Confession and Communion

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

One Monday, many years ago, I received an email from a Church member concerning confession before Holy Communion. The question this Church member asked was an excellent one, and I want to both thank this member for the emailed question, and make a few remarks on it for the whole congregation.

Making a personal examination before communion is an excellent practice. It can and does help me to notice my own need for grace through making my confession of sin to God; and, it is also important to work on breaking down any barriers, any estrangements, between myself and the person standing next to me in the pew ... or the person standing in the pew 5 rows down from me.

However, it must always be remembered that Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11:17-33 have nothing to do with being worthy to partake of Holy Communion. Paul says:

"Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord."

To put it simply, this does not mean that we have to be worthy, or sinless, or even have all our sins confessed, in order to partake of our Lord's body and blood. "Worthy," in this passage, is used as an adverb, never as an adjective, and, as such, it modifies the act, not the actor. The manner of partaking the sacrament is in question, not the one who is partaking. What we are called to examine is the way we are partaking, and our focus as we partake: are we focused on the love of Christ, upon his wonderful Grace and the forgiveness we have received from Him for our sins, or are we focused, with gnashing teeth, upon the person several pews up, whom we can't stand and wish weren't in our Church? Are we focused on Jesus, or are we thinking: "I've gotten rid of all those sins, and now I'm worthy to come to the table ... unlike those sinful jerks over there!" These are the kinds of examinations that I believe Paul is really talking about. Are we recognizing the real presence of Jesus in our midst? Are we recognizing the Body of Christ within our fellow believers — even those we don't like. Or, are we denying the Body of Christ? Are we denying the real presence of Jesus? Are we denying the saving and transforming grace of our Lord? While these examinations do have an important personal dimension, the worthiness — or sinlessness — of the individual believer to receive the Sacrament was never the question. The simple fact is that no one is worthy to receive the consecrated elements of our Lord's body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Indeed, we come to the table precisely because we are unworthy and are in need of being made worthy, by the blood of the Lamb. All we have to do is receive, in faith, focused upon the love, mercy, grace, and real presence of Jesus in the Body of Christ around us, and we will be receiving worthily. And a confession of sin, and the self-examination that comes before such a confession, is an excellent way of doing this.

I have, from time to time, placed an examination and confession of sin just prior to communion — in the liturgy, a confession of sin belongs just prior to the "Great Thanksgiving" — and I have always found it very helpful and meaningful for me ... not because I believe that sin should keep us from the sacrament but, rather, because I believe that it is very helpful for us to recognize that the means of grace can deal with our sin!

We come to the sacraments in need of God's grace, and the glorious good news of the sacraments is that God's grace is available to those who come with faith to meet the Lord!

© 2001 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from