John Calvin on Admission to the Lord's Supper - Dr. R. Faber

Taken With permission from Clarion Vol. 48, No. 21 (1999)

Dr. Riemer Faber is professor of Classics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

John CalvinAccording to the Heidelberg Catechism, rightful attendance at the Lord's Supper is the responsibility of two parties: the individual believer and the instituted church. The initiative of the individual is expressed in the question, "who are to come to the table of Lord?"; that of the church in the words, who "are to be admitted?" While the first question deals with proper self-examination, the second concerns the duty of the ordained officers in preserving the purity of the sacrament. This combination of personal reflection and church discipline in the Catechism was anticipated in the church order of Geneva, composed by John Calvin and his ministerial colleagues in 1537. In it we read that the elements should be received "under such good supervision that no one dare presume to present himself unless devoutly, and with genuine reverence for it. For this reason, in order to maintain the church in its integrity, the discipline ... is necessary."(1) Proper attendance at the table results from the execution of individual and corporate responsibilities.

In preparing for the supper celebration, the individual is required to examine himself. 1 Corinthians 11:28-29 commands this important self-examination, and includes the warning that he "who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment unto himself." To prove others, however, is not the duty of the individual. Calvin notes that Scripture does not "bid us investigate whether there is anyone in the multitude whose uncleanliness pollutes us (Institutes 4.1.15)." About admission to the table he writes: "individuals ought not to have the authority to determine who are to be received and who are to be rejected. This cognizance belongs to the church as a whole and cannot be exercised without lawful order (4.1.15)." In other words, while every believer must be certain that he partakes of the elements in a worthy manner, it is also the task of the overseers to ensure that the body and blood of the Lord is not profaned. This distinction does not imply that Christian discipline is of no concern to the individual; rather, while the responsibility for discipline is individual, the exercise of it at the table is corporate. To maintain the purity of the sacrament, the individual and the church have respective duties.

"Each individual in his own place must prepare himself to receive [the sacrament] whenever it is administered in the congregation"

from Calvin's Short Treatise on the Holy Supper

Colossians 1:24 teaches that the church is the body of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church and Christ are one, writes Calvin, since "Christ will not and cannot be torn from His church with which He is joined by an indissoluble knot, as the Head to the body."(2) Therefore "no one can bow down submissively before Christ, without also obeying the church."(3) Of course it is the Lord Jesus Christ who alone gathers and defends his church, yet as the Head, He exercises his authority through the body, his church, to which He has granted the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matt 16:19; 18:17-18; John 20:22-23).

According to Calvin, the first goal of ecclesiastical authority is to promote the glory and honour of God, which is illustrated in the celebration of the sacrament (Inst. 4.12.5). The church must exercise oversight especially at this occasion, Calvin writes, for the body of Christ "cannot be corrupted by such foul and decaying members without some disgrace falling upon its Head (4.12.5)." Scripture commands God's people to be holy as He is holy. 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 instructs the congregation to remove the old leaven of malice and evil, and "to celebrate the festival... with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." Therefore, the 1537 church order states, "it behooves us to be on our guard that this pollution" of unworthy attendance at the table, "which abounds with such dishonour to God, be not brought amongst us by our negligence (50)." This does not mean that the table cannot be disgraced by hypocrites like Judas - it is the serious warning to self-examination which reminds such people that their false speech and behaviour are known to their omniscient Creator and their own hearts. The scope of corporate discipline does not reach beyond public profession and conduct.

"If there is nothing in heaven or earth of greater value and dignity than the body and blood of our Lord, it is no small error to take it inconsiderately and without being well prepared."

from Calvin's Short Treatise on the Holy Supper

Calvin writes that discretion in admission to the table should be exercised "through the jurisdiction of the church"; the sacrament "may not be profaned by being administered indiscriminately" (Inst. 4.12.5). Therefore, great responsibility rests upon the ordained officers who must be "of sound doctrine and of holy life, not notorious in any fault which might both deprive them of authority and disgrace the ministry [1 Tim. 3:2-3; Titus 1:7-8] (4.3.12)" of the word and sacrament. For the minister "to whom its distribution has been committed, if he knowingly and willingly admits an unworthy person whom he could rightfully turn away, is as guilty of sacrilege as if he had cast the Lord's body to dogs (4.12.5)." The Heidelberg Catechism observes that if those are admitted to the table whose confession and life reveal ungodliness, then "the covenant of God would be profaned and his wrath kindled against the whole congregation (Q.A. 82)." Since the consequences of unlawful participation in the sacrament are so dire, the Genevan church order concludes that "it is necessary that those who have the power to frame regulations make it a rule that they who come to this communion be approved members of Christ (50)."

Approved members of Christ are those whose confession and life show that they belong to him, that they "participate in his body and blood" in faith. Christ instituted the supper only for his believers, to confirm the faith of those who by grace have been saved through hearing his Word. Since the sacrament is the "word made visible", it reinforces the gospel. Therefore, unlike the sacrament of baptism, which may be administered to those who do not understand, God "does not similarly hold forth the Supper for all to partake of, but only for those who are capable of discerning the body and blood of the Lord, of examining their own conscience, of proclaiming the Lord's death, and of considering its power (Inst. 4.16.30)." Since faith is a prerequisite for admission to the table, he whose confession and conduct reveal that he is unbelieving "should for a time be deprived of the communion of the supper until he gives assurance of his repentance (Inst. 4.12.6)." Martin Bucer, the main author of the church order of Cologne, notes that the Lord Jesus "celebrated the supper only with the twelve and only after he had preached so much; He did it only once, for which reason we assume that the Lord's supper should only be celebrated by those who submit entirely to Christ, confirm to have a thorough knowledge of the evangelical doctrine, fully believe this, and do not publicly prove the reverse."(4) Since only approved members of Christ may approach the table of the Lord, the ordinances of Geneva (1541) state that on the Sunday preceding the celebration, announcement should be made that those who are strangers or new-comers "may be exhorted first to come and present themselves at the church, so that they be instructed and thus none approach to his own condemnation."(5) In short, "no one is to be received at the supper unless he first have made confession of his faith."(6)

"It is not the office of each individual to judge and discriminate, in order to admit or reject as seems good to him; for this prerogative belongs generally to the church, or better, to the pastor with the elder whom he ought to have for assistance in the government of the church."

from Calvin's Short Treatise on the Holy Supper

Proper celebration of the supper promotes not only the honour of God and the purity of His church, but also the unity which only the members of Christ's body share. This unity is based upon the bond of love that exists between the Lord Jesus Christ and the believers through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Heidelberg Catechism states that to eat the crucified body and to drink the shed blood of Christ means that we are "united more and more to His sacred body through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us (76)." The bond of love between Christ the head and the church his body produces a 'horizontal' bond between the members themselves. 1 Corinthians 10:17 states that "because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." Therefore, writes Calvin, as in a "a mirror", so in the supper "we may see that God not only dwells among us, but that He also dwells in everyone of us."(7) The celebration of the supper manifests the one body of Christ.

The unity of Christ's body displayed in the supper celebration affects the duty not only of the overseers, but also of the individual believers. In the process of self-examination, the believer must ask "whether, as he is counted a member by Christ, he in turn so holds all his brethren as members of his body; whether he desires to cherish, protect, and help them as his own members (Inst. 4.17.40)." The Lord's supper is a feast of fellowship that encourages the true believers to cultivate charity and concord, as befits members of the one body. The Geneva Catechism, composed by Calvin in 1537, explains why the unity expressed at the table concerns also the individual believers: "there could be no sharper goad to arouse mutual love among us than when Christ, giving himself to us, not only invites us by his example to pledge and to give ourselves to one another, but as he makes himself common to all, so also makes all one in himself."(8)



1. Return Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva, 1537. Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 22 (Tr. J. Reid), 48. Quotations of Calvin's Institutes are from F.L. Battles' translation in the Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 19, 20 (Philadelphia, 1960).

2. Return Commentary on Ezekiel 13:9.

3. Return Commentary on Isaiah 45:14.

4. Return Quoted from G.J. van de Poll, Martin Bucer's Liturgical Ideas (Assen, 1954), 82-3.

5. Return Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances, 1541. Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 22 (Tr. J. Reid), 67.

6. Return Ordinances for the Supervision of the Churches in the Country, 1547. Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 22 (Tr. J. Reid), 79.

7. Return Sermon on 1 Tim3:14-15 in Corpus Reformatorum 53.314.

8. Return Quoted from I.J. Hesselink, Calvin's First Catechism (Louisville, 1997), 35.