Coming to the Table “Unworthily”

A Roman Catholic challenged me to explain how my non-sacramental view of the Lord’s Table provided any spiritual benefit. He was confident that Sacramentalism provided saving grace. He could not see how my Ordinance did anything at all. Further contemplation changed how I led worship at the Table. Provoked further by an excellent paper written by my daughter (for class at Central Baptist Seminary, VA), my study and understanding deepened. My Roman Catholic friend was correct – there is a grace to be found at the Lord’s Table – but not in the manner prescribed by his dogma. Rather, it is found in Christ. This article by Pastor Chris Anderson (found on ChurchWorksMedia.com) is a sound and biblical perspective. His exegesis shows that the Bible teaches Communion is not to be a ritual, a Baptist confessional, or a morbid, self-centered introspection. It is to be joyously centered in Jesus’ gospel work and should leave us much more aware of His power and grace. I know it’s a cliche now but — it’s not about us. It’s about Him.

What Does “Unworthy” Mean?

Gathering with the Lord’s church to remember Christ and His work is a vital part of Christian worship and an edifying exercise for both the corporate body and the individual Christian. Yet, Scripture protects the Lord’s Table in 1 Corinthians 11:27, where we are warned not to partake “unworthily” (KJV) or “in an unworthy manner” (ESV). That’s important—so important that people can suffer illness or even death for doing it (v. 30). But what does it mean?

For many, it means bondage. Countless believers have spent their entire lives afraid to partake of the Lord’s Table because they doubt their own worthiness. Communion has become a time when they remember themselves rather than (or at least more than) Christ. They’ve been trained (in part due to the KJV’s translation, in part due to careless teaching) to focus on their relative obedience or disobedience in the days preceding the Table. The result is pride, or despair, or fear—but not worship! Gordon Fee explains:

Unfortunately, this adverb was translated “unworthily” in the KJV. Since that particular English adverb seems more applicable to the person doing the eating than to the manner in which it is being done, this word became a dire threat for generations of English-speaking Christians. (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 560)

Many of you can say “Amen.” You’re there. I’ve been there. Let’s make sure we’re clear on this. This requirement doesn’t mean that you must be “worthy” to participate based on your performance as a Christian. You’re not ready to partake because you’ve “been good.”

  • First, regardless of what you may think, you’ve never been good. The fact that you think you have just demonstrates that your standard of “good” is far different than God’s.
  • Second, your spiritual performance doesn’t determine your worthiness. Whatever Paul is saying, that’s not it, for that would be legalism in the truest sense—the idea that your obedience makes you more or less acceptable to God. True grace welcomes the penitent one, not the worthy one.
  • Third, the fact that you’re unworthy is the whole point! If you feel unworthy, you’re getting it! Your sinfulness—your unworthiness—is why Christ came and offered His body to be broken and His blood to be spilled in your place.

So if Scripture isn’t dealing with the worthiness of the Christian, what is it doing? Well, the word “unworthily” is an adverb, not an adjective. That means that “unworthily” is describing the partaking (“eats” and “drinks”), not the participants. It’s not saying that we must be worthy in ourselves, but that our manner of partaking must be worthy (as the ESV translation makes clear). The surrounding context tells us what that means:

  • To promote or allow a factious spirit is partaking in an unworthy manner (vv. 18–20, 33).
  • To partake selfishly and thoughtlessly is partaking in an unworthy manner (vv. 21–22, 33–34).
  • To have a self-satisfied, flippant attitude is partaking in an unworthy manner (vv. 28, 31).
  • To treat the Lord’s Table like a common thing is partaking in an unworthy manner (v. 29b).

What a privilege it is to fellowship with Christ’s church, worshiping Christ’s person, remembering Christ’s work, and awaiting Christ’s return! This is a precious time. The next time you prepare to partake, take pains to approach the Table as Scripture requires. Be reverent, humble, and thoughtful as you gaze on Christ through this ordinance. Examine yourself (v. 28). But make no mistake: you’re not worthy, and you never will be. Here, as on every occasion, you approach God on the basis of Christ’s merit, not your own. He is worthy. So partake in remembrance of Him, not yourself. Worship. Remember. And rest.

Chris Anderson is an author, hymnwriter, husband, father and pastor (Kilian Hill Baptist Church) and hosts ChurchWorksMedia.com.

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