Faith and the Lord’s Supper
For the past year or so I have been making my way slowly through the reading of a series of sermons preached on Hebrews 11 by the Puritan, Thomas Manton. The book containing these sermons is titled By Faith and it is published by The Banner of Truth Trust1. Most recently I have been reading from this wonderful volume a sermon that deals with the question of the necessity and working of faith in our partaking of the Lord’s Supper. I intend to share some of Manton’s insights with you.
We begin with Manton writing that:
We do not come that faith may be forgotten, but we must bring it along with us, that it may be strengthened and confirmed. (p. 650)
Here we are taught that our profit in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper resides not in a mechanical apprehension of the emblems of Christ’s body and blood, as though they contained magical power. We are rather to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith, and whether that faith is operative in us. Our faith in God through Christ by the Holy Spirit gives us title and interest in this sacrament. The Supper is not a converting ordinance that begets faith in us, but rather a sustaining ordinance that vividly provokes the exercise of our faith in Christ and strengthens that faith so exercised.
Manton further writes:
Without faith we shall want an eye, we cannot discern the Lord’s body, nor have a true sense and use of these spiritual mysteries; and without faith we shall want a hand thankfully to take what God offers, even Christ and all his benefits; and without faith we shall want a mouth to feed upon Christ, that we may suck and draw life and strength from him (p. 651)
With our physical eyes we all behold the bread and wine that represent the incarnation of the Son of God and, because the wine is separated from the bread, his death by which he redeemed his people. With our physical hands, we take to ourselves these elements, and with our physical mouths we feed upon them. All of these actions can be performed without faith. But without faith our souls neither perceive nor are nourished upon the person and work of Christ that the physical elements in the Supper signify to us. It is not the divine intention in this sacrament that we handle bits of bread and cups of wine and nourish to a very small and temporary degree our physical bodies. Faith gives us spiritual powers of perception to see, handle, feed upon, and be lastingly nourished by Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
But what if our faith is weak and our assurance is uncertain as we come to the Lord’s Supper? Manton rightly says:
It is the thing, and not the certainty of the thing, that is necessary. (p. 652)
While a strong faith that has no doubt in the spiritual provision that the Lord makes for us in the tangible form of the Supper is most pleasing and honoring to God, he ever receives and blesses those who come to him crying: I believe, Lord, help my unbelief. In fact, as Manton goes on to say about the obscuring power of unbelief
. . . usually mists and clouds are dispersed in the sacrament. Look, as Jesus was known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:30,31), so all jealousies and misunderstandings between God and his people are removed, and our being in Christ is more evidenced, which was before dark, doubtful, and litigious. (p. 652)
In other words, faith convinces us no more to doubt in the substance and nourishing power of Christ in us as the hope of our glory than to doubt in the reality of the bread and wine or their potency to nourish our bodies.
But what are we to do about our sinfulness when we come to the Lord’s Supper? We are exhorted in Scripture to examine ourselves so that we might come to this nourishing sacrament in a manner worthy of the Lord. This means that we search our lives “” our thoughts, words, and actions – and confess our sins to God and seek to be reconciled to the people against whom we have sinned. But such self-examination will never yield a sense of sinlessness to any of us. Manton tells us:
Come judging and condemning yourselves, and humbled under the sense of your own vileness and unworthiness, that Jesus Christ may be more sweet to you. (p. 652)
In this instruction, Manton is not saying that we are to be carelessly indifferent to our sins, and still less is he saying that we should boast in them. What he is saying is that faith makes us to be shrewd wrestlers with God, as were Jacob and the Canaanite woman. Manton puts it this way:
. . . though they cannot say with Paul in one place, viz., (Gal. 2:26), ‘Who loved me and gave himself for me’; yet they can say with Paul in another place, viz., (1 Tim. 1:15), ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation; that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.’ (p. 653)
This is how we humble ourselves to be dogs, content to sit at the Master’s table to feed upon the crumbs that fall to us and are a feast to us precisely because they have come to us from our merciful Lord. May such faith ignite in us a hunger for that which our saving God delights to give to us, not in crumbs, but in feasting abundance. I am a fellow-feaster upon Christ.
William Harrell is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia
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