“It’s for a Sinner”: Overcoming Fear at the Lord’s Table
Jonathan Sturm is an RPCNA student at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I've invited him this week to write on a topic that afflicts many believers in their Christian walk: fear at the Lord's table. What's found here are Jonathan's reflections.
One Sabbath day, late in his ministry, John Duncan was preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In Duncan’s experience, joy and sorrow were often mingled in his participation in the meal – sorrow for his sins, yet joy in the assurance of his forgiveness. As he prepared himself, he heard behind him a woman sobbing. This woman was a communicant member. She had every outward indication of a life of repentance and faith. Yet as the elements were passed to her, she wept, and her hands trembled, too timid to take the elements, too timid to appropriate to herself the gospel promises signified in the sacrament.
This woman’s experience at the Table is not unique. Volumes of practical theology have been written dealing with apprehension at the Lord’s Supper. Although the meal is a means of grace instituted for the good of Christ’s people, many fear and abstain, or fearfully participate, losing the joy of the meal in their anxiety.
While the reasons for fear and anxiety at the Table are legion, I hope to explore briefly two common reasons for fear and suggest biblically faithful responses to these fears.
Reason for Fear at the Lord’s Supper #1: Lack of Assurance.
A lack of assurance may contribute to a fearful experience at the Lord’s Table. As the consequences of coming unworthily are so severe (1 Cor. 11:27-30), it should be little wonder that those who lack assurance of salvation find the sacrament not an occasion for joy and comfort, but an occasion for anxiety, doubt, and fear. Believers in this state often see assurance as an essential aspect of faith, and therefore as an essential aspect of their worthy partaking of the Supper.
Responding to a Lack of Assurance:
These believers mistake a benefit of salvation with salvation itself. The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Canons of Dort confirm the confusion of people in this state: “Assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith” and “The Scripture moreover testifies that believers….do not always feel this assurance of faith and certainty of persevering.” The consistent witness of the Reformed tradition has been that those who doubt their interest in Christ can and should still come to the Table. Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 172 confirms this:
Question: May one who doubteth of this being in Christ...come to the Lord’s Supper?
Answer: One who doubteth of his being in Christ…may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God’s account hath it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this Sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord’s Supper, that he may be further strengthened.
Thomas Doolittle encouraged doubting believers to come to the Table in order to find assurance: “I am persuaded that if you would go unto this ordinance, you would in time hear God speaking peace and comfort to your soul.” Believers who lack assurance of God’s love ought have every encouragement to come to this ordinance where they are called to remember Christ’s sacrifice, and to enjoy the benefits of his sacrifice, even assurance of his love.
Reason for Fear at the Lord’s Supper #2: An Overly Scrupulous Conscience.
Those who struggle with fear at the Lord’s Supper often do so because of an overly legal conscience in their self-examination. This propensity can rob the believer of joy and confidence at the meal. Many in this condition would surely agree with Thomas Watson’s analysis after self-examination: “How many sins have we to subdue! How many duties to perform! How many wants to supply! How many graces to strengthen!”
Responding to an Overly Scrupulous Conscience:
Sadly, often those same individuals, who are so precise and exacting in their self-examination, are blind to the gracious work of God in their hearts. Joel Beeke relates the story of an elder in his congregation, who early one week when the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated spoke of sweet communion with God. Yet as he prepared for communion later that same week, he dismissed his experience, and doubted if he should come to the Supper. Beeke went on to describe how believers can entertain a spirit of diffidence in their self-examination: “Somehow they think — deep down — that they’re being more holy when they push [an experience of God’s kindness and assurance] away than when they embrace it and acknowledge what he has done.” It appears, then, that many lack confidence to come to the Table, not because God is unwilling to give assurance of his love, and not because there is no evidence of his work in their lives, but because they have unintentionally despised in their own hearts “the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10).
As a helpful guideline for self-examination, many faithful pastors seem to have distinguished between being sinful and walking in sin. The former will be the condition of everyone who comes to the Table for all time, while the latter is a legitimately disqualifying relationship with sin. Gordon Keddie writes, “The Supper is for believers, for believing sinners, but not for unrepenting believing sinners in the grip of sinful attitudes towards the Lord.” Thomas Watson imagined a conversation between God and an unexamined sinner coming to the Table where God said to the sinner, “What has thou to do here in thy sins?” Those excluded from the Supper, then, are those who embrace their sins, who cherish their sins, who nurse their sins, and who would be sorry to be rid of their sins. But those who acknowledge their sinfulness, and who desire to be washed and made clean ought to be encouraged to come to the Table. “The focus of this self-examination is participation,” Keddie says. “It is not designed to keep Christians away, but to impel them to fly to Jesus in the repentant, confiding spirit of a lively faith.” It is those who recognize that they are unworthy in themselves who need the exhortation to participate in the Supper and in it to find grace that supplies all their wants.
No doubt there are more reasons why genuine believers can and do struggle with fear at the Lord’s Table. Yet as the grace offered in the meal is so spectacular, and the invitation so broad – “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters...” (Isaiah 55:1) – the believer’s experience at the Table ought to be confident participation. That’s what Duncan exhorted the sobbing woman to do: confidently participate. As her hand trembled over the cup, he offered assurance and encouragement, whispering to her, “It’s for a sinner.”
 A. Moody Stuart, The Life of John Duncan (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 100.
 Westminster Confession of Faith 18.3, emphasis added.
 Canons of Dort 5.11, emphasis added.
 Thomas Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 156.
 Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Supper (Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 44.
 Joel Beeke, “Lack of Assurance,” lecture, Ligonier Ministries, Orlando, FL, 2019, accessed 25 August 2021, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/assurance-of-faith/lack-of-assurance/.
 Gordon J. Keddie, The Lord’s Supper Is a Celebration of Grace (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2000), 67.
 Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 41, emphasis added.
 Keddie, The Lord’s Supper, 66.
 Stuart, The Life of John Duncan, 100