The Westminster Standards and the
Frequency of the Lord's Supper.

By Richard Bacon

 

As we begin, let us remember that the question of the frequency of the Lord’s Supper is not one at the same level as an element of worship; i.e. it is not commanded. Rather, it is a circumstance of worship. This is a question much like the question, ‘Why do we have worship at 10:30 on Sunday morning instead of at 9:30?'

The practice of this particular church is to have the sacrament of the Lord’ Supper weekly. However, this is not done out of a biblical necessity.  It is necessary that the church meet on the Lord’s day; it is necessary that we sing psalms to the exclusion of all other hymnody in worship.  It is necessary the psalms be sung a cappella and that the elements of the Lord’s Supper must be bread and wine.  It is necessary that our prayers be in the name of Jesus Christ. Those things are all necessary circumstances or elements required by Biblical command or by good and necessary consequences. We believe the frequency of the Lord’s Supper is a circumstance that is to be determined by the session of the particular, local church.[1]

The Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Supper

Most of the festivals of the Old Testament were observed annually. However, all of the festival days of the Old Testament have been subsumed in the New Testament in the weekly Sabbath day, the holy convocation of Leviticus 23:3. The Old Testament feasts, ceremonies, and sacrifices have been replaced with one weekly holy day. It is a day that God has set apart to himself for the public practice of his worship, including the observance of the Lord’s Supper on that Lord’s Day.

The Confessional documents, which express the doctrine and practice of this church, are the Westminster Standards. Let us examine what these documents say about this question of the frequency of the Lord’s Supper.

The Westminster Directory for Worship

In the Directory for the Public Worship of God, the Westminster Divines write:[2]

The Communion, or Supper of the Lord, is frequently to be celebrated; but how often, may be considered and determined by the ministers, and other church-governors of each congregation, as they shall find most convenient for the comfort and edification of the people committed to their charge. And, when it shall be administered, we judge it convenient to be done after the morning sermon.

Where this sacrament cannot with convenience be frequently administered, it is requisite that publick warning be given the sabbath-day before the administration thereof: and that either then, or on some day of that week, something concerning that ordinance, and the due preparation thereunto, and participation thereof, be taught; that, by the diligent use of all means sanctified of God to that end, both in publick and private, all may come better prepared to that heavenly feast.

The ideal according to the Directory is to have Communion frequently.[3] Whatever “frequent” means, it does not mean “infrequent.”   If it is infrequent, there is to be a sermon within the previous week before in order to prepare the people for the Lord’s Supper.  Note that the Directory indicates that this preparation sermon is not necessary with the frequent observation of the Communion sacrament. Note also that the only frequency of observance, which removes any possibility of an intervening Sabbath for which to have such a warning, is the practice of weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper.

The Westminster Directory for Public Worship also teaches that the frequency of the Lord’s Supper is to be determined by the session of the church -- not the presbytery, not the synod, not the general assembly, and not the church across the sea. The local church session is to set the time, as it is “most convenient for the comfort and edification of the people committed to their charge.”

 

Westminster Larger Catechism

The Westminster Larger Catechism also has much to say about the observation of the Lord’s Supper. Question 177 contrasts the two sacraments of the New Testament.

Westminster Larger Catechism 177:[4] Wherein do the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper differ? Answer. 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.

According to the answer to WLC 177, a key difference in the sacraments, for the purposes of this study, is that baptism is to be administered once, and the Lord’s Supper is to be administered often, or frequently, the virtual synonym used by the Divines in the Directory as noted above.

There are three other questions in the Larger Catechism which, taken in conjunction with one another, shed additional light on this question of the frequency of Communion.

Westminster Larger Catechism 171. How are they that receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to prepare themselves before they come unto it?[5]

This question presupposes that people are supposed to be preparing themselves for the sacrament. And the way they do this is:

They that receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer.

Let us briefly examine this answer by asking some hopefully thought-provoking questions. When are Christians to refrain from these activities?  When are believers not supposed to be preparing in that regard? When is one not supposed to be in that state? When are Christians not supposed to be examining themselves? Is there any time believers are not supposed to do these things? Is there ever a time when these activities are unlawful?

Do any of the activities in this list require six months to do them? Is there anything in the answer to LC 171 that takes a month to do? Is there anything in this answer that takes a week to do? In fact, this should always be the state of the soul of any Christian.

Westminster Larger Catechism 174. What is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper in the time of the administration of it? Answer. It is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, that, during the time of the administration of it, with all holy reverence and attention they wait upon God in that ordinance, diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions, heedfully discern the Lord's body, and affectionately meditate on his death and sufferings, and thereby stir up themselves to a vigorous exercise of their graces; in judging themselves, and sorrowing for sin; in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, feeding on him by faith, receiving of his fulness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace; in renewing of their covenant with God, and love to all the saints.[6]

Which Lord’s Day is it that Christians are supposed to neglect the things enumerated in this answer? Is there anything in this answer that precludes doing these things every Lord’s Day? In fact is there anything here that would not be desirous to do every Lord’s Day? It is important to understand that there is not a bit of difference between the way believers ought to prepare for the Lord’s Supper, and the way they ought to prepare to receive God’s Word. There is not a bit of difference between the way the Lord’s Word in preaching is received and that of receiving the elements of the Lord’s Supper in the Communion sacrament. If Christians should be preparing themselves week by week to receive the Word, then they will know how to prepare themselves to receive Communion. If they know how to receive the Lord’s Word with an open heart, confession of sins, new obedience, and love for the saints, then they ought also to be able to do the same with Communion.

Westminster Larger Catechism 175. What is the duty of Christians, after they have received the sacrament of the Lord's Supper? Answer. The duty of Christians, after they have received the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, is seriously to consider how they have behaved themselves therein, and with what success; if they find quickening and comfort, to bless God for it, beg the continuance of it, watch against relapses, fulfil their vows, and encourage themselves to a frequent attendance on that ordinance:[7]

If the partakers of the Lord’s Supper get some benefit out of the sacrament, they should thank God for what they received, pray that they continue in it, and then attend frequently upon the ordinance so they continue to receive it. On the other hand, if they find no present benefit – the wine was okay and the bread was fine, but there was not any spiritual benefit from it at all, they are …

…more exactly to review their preparation to, and carriage at, the sacrament; in both which, if they can approve themselves to God and their own consciences, they are to wait for the fruit of it in due time: but, if they see they have failed in either, they are to be humbled, and to attend upon it afterwards with more care and diligence.

This answer does not say if the sacrament was not “special enough,” that it should on that account be done less frequently.  What it does say is, to paraphrase the answer, if Christians got something out of the Supper, they should keep on attending upon it, and if they did not get something out of it, they should figure out why they did not, then keep on attending upon it.

So then, if a believer takes these questions as seriously as he ought, then he will always be in one of these three states. 1. In the state of preparing for the sacrament. 2. In receiving the sacrament. Or 3. In contemplating whether benefit was received from the sacrament. It ought not to be something out of his mind eleven months or six months out of the year.

Now, as was already said, there is no difference in preparation for the Word and for the sacrament, because the same grace is in both. There is not a grace of the Word and a different grace of the sacrament. These are simply two different means to the same grace of God. As a result, Christians prepare themselves the same way; comport themselves the same way, and examine themselves afterward in the same way for both the Word of God and the sacrament.

Objection to weekly Communion

One objection to frequent or weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is that this makes the Communion become less special, or more common.

There are two things wrong with the objection. 1. Having something infrequently does not make it more special. If it were suggested that there were certain intimate relations of marriage which should be had less often in order to make them more special, that would not be a very convincing argument.  The way to make something special is by cherishing it, not by reducing the frequency. Reducing the frequency does not make something special; it just makes it infrequent.  2. However, the Lord’s Supper is not a special ordinance of worship. This is clear from Westminster Confession 21.5.

Westminster Confession 21:5.

Westminster Confession 21:5. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching , and conscionable hearing of the word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God:  besides religious oaths and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgiving upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in a holy and religious manner.[8]

Now according to the Confession of Faith the sacraments belong to the ordinary worship of God, not to the special occasional worship of God. Here “special” is a synonym of  “unusual” or “unordinary.” So to the very extent that worship is characterized as special, the sacraments do not belong there. And to the very extent that worship is characterized as non-special, or ordinary, the sacraments do belong there. Observe what the sacraments are teamed with. ‘The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear.’ Would it make the reading of Scripture more special if it was not done so often? No. ‘Sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word.’ Would anyone suggest that preaching should be done only once every six months or so? Of course not.  ‘The singing of psalms with grace in the heart.’ Does the church just sing too many psalms, and they become no longer special? If the reading of the word, or preaching, or singing of the psalms have ceased to be special, this does not speak to frequency but to the state of the heart. Again, using the term “special” in the sense of dear or precious, the way to make these things special, is by loving the same things God loves, not by observing them less frequently.

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ are a part of the ordinary religious worship of God. Everything else that the Divines have listed as an ordinary part of the worship of God is done every Lord’s Day. So it is not incongruous with the Confession for those churches whose sessions have judged it expedient for the edification of their people to have the observance of the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day.  Every Lord’s Day we read the Scriptures. Every Lord’s Day we have the preaching of the Word.  Every Lord’s Day we have the singing of psalms.  And every Lord’s day we have the observance of the Lord’s Supper.

In this brief review of the subject of frequency of Communion it has been observed that in this New Testament age, all the festival days of the Old Testament have been subsumed in the weekly Lord’s Day, and the Supper of the Lord, the only other thing so designated the Lord’s, is to be observed on that day. It has been noted from the Directory for Public Worship that the frequency of the Supper is to be determined by the session, and it is to be done frequently. And infrequently means that there is at least one Sabbath in between. And it was noted from the Larger Catechism (172, 175 and 176), what partakers are to do before, during and after the Lord’s Supper, and discovered this is a state in which they ought always to be. It is not something done three months, six months or once a year in between Communion seasons.



[1] [Ed. Such circumstances are defined in Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:6, where it states:  ". . . there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed." Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Church Publications, 1990). See also a discussion of circumstances and elements of worship in John L. Girardeau’s Discretionary Power of the Church (Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature [Dallas: Naphtali Press, 1990] 3.3), and in Richard Bacon’s Worship Song Regulated by Scripture (The Blue Banner, 2.12 [1993]).]

[2] Ibid, 384.

[3] [Ed. 1-10-2000. It should be noted that the understanding that the language of the Directory on this point allows for a frequency as often as weekly is supported by the notes of one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Assembly, which confirm the compromise nature of the language adopted. George Gillespie’s records the deliberation on the text of the Directory regarding frequency of the Lord's Supper in the debate of June 5, 1645 in the sub-committee respecting the Directory (“Notes of Proceedings of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster” Works, 102):

“…But the Committee went through in order; and first, objection was made against that first section, which leaves to the discretion of the pastor and elders of each congregation how oft the communion is to be celebrated. It was desired that they might be tied, at least, to four times a-year, since the Apostle and Christ speak of often celebration.

I said, There is no ground from Scripture or otherwise to determine four times a-year, for this should resolve in the arbitrement of men. If congregations abuse this liberty, the presbytery at visitation of churches can help it.

Mr. Newcomen declared that all the new gathered churches have the sacrament every Lord’s day in the afternoon.

To avoid this debate of the time, it was added in the beginning, The Lord’s supper is to be administered frequently.”]

[4] Ibid, 267.

[5] Ibid, 260.

[6] Ibid, 263-264.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 93-94.

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