Three Particular Reasons Given to Us From Ralph Erskine
As we move on to the second part of the talk on close communion, or again session-controlled communion in more recent parlance we need to start by thinking about what the Lord’s Supper is in order that we can better understand why there would even be a need to have a doctrine about who can and cannot partake of the covenant meal at a local church. It’s kind of like writing an essay on whether the banning of the shift has been good for Major League Baseball. Whether or not the reader knows what baseball is needs be a prerequisite before you can talk about the most recent rule change affecting the sport. In order to define for us communion we’ll follow our previously established pattern of limiting ourselves to ARP sources so that we can learn more about why and what the ARP once believed on the question at hand.
Biblically the Lord’s Supper was established by the example and command of Christ as He prepared His disciples before He went to the cross (Matt. 26:26-29). After His death, resurrection, and ascension we see the Church continuing to practice the eating of this meal in the context of worship in places like Acts 2:42, Acts 20:7, and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. A thing to consider, which will be important for later, is that whenever the people gather together for the purpose of breaking bread the word is always present. The reason why this matters is that we must always understand the Lord’s Supper to be tied into the preaching of the Word. It is not something we do separate from the ordinary life of the Church, nor is it something we do at random or without due consideration. In light of this let’s look at a few things from Ralph Erskine as to what he understands to be the purpose behind the ordinance. This will help us get in the right frame of mind as we move forward.
First, he remarks that it is a celebration as he says:
“Then, the doctrine I am upon, may give us some insight into the nature and end of this sacrament. Why, it is a just celebrating the memorial of the death of the man that is God’s fellow, when, as the glorious shepherd, he yielded himself a sacrifice to the awakened sword of justice, in the room of the sheep.”
Then, he notes it is a commemoration:
“This sacrament is appointed to be a commemorative sign of the death of Christ; ‘As often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you shew forth the Lord’s death till he come. Do this in remembrance of me’; of me, who became a sacrifice to the sword of justice; by which sacrifice all spiritual blessings, peace, pardon, reconciliation with God, grace, glory, and all good things are purchased.”
Lastly, he writes it is a confirmation of the covenant promises in Christ:
“Christ hath a commission from his Father, and we in his name, to take in the subscriptions of all the people, whose name and surname I have mentioned; and I hope I have not missed any one here. — Thus you see who the people are, for whose benefit he is the covenant: and that he is well designed the covenant of the people, seeing all the people here named have a right of access to the covenant, a warrant to seal and subscribe to it; and all the people, that are subscribers, have a right of possession to the whole good of the covenant, and to the seal thereof, the sacrament of the supper.”
While that is not all Erskine believes about the purposes of the Lord’s Supper it is sufficient for us to get an idea of why we even celebrate this gift in the life of the worship of the Church. The 3 “c”’s mentioned: celebration, commemoration, and confirmation are important precisely because those three things have in common something that is necessary for the taking of the elements of communion, primarily faith. Faith in the joy of salvation from sin and all the blessings which come from that work of grace and mercy, faith in the historical reality and present veracity of the truth of what not only Jesus accomplished for us at Golgotha, but an embracing of the power of the spiritual eating of flesh and blood, as well as faith in the permanence of the goodness of the union we share not only in the Church, but in our common Lord. If faith as described by the Apostle in Hebrews 11 is the substance of things hoped for then in the table provided by our Redeemer we in no other place in the life of the Christian can partake of the elemental picture of His love in the way we do at the Lord’s Supper. Not only can unbelievers not benefit from the meal they, as we shall see, can actually violate the Third Commandment in being involved in the actions of the ordinance. Should we let leaven stain our love feast? Likewise for those in the covenant family to forsake the opportunity is to in many ways deny these three marks and to say that we as believers can live without this benevolent gift, which I don’t think any of us intend when we do miss this fellowship meal for reasons that don’t meet providential hindrance, but in practice we most certainly do.
Comprehending the importance of celebration, commemoration, and confirmation in light of the festivity of the Table meal changes our relationship to how we approach the question of who is to be granted access to the bread and the cup. If those without faith should not come to the Lord’s Supper because they have not any of these gifts it is because they do not have warrant to come, as is remarked by Ralph Erskine in the last quote above. It’s why Paul bars any who cannot “judge the body rightly” from the supper meal in Corinth. It is an act of love to prevent harm to those who know not what the Table entails. We shouldn’t invite men to sin in worship.
Think about this in light of the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-13. At the end of that story Jesus has this to say about those in attendance,
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
We read there that only those with the proper garments are to be at the wedding feast, which actually sets us up for what we will talk about next week: Who gets to decide what the right attire is (we of course speak here not of outward clothing) or who is wearing it when it comes to the Lord’ Supper? It is the Church alone who has been granted the keys of the kingdom, who can therefore grant access to the Table of mercy.
In closing, I hope this has been helpful in bringing out some of the reasons why the whole concept of close communion matters to the life of God’s people, not just in 1740, but in 2023.
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor, Bethany ARP Church