The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper (7)

Hindrances to & Benefits of the Lord’s Supper

While the Lord’s Supper was open to all believers, not all believers participated fully and regularly in it. There are several hindrances that prevented believers from receiving all the benefits of the sacrament.

The first hindrance is the devil. Doolittle said the devil “will be with you at the sacrament to rob you of the comfort and hinder you from that joy that there you might be filled with.”[1]Watson wrote, “Satan would hinder from the sacrament, as Saul did the people from the honey (1 Sam. 14:26).”[2]Careful observance of the Lord’s Supper opposes Satan’s work, however. Owen said, “In our celebration of the death of Christ, we do profess against Satan, that his power is broken, that he is conquered—tied to the chariot wheels of Christ, who has disarmed him.”[3]Matthew Henry went further, stating, “Christ having thus trodden Satan under our feet, he calls to us, as Joshua to the captains of Israel, ‘Come near, put your feet upon the necks of these kings.’”[4]

The second hindrance is forgetfulness. God’s children must battle spiritual amnesia in observing the Lord’s Supper (Ps. 103:2; 106:12–13). “None can be ignorant,” wrote Edmund Calamy (1600–1666), “of how apt our hearts are to turn aside like a deceitful bow, and to lose the sense of those things which ought continually to influence and govern us.”[5]Doolittle said, “What is most to be wondered at is that we are too prone to forget God our Savior, to forget Him who delivered us from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us; who delivered us from the wrath of God by bearing it Himself; who delivered us from the sting of death by dying for us.”[6]Similarly, Matthew Henry wrote, “Remember him! Is there any danger of our forgetting him? If we were not wretchedly taken up with the world and the flesh, and strangely careless in the concerns of our souls, we could not forget him. But, in consideration of the treachery of our memories, this ordinance is appointed to remind us of Christ.”[7]Opposing forgetfulness is one of the main purposes of the Lord’s Supper, which constantly challenges us to “Remember me.” 

The third hindrance is neglect. The Puritans stated several reasons for the neglect of the sacrament, ranging from a sense of personal unworthiness to a sense of personal pride. Either way, neglect is hypocrisy, the Puritans warned. Doolittle wrote of the dangers of neglect while suggesting the remedy. He said, “It is hypocrisy to complain of the hardness of your heart and yet not use the means to have it softened, to complain of the power of your sin and not use the means to have it weakened.”[8]Willison wrote, “Is not the frequent use of this ordinance, in the way Christ hath appointed, an excellent help, to soften our hearts, renew our repentance, strengthen our faith, inflame our love, increase our thankfulness, animate our resolutions against sin, and encourage us to holy duties, and shall we willingly neglect it?”[9]Against a repeated neglect of the Supper, Henry offered this warning: “Thou hast no desire to the wine of the love of God, but rather choosest the puddle water of sensual pleasures; but canst thou ‘drink of the wine of the wrath of God,’ which shall be poured out without mixture in the presence of the Lamb?”[10]

Perkins listed several benefits of the sacraments: (1) “for the better confirmation of our faith: for by it, as by certain pledges given, God of his great mercy, doth as it were, bind himself unto us.” (2) “That it might be a badge and note of that profession, by which the true church of God is distinguished from the other congregations.” (3) “That is might be a means to preserve and spread abroad the doctrine of the gospel.” (4) “It serveth to bind the faithful, that they do continue both loyal and grateful to their Lord God.” (5) “It is the bond of mutual amity [love] betwixt the faithful.”[11]Truly it is a sign and seal of the covenant bond.

Reynolds said the Supper was ordained “to exhibit Christ” so as “to increase the mystical union of the church unto Christ their head.”[12]Just as natural food strengthens our bodies by becoming part of them, so we receive “spiritual nourishment” from the Supper in “the vital Spirit of Christ” so that “Christ, being united unto us by these holy mysteries, doth comfort, refresh, strengthen, rule, and direct us in all our ways.”[13]Sin battles against our spiritual health, but the sacrament is a means “to strengthen our faith” by linking us to Christ so that we grow spiritually.[14]Reynolds also noted that the Supper increases the unity of the church, partly because eating together naturally knits men’s affections together.[15]

Thomas Watson wrote, “Let not Christians rest in lower measures of grace, but aspire after higher degrees. The stronger our faith, the firmer is our union with Christ, and the more sweet influence we draw from him.”[16]Similarly, Matthew Henry wrote, “If thou didst duly attend on this ordinance, and improve it aright, thou wouldst find it of unspeakable use to thee for the strengthening of thy faith, the exciting of holy affections in thee, and thy furtherance in every good word and work.”[17]The practice of self-examination, so important to Puritans, is itself a means of assurance.[18]

Tethered to the Scriptures is the mystical element of the Supper: fellowship with Christ beyond words. Willison said the Supper is rightly called a feast, even a marriage-feast, “because hereby the believers are richly entertained by Christ, have sweet intimacy with him, and great expressions of his love; and their souls are nourished and strengthened for duty.”[19]The Supper seals our place in the covenant of grace, for, as Willison said, “Christ puts a sealed copy of his testament into every worthy communicant’s hand, at the Lord’s table.”[20]

Reynolds said another effect of this Supper is “to signify and obsignate [seal], unto the soul of each believer, his personal claim and title unto the new covenant of grace.”[21]It is a means of our receiving “the pledges of our salvation” so that “we might, at this spiritual altar, see Christ (as it were), crucified before our eyes, [and] cling unto his cross.”[22]Thus the sacrament is both a sign and a seal of our redemption in Christ, “for the nature of a sign is to discover and represent that which in itself is obscure or absent…but the property of a seal is to ratify and establish that which might otherwise be ineffectual.”[23]

Thomas Doolittle saidevery believer seeks deeper assurance when going to the Lord’s Table. He said God’s children come to the Table for the following reasons: “To have communion with God. To increase our faith in Christand love for God. To further our joy in the Holy Ghost. Our peace of conscience and hope of eternal life.... To make us thankful to God for His mercy bestowed upon us in Christ. To get power against our sins. And especially to remember and show forth the death of Christ.”[24]Doolittle said strong believers pursue these benefits even more earnestly than weak ones. They come to the Table seeking to have their hearts inflamed with love for God and desires after Christ; they come to have their Savior more endeared to their souls, their hearts softened, their sin subdued, theirfaith strengthened, their evidences cleared, and their souls assured of eternal life.[25]

Doolittle advised weak believers to “draw near unto this Table of the Lord, and have a share of these gospel benefits and be assured of them.”[26]“I am persuaded that if you would go unto this ordinance, you would in time hear God speaking peace and comfort to your soul.”[27]He said that the believer with strong assurance finds complete joy in participating in the sacrament. When I as a believer apprehend “the truth of my faith in Christ, love for God, and hatred of sin, and the promise that God has made to such in Christ,” so “as surely as I ate the bread and drank the wine, so sure has God pardoned my sins and will save my soul.”[28]In addition, the assured believer finds “the Spirit, God bearing witness to and with my spirit that it was thus with me, and, oh, how sweet was Christ then to my soul!”[29]

The Puritans believed the Lord’s Supper, properly received by faith, “would provide the occasion for the extension of faith,” Holifield said.[30]Watson wrote, “Christ gives us his body and blood for the augmenting of faith; he expects that we should reap some profit and income, and that our weak, minute faith should flourish into a great faith.”[31]Owen offered helpful parallels between physical eating and spiritual eating, saying there is “an increase and quickening of the vital principles, there is growth, and there is satisfaction.”[32]Similarly, Edwards wrote, “You have been hungry and thirsty in times past, but if you come to this gospel feast you shall hunger and thirst no more.”[33]

As believers meditate on the cross of Christ, they are reminded that God keeps His promises. Owen believed the sacraments were “instituted of Christ to be visible seals and pledges whereby God in him confirmeth the promisesof the covenant to all believers, re-stipulating of them growth in faith and obedience.”[34]Similarly, Matthew Henry wrote, “Give up thyself in sincerity to Jesus Christ, and then come and feast with him: thou shalt then have in this ordinance the pledges of his favour, assurances of thy reconciliation to him, and acceptance with him, and all shall be well, for it shall end everlastingly well.”[35]

The sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, evidenced in the Lord’s Supper, further reminds believers that they no longer face divine condemnation. Those who fear the wrath of God can find reassurance in the sacrament. Owen wrote, “Look, whatever the justice of God, the law of God, whatever the threatening of God did require to be inflicted as punishment for sin, Christ underwent it all.”[36]Richard Vines said the sacrament “is needful for relief of our doubts, fears, and waverings; for this is the great question of anxiety which troubles the soul: Are my sins pardoned? Are my sins blotted out? God has...instituted this sacrament to resolve this question for the weak in faith.”[37]

Finally, believers are reminded that they have peace with God. Owen said, “What is the issue of all this? It is to bring us unto God— to peace with God and acquitment from all our sins; and to make us acceptable with the righteous, holy, and faithful God; to give us boldness before him — this is the issue.”[38]

Conclusion

For all their love of the Bible and spiritual simplicity, the Puritans had no desire to jettison the sacraments ordained by Christ in the Bible. They especially delighted in the Lord’s Supper. Reynolds wrote, “Here then, inasmuch as these sacred elements are instituted to present and exhibit Christ unto the faithful soul, we may infer with what affection we ought to approach unto him, and what reverent estimation to have of them.” Christ is the desire of all nations, the sum of our happiness. But we cannot enjoy Him without being united to Him. Reynolds wrote, “Union unto Christ we cannot have, until it please him, by his Spirit, as it were, to stoop from that kingdom where now he is, and to exhibit himself unto those, whom it pleaseth him to assume into the unity of his body.”[39]

We cannot rise up to heaven and see Christ there as Stephen once did in a vision.[40]However, Reynolds said, Christ is pleased to glorify His power by working through weak, created things. He is pleased to confirm and strengthen our union with Him “by those poor and ordinary elements of bread and wine in his sacrament.” Therefore, the Lord requires us to come with reverence and hunger and affection to His Table.[41]

The Puritans teach us that we should approach the Supper with reverence and spiritual hunger, remembering Christ, and seeking to grow in the grace and knowledge of Him (2 Pet. 3:18) to the glory of God Triune. By grace, we will then leave the Supper with a holy resolution to live wholly and solely for Him.


[1]Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 94–95.

[2]Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 60.

[3]Owen, Works, 9:543. 

[4]Henry, The Communicant’s Companion,175.

[5]Edmund Calamy, “The Express Renewal of Our Christian Vows,” in The Puritans on The Lord’s Supper, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 39.

[6]Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 14.

[7]Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 44. Later Henry adds, “Ought we not to remember, and can we ever forget a friend, who though he be absent from us, is negotiating our affairs, and is really absent for us?”

[8]Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 155.

[9]Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:10.

[10]Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 61.

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

[12]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:68, 75.

[13]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:75.

[14]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:76–77.

[15]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:82.

[16]Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 73.

[17]Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 69.

[18]Meditations on self-examination include Edwards, “Persons Ought to Examine Themselves of their Fitness Before They Presume to Partake of the Lord’s Supper,” in Sermons, 97–109; Joseph Alleine, “Self Examination,” in The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper, 85–109; and Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 39–47.

[19]Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:70.

[20]Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:90.

[21]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:83.

[22]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:83.

[23]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:84.

[24]Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 139, emphasis added.

[25]Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 153, emphasis added.

[26]Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 154.

[27]Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 156.

[28]Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 175.

[29]Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 175.

[30]Holifield, The Covenant Sealed,57.

[31]Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 68.

[32]Owen, Works, 9:592. 

[33]Edwards, “The Spiritual Blessings of the Gospel are Fitly Represented By a Feast,” in Sermons on the Lord’s Supper, 126.

[34]Owen, Works, 1:490. 

[35]Henry, The Communicant’s Companion, 62–63.

[36]Owen, Works, 9:522. 

[37]Richard Vines, “The Fruit and Benefit of Worthy Receiving,” in The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper, 124.

[38]Owen, Works, 9:569. 

[39]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:111.

[40]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:111.

[41]Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” in Works, 3:112.

 

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
  5. Qualifications for Admission to the Lord's Supper
  6. Right Reception of the Lord's Supper

Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

 


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