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The Lord's Supper and Covenant Children

Stuart R. Jones

A recent decision of the Christian Reformed Church (June 2006) to prepare the way for child communion within that denomination highlights the durability of that issue. The General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church received a report on this issue in 1987 in which a division of opinion was expressed. I will argue that the confessional standards of the OPC are correct in disallowing the practice of paedocommunion, because of the nature of the Lord's Supper as a covenant renewal meal.

The clearest statement of the Westminster standards on this question would seem to be found in Larger Catechism 177 (italics added):

The sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper differ, in that baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord's Supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.

The notion that the Lord's Supper is, among other things, a covenant renewal, is expressed near the end of LC 174. That the Lord's Supper is a covenant seal is basic to the Reformed definition of sacraments (cf. LC 162). This idea is affirmed in Matthew 26:28 (italics added): "For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Most manuscripts add the word "new" before "covenant.")

In early biblical times, a covenant ratification sometimes included a meal. For example, a meal is mentioned in the covenants made between Isaac and Abimelech (Gen. 26:28–30), Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31:52–54), and God and Israel (Ex. 24:11). The language used by Jesus in Matthew 26:28 echoes Moses' words in Exodus 24:8 nkjv: "This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words."

The Debate over Paedocommunion

The debate over paedocommunion often turns on two questions: (1) If the Lord's Supper is a fulfilled Passover, and children ate the Passover, should not children eat the Lord's Supper? (2) If we baptize children because they are in the covenant, despite their lack of discernment, should we not also give them the Lord's Supper, since the argument for discernment in 1 Corinthians 11 deals with adult abusers of the meal, rather than children?

Concerning the first question, we need to note that covenant is a basic principle that gives meaning to all of the Old Testament sacrifices. Without a covenant relationship and divine institution of sacrificial practice, sacrifices amount to will worship. The Passover was a momentous event for Israel, and the Lord's Supper is connected to it as both are given meaning by the person and work of Christ (the Passover prospectively and the Lord's Supper retrospectively). The Passover fulfilled promises made to Abraham and also laid groundwork for the Mosaic covenant at Sinai. The essential unity of the covenant of grace traced back to Genesis 3 and fulfilled in Christ implies that the Passover was part of the larger covenantal process. Therefore, we must not assign too much weight to the Passover when seeking to understand the Lord's Supper. In the book of Hebrews, Christ's death is viewed primarily in terms of the new covenant. A fleeting reference to the Passover is found in Hebrews 11:28, where it is mentioned merely as one among many faith-events in the Old Testament. Although the Passover anticipated the Lord's Supper, the true linkage between these feasts is the cross of Christ and its covenantally defined atonement.

The fact that the Lord's Supper is a covenant renewing seal implies that the sacrament should be withheld from undiscerning children, quite apart from the grave warning in 1 Corinthians 11. In Nehemiah 10:28, "knowledge and understanding" are prerequisite to entering the covenant renewal exercise of Nehemiah's day. This parallels Paul's call for discernment in 1 Corinthians 11. While Paul's purpose in warning the Corinthians is not directed toward children, the foundation of his warning has implications for all undiscerning participants, whether children or adult. In the covenant meal, we are to contemplate the greatest covenant curse ever experienced—Christ's atoning death. We are communing with the One who was cursed for our sins. While consecration and religious devotion were certainly part of the Passover meal, the element of covenant renewal was not as pointedly present as in the Feast of Tabernacles, much less the Lord's Supper. It was at the Feast of Tabernacles that the law was read every seven years in the year of release (Deut. 31:10–13), and this feast played a major part in the life of discerning covenant renewers in Nehemiah's day (cf. Neh. 8:2, 14; 10:28).

It has been the practice of societies to give children legal status without encumbering them with the legal responsibility to sign covenants and contracts. Their inability to personally covenant or renew a covenant does not imply any lack of covenantal status, privilege, or responsibility. A child of the new covenant is no more displaced from the covenant by being kept from the Lord's Supper than an American child ceases to be a citizen because he is not allowed to vote. The child's parents have taken covenant vows at the child's baptism. If they or a sponsor cannot make such commitments with discernment, then this sacrament should also be withheld.

The nurturing aspect of the Lord's Supper has sometimes been used to suggest that we are letting our children go hungry. But there is much more to the Lord's Supper than nurture. A fellowship dinner is where children may participate in a meal that they can understand, without facing the weighty responsibilities of a covenant renewer. Any lesson of nurture that might suggest to the young that the Lord's Supper is snack time will hardly help cultivate the sacramental discernment that is essential to proper observance of the ordinance.

Arguments for paedocommunion sometimes minimize the call to "worthy" reception in 1 Corinthians 11:27. But evidence elsewhere in the New Testament indicates that worthy reception of the Lord's Supper is a generalized principle. It is not merely schism in the body that is at issue. The covenant breaking of Israel's wilderness generation made their "sacraments" of no saving value (see 1 Cor. 10:1–5), and they died in the wilderness. Similarly, "some have died" among the Corinthians because of their wrongful reception of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:30).

The Meaning of Worthy

The term worthy, when applied to receiving the Lord's Supper, is troubling to some because no person besides Christ is worthy of God's blessing. However, it is the person's eating and drinking, not his personal character, that is modified by the adverb. In the near context, undiscerning eating and drinking is at the heart of unworthy eating and drinking (vs. 29). Thus, special discernment is requisite to worthy eating and drinking. Worthiness does not involve personal sinlessness, but what is suitable and proper for sacramental participation.

Similarly, invited guests who fail to appear at a wedding prove themselves to be unworthy (Matt. 22:8). Jesus' disciples are worthy of provision from towns where they minister, and at the same time are to find out who is worthy when they seek hospitality (Matt. 10:10–13; cf. 8:8). Worthiness in the latter case may be related to good covenantal standing, but it is not personal self-righteousness. To reject hospitality or treat it without proper respect is to act unworthily. It is insensitivity born of a lack of discernment that seems to underlie the unworthy participation spoken of in 1 Corinthians 11.

On the level of covenantal standing or justification, the above considerations of "worthy" participation do not automatically preclude the involvement of children in covenant with God. It is the focus on discernment in the context of a covenant renewal meal that supplies the basis for excluding undiscerning covenant children. There is no "unworthiness" in the failure of a child to discern the body at their early age. There would be, however, a breaking down of the distinction between a sacred meal and a common meal if child participation lacked the element of discerning covenantal renewal. This would be unworthy eating and drinking.

Precisely how much discernment a child is capable of and how much understanding is necessary for worthy participation is another matter. The new covenant is simultaneously more accessible and deeper than the old covenant. The demands of the new law are simpler and more far-reaching as the royal law of love. The call to daily cross-bearing is more far-reaching than rabbinic parsing of Old Testament law. Whatever age is appropriate for participating in the Lord's Supper, however, it must be an age at which the meal is understood in its connection with the gospel, rather than as a church snack time.

The author is an OP minister. He quotes the ESV, unless otherwise indicated. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2008.

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