By Dr. Michael A. Milton, Crosswalk.com
What Does God’s Word Say about the Sacraments, and, in Particular, a First Communion?
God instituted two sacraments for the people of God. The sign of identification with the family of God (circumcision/baptism) and the sign of remembrance of our salvation, and participation in the Lord‘s life, and unity with the Body of Christ (Passover/Lords supper). The former shall be applied to all believers and their children. The latter is administered by a consecrated, tested, and received minister of the gospel to all baptized believers who have professed their faith in Jesus Christ, and who have an understanding of the mystery of the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
The sacraments should be continued through the end of the world. In the Old Covenant (i.e., the Old Testament) God commanded the sign of identity with Him and His Promise (to save us)— circumcision—to all of the men and their male children. Contrary to feminist theology, circumcision was was not just a patriarchal sign reserved only for “deserving” males, but was given at the very anatomical location where are the seed of regeneration would be initiated. The bloody sign was fulfilled in the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Baptism is to be administered once (by its very nature, the God-ordained rite, circumcision, could only be administered once). It is completely grounded in God’s covenant of grace. This is God’s sign to us. These are God’s signs, His gifts, to us. Baptism does not save. Communion cannot save. Yet, they form the divinely prescribed centering point for following Christ in a Christian community. In the New Covenant, this sign of promise is given to mankind: male and female — as a perpetual sign of God’s gracious adoption of His elect into his family.
Why God Did Command That We Participate in Communion?
God commanded that we continue the sacrament of the remembrance of our salvation and the presence of “God with us,” so that we may, throughout all of the days of our lives, recalibrate our faith and certain hope on the cross of Jesus Christ, His life lived for us and His death offered as a substitutionary atonement for our sins. God also gave us this sacred sign of the bread and the cup, given at first within the prescribed liturgical order of Passover, by our High Priest, so that we may remember, “this is my body and this is my blood." The Apostle Paul revealed a deeper meaning of the Eucharist when he wrote,
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16 ESV).
As John Calvin wrote, “Holy communion is given for remembrance and for spiritual nourishment."
Dr. David Torrence of Edinburgh interpreted both the Scriptures, the Early Church, and John Calvin, to write:
"In the language of John Calvin, Christ, clothed with his Gospel, clothed with his life, death and resurrection presides at this table. We are his guests. Our prayer is not that he will be present – he has promised to be present when we meet in his name. Our prayer is that we will be aware of his Presence: that we will hear him speaking and that we will spiritually receive him, his body and blood as he offers them to us."
Who Can Receive Communion?
Communion is received by baptized believers who have made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ and are able to understand, even at the most basic level, that we are remembering what Jesus did for us on the cross and how He is with us and will never leave us. This is to be discerned, firstly, in the case of children, by the parents or guardians. Parents or guardians will present the child to an ordained minister of the gospel, and after prayerful examination, the child should understand the simple and yet deep mysteries of the Eucharist that one is welcomed to the table. Eucharist is from the Greek meaning 'thanksgiving,' and it is synonymous with Holy Communion and the Lord's Supper; the term is not unique to one denomination and can be used interchangeably with the other terms.
We come by faith to this sacrament of Holy Communion, and we are led back to the memory of Calvary’s cross. We are spiritually nourished, we are empowered to follow Christ, we are renewed in love for the Church, and we are increasingly molded into Jesus' likeness until we finally see Him face-to-face. This is the unveiled mystery of the Eucharist. This is the majesty of Holy Communion. This is the simplicity of the Lord’s Supper.
“Pastor, You Better Talk to This Boy; I Think He’s Ready.”
“Pastor: my boy, Mike, says that he is ready to take Communion. What do you think?“
That question came from my Aunt Eva who reared me—I was an orphan, reared by my father’s widowed sister; Aunt Eva was 65 when a 9-month-old boy was put in her arms. The question began by my longing to receive the elements of Communion, letting Aunt Eva know, and talking, and praying about it. This period of family discussion led to a pastoral visitation in our home and a time of catechism — that ancient, and most effective method of teaching Scripture by way of question and answer. The catechetical method is also a pastoral resource that is used by ministers to discern, or, perhaps, better put, to diagnose the spiritual understanding of a child.
Pastor John went through a series of questions from the Old Testament and the New Testament Scriptures. His catechism was not a written one, but was a question and answer time that led to him, in my case, to assure my Aunt Eva (and, soon, the local church to which we belonged) that I was, indeed, prepared to take my first Communion with the Body of Christ. No, I wasn’t a six-year-old theological prodigy. I was merely a student of the Bible and of the life of Christ under Aunt Eva’s careful tutelage. She read the Bible daily to me. She prayed the Scriptures, and we sang their truths at home using the great hymns of the Faith. The movement from being an infant dedicated to God in the Triune Name, in the arms of an evangelical Methodist minister in the Garden District of New Orleans, with God’s sign of baptismal water. I moved from the baptismal font of Felicity Methodist Episcopal Church, and my father’s promise to rear me in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” to a profession of faith in Jesus as the resurrected and reigning Lord, and participation at Communion.
In fact, my story is the most common way (not the only way) that faith is born and matures. Yet, this sacred movement from the grace of the baptismal waters to hearing and believing, being catechized, “confirmed” in the faith (the vows of my father made at my baptism being blessed by God), and admitted to the Lord’s Table is an altogether glorious act of God, a miraculous milestone that should be etched into the history of families (as most Christians did, in family Bibles, well into the twentieth-century) and into the accounts of God’s work at the local church. For this event, if authentically sealed of the Holy Spirit, will be written into the Lamb’s Book of Life in heaven.
The pastor would assure his local branch of the Body of Christ, representing the entire Church (the Church “catholic,” i.e., universal; and holding to the essential teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ) that he had met with a child (or adult), reviewed the Scriptures with her, and, as a child of the Covenant— that is, a child being reared in a Christian home where the Bible is taught and the Christian faith is lived out — was spiritually prepared and able to discern the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:24-28).
I Will Always Remember My First Communion
I certainly did not have the depth of understanding of an adult, or of one who has studied theology and the Scriptures for many years. However, that is not what the Bible requires. The Bible requires that we “discern the body and blood” of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion as it relates to God‘s plan of salvation: the covenant of grace.
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves" (1 Corinthians 11:27-29 NRSV).
My pastor placed his oversized, and well-worn, black leather King James Bible on our slightly peeling, pink-hydrangea-design-linoleum-table. The minister smiled, and asked, “Mike, will you lead us in prayer?” As I consider these things today I recognize that the pastor was conducting not only an authentic dedication of our time to God in prayer but discerning my ability to pray with understanding. While my childish prayer did not have the cadence and beauty, for example, of Thomas Cranmer’s majestic collects from the Book of Common Prayer, or the deep simplicity and evangelistic urgency of Billy Graham’s intercessions, the pastor, apparently, thought, “Well, here is a child who understands that we come to God as our Father, pray in the Spirit, in humility, in faith, and pray in the name of Another, our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Pastor John looked at me with a sort of fatherly warmth that put me at ease; “Mike,” “Yes Sir,” I quickly—hopefully respectfully—replied. He began, “Son, I understand that you need to speak with me about professing faith and taking your first Communion.” Again, I couldn’t wait to answer, “Yes Sir.” We spoke, first, about the Person of Christ, of repentance and faith. Pastor John wanted to make sure that I was in Christ, as far as he could discern. He explained, “The Bible requires that those who participate in the Lord’s Supper have an understanding of the bread and the cup being, for us, by faith, the body and blood of Jesus. That means a Profession of Faith must precede your first Communion.” He continued, and presented the gospel to this effect:
“You know that according to Scripture alone, you are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to God’s glory alone. You cannot add to your salvation but no one can take away what God has obviously done. Jesus lived the life you could never live. He died the death that should have been yours. On Calvary, there was a great exchange: Christ got your sins and you received Christ’s life. When God looks upon you, He sees His Son. Are you prepared to confess this faith before others?”
I assured him that I desired to profess Christ. Pastor John, then, asked me to tell the gospel story back to him which I did. He then told me that I would be with others who are confessing Christ and prepared for the public profession of faith, in which I would renounce all others and look to Christ alone for the salvation of my soul, and that I would follow Him. “Alright, then, Mike. I want to be assured that you know what the Lord’s Supper is. What does God’s Word say about the sacraments, and, specifically, about Holy Communion? Why did God command it? What does it mean? Who can receive it?”
I have heard responses to questions about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper from five-year-olds and I have heard these answers, in one case, from someone approaching 100 years of age. The vocabulary, selection of words, ability to articulate, elocution, and degree of understanding have varied in those times of pastoral counsel about the Lord’s Supper. However, the responses made in humble faith, whether erudite or elementary, remain to me nothing short of glorious. In fact, I am less impressed with a display of theological terminology and Bible memorization than I am with child-like answers. For the Lord Jesus warned those listening that we must become like a little child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven:
“Then he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven’” (Matthew 18:3, NLT).
A child who trusts in Jesus Christ and who is prepared to come to the table of the Lord answers out of faith, not mere intellect. Where Faith rubs against rationalism, the child will prefer to live in the tension of the mystery and trust in Jesus Christ, just as a child will trust his parents over anything or anyone else. That is what Jesus meant by how we, too, like children, must trust in Him.
So I, too, pray that I might write to you in a “faithful childishness” about these deep, glorious mysteries of the kingdom of God unveiled in the Person of Jesus Christ and represented in the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Supper.
Torrance, David W. "Holy Communion, a sign and seal of salvation." Theology in Scotland (2014).
Preaching.com, 'Is it Communion, the Lord's Supper, or the Eucharist?'
*Sources for catechisms: Calvin Knox Cummings, Confessing Christ (Great Commission Publications, 1992); Douglas F. Kelly, Philip Rollinson, and Frederick T. Marsh, The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986); Stephen Smallman, Understanding the Faith New ESV Edition: A Workbook for Communicants Classes and Others Preparing to Make a Public Confession of Faith (P & R Publishing Company, 2009).
MICHAEL A. MILTON (Ph.D., University of Wales; MPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; MDIV, Knox Theological Seminary; Cert. in Higher Education Teaching, Harvard University) serves as the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine College and Seminary. A Presbyterian minister (PCA, ARP), Milton has penned more than thirty books, hundreds of articles in journals, magazines, opinion columns, and newspapers. As president of the D. James Kennedy Institute and Faith for Living, Milton has served as a public theologian. His work has been cited on numerous national media outlets as he provides historic Christian insights into faith and life in a changing world. Dr. Milton's record of ministry includes seminary chancellor, president of three seminaries, senior minister of one of America's historic churches, founder of three congregations, and a Christian academy. A composer and artist, Mike and Mae Milton reside in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Learn more at michaelmilton.org/about. [from a press release by McCain& Associates.]
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