How many of us try to clean ourselves up before approaching the Lord's Table, as if there were some degree or level of purity that we could reach that would make us acceptable to God? The command to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself should be sufficient to make you recognize your utter inability to do so. In all likelihood, the thinking that we have to make ourselves right and acceptable before God before he will accept us probably derives its origin from the influential but flawed theology of Pietism. For what man could ever clean himself up enough to make himself acceptable to God? And if he could clean himself up to that degree, then what further need would he have of a Savior or the nourishment of the Lord's Supper? He would be self-sufficient. The whole point of both the gospel and the Lord's Supper for Christians is to continually recognize our own spiritual bankruptcy and dependency on the grace and promises of Christ.
In his letter to the Galatians Paul asks Christians who were in danger of thinking they could add to Christ's work or make themselves acceptable by some other way, "Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal 3:3). No, this is folly, because what God still wants from us as Christians is a broken Spirit, one which still recognizes its own moral and spiritual inability and complete need of God's grace to move on. One that says, "have mercy on me, I am insufficient for the task.". Anyone who thinks, therefore, that they can approach the Lord's table with a pure undefiled heart are really missing the point of the gospel.
This erroneous concept of post-Christian self-sufficiency, I believe, comes from the mentality that we were saved at some point of time in the past, when we prayed or confessed our faith, but now since we are already a Christian it is our job to keep ourselves 100% pure. If not 100%, what will God accept? 99%? We don't even approach that. We start by grace but think the Christian life is maintained by self-effort and that Christ blesses us in accord with how well we are doing. We believe we got into the kingdom without works but now think that to maintain good standing before God we must personally maintain our justification before God. Now we must scale the mountain of the Christian life by making ourselves good enough for God.
We think this way because the covenant of works is etched on our conscience since creation. It is unnatural to think that someone else has accomplished our standing before God and it still offends our pride, even as Christians. But I believe the Scriptures affirm that the more we grow in grace, the more we despair of ourselves and recognize our need for Jesus Christ. At the time of salvation the Holy Spirit made us lose all self-confidence so we might trust in Christ alone. So I would argue that the first principle of our growth in grace is likewise, to despair of all hope in self and, as Paul said, to have "no confidence in the flesh".
Our sanctification is a fruit of the Spirit as we lose ourselves in the wonder of Christ and His work for us. We can never separate the spiritual benefit of sanctification from Christ Himself, the Benefactor. So true Christianity is not a religion about focusing on our own spirituality but rather a focus on our union with Christ, apart from whom, the Scriptures declare, we can do nothing. The degree that we focus on our own spirituality and spiritual ability to please God is the degree that we exhaust ourselves by trying to draw from our own natural resources.
The obsession we have with inner piety is evident in many of our approaches to the Lord's Table. This, believe it or not, is actually counter-productive to the Christian life for it focuses on us rather than what Christ has accomplished for us. The Gospel as represented in the elements of the Lord's Table is about God remembering not to treat us as our sins deserve because of Christ. It is God's covenant promise toward us ... but we approach it as if it were Law rather than gospel, for we spend most of it reflecting on how good we have been, rather than the goodness and all-sufficiency of Christ toward us. But that is what the bread and wine point to. The Table should be a celebration and a time of awe and thankfulness for what Christ has done for us in reconciling us to God, not a glum time to navel gaze and obsess on our own perfectionism. This would be to misapprehend its very purpose.
This constant self-focus in our worship is probably one of the main reasons for a lack of interest in frequent communion. Thinking that our morality is what God is after, we resist the idea of coming to Him often in this way. The feast becomes something about us rather than God's promises to us in Christ. Pietism, therefore, actually militates against the gospel for Christians by making us, perhaps unconsciously, believe that as Christians our performance is what we bring before God, to make us acceptable at the Eucharist. But the preached gospel and the visible gospel (the Table) are both given, not because we are equal to the task but given to remind us that God's favor is on us because of Christ and that in nourishing ourselves on Christ and the word, we might have strength, trust and delight in Christ to do what He commands. Christ is risen for us. It is about what God has done, not what we do. How is it that we so quickly forget the gospel as Christians?
Grace is not something we can muster up ourselves. We approach the Lord's Table because we need grace. If we were not dependent and needy then we would not need the gospel or the elements of the Lord's Supper. Only Christ can give us such grace -- this is what Christ wants us to recognize and a recognition of our own spiritual bankruptcy and His all-sufficiency is how we actually grow in grace. The gospel is about the promises of God, and our pietism does nothing to change His promise one way or another. We exhibit true piety only out of the overflow of the new life that is in us, not out of some hope that God will find us pleasing in ourselves. No, God is already fully pleased with us in Christ. There is nothing we can add to what Christ has done. The gospel in the elements is a seal of God's promise to us and we should therefore rejoice and rest in it.
The reason He instituted the gospel and the Lord's Supper for us is precisely because grace depends on Him. Our failure to recognize this is one of the greatest reasons, I believe, for a weak church. Pietism is actually counter-productive toward sanctification when it tells us that we must be perfect to approach the Table. Rather, it is the Spirit who works through the gospel and the sacraments that cries out to God through us ...only He brings us into communion with Christ, not our piety. The Gospel and the sacraments are God's seal to his unswerving promise toward us. The covenant is ratified as we listen and partake. While we must approach the table ourselves, the stress of its purpose is ALWAYS on the faithfulness of God toward us.
As Christians, God indeed gives us demands to obey His law, but He works through us via the gospel to sanctify us that we might love His Law. If one reads the Sermon on the Mount we recognize that the law's demands on all of us are more difficult than imagined, not less than the Old Testament. But as a result, many think that we begin in the Spirit and are perfected by the flesh, as if the Law could give us the power to sanctify ourselves. Our sanctification, rather, is no more grounded on our ability than justification. The law commands us to live a certain way, but does not give us the power to do it. The fault is not with the law but with us. But thanks be to God, this obedience that is required of us by the Law has already been rendered by Christ. Because of what Christ has accomplished, the Spirit now works in us the life that the Law was unable to accomplish.
The ideas of the world about piety have seeped into the church and it teaches us that that the purpose of Christianity is simply to make us better people. But I would argue that Christianity is not about us but about Christ and what He has accomplished. This breaks our pride for it breaks our autonomy and discounts the very possibility of human contribution. Christ has accomplished what the law in us never gave us the power to do. Apart from this Christocentric understanding, the law can only lead us to either hopelessness or self-righteous pride. Let us then remember the gospel way of Christ and feed on Him alone for our sustenance. The error of Pietism is that it is not Christocentric enough.
May the Holy Spirit be pleased to unite us continually to Christ that we may abide in Him and bear much fruit to His glory.