But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup (1 Corinthians 11:28)
From all that we have seen so far, it is obvious that only professing Christians are invited to the Lord’s Table. Underlying this are three great facts. The first is that Scripture lays down preconditions for participation, namely, (1) faith in Jesus Christ, professed before, and recognized by, the church; and (2) a life consistent with that profession. The Lord’s Supper is a confirming ordinance, a sign and seal of covenant promises already embraced by the communicant. The second fact is that Jesus presences himself in the Supper to bless faithful, believing communicants. The third fact is that it takes spiritual discernment – ‘discerning the Lord’s body’ – to recognize the presence of the Lord in the communion service. Faithful communicants understand the meaning of the sacrament, and profess faith in Christ afresh as they commune.
A challenge to our conscience
To say that only Christians are to come to the Table is one thing. But what of the attitude, the state of heart and soul, in which the Christian comes to commune? Many of the Corinthians had been coming to the Supper in a disorderly, disrespectful and disgraceful way. Some even came drunk! Others came despising their brothers and sisters in the Lord. Behind this was sheer irreverence towards the Lord who had instituted the sacrament in the first place. ‘God is a holy and jealous God and greatly to be feared,’ wrote Charles Simeon. ‘In all our approaches to him we should be filled with awe; but a want of reverence prevails among the generality of mankind; even real Christians manifest it sometimes, and that too even in the most sacred ordinances.’
The apostle’s concern, then, is not merely to convey certain propositions to our minds, but to challenge our consciences. He does so by addressing the care and devotion with which we come into the presence of God at the Lord’s Table. The responsibility is ours: ‘Let a man examine himself.’ No one else can do this for us, however earnestly they may exhort and challenge us. The pastors and elders, who have responsibility for faithful oversight of the Supper, and of those whom they admit to the Table, cannot search the thoughts and intentions of our heart. It is each individual’s duty to search his or her soul before the Lord. To encourage us in this exercise, Paul outlines the necessity, the focus and the result of authentic self-examination.
The need for self-examination
Self-examination is not an option. It is an imperative. Not to comply with the apostle’s injunction is to sin and to demonstrate a careless indifference to the things of God.
There is, firstly, a charge to be heeded. Self-examination is an ongoing spiritual exercise for every believer at every communion service. This is the clear teaching of God’s Word. Elsewhere, Paul exhorts: ‘Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Prove yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?’ (2 Corinthians 13:5). The emphasis is on living the Christian life. It is not the question of assurance that is in view, but of living in faith, daily, practically and consistently. As the psalmist reflects: ‘I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times. I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, and my spirit makes diligent search’ (Psalm 77:5-6). His question is not, ‘Am I a believer?’ but ‘How am I doing as a believer?’
What is the state of your soul? If you claim to be a Christian, how is your love for Christ, your Christian walk, your practice of truth? Are you strong and fruitful in the faith? Or are you weak and careless? Are you consistent and diligent? Forsaking sin? Growing in grace? Reaching out? Loving your neighbour? Rejoicing in Christ?
Secondly, there is a warning to be pondered. An important motive for self-examination before God is the danger of incurring guilt and judgement through the abuse of the things of God (1 Corinthians 11:27, 29). Sinners are frequently disposed to tolerate sin and excuse their transgressions. Love for sin inevitably leads them to redefine sin as good or, if not exactly good, then not exactly bad either.
But God is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13). He defines sin. Sin is not a matter of arbitrary rules, but a denial of the essential holiness of God. Sin is any lack of conformity to the law of God. ‘Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness’ (1 John 3:4). That is why ‘God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day’ (Psalm 7:11). God cares about the violation of his perfect holiness. We must remember that it is ‘a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God’ (Hebrews 10:31).
Thirdly, however, there is a blessing to be enjoyed. For some people, self-examination is a no-go area. They cannot face the truth about themselves. Self-examination, however, is not morbid introspection. Even in the normal course of daily life, facing up to reality has to be better than indulging fantasies and living lies. The little boy who got a Superman outfit one Christmas, imagined he could fly, and then proceeded to ‘fly’ out of a second-storey window, quickly discovered the danger of his illusion. However challenging it may be, facing reality about ourselves is a solid base for positive action, and thus becomes a blessing rather than a burden.
Self-examination is not self-accusation. Rather, it is the means by which we close with Christ all the more firmly because we review our relationship to him with honesty and discernment. It does not leave us with a depressing catalogue of personal failures, but with hope for a growing experience of Christ in all his saving grace and power. We deprive ourselves of blessing if we do not come to the Supper with a living faith, discerning the Lord’s body and duly reflecting on our relationship to the Lord who bought us.
The focus of self-examination
The words, ‘and so let him eat of that bread’ indicate that Paul’s focus is on participation. Self-examination is not designed to keep Christians away from the Table, but to impel them to fly to Jesus in a repentant, confiding spirit. Thus, believers are to come to the Table. This positive perspective must be maintained. Why? Because, to quote Charles Simeon once again, Christians will sometimes be ‘kept from the table by a sense of their own unworthiness’. But, he continues, ‘to be unworthy, and to partake unworthily, are very different things: yet if we have partaken unworthily in past times, let us humble ourselves for it; and then we may come again with joy’.
Self-examination is not a quest for worthiness, as if it can somehow prove that we are good enough to participate. Self-examination is not designed to measure our worthiness, as much as to set our unworthiness in the context of the worthiness of Jesus Christ, our Substitute and Saviour. Our unworthiness is self-evident. We have no merit of our own to commend us to God. In Christ, by faith, we may indeed ‘walk worthy’ of our Lord, but that worthiness is not our own (Colossians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:12). It is the gift of God to all who are in Christ. Christian self-examination focuses first on Christ and his merits, and only then on the quality and consistency of our Christian life.
The result of self-examination
The goal of self-examination is that the believer might ‘eat of that bread and drink of that cup’. The movement of the text is directed to opening, not closing, the path to the Table. There are, therefore, two main results of biblical self-examination.
Firstly, believers will come. It bears repeating that self-examination is not designed to check that we are ‘good enough’ to come to the Table. ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). The question is rather, as Herman Hoeksema once put it, ‘whether I am in the faith, and whether in every respect I am always a fighting saint’. We stand before the mirror of Scripture, as those who are trusting Christ, and say with the psalmist:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxieties;
And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting
Secondly, Christ will feed believers. As we receive the bread and wine in faith, we will be looking to the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross for our salvation. Self-examination in the Christian can only lead him to the cross. At the cross, he finds the Saviour who is full of grace, dying in his place, dying for his sins to bring him new and everlasting life. In Christ’s light, we see light. That light searches the dark corners of the soul and exposes the reserves of ignorance and wilful sin that still lurk there. But it also dispels the darkness and lights the way to glory. Christ will come to us, and we to him. Christ will commune with us and we with him. Christ will feed us, and we will grow. Therefore, ‘Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup.’