What We Believe

Proclaiming the Lord's Death: The Evangelistic Value of the Lord's Supper

Eric B. Watkins

Recently I was in a discussion with a few local pastors, one of whom volunteered that his church had intentionally cut back on its frequency of observing the Lord's Supper because it alienated people who were not yet Christians and who were seeking to learn more about the faith.

He told a story about a visitor who came up to him and asked if she could bring a salad to the evening service. Puzzled by the question, he asked her why she wanted to do that. She responded that she saw in the bulletin that the Lord's Supper would be served in the evening, and she would like to bring a salad. Of course, when he explained this supper to her, both were a bit embarrassed. For him, that was a turning point. If the Lord's Supper made visitors feel awkward (especially when those who have not made a profession of faith are instructed to abstain), then perhaps it was defeating the purpose of drawing unbelievers into the life of the church.

To be sure, his concerns were well meant. But was the decision to cut back on the frequency of the Lord's Supper really healthy? Did it strengthen evangelistic efforts or weaken them? I would like to propose that the Lord's Supper, understood biblically, is an excellent tool for evangelism, and that churches ought not to shrink back from seeing its value in reaching unbelievers.

Proclaiming the Lord's Death

When giving instructions regarding the Lord's Supper, Paul the pastor-apostle concludes with a profound phrase. He tells the church that "as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). But it seems that the language of "proclaiming" is not often considered in the Lord's Supper. We are fond of "remembering" the Lord, as we are instructed in verses 24 and 25. In our remembering, we are fixing our attention on the work of our risen Savior, who not only gave himself for us, but continues to give himself to us in the Lord's Supper. By his Spirit, he is truly present and nourishes our souls, sanctifies us, and leads us home to that heavenly table that he has prepared for us. There is much that is beautiful in the Lord's Supper, and for the believer it is nothing less than a means of grace to the soul. But is the Lord's Supper beneficial only to the believer as he or she remembers what Christ has done and looks ahead to the coming of the last supper? What about the unbeliever?

When we consider the term proclaim, we realize that Paul has more than believers in view. This verb is used throughout the New Testament as one of the many synonyms for preaching the gospel, both to believers and to unbelievers. It appears several times in the book of Acts, where it refers to the work of the prophets in the Old Testament who proclaimed "these days" of God's kingdom work (3:24). It is used in Acts 17 by Paul himself as he proclaims to pagan men of Athens the God of creation, whom they do not know (vs. 23). He uses it several times in 1 Corinthians to describe his own work as one who proclaims the testimony of God (2:1), and of those whom the Lord directs to proclaim the gospel as preachers (9:14).

Authoritative and Evangelistic

The Lord's Supper is both authoritative and evangelistic. That is, it declares the person and work of the Lord, and it summons both believers and unbelievers to a proper response. The believer is to partake by faith, receiving and resting upon Christ alone; he is to make sure that his heart is ready and that he is reconciled to those within the church before he meets with his God in communion. But something analogous is intended for the unbeliever as well.

First, the unbeliever hears the authoritative preaching of the word, in which his desperate need for the Savior and Mediator is made clear. Christ is proclaimed as the Savior of the church, who demands faith and obedience from any who would come after him. The word having been preached, it is then made visible. This was a beautiful phrase coined in the Reformation—"the word made visible." God has appointed not only that his word should be proclaimed, but also that the life and death of the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ, should be made visible in the Lord's Supper. This is the divinely appointed drama whereby God proclaims the spiritual truth of the gospel through the visible means of the sacrament. What the preacher proclaims to the ear, the sacrament proclaims to the eyes. God is not opposed to every form of drama, and in the Lord's Supper we behold divinely approved drama. The gospel is made clear, the words of Christ are made central, and his commands are made plain. But what of the commands to the unbeliever?

There is a good argument to be made that the Lord's Supper is really a family event for the faithful. Indeed, it is! It is also correct to say that the Lord's Supper draws a line in the sand between believers and unbelievers. Indeed, it should! But we do well to consider whether or not that is a bad thing. Perhaps it is to the spiritual advantage of unbelievers to come to terms with the reality that there is a line in the sand, and that until they genuinely place their faith in Christ, they are excluded from something of eternal consequence. When we prepare to receive the Lord's Supper, one of the warnings that we give is to any who have not yet made a profession of faith. They are instructed to abstain from the table, but are also encouraged to come and talk with the elders about what it means to be a Christian. Is having to wait or being held at a distance really to their disadvantage?

We believe that the Lord's Supper is not only a looking back to the death of the Lord as we "remember" his words and sacrifice, but also a looking forward to the coming of Christ and that final wedding supper of the Lamb, at which all of Christ's church shall be present and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoyment of God for all eternity (Shorter Catechism 38). Christ has gone to prepare such a place for us, and he promises us that just as surely as we await that glorious day, so also does he (Luke 22:16, 18). Through our union with Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, we are presently able to "taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Ps. 34:8).

Unbelievers, however, have none of these things. The sobering reality is that they are not friends of God while they continue in unbelief; they are not welcome at his heavenly table if they are not reconciled to him. They must come to Christ and confess him as Savior and Lord. The fact that they are not welcome at the earthly table of the Lord is nothing less than a reminder that they are not yet welcome at the heavenly table of the Lord either. The analogy to the Christian life is evident: because the Christian is in Christ, he is instructed to partake of the table and receive its blessing in faith. The unbeliever is reminded that because he is not in Christ, he should not partake of the table, for he is still under condemnation—and should seek to change that.

Relationship to God and the Church

The Lord's Supper sends a message both to the believer and to the unbeliever about their relationship to God and his church. The church is not a social club that shrinks back from declaring the gospel for fear of offending unbelievers. The gospel itself is an offense, and so if that gospel made visible should draw a line in the sand, perhaps the best way we can truly love and serve unbelievers is not to erase the things that highlight that line, but to point them to the one thing that can truly remove it—the death of Christ.

God has provided everything we need to dine in his presence. We can bring nothing to this table but faith, thankfulness, and an appetite that only Christ can truly satisfy. The church has the great privilege of proclaiming the Lord's death and remembering that it is the holiness of the church that best helps the unbeliever to fall down in humility and confess that "God is really among you" (1 Cor. 14:25). For the glory of Christ's name and the sake of our unbelieving friends, let us not shrink back from faithfully and confidently employing those outward and ordinary means that God has given for communicating the benefits of redemption. As we have been instructed, let us proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

The author is the pastor of Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Fla. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2005.

New Horizons: June 2005

The Lord's Supper

Also in this issue

Signed, Sealed, and Delivered

The Lord's Supper vs. the Corinthians' Supper

Turning Points in American Presbyterian History
Part 6: Old School Presbyterianism, 1838

Mission to the Military

Seventy Years in the Making: The OPC's Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts

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