As we've seen in our ongoing study of "The 39," when the articles discuss essential doctrine, they begin with the general principles of the doctrine before continuing to a more specific examination. Article 25 set out the general principles on the nature of a sacrament. Now article 26 answers the question of the relationship between the work of God and the minister of God making some important distinctions that are applicable today. 
XXVI—Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which Hinders not the Effect of the Sacrament

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.
Article 26 remains virtually unaltered from Cranmer’s 1553 original. Archbishop Parker’s 1563 and the final 1571 promulgation made only slight changes for clarity. We can find a parallel in Article 8 of the Augsburg Confession:
Although the church is, properly speaking the assembly of the saints and those who truly believe, nevertheless, because in his life many hypocrites and evil people are mixed in with them, a person may use the sacraments even when they are administered by evil people. This accords with the saying of Christ [Matt. 23:2]: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat…”. Both the sacraments and the Word are efficacious because of the ordinance and the command of Christ, even when offered by evil people.
The question of the relationship between the work of God and the minister of God has come up from time to time in the history of the church. Simply stated, is the effectiveness of the communion with God in the sacrament in any way hindered, prevented, or dependent upon the morality of the one who administered them? Early church Donatists, some late medieval Catholic reform movements, and Reformation Anabaptists said, “Yes.” Article 26 replies instead with a qualified “no.” Although the efficacy of God’s grace is in no way hindered by the fitness of his ministers, Christ as the head has established a proper order to his church. Wicked ministers may be ejected after a biblically faithful due process of godly discipline. This concern for discipline in the last part of article 26 again highlights the importance of sola Scriptura that grounds all Thirty-Nine Articles. Specifically, here it is the commands that are found in the Apostle Paul’s letters about breaking fellowship in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 and in his letters to Timothy and Titus. In the same way, we have seen the articles applied in the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer, its Ordinal repeats the command that priests (presbyters) are to be “ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word." And the Collect or special prayer for setting apart a presbyter to episcopal office refers specifically to his responsibility to administer a godly discipline.
John White, a parliamentary member of the Westminster Assembly publicly cataloged the failings of a hundred ministers who were deposed from their cures by the proper due process of the church from the area of greater London [VanDixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors 4-5]. The tawdry list began with a minister accused of buggery and attempted bestiality, accounts of drunken ministers and "popishly affected” pastors (the two most common complaints) as well as accounts of clergy who were womanizers, rapists, thieves, gamblers. There are accounts of battery, sexual assault, verbal abuse in the home, bribery, neglect of the pulpit, flirting from the pulpit, misogynist jokes from the pulpit, making a business out of burials, begging for money during Communion, throwing Communion elements to the ground, name-calling from the pulpit, public cursing, even excommunicating a handicapped man who could not kneel at Communion. White's pamphlet focused on ministers near London, but of course, wickedness does not end with the capital but was scattered across the realm. Such wickedness also does not end with the Reformation, but continues to the present day, as the sad catalog of pastor's failings makes the regular news. 
We must also be clear in what the article does not say. Article 26 is the one article quoted by liberal Anglicans who usually dismiss the articles as an artifact from a more unenlightened age from which we have evolved. They argue that the unworthy minister does not hinder the effect of any Sacrament they administer. Therefore a congregation should accept any minister carte blanche that is lawfully called by the church. Such a conclusion is a gross distortion of what the articles have already taught on the nature of the church: the regulative nature of sola Scriptura that make such position untenable.
The article addresses the error of misguided zeal for the purity of the church. It is about a legalism that leads to a breaking of fellowship with faithful Christians. The error creates divisions between Christians. At the dawn of the Reformation, many reform movements had focused on the immorality of many Roman priests. The Augsburg Confession specifically mentions the Lollard followers of John Wycliffe teaching that Christians should only be baptized or receive the sacrament from a godly minister. Cranmer, therefore, understood from recent English church history that this error is likely to arise when the church does not take seriously its responsibility to exercise discipline on what he terms here “Evil Ministers.” Cranmer wrote the last sentence which underlines how a lapse of biblical fidelity will eventually lead to a lapse in private and public morality. 
This is exactly the issue that most faithful Anglican ministers have faced in making their decision to separate from The Episcopal Church and seek alternative episcopal oversight in the Anglican Church of North America and the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Once the gospel cannot be defended within the assemblies of the church, that church has lost the key marks of the word and discipline (Articles XIX and XXVI). It is not a church any longer. It is thus no sin to separate from such a body. If the responsibility which the Ordinal expects of presbyters and bishops is not discharged, then one will have no option but to express the break in fellowship in appropriate ways. The St. Matthias Day Statement of the Church of England Evangelical Council put it this way:
5 - God’s people united in and by God’s word
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
The visible church of Christ is a congregation of believers in which the pure Word of God is preached and in which the sacraments are rightly administered according to Christ's command in all those matters that are necessary for proper administration… (Article XIX)
5a. The visible Church of Christ is a place where the life-giving and life-changing word of God is faithfully proclaimed.
5b. Redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships or affirming or blessing sexual activity outside marriage is contrary to God’s word.
5c. When a church does either of these things it therefore becomes difficult to recognise it as part of the visible Church of Christ. Consequently, such matters fall outside the scope of acceptable ecumenical diversity and are a legitimate ground for division between churches.

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.

For previous articles in this series, see:
  1. Introduction
  2. One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
  3. The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
  4. The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
  5. The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
  6. The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
  7. The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
  8. The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
  9. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
  10. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
  11. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
  12. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)
  13. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 5 (Arts. 13-14)
  14. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 6 (Art. 15)
  15. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 7 (Art. 16)
  16. Grace Alone! (Art. 17)
  17. Christ Alone! (Art. 18)
  18. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 1 (Art. 19)
  19. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 2 (Art. 20)
  20. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 3 (Art. 21)
  21. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 4 (Art. 22)
  22. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 5 (Art. 23)
  23. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 6 (Art. 24)
  24. The Sacraments: Part 1 (Art. 25)


Matthew Levering, Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical. Grand Rapids, MI, 2017. 231pp. Paperback. $16.99.
We allegedly live in an age of tolerance. Yet tolerance often takes on distorted meanings. Contrary to popular misconceptions, tolerance does not mean that all viewpoints and practices are equal and worthy of acceptance. Tolerance, instead, involves disagreeing with others while being willing to put up with them and their views in spite of the persistence of real disagreement. While we should be thankful that the days of the inquisition and burning heretics at the stake are past, we must not run to opposite extremes by concluding that theological and practical differences must not really matter much.
In this volume, Matthew Levering seeks to show implicitly why Protestants and Roman Catholics should tolerate one another’s viewpoints and even why Roman Catholic theology is a viable option for Protestants in light of the teaching of Scripture. Rather than turning the Protestants’ sword against them, part of his hope is that both sides might eventually put down their swords and shake hands. While his tone and way of proceeding is admirable and worthy of imitation, the fundamental difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic teachings remains the authority and use of Scripture in theology. While Protestants and Roman Catholics should learn from Levering to tolerate one another, this reviewer believes that this difference over the foundation of theology remains an insurmountable obstacle to unity.
The aim of this book is fairly modest. The author seeks to show only that Roman Catholic theology is not “unbiblical.” This goal fits post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, since Catholic theologians often admit openly that while many church traditions are not taught in the Bible they do not contradict the Bible as foundational revelation. Treating Roman Catholic doctrine in this way allows authors, such as Levering, to seek agreement with Protestants over the teaching of the Bible in general without abandoning Roman Catholic convictions. The question remains whether or not doing so is possible when many Roman Catholic doctrines not only go beyond Scripture but, from a Protestant vantage point, contradict it. Levering addresses nine disputed doctrines (Scripture, May, the Eucharist, the Seven Sacraments, Monasticism, Justification and Merit, Purgatory, Saints, and the Papacy), beginning with Luther’s protests to each and followed by arguments from Scripture to the end that Roman Catholic teaching fits general patterns of biblical reasoning. He engages in mature biblical theology that will likely appeal at many points both to Protestants and to Roman Catholics. However, he does not adequately address the core differences between these groups in relation to the function of Scripture in theology. The book concludes with a “mere Protestant” response by Kevin Vanhoozer that more or less argues to this effect.
Levering’s chapter on Mary illustrates the difference over core principles clearly. Most Protestant readers will likely find his treatment of Mary to be the most jarring of his chapters. Vanhoozer apparently agrees, since he singles out this example in his response (208-212). Following standard Roman Catholic exegesis, Levering argues that Mary is the “woman” in Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12 (70-71), that she shared uniquely in her Son’s suffering and in his exaltation (71), that her womb is the true ark of the covenant (72), and that as Christ is the new Adam so Mary is the “new Eve” (73). Though his exegesis related to each of these themes is plausible on a surface reading of biblical texts, it is difficult to see how Scripture itself requires such conclusions. This illustrates what is at stake in the age-old divide between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The former seeks to establish its teaching on the authority of Scripture alone with the ministerial aid of the church in doing so. The latter establishes its teaching through the magisterial interpretations and ecclesiastical traditions in a way that tries to build upon and harmonize with the teachings of Scripture. In this way, Levering’s treatment of Mary in particular, and of other doctrines in general, exemplifies the root issue that continues to divide both groups.
In the seventeenth-century, William Perkins wrote Catholicus Reformatus. In the first line of the book, he wrote that Protestants and Roman Catholics believed the same articles of faith. However, Protestants must reject those errors and additions that Roman Catholics added to these articles of faith. His point was that the Reformed were the true Catholics because their catholicity consisted in retaining biblical doctrine. In his view, Roman Catholics were the true schismatics because they added to the teaching of Scripture. In this reviewer’s opinion, such ideas can help readers evaluate, Was the Reformation a Mistake? While the irenic tone of Levering’s work is most welcome and Protestants should respond in kind, the principle of authority that underlies his theological method and his view of how God speaks to his church is still a fundamental dividing line that permeates every area of theology. In this light, Vanhoozer’s assertion that there are few if any impediments to unity on the Protestant side (231) misses the proverbial elephant in the room to some extent. Protestants have asked (and should continue to ask) whether the Bible requires a doctrine or practice. Roman Catholics have asked (and continue to ask) how the traditions of the church interpret the Scriptures and harmonize with them even where they add to their teachings. The one side asks what the Bible teaches while the other asks what the Bible could allow for. In this respect, it is a greater danger and tragedy than many Protestants today realize when people in our churches increasingly justify aspects of church life, worship, and government by saying that Scripture does not forbid them.
We should not continue to press issues that divide Protestants and Roman Catholics simply because we have always done things this way, or because we are we want to avoid the stigma of talking with “the enemy.” Yet the issues dividing Roman Catholics and Protestants continue to be substantial and fundamental. We must tolerate one another and we should delight in and imitate Levering’s (and Vanhoozer’s) gentle and kind spirit. However, we must, like Perkins, seek to be Reformed Catholics, not by uniting ourselves with the tradition of a particular church whose teachings may or may not be compatible with Scripture, but by uniting around the catholic doctrine taught by the apostles and prophets in the true Catholic Church, of which Jesus Christ himself is the chief corner stone (Eph. 2:20).

If you have heard the name of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) at all, you have probably heard it in connection with the Westminster Assembly or one of his two best known works, the Letters of Samuel Rutherford or Lex, Rex. You may know that Rutherford is arguably the most important of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly; that he stayed in London longer than any of his Scots brethren (from November 20, 1643, to November 9, 1647); that he was the only commissioner specifically commended by the Assembly for his faithful attendance and assistance in its debates; and that very few of the delegates or commissioners spoke on the floor of the Assembly as frequently or as forcefully as Rutherford did. 

Letters has been in print ever since its original publication in 1664, passing through some 100 editions and translated into at least four languages. Letters has been treasured by Christians the world over and across time for the manifest fragrance of heaven that lingers on its pages. Meanwhile, Lex, Rex (originally published in 1644) not only fueled the Covenanters' armed resistance to King Charles I, but was also influential in justifying the French and American revolutions that would follow in the next century. Many historians regard it as one of the most important contributions to political science in any age, and it is still read and discussed in university classrooms today.

You may know all this already—but what you may not know is that Samuel Rutherford is a towering figure in Scottish theology, that he stands head and shoulders above others of his contemporaries as a theologian, a preacher, and a pastor, and that the magnitude of his literary achievements alone puts him in a category by himself. You may not know that Rutherford published 13 major theological treatises in his lifetime, amounting to just over 7,000 pages of text, not to mention all of his sermons, letters, an in-depth catechism (totaling 562 questions and answers--over five times the number in the Westminster Shorter Catechism), and a variety of political writings, all of which add nearly 3,000 pages to the total. (Just to give you a frame of reference, John Owen's sixteen volumes, including the prefaces to the treatises, totals 9,200 pages). You may not know that when we add to the Rutherford corpus a commentary on Isaiah, which has tragically been lost, and several unpublished manuscripts and sermons, we have a literary output that clearly rivals that of John Owen.

Despite all this, Rutherford has received and continues to receive very little attention, especially when compared to other English Puritans like Owen. In this series, I hope to change that trend by introducing you to Samuel Rutherford and by pointing you to several practical lessons that we in the 21st century might be able to learn from him. My hope is not only to inform you about this towering figure in post-Reformation history, but also to motivate you to take up and read him for yourself. Much more could be said, to be sure, but I trust that what I have selected will help shed some light on a handful of issues that we are facing today.

Rutherford's Early Life and Education

Samuel Rutherford was born in 1600—the same year as King Charles I and Edmund Calamy, both of whom would later become outspoken critics of Rutherford's jus divinum (i.e., divine right) brand of Presbyterianism. He was born in the town of Nisbet in the parish of Crailing, approximately four miles from Jedburgh, in what is called the Borders region of Scotland. Not much is known about his early life or education. Robert MacWard, who was probably Rutherford's closest disciple and the author of the first biographical account of his life, states that he was "a Gentleman by extraction." Some 20th-century scholars, however, claim that his father was a farmer or a miller. Prima facie, one would think that MacWard's account would be the closest to the truth, seeing as how he had the benefit of knowing Rutherford personally and, therefore, should have known the story of his early life more accurately than would be possible for later researchers to discern. Whatever the case may be in regard to Rutherford's family, it is apparent that they at least were of sufficient means to allow Rutherford and his brother to receive the best education possible at the time. 

Rutherford's early education was most likely at the grammar school in the Jedburgh abbey, where the curriculum would certainly have been based upon the medieval trivium (i.e. grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric). Whatever else he gained from his time in Jedburgh, Rutherford clearly gained a thorough grounding in Latin. This was vital in the seventeenth century, as university lectures at that time were given entirely in Latin (the lingua franca of that day). Not only did students have to pass a rigorous Latin entrance examination just to get in to university, but they also were required to speak only Latin among themselves the entire time they were there.

After passing his Latin entrance exam, Rutherford began his course of study at the University of Edinburgh in November 1617. The years ahead looked promising for young Rutherford, and they would be—though not necessarily in the way he would have expected. 

Guy M. Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He formerly served as Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.

This article was originally featured on reformation21 in February of 2009. Stay tuned next week for part two!


Qualifications for Admission to the Lord’s Supper

Given the awesome potential of communion with Christ within the Supper, the Puritans took the matter of right participation seriously. The awakened conscience cannot consider partaking of such a sacred meal without asking, “What does God require of me?” Participation in the sacraments was not optional, though Perkins said sacraments were not “absolutely necessary” for salvation, but were only “a prop or stay for faith to lean on.” Those unable to participate because of an untimely death or geographic isolation were not condemned. Nevertheless, “contempt” for a sacrament by willful and unrepentant neglect did bring God’s condemnation upon the offender.[1] God’s people were urged to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and were not to avoid the question of how to  “communicate worthily.”[2]

Puritan writers paid close attention to the qualifications for admission to the Lord’s Supper. Most Puritans followed Calvin’s teaching that “if the Spirit be lacking, the sacraments can accomplish nothing more in our minds than the splendor of the sun shining upon blind eyes, or a voice sounding in deaf ears.”[3] Charnock wrote, “It is a sad thing to be Christians at a supper, heathens in our shops, and devils in our closets.”[4] Jonathan Edwards viewed the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament reserved for believers, celebrating the unity that they have in Christ. He wrote in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:17, “The Lord’s Supper was instituted as a solemn representation and seal of the holy and spiritual union Christ’s people have with ... one another.”[5]

Other Puritans, notably Solomon Stoddard (1643–1729) and William Prynne (1600–1669), did view the Lord’s Supper as a “converting ordinance.”[6] This minority said the sacrament was also intended for unbelievers who had a basic knowledge of Christian beliefs as a means of their eventual conversion by “evoking their internal assent to the Gospel.”[7] This minority view was refuted by George Gillespie (1613–1648) and Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661). Holifield summarizes,

Neither Rutherford nor Gillespie intended to rob the sacrament of efficacy. The Lord’s Supper was still “the nourishment of those in whom Christ liveth,” increasing “the conversion which was before” by adding “a new degree of faith.” Like Calvin, they linked sacramental efficacy with the doctrine of sanctification, which described the Christian’s growth in faith and holiness. Moreover, the sacrament sealed God’s promises to the elect. Since the seal applied to the worthy communicant “in particular, the very promise that in general is made to him,” he could leave the table with assurance of God’s mercy.[8]

            The emphasis on conversion as a qualification for communicants implied that young children should not participate in the Lord’s Supper.[9] The Westminster Larger Catechism fenced the Table against the “ignorant” (Q. 173), saying that one difference between baptism and the Lord’s Supper is that baptism should be administered “even to infants,” but the Lord’s Supper is to be administered “only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves” (Q. 177).

Perkins said that to be qualified to receive the Supper, one must have a knowledge of God, the fall of man, and the promise of salvation by Christ, plus true faith in Christ and repentance from sin, with faith and repentance being renewed daily. If a person with these qualifications hesitates at the Table because he feels he has “a corrupt and rebellious heart,” Perkins said, “thou art well disposed to the Lord’s Table, when thou art lively touched with a sense of thy crooked disposition.” Medicine is for the diseased.[10] That does not say that believers may come unrepentant over known sins, for “the Corinthians had both faith and repentance; yet because they failed in this point, of the renovation of their faith and repentance, they are said many of them to be unworthy receivers, and to eat judgment to themselves.”[11]

The Puritans did not require a believer to have full assurance to partake of the Supper. Assurance was desirable but not necessary.[12] Edward Taylor (c. 1642–1729) wrote, “It [assurance] is not that which anyone is to wait for in order to his coming to the Lord’s Supper.”[13] “It’s not the faith of assurance that is necessary to this ordinance,” Taylor said, “but of affiance and trust.”[14] Neither was moral perfection required. Edwards wrote: “Your sins need to be no hindrance. Christ procured those benefits for such. He gave Himself for such.”[15] Doolittle went further, saying a person may come to the Lord’s Table “if a man cannot say he loves God, and cannot say he has faith, but yet finds he hungers and thirsts for Christ.”[16] Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686) summarized this thinking in stating, “A weak faith can lay hold on a strong Christ. A palsied hand may tie the knot in marriage.”[17] Henry made this practical appeal: “If thou doubt, therefore, whether Christ be thine, put the matter out of doubt by a present consent to him: I take Christ to be mine, wholly, only, and forever mine.”[18]


Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


[1] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:72.

[2] Larger Catechism, Q. 170.

[3] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.9.

[4] Charnock, “The End of the Lord’s Supper,” in Works, 4:400.

[5] Edwards, Sermons on the Lord’s Supper, 70, emphasis added.

[6] William Prynne, Lord’s Supper briefly vindicated, and clearly demonstrated to be a Grace-begetting, Soul-converting (not a meer confirming) Ordinance (London: Edward Thomas, 1657); Solomon Stoddard, An Appeal to the Learned, Being a Vindication of the Right of the Visible Saints to the Lords Supper, Though they be destitute of a Saving Work of God’s Spirit on their Hearts (Boston: B. Green for Samuel Phillips, 1709); Edward Taylor vs. Solomon Stoddard: The Nature of the Lord’s Supper, eds. Thomas M. and Virginia L. Davis (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981).

[7] Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, 109–110.

[8] Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, 115. He cites, respectively, Samuel Rutherford, The Divine Right of Church-Government and Excommunication (London: Printed by John Field for Christopher Meredith, 1646), 340, 523; George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), 500; and Rutherford, Divine Right, 253.

[9] Cornelis P. Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table?: Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books), 22–26.

[10] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:76.

[11] Perkins, “Of Divine or Religious Worship,” in Works, 1:713.

[12] Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, 56.

[13] Edward Taylor’s Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper (Boston: Twain Publisher, 1988), 121.

[14] Taylor, Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 189.

[15] Edwards, Sermons on the Lord’s Supper, 156.

[16] Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 137. Cf. Edwards’s sermon “The Lord’s Supper Ought to Be Kept Up and Attended in Remembrance of Christ,” in Sermons on the Lord’s Supper, 54–69.

[17] Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 73.

[18] Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 73. Henry writes, “You think you are not serious enough, nor devout enough, nor regular enough, in your conversations, to come to the sacrament; and perhaps you are not: but why are you not? What hinders you? Is any more required to fit you for the sacrament, than is necessary to fit you for heaven?” (ibid., 70).

Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
  4. Biblical Simplicity in the Lord's Supper
Thomas Watson sang the high praises of contentment in his book The Art of Divine Contentment, recently republished by Soli Deo Gloria Publications. He wrote that he didn’t know of any ornament in religion “that doth more bespangle a Christian, or glitter in the eye of God and man, than this of contentment.”  
Watson defined contentment as “a sweet temper of spirit, whereby a Christian carries himself in an equal poise in every condition.” True contentment is a gift from above and is only found in those who have been born of the Spirit. “It is a fruit that grows not in the garden of philosophy, but is of heavenly birth.”  
Contentment exists and flows from the heart.  It “lies within a man; not in the bark, but the root.” This is why difficult circumstances may not destroy a Christian’s contentment. “A bee may sting through the skin, but it cannot sting to the heart: outward afflictions cannot sting to a Christian’s heart, where contentment lies.” This is also why outward prosperity doesn’t necessarily produce contentment. “A drop or two of vinegar will sour a whole glass of wine.  Let a man have the affluence and confluence of worldly comforts, a drop or two of discontent will embitter and poison all.” 
How do you know if you are content?  Here are four diagnostic questions based upon Watson’s book. 1) Do you silently, willingly receive God’s providential dealings with you or do you complain and grumble?  Watson carefully distinguished between a holy complaint and a discontented complaint. In the former “we complain to God,” and in the latter “we complain of God.” 2) Do you thank God in every situation? Phil. 4:6; 1 Thess. 5:18. 3) Do you rejoice always? Phil. 4:4. 4) Do you ever use sinful means to get out of your troubled situation?
Watson had much to say about learning and pursuing contentment. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart since contentment lies in the heart.  Thus, “the way for a man to be contented, is not by raising his estate higher, but by bringing his heart lower.” And “the way to be comfortable, is not by having our barns filled, but our minds quiet.”
In typical Puritan fashion, Watson provided 18 rules for attaining “holy contentment.” The first is to advance faith and the last is to be much in prayer. In between, he said that we should often compare our condition. Specifically, he said that we should make a five-fold comparison. First, let us compare our condition with what we deserve. “If we have not what we desire, we have more than we deserve.” Second, let us compare our condition with others. When we do so we will see some have it better than us and some have it worse than us. Many of the saints listed in Hebrews 11 had to endure much more than we do today. Third, let us compare our condition with Christ’s upon earth. Fourth, let us compare our condition with what it was once. Fifth, let us compare our condition with what it shall be shortly.  
Watson’s book is very readable and contains a wealth of material on this important subject. He is one of, if not, the most quotable puritan. This book is not only worth reading for the subject matter, but it is also worth reading, especially for teachers and preachers, to learn how to illustrate truth with vivid word pictures. In this regard, I highly recommend Expository Preaching with Word Pictures: With Illustrations from the Sermons of Thomas Watson by Jack Hughes.

Biblical Simplicity in the Lord’s Supper

If the material principle of the Reformation was justification by faith alone, the formal principle was that Scripture alone is the rule of faith and obedience. The Puritans viewed this truth as nothing less than the enthronement of Christ as King among His people. Willison said a true sacrament must be instituted by Christ “to show that Christ is the sole king and head of the church, who alone hath the power to appoint her ordinances.”[1] The Puritans earnestly applied the principle of sola scriptura to worship. Owen wrote in question-and-answer format:

Q: What doth God require of us in our dependence on him, that he may be glorified in us, and we accepted with him?

A: That we worship him in and by the ways of his own appointment….

Q: How then are these ways and means of the worship of God made known to us?

A: In and by the written word only, which contains a full and perfect revelation of the will of God as to his whole worship and all the concernments of it....

Q: What is principally to be attended unto by us in the manner of the celebration of the worship of God, and observation of the institutions and ordinances of the gospel?

A: That we observe and do all whatsoever the Lord Christ hath commanded us to observe, in the way that he hath prescribed; and that we add nothing unto or in the observation [observance] of them that is of man’s invention or appointment.[2]

The Puritans also applied the principle of sola scriptura to the Lord’s Supper. Perkins wrote, “The right manner of using the Lord’s Supper … is the observing of the institution, without addition, detraction, or change.”[3] For this reason, the Puritans preferred to call the sacrament “the Lord’s Supper” rather than “Holy Communion” or “the Eucharist,” thus rooting it in the words of Scripture (1 Cor. 11:20).[4] For the Puritans, the sacrament revolved around the Word, especially Christ’s words of institution (Matt. 26:26–28, 1 Cor. 11:23-26). Perkins said, “Therefore this word in the administration of the sacrament ought to be pronounced distinctly and aloud, yea, and as occasion serveth, explained also.” He wrote, “All the efficacy and worthiness” of a sacrament depends on Christ’s words of institution.[5] Indeed, the elements of the sacrament are “visible words,”[6] “the signs representing to the eyes what which the word doth to the ears.”[7]

Each action of the Supper has spiritual significance. Perkins said the minister in his sacramental acts represents God: (1) by taking the bread and wine as a sign of the Father electing His Son to the office of Mediator; (2) by blessing it through the words of institution for sacred use as a seal of God sending His Son in the fullness of time to do His work; (3) by breaking the bread and pouring the wine as a seal of the death of Christ for our transgressions; (4) by distributing the bread and wine to the communicants as a seal of God offering Christ to all, but giving Christ only to the faithful to increase their faith and repentance.[8]

According to Perkins, the actions of the person who receives the Supper also symbolize spiritual events: (1) taking the bread and wine into his hands is a seal of apprehending Christ by faith, (2) while eating the bread and drinking the wine is a seal of applying Christ to himself by faith to increase his union and communion with Christ.[9] More than a century later, Willison attributed the same meanings to these sacramental actions of the minister and communicant, showing the continuity of the Puritan tradition.[10]

The simplicity of the form of the Supper was determined by biblical authority. The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645) instructed ministers to celebrate the Supper “frequently” as “most convenient,” especially after the morning sermon and prayers. The Presbyterian form for the Supper included the following parts: (1) a short exhortation on the blessings of the Supper and necessity of faith, repentance, love, and spiritual hunger; (2) a warning that the “ignorant, scandalous, profane, or those that live in any sin or offence” not partake, but that broken-hearted penitents should come; (3) the reading of the words of institution from a Gospel or 1 Corinthians 11:23–27 with explanation and application; (4) a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the redemption of sinners by Christ, and petition for God’s blessing on the ordinance, “that we may receive by faith the body and blood of Jesus Christ, crucified for us, and so to feed upon him, that he may be one with us, and we one with him”; (5) introductory words spoken by the minister to account for the actions performed: institution, command, and example of Christ—“According to the holy institution, command, and example of our blessed Saviour Jesus Christ, I take this bread, and, having given thanks, break it and give it unto you…”; (6) breaking the bread and distributing it, and the cup with the words of Christ, “Take ye, eat,” etc.; (7) an exhortation to walk worthy of the grace of Christ held forth in the sacrament; (8) a prayer of thanksgiving; and (9) a collection for the poor.[11] The Puritans concluded the Lord’s Supper service with the singing of a Psalm, following the example of Christ (Matt. 26:30).[12]

Since some aspects of the Supper’s manner of administration are not given in Scripture, Puritan practice varied. The ceremonial details of the Lord’s Supper were hotly debated at the Westminster Assembly; three weeks alone were spent on whether to seat communicants at a table.[13] In general, the English Independents celebrated the Supper every Lord’s Day, the Baptists once a month, and the Presbyterians four times a year. The Baptists at times preferred to celebrate the Supper in the evening, following scriptural examples (Mark 14:17; 1 Cor. 11:23).[14] But Willison, a Presbyterian, argued, “The circumstances of time, place and company, in the first administration, not being essential to the ordinance, were not intended for our imitation. We are no more required to receive it at night, than to do it in an upper room, with but twelve in company. Moreover, the time was occasioned by the Passover, that was always eaten at night, and in private families.”[15] The Scottish Presbyterians seated communicants at a table, while Independents carried the elements to people in the pews.[16] Within each group there were variations.

Regardless of the specifics of the Lord’s Supper, they were to be ordered for what Reynolds called the sacrament’s “most express end,” namely, “to celebrate the memory of Christ’s death and passion.”[17] This was not just a “historical memory” but what Reynolds called a “practical memory,” that is, the memory of faith, thankfulness, obedience, and prayer.[18] This leads us to the manner of spiritually partaking the Supper, as the Puritans understood it.


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[1] Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:42.

[2] Owen, “A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God,” in Works, 15:447, 449–50, 462. See also William Ames, A Fresh Svit against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (1633); George Gillespie, A Dispute against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded on the Church of Scotland (1637; repr., Dallas, Tx.: Naphtali Press, 1993).

[3] Perkins, “Of Divine or Religious Worship,” in Works, 1:713.

[4] Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 204. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms communion and thanksgiving (eucharisteia) are associated with the holy supper in Scripture in 1 Corinthians 10:16. Euchariasteia or giving of thanks, is part of the sacrament, as instituted by Christ (1 Cor. 11:24).

[5] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:71.

[6] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:72; Perkins, “A Reformed Catholicke,” in Works, 1:611.

[7] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholicke,” in Works, 1:610.

[8] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:75. 

[9] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:75.

[10] Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:74–78.

[11] “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God,” in Westminster Confession of Faith, 384–86.

[12] Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 216.

[13] Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, 76.

[14] Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 205–208, 213.

[15] Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:68.

[16] Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans, 214.

[17] Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:87.

[18] Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:104, 107, 108, 110.

Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
Rik Van Nieuwenhove, An Introduction to Medieval Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). 296pp. Paperback. $25.00.
Why review a book on medieval theology on a site devoted to Puritan and Reformed theology? At least two reasons are prominent. One good reason for doing so is that Reformed theology did not arise out of a theological vacuum. Puritans, such as William Perkins, went to great lengths to argue that Reformed theologians were really “Reformed Catholics.” Becoming familiar with the medieval (and Early Church) background of Reformed thought is an eye-opening exercise that illustrates the discerning genius of Reformed authors, including the Puritans. Another reason for reviewing a book like this is that medieval theology can seem to be both strange and complicated to modern readers. Most of us need a guide to help us wade through what are often deep theological waters.
Rik Van Nieuwenhove’s Introduction meets both of these needs admirably. Readers familiar with classic Reformed thought will see many points of convergence with medieval developments. Those who feel perplexed by medieval thought will find a clear treatment that focuses ultimately on trinitarian spirituality throughout. In short, this book indirectly adds a significant piece of the puzzle to understanding the catholicity, divergences, and developments of Reformed and Puritan theology.
Van Nieuwenhove’s book is clear and comprehensive, yet focused. The author begins with the premise that medieval theology was radically theocentric and trinitarian, with the Trinity shaping every aspect of the theology and spirituality of the figures treated in this volume (2). He divides his material into periods encompassing the fifth through tenth centuries, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the systemization of theology in the thirteenth century, and the radical changes in theology and spirituality in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The figures he treats at length include Augustine, John Cassian, Boethius, Gregory the Great, John Scotus Eriugena, Anselm, Abelard, Bernard of Claireaux, William St. Thierry, Hugh and Richard St. Victor, Lombard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Meister Eckhart, the trinitarian spirituality of Jan van Ruusbroec, and others. He argues that medieval theology as a whole is a “footnote to Augustine” (3), who looms large throughout the book. The author briefly, yet effectively, sets the shifting historical contexts of his subjects throughout and he illustrates the influences of politics, war, famine, pestilence, philosophical shifts, and many other factors on the authors treated. This feature helps readers understand why various theologians went in the directions that they did, for better or for worse, leading up to the eve of the Renaissance and Reformation periods. His focus on the Trinity and spirituality, along with a few other key emphases (284), unifies the book in a way that will interest many readers in light of the modern renaissance in trinitarian theology.
This book, indirectly, illustrates many points of convergence with later Reformed thought. A few examples can highlight this fact. Two of them relate to John Owen. First, Van Nieuwenhove shows that Hugh St. Victor described faith as giving subsistence to the things that we believe in our souls (131). In this respect, faith rises above opinion, since it involves certainty, yet it falls short of the full knowledge of God that we will receive in the beatific vision alone (132). In the opening chapters of his Reason of Faith, this was precisely how Owen defined the nature of that faith by which we believe the Bible to be the Word of God. Second, Aquinas treated the goal of charity as friendship with God, which is based on “some kind of communication” between God and us in Christ, by virtue of which God shares his blessedness with us (194-196). In the introductory chapters of Owen’s Communion with God, he defined communion as the sharing of good things among two parties, grounded on some union between them. He added that this ground was union with Christ in the covenant of grace. This illustrates both the reception and transformation of a medieval idea to meet the needs of Reformed theology. Third, Bonaventure taught that one of the personal names of the Holy Spirit was “Gift.” This was true, both in relation to the eternal processions within the Godhead and in his works in time, with the result that the Spirit is the archetype of all created gifts (220-221). This illustrates why, in Patrick Gillespie’s Ark of the Covenant, treating the Spirit as gift in the covenant of redemption did not violate classic trinitarian principles. Again, this example highlights the appropriation of a medieval idea in the context of a developing Reformed covenant theology. These examples, and many others, show how medieval theology can help make sense of where Reformed authors developed their ideas. Such instances are valuable for those of us who spend most of our time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The author’s conclusion to his book illustrates its primary value: “Medieval theology offers an extraordinarily pluralist view on some of the most important theological issues… Yet this pluralism is supported by an overarching vision, which all major medieval theologians share, namely, that it is only in the fruition of God that our hearts can find ultimate fulfillment and peace” (284). Even though we, like our Reformed forefathers, will reject many points of medieval thought, we should resonate with the goals of the authors treated in this volume. Biblical Christianity has always aimed to press people to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent (John 17:3). The Spirit has faithfully helped believers do this in every age and this book gives us a glimpse of how he has done so.
The Thirty-nine Articles continue its narrative as it sets out a biblically faithful theology of God’s ordained means of grace in the sacraments. As we have seen in our study of other essential doctrines, the article begins with the general principles of the doctrine before continuing to a more specific examination. Articles 25 and 26 set out the general principles while articles 27-31 examine the specifics of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is not an exaggeration to write that articles 27-31 have become the most controversial among Anglicans since the 1830’s, guaranteed to fill Anglican discussion on social media within minutes. Indeed, if one were to imagine the Anglican equivalent of a red-rag to a bull, these articles are the ones that are today either championed, deplored, or simply ignored as “the Anglican response to certain doctrinal issues controverted at that time” (Anglican Church in North America, Constitution & Canons 1.7). Why are they so controversial? The answer is obvious. They are the consequence of the doctrines that have preceded them.
XXV—Of The Sacraments

Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.
Cranmer’s original 1553 was revised in its structure and length in 1563 and in 1571 that resulted in a more clearly written capture of Cranmer’s thought. In 1563 Cranmer’s 1553 final paragraph became the first paragraph of the revision (Sacraments ordained of Christ…), a new second (There are two Sacraments…) and third paragraph (Those five commonly…) were also added. The 1563 second paragraph is a slight revision of Cranmer’s original first paragraph. Then in 1571 most of Cranmer’s original second and third were restored in what became the last paragraph of the article of today (The Sacraments were not…).

The article begins with a negative. The sacraments are “not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession. The wording is usually associated with the Zurich Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. But one considers the 1553 context of Cranmer’s original Forty-two Articles, the reference is to the prevalent Anabaptist view rather than Zwingli’s more nuanced doctrine. They are “certain sure witnesses” that proclaim the gospel promises to us through our other senses. And “effectual signs of grace” to those who receive them with a believing heart. Notice how Archbishop Parker’s revision of Cranmer further strengthens the reformed character of the doctrine: the sacrament is only effective if the recipient has faith. They are Christ’s ordinary means of encouraging and strengthening the believer’s faith, particularly in times of difficulty, doubt, or despair. Rome and those who have been influenced by its teaching understand that the administration of the visible sign is a guarantee that the inward grace is made real in the recipient. If one were to favor the Roman view the balance of the article makes no sense. 
By 1563 it was a matter of historical record that Cranmer consistently defended the Reformed view in his disputation with Bishop of Winchester Stephen Gardiner concerning the nature of our eating and drinking the Supper. We can also see how keeps a consistent Chalcedonian Christology we examined in article 2. God alone is infinite. No other creature possesses this attribute. Humans are finite. The reformed Christological position holds to the principle that the finite (humanity) cannot comprehend or attain the infinite (divinity). The finite cannot comprehend the infinite, even in the person of Christ. To do so robs Jesus of his true humanity and his office as our Mediator. The Lord Jesus having retained the attributes of his human nature has ascended. He, therefore, cannot be present locally but can be present truly by the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son (Article 5). One can hear in Cranmer echoes of John Calvin's description of how the sacraments are spiritual food for spiritual people:
These things before rehearsed are sufficient to prove, that the eating of Christ’s flesh and drinking of his blood, is not to be understood simply and plainly, as the words do properly signify, that we do eat and drink him with our mouths; but it is a figurative speech spiritually to be understand, that we must deeply print and fruitfully believe in our hearts, that his flesh was crucified and his blood shed, for our redemption. And this our belief in him, is to eat his flesh and to drink his blood, although they be not present here with us, but be ascended into heaven [Cranmer, Works, 115-116].
The article also says that the sacraments are "ordained of Christ," to be "duly used." To be "ordained of Christ" and to be "duly used" references article 19 on the nature of the church, that the sacraments are to be “duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance." Modern distinctions like “Sacrament of the Gospel” and “Sacrament of the Church” are to be avoided as being misleading, diminishing Christ’s sole authority as our Head. There are just two sacraments expressly commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament, to which the promise of forgiveness of sin and union with him is signified: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The term “sacrament” requires no further distinction. Those wrongly called “sacraments” by the man or woman on the street in the 16th century (“Those five commonly called ‘sacraments…’” Quinque illa vulgo nominata sacramenta): absolution, confirmation, ordination, matrimony, and extreme unction, lack the express command of the Lord Jesus or signify forgiveness of sin and union with him. 
In St. Paul’s warning of 1 Corinthians 11 that unworthily received (i.e., without belief and trust in Christ's substitutionary atoning death for us) they add to our condemnation. Cranmer repeated this warning in all three versions of the Book of Common Prayer's "Exhortation" before receiving the Supper, "For as the benefit is great if with true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood) …So is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily". Likewise, Cranmer's words of administration in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer service expresses this simple yet profound doctrine: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving." 
The article closes with a prohibition. The sacraments are not to be thought of as objects in and of themselves, but to be thought of as a means of God's grace. Therefore, the 1552 instruction at the end of the Lord's Supper grants the minister the right to take the bread home for his table, and the 1662 revision of the rubric by the Restoration Bishops instruct that the leftover elements be consumed after the divine service. Being contrary to the Scriptures, there is no justification to do anything else with them.

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.

For previous articles in this series, see:
  1. Introduction
  2. One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
  3. The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
  4. The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
  5. The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
  6. The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
  7. The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
  8. The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
  9. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
  10. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
  11. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
  12. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)
  13. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 5 (Arts. 13-14)
  14. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 6 (Art. 15)
  15. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 7 (Art. 16)
  16. Grace Alone! (Art. 17)
  17. Christ Alone! (Art. 18)
  18. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 1 (Art. 19)
  19. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 2 (Art. 20)
  20. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 3 (Art. 21)
  21. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 4 (Art. 22)
  22. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 5 (Art. 23)
  23. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 6 (Art. 24)


We move on from discussing the Puritan view of God to consider the Trinity, the biblical doctrine of one God in three persons. Related to the one God (Q&A 8), the Larger Catechism (Q&A 9), affirms: “There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties” (e.g. Matt 28:19, 2 Cor 13:14, John 1:1, 10:30, Acts 5:3,4). Very simply, the teaching of the Trinity sets forth unity in diversity.
The Puritans stood as heirs of not only Reformation but also medieval trinitarian theology and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed behind it. William Ames, in The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, (1627), provides an early expression of Puritan trinitrarianism at the start of Chapter 5, “Of the Subsistence of God”:
  1. The Subsistence of God is that one Essence, as it is with its personal properties.
  2. The same essence is common to three subsistences, and as touching the Deity, every subsistence is of itself.
  3. Nothing moreover is attributed to the Essence, which may not be attributed to every subsistence in regard of the Essence of it. 
  4. But those things that are attributed properly to every subsistence in regard of its subsistence, cannot be attributed to the Essence.
Presbyterian Francis Cheynell (1608–1665), member of the Westminster Assembly and champion defender of trinitarianianism (especially against Socinianism) echoes such thinking: “The Godhead does subsist in Father, Son, and Spirit, all three without any multiplication of the Godhead” with “three subsistences, but one substance or essence in this divine Triunity” (The Divine Triunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit , 1650).
Notice in Ames and Cheynell the use of “subsistence” (a manner of personal existence) to speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Employing this Latin-based term (or the Greek-influenced hypostasis) rather than “person” helped to avoid the false accusation of teaching three essences as polytheists. Likewise, they used “subsistence” without implying a mere “mode” and getting charged with Sabellianism (modalistic Monarchianism). With the Reformed orthodox, the Puritans elaborated on the Triune God like Calvin: a “person” is a “subsistence” and “different from ‘essence.’” The three persons relate manifest “incommunicable” qualities proper to each while sharing the same “essence as a unity” (Institutes 1.13.2,6). 
Some criticized the use of terms such as “Trinity” and “subsistence” not found in the Bible. Thomas Vincent (1634-1678), certainly with a “good and necessary consequence” exegetical approach behind him, responds, “the things signified by the . . . Trinity. . . are in the scriptures,” therefore, “we may lawfully make use of such words” (An Explicatory Catechism, 1675). Vincent, in his own Trinity defense in The Foundation of God Standeth Sure (1668) sums up the argument for the Trinity “bottom’d upon the Scripture”: 
If the divine essence or Godhead is and can be but one, and the Father is God, and the Son God, and Holy Ghost God  [e.g. Deut 6:4; Isa 44:6; 1 Cor 8:6; John 1:1,3; Acts 5:3,4], and the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost be three distinct subsistents or persons; then there are three distinct subsistents or persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same single divine essence or Godhead. 
In a treatise on the person of Christ, Theanthropos; Or, God-Man (1660), John Arrowsmith (1602-1659) makes reference to the essence of God in relation to what we commonly call the “ontological” Trinity. He mentions the Opera ad intra, common internal operations of the Trinity, related to essence, and which “terminated” distinctly “upon some person in the Trinity.” Thus, the Father “begetteth” the Son, the Son “is begotten” of the Father, and the Holy Spirit “proceedeth” from the Father and the Son. The Puritans affirmed as distinct yet inseparable (unified within the Godhead) such internal works exhibited eternally according to the properties of each person. 
Note, as well, the begetting and procession do not imply eternal subordination in the Godhead, yet an ordering of persons in communion with one another. So, maintains Leigh,  the Father is “first from himself,” the Son “second” in “filiation” by “eternal generation,” and the Holy Spirit as “third” as he proceeds “from the Father and the Son” (A Treatise of Divinity, 1646).
Regarding the eternal generation of the Son, the majority of Puritans affirmed the Nicene formula that he is “very God of very God” in the sense that the Father, notes Cheynell, communicates “that self-same divine and entire essence, which is in himself, by begetting the personal subsistence of the Son in the unity of the Godhead from the days of eternity.” Thus, they attested that the Father communicated divine essence to his eternally begotten Son who was at the same time autotheos or “God of himself.” Whether eternal generation referred only personally to Sonship or also essentially to deity, was a matter of debate, though the Puritans generally favored the latter in line with the Nicene Creed and universally affirmed the aseity (God ‘of himself’) of Jesus Christ and denied that his essence was begotten. 
Regarding the Holy Spirit as the third person, the Puritans accepted the orthodox double procession of the Spirit (by order and not subordination) “from the Father and the Son from all eternity” (LC, Q&A 10). This affirmation, “and the Son” (Latin, filioque), added to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed in the sixth century played a significant role in the East-West Schism (1054) of the church, with the East protesting double procession. Cheynell, rightly argues that denying the Spirit’s procession “equally from the Father and the Son” means that the “equality of the divine persons cannot be maintained if that principle be denied,” since the Son would be subordinate to the Father from whom alone the Spirit proceeds.
While discussing Christ as creator, Arrowsmith also mentions God’s “works ad extra” terminated outside and “common to all the three persons.” Thus, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all create as “one Creator” with “one essence” and “the will of God” being  “the same in all the three persons.” Yet, as “different subsistencies . . . they have a distinct manner of working, even in this business of the Creation.” Regarding such operations, we commonly speak of the “economical” Trinity in terms of ordered activity in God’s relation to creation. Such work (e.g. redemption) was considered united as the expression of the one will of God (e.g. salvation by the Triune God) and yet with ordered activity carried out covenantally according to the distinct personal properties and without subordination (e.g. the Father appoints, the Son accomplishes, and the Spirit applies redemption).
Vincent (The Foundation of God Standeth Sure) notes our struggle to understand and explain “this mystery” of the Trinity. Yet, it is clearly proven “from Scripture” as “one great fundamental point of our Christian faith, which all Christians are bound” by God “to believe.” 
Likewise, we must not only embrace the doctrine but also experience the reality. Our hearts must be stirred to life unto and communion with each of the persons of the Trinity as John Owen advocates wonderfully in Communion with God (1657). He sees this communion as “the mutual communication” of good between persons “delighted” in one another based on the “union between them.” Thus, the Triune God in each person communicates himself to us and we respond to him as he requires and delights with such “flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.” If each person of the Trinity delights in this communion, why do we pursue it so meagerly? So, for example, when’s the last time you prayed to the Holy Spirit?

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.

For previous posts in this series, see:

  1. What is Puritan Theology?
  2. William Ames and Puritan Theologizing
  3. William Ames and Shorter Catechism Q&A 1
  4. The Two Lights
  5. Scripture
  6. God Is

In his discussion on the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Thomas Watson notes that God does not lead anyone into temptation in the sense that he doesn’t tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). God doesn’t entice or encourage his creatures to sin. As Watson says, “He permits sin, but does not promote it…What king will tempt his subjects to break laws which he himself established?”

God, however, does test or try his people. In the KJV, Genesis 22:1 says that God "tempted" Abraham, but Watson carefully points out that “tempting there was no more than trying.” There is, therefore, a very important distinction between testing and tempting. God tests but does not tempt. To be sure, some tests that God gives include temptation. In the test, we are tempted to sin but we need to understand that God is not the one tempting us or enticing us to sin. Rather we are tempted by what has been called the trinity of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil.
God tested Adam in the Garden of Eden but it was Satan who was tempting him to disobey. God tested Abraham by telling him to go and sacrifice his son Isaac but Abraham would have been tempted to put his son above God by his own sinful desires. James says that each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Watson says that our own hearts are the greatest tempters and that everyone is Satan to himself (quisque sibi Satan est). Abraham, however, did not fall into the temptation. By faith, he passed the test (Heb. 11:17).
God also tested Israel in the wilderness to know what was in their heart, whether they would keep his commandments or not (Deut. 8). Israel was certainly tested when they had no water and food.  But God was not tempting them to complain and disobey. Rather, they were tempted to sin against God by their own sinful hearts. And, unlike Abraham, they fell into the temptation. In Deuteronomy 13, Moses says that false prophets who perform signs are divine tests designed to see if Israel will love God with all of their heart. God tests, the false prophets tempt. “He permits sin but does not promote it.”
Since God does not tempt us, what then does “lead us not into temptation” mean? To enter into temptation means to sin.  We see this in Mark 14:38 where Jesus warns his disciples to watch and pray so that they may not enter into temptation.  Jesus is not saying to watch and pray so that they won’t be tempted at all.  He is saying that they are going to be tempted and that they need to watch and pray so that they don’t sin.  
Thus, when we pray “and lead us not into temptation” we are asking God to enable us to overcome the temptation. We are asking him to keep us from sinning and to enable us to stand firm on the day of trial and testing. Thomas Watson says, “The meaning is, that God would not suffer us to be overcome by temptation; that we may not be given up to the power of temptation and be drawn into sin.” This is confirmed by the second clause of the sixth petition: “but deliver us from evil.”
The Lord’s Prayer, therefore, does not teach or imply that God tempts his people. God tests his people but he does not tempt them. We are tempted by the world, the flesh and the devil. Formidable foes to be sure, but defeated ones for those who are in Christ. So, pray and “take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (Eph. 6:13).”