by Johnathan Arnold
After the final verse of the congregational number, “Calvary Covers It All,” the pianist continued to play quietly while the pastor invited the Sunday evening crowd to approach the altar for communion. He rightly noted that only believers should partake of the Supper. There were less than two dozen people in the pews, and all of them left their seats, except one middle-aged woman who sat quietly with her head down. But, she was not an unbeliever. She was a sensitive saint.
In a lengthy discourse on the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:29, Paul writes, “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.” Unfortunately, some have mistaken 1 Corinthians 11:29 to mean that they will seal their eternal damnation if they take communion at a time when they are struggling spiritually or fall short in their own eyes.
While the Lord's Supper is a solemn and sacred event, even a cursory study reveals that this is an incorrect and harmful interpretation. Several sensitive saints have gone years — even decades — without partaking of the Supper because they have heard misguided and overzealous preaching and teaching on this verse. It is vital to “rightly divide the word of truth,” approaching 1 Corinthians 11:29 in light of its immediate context and the full counsel of Scripture.
Likely, you already know that the Corinthian church was synonymous with everything that keeps pastors up at night.
The Corinthian Context
The Corinthians failed to demonstrate even a basic understanding of the significance of the meal. They did not keep in mind “that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
Paul goes so far as to say that what the Corinthians were doing didn’t even qualify as the Supper.
The Supper was ordained by the Lord to direct our faith to the atonement of Christ and proclaim the gospel both to believers who need reminded and unbelievers who may be watching. Instead of setting apart the Supper as a separate, sacred ordinance of the Lord, the Corinthians had fellowship meals before their worship services and called these meals “the Lord’s Supper.” Although these meals likely concluded with or included bread and wine, Paul goes so far as to say that what the Corinthians were doing didn’t even qualify as the Supper; it was muddled with the ordinary (1 Corinthians 11:20).
The Corinthians were partaking of the Lord’s Supper while at the same time cultivating disunity. Unlike the ordinance of baptism, the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper is a uniquely communal activity. When the many members of a church partake of the same bread and the same fruit of the vine, they are making a common identification with all that Christ’s death stands for. As we drink the “blood” of the new covenant together, we unify as the covenant-people of God around our one Lord and one gospel.
Paul chastens the Corinthians that “when ye come together in the church [for the Lord’s Supper]…there be divisions among you” (1 Corinthians 11:18). Unity in the church is one of the most prolific themes in the New Testament, and the Corinthian church fell desperately short. Earlier in the letter, Paul writes, “I appeal to you…that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you…For it has been reported to me…that there is quarreling among you…” (1 Corinthians 1:10-11, ESV).
The Corinthians were unworthy to honor Christ’s physical body because their actions amounted to a despising of His spiritual body—the church.
Because of petty squabbling, bitterness, resentment, and murmuring between members of the church, the unifying sanctity of the Lord’s Supper was undercut. God’s aim is for each member to partake of the same bread-body of Christ in holy faith and to be thereby drawn together as His spiritual body on earth.
The Corinthians lacked love and respect for the body of Christ on earth. At their fellowship meals, each person brought his own food; the rich dined lavishly at private tables while the poorer Christians went hungry (1 Corinthians 11:21). Paul tells them to stop shaming their brothers in the Lord: “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not” (1 Corinthians 11:23, ESV).
Paul’s warnings about the Lord’s Supper are written to people who are disunited, confused, and self-indulgent; he was not addressing sincere believers with a sensitive heart and conscience. Paul pointed them back to the original institution of the Lord's Supper, asserting that their relationships violated the solemnity and significance of the event.
Damnation or Condemnation?
When Paul refers to eating “unworthily,” it is best understood in light of his earlier rebuke for humiliating poorer members of the church. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 8:12 that to sin against one’s brother is to sin against Christ. To put others to shame and show contempt for the church of God is to dishonor the body and the blood of the Lord. We are answerable for the death of Jesus when we profane what the meal stands for. The Corinthians were unworthy to honor Christ’s physical body because their actions amounted to a despising of His spiritual body — the church.
Those who take the Lord's Supper unworthily do not seal their eternal damnation, but incur the discipline of God, pointing them to repentance.
So, what if someone is "unworthy" and drinks anyway? Verse 29 warns that he who “eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself” (KJV). The word which is translated as “damnation” is krima (κρίμα) in the Greek and actually means “judgment, condemnation.” This is not referring to final damnation; rather, it refers to the discipline of the Lord. “We are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.” (v.32). The Holy Spirit is faithful to convict the hearts of those who eat unworthily so they can correct their actions and be spared from final damnation!
Jesus said in John 9:39, “For judgment (κρίμα) I came into this world, so that those who cannot see may receive their sight.” God’s will is to condemn (κρίμα) the hearts of sinners in order that they may repent and be forgiven. God will never harshly condemn a sensitive believer.
If your sins are forgiven, there is no reason to fear. “God is love…[and] love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn. 4:16-18). The focus of the Supper is Christ, “for as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26). Do you believe? Arise and partake!
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