking about how you come. There’s a world of difference between those two things. You’re not perfect. You’re never going to be perfect. It’s talking about whether you come with an attitude of openness and brokenness and say, “Lord, I’m not worthy but I am depending upon your grace.”
So if you say to yourself, “This is no big deal. This is just juice and crackers,” or if you say to yourself, “I’m doing pretty good. I’m looking fine. I’ve had a good week. I’ve been witnessing for the Lord. I’ve been praying this week. I’m really close to God,” or if you say to yourself, “I think I’m just going to take it because everybody else is so I won’t stick out in the crowd.” Or if you come lightly. Or if you come casually. Or if you come dressed in the ragged robe of your own tattered righteousness. If you come that way, my friends, you really are taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner and that is the sin of presumption.
In Corinth in the first century, they had a problem. Some people were coming to the Lord’s Supper and they were getting drunk. They were drinking the wine to excess. That couldn’t happen in most evangelical churches since we tend to use grape juice instead of real wine. But even if we did use wine, we don’t give you enough to get drunk. But if you are casual or flippant about the Lord’s Supper, you are just as guilty as if you had gotten drunk. That’s what the Bible is saying.
In the first century they had a meal. The believers used to push and shove to get a better position and more bread. In the churches I pastored, we never had a problem here of anyone fighting over the bread. We used tiny bits of unleavened bread. It was nothing you would want to gorge yourself on. But if you come thinking that in yourself you are somebody and you are worthy of the Lord’s Table, you are just as guilty as those gluttons back in the first century.
This is very serious business. In fact, Paul says it’s deadly serious business. People were dying in the early church because they took the Lord’s Supper casually. It’s not something to mess around with. Why is this such a big deal? Because the table of the Lord, the bread and the cup, represents what God sent his Son to do. The bread represents his body and the cup represents his blood—his violent, bloody, brutal, sacrificial death on the cross where he, the Son of God, died for us. It represents the best that God could ever do, and if anyone doubts the love of God, I bid you come to the table of the Lord. You will doubt no longer. This table represents what God sent his Son to do and that’s why God is totally serious about it.
Jesus told a story about two men who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). One man was a Pharisee. You know the type. He’d feel right at home in our churches because he was a very religious person. We’d like him. We’d be comfortable with him. He came into the temple. The Bible says he stood up and looked up into heaven and he said, “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like those other people. I thank you that I am not a robber, I’m not a crook, I’m not a murderer, I’m not an adulterer, I’m not like those other people. Lord, you’re lucky to have me. I fast twice a week. I tithe out of all my income.” That was the substance of his prayer. Jesus said another man came and “he stood afar off.” He would not even lift his head to heaven, he beat on his chest and cried out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And Jesus said, “Which one do you think went home justified?” Not the religious man wrapped in his own cloak of self-righteousness, but that publican, that sinner, that man who was an outcast, he who clung to the mercy of God. He went home justified, set free and forgiven.
Good news! Any sinners reading my words? Anyone out there who has blown it so badly that you feel like you shouldn’t even go to church this Sunday? Any hypocrites out there? Anybody who needs the mercy of God? Anybody in desperate need of the grace of God? Welcome! Welcome, to the table of the Lord!
In the Bible God is called the God of grace and his throne is called the throne of grace and his table ought to be called the table of grace. For it is here that we come into contact with the living and true grace of God. And if you come flippantly or casually, or if you come thinking you are a good enough person to be here, you have missed the whole point. But if you come unworthy and hesitating and doubtful and unsure, if you come conscious of your weaknesses and your failures, he will receive you and you will not be turned away.
If anybody is hungry, if anybody is thirsty, come to the table of the Lord. You will receive something to drink and you will be fed and the Lord Jesus will meet you here. Are you worthy? No, you are not. This is the grace of God, that we have been raised from the dead and been installed as members of the family of God. We bear his name. We are his sons and daughters. We are invited to come and eat and drink with him.
The Prayer of General Confession
I close with a prayer that will be familiar to some of you. It is from the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1662. This prayer is excellent preparation for the Lord’s Supper. It’s a reminder of what the grace of God is all about. If you have never put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, I urge you to pay attention to the words of this prayer and let this prayer be your prayer to God. For all the rest of us, may this prayer lead us to the table of the Lord. He is waiting to meet us there.
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Thy holy laws. We left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us. But Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare Thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent. According to Thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for His sake that we might hereafter live a godly, righteous and sober life to the glory of Thy holy name. Amen.