The Lord’s Supper, Part 4 – Putting It into Practice

In chapter four of The Lord’s Supper, Dr. Letham deals with several matters concerning the actual observance of the sacrament in our churches, such as one loaf vs. individual pieces, leavened bread vs. unleavened, wine vs. grape juice, and the frequency of observance. It seems to me that these practical considerations often generate a level of controversy disproportionate to their importance. This is not to say they are trivial matters, but if we were truly taking to heart all that the sacrament means – not least, an emblem of the unity of the body of Christ – then we would certainly be less inclined to divide over these more circumstantial issues. Though not addressing these matters directly, Calvin’s words on the relationship between the signs of the sacrament on the realities behind those signs are apposite:

…we ought to guard against two faults. First, we should not, by too little regard for the signs, divorce them from their mysteries, to which they are so to speak attached. Secondly, we should not, by extolling them immoderately, seem to obscure somewhat the mysteries themselves. (Institutes 4.17.5)

Letham argues that in communion we should break off pieces from a single loaf of bread, as opposed to having pre-cut individual pieces, and that we should drink from a common cup, rather than from individual plastic cups (which are about the size of a thimble – enough for a sip, at least!). According to him, observing the Lord’s Supper in this way does justice to the communal nature of the sacrament, whereas individual pieces of bread and cups of wine (or juice) only serve to reinforce the unbiblical notion that Christianity is primarily about my private, individual experience. This is a point well-taken, though it’s impossible to tell to what extent pre-cut bread and individual cups actually create or foster harmful individualistic tendencies.

Letham makes a good case for using wine instead of grape juice. There’s no question the use of grape juice for communion rose not out of concern for greater faithfulness to the Scriptures but out of the misguided temperance movement of the last century. As Letham says earlier in the book,

While Jesus changed the water into wine, the temperance movement changed the wine into grape juice concentrate (p. 42)

Since Jesus used actual wine in instituting the Lord’s Supper, it is preferable to grape juice. But is it a sin to use grape juice? I don’t believe so. The presence or absence of alcohol in the cup seems more circumstantial to me, than an essential element of the sacrament. In my view, grape juice is good, but wine is “the more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). At Grace, we offer both wine and grape juice. For an excellent pastoral reflection on this question, see here.

As for the use of unleavened or leavened bread, Letham argues for the latter (partly because he does not believe the Lord’s Supper is the successor to the Old Testament Passover), though he is quick to say it is really a matter of indifference.

When it comes to paedocommunion, that is, serving communion to baptized children who have not made a profession of faith, Letham argues against this practice. His position is, I believe, the standard Reformed position on this question (see Westminster Larger Catechism Q and A 177). The self-examination of which Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:28 implies the self-conscious faith and repentance that comes with time as a child grows older. At Grace, we require that a covenant child (one whose parents are members, and who has been baptized) make a public profession of faith before coming to the Lord’s Table.

Finally, on the question of the frequency of communion, Letham says that though there is no binding requirement in Scripture on this question, the very nature of the sacrament should compel churches to observe it often. After all,

…the degree to which the church desires [the Lord’s Supper] is a reliable gauge of how eagerly it wants Christ.

At Grace, we observe communion once a month in the morning service, and once a month in the evening service. Though I also agree there is no Scriptural mandate for weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, I must say the more I reflect on the importance of this sacrament for us as believers, the more sympathetic I am to the arguments for weekly communion.

Pastor Scott