The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper (1)


The Lord’s Supper is an earthly encounter with the heavenly Christ, said the Puritans. In this they agreed with the teaching of John Calvin (1509–1564).[1] John Knox (c. 1505–1572), the link between Calvin and British Puritanism,[2] wrote that just as Christ said “he himself was the lively bread, wherewith our souls be fed unto everlasting life,” so Christ,

in setting forth bread and wine to eat and drink, he confirmeth and sealeth up to us his promise and communion…and representeth unto us, and maketh plain to our senses, his heavenly gifts; and also giveth unto us himself, to be received with faith, and not with mouth, nor yet by transfusion of substance. But so through the virtue [power] of the Holy Ghost, that we, being fed with his flesh, and refreshed with his blood, may be renewed both unto true godliness and to immortality.[3]

Thus “we receive Jesus Christ spiritually” in the Lord’s Supper.[4]

Stephen Charnock (1628–1680) said of the Supper, “There is in this action more communion with God…than in any other religious act….We have not so near a communion with a person, either by petitioning for something we want, or returning him thanks for a favour received, as we have by sitting with him at his table, partaking of the same bread and the same cup.”[5] He explained, “Christ is really presented to us, and faith really takes him, closes with him, lodgeth him in the soul, makes him an indweller; and the soul hath spiritual communion with him in his life and death, as if we did really eat his flesh and drink his blood presented to us in the elements.”[6]

John Willison (1680–1750) wrote that in partaking of the Supper we should exercise a remembrance of Christ that is full of awe, reverence, broken-hearted mourning over our sins, hatred against our sins, thankfulness, and trust in Christ for our full justification. He wrote, “Our hearts should even burn with affection to him, when we remember the great floods of wrath that brake in upon Christ’s soul, and yet could not drown his love to us.”[7]

It is easy to understand why the Puritans, who had such a high view of the Lord’s Supper, placed such great value upon understanding the sacrament biblically and practicing it spiritually. This series will address two concerns at the heart of the Puritan treatment of the Lord’s Supper: doctrinal questions about its meaning and pastoral questions about its partaking.

Unappreciated today is that the Puritans were heirs of the Reformation debates concerning the Lord’s Supper. “From a modern point of view, the eucharistic controversies of the sixteenth century seem unchristian,” writes Thomas J. Davis. He said, “What one finds is that eucharistic theology was not simply about church ritual but, rather, it was about who God is, how God operates, how humanity is saved, where God might be found.”[8]

The Lord’s Supper became the focal point of doctrinal debates during the Reformation. Martin Luther (1483–1546) had led Reformation churches away from the Roman Mass as a continuing priestly sacrifice in which, by the miracle of transubstantiation, the flesh and blood of Christ are offered anew as an atoning sacrifice.[9] To be sure, some of the Protestant revulsion against the Mass arose from abuses acknowledged even by the Roman Catholic Church. One Roman Catholic scholar laments “the commercialization of the holy sacrifice” by which masses were sold by greedy priests promising release from purgatory, and health and prosperity in this life.[10] However, the most significant division between the Church of England and the Papacy in this matter was in doctrinal differences rather than practical abuses.[11] The English Reformer Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), together with Nicholas Ridley (c. 1500–1555) and John Bradford (1510–1555), sealed their doctrinal opposition to the Roman Mass with their own deaths during the Marian persecutions.[12] During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603), The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, ratified in 1571, codified for subsequent generations the English rejection of papist teachings about the Eucharist (Articles 28–31).[13]

By the time of the Puritans, theological differences had hardened between the Reformed and Lutherans, despite the efforts of Calvin and Beza.[14] Luther taught that Christ’s body and blood were so united with the elements as to be locally and physically present and so eaten with the mouth. By contrast, Calvin taught that by faith, partakers of  the Supper lift up their “hearts and minds on high, where Jesus Christ is, in the glory of his Father, and from whence we look for him for our redemption” to be made partakers of Christ’s body and blood in a spiritual but nonetheless real manner.[15] This highlights a difference between Calvin and the Puritans. There is little emphasis of heavenly participation in the Puritans. Rather than lifting up our hearts to Christ and partaking of Christ on high, the Puritans stressed, as did Thomas Cranmer, that Christ comes down to us in the sacrament by His Word and Spirit, offering himself as our spiritual food and drink.

Luther’s teachings were influential in the English Reformation.[16] Yet Robert Barnes (c. 1495–1540) seemed to be the only English Reformer who adopted a Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper.[17] In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Luther’s writings continued to be translated into English but mostly on the subject of spiritual consolation through justification by faith, particularly in his commentary on Galatians.[18] His view of the Supper seemed to have had little impact on the Puritans, who asserted the Reformed doctrine of real spiritual presence, while rejecting the Roman Catholic idea of a corporeal or physical presence .

The Puritans opposed both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran positions that Christ was physically present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.[19] E. Brooks Holifield writes, “In their opposition to Lutheran and Roman Catholic doctrine, the Puritans were unambiguous.”[20] On the other hand, the Puritans did not follow Zwingli or the Anabaptists in de-emphasizing the physical sacraments.[21] While some Puritans had some Zwinglian tendencies,[22] most Puritans belonged to a more Calvinistic group. William Perkins (1558–1602) said, “We keep the middle way, neither giving too much, nor too little to the sacraments.”[23]

This post was adapted from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 743–759.



[1] For primary sources on Calvin’s sacramental views: Treatises on the Sacraments, Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Forms of Prayer, and Confessions of Faith, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2002), 119–122, 163–579; Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 4.14, 17–18.

[2] On Knox’s role in transmitting the Genevan eucharistic liturgy to English Puritanism, see Stephen Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent (London: Epworth Press, 1972), 1–12.

[3] John Knox, “A Summary, According to the Holy Scriptures, of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,” in The Works of John Knox, ed. David Laing (Edinburgh: The Bannatyne Club, 1854), 3:73.

[4] Knox, “A Summary… of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,” in Works, 3:75.

[5] Stephen Charnock, “A Discourse of the End of the Lord’s Supper,” The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock (1865; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 4:407.

[6] Charnock, “The End of the Lord’s Supper,” in Works, 4:408.

[7] John Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in The Whole Works of the Reverend and Learned Mr John Willison (Edinburgh: J. Moir, 1798), 2:88–89.

[8] Thomas J. Davis, This Is My Body: The Presence of Christ in Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 13–14.

[9] Transubstantiation is the doctrine that the elements of the Eucharist are physically transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ through a change of substance though not in appearance. It was affirmed as church dogma by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and again, contra the Reformers, at the Council of Trent (1551).

[10] Francis Clark, S.J., Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation, 2nd ed. (1967; repr., Devon: Augustine Publishing, 1981), 59. See Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), 146.

[11] Clark, Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation, 64.

[12] For the writings of British Reformers against the Papist view of the Supper, see “A Defense of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Saviour Christ,” in The Remains of Thomas Cranmer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1833), 2:275–463; Nicholas Ridley, A Brief Declaration of the Lord’s Supper (London: Seeley and Co., 1895); John Bradford, “Sermon on the Lord’s Supper,” in The Writings of John Bradford (1848–1853; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 1:82–110; Thomas Becon, “The Displaying of the Popish Mass,” in Prayers and Other Pieces (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1844), 251–86; Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass Is Idolatry,” in Works, 3:29–70.

[13] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (1931; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 505–507.

[14] E. Brooks Holifield, The Covenant Sealed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 4–26; Richard A. Muller, “Calvin on Sacramental Presence, in the Shadow of Marburg and Zurich,” Lutheran Quarterly 23 (2009): 147–67. Jill Raitt, The Eucharistic Theology of Theodore Beza: Development of Reformed Doctrine, AAR Studies in Religion, no. 4 (Chambersburg, Pa.: American Academy of Religion, 1972), 2–7.

[15] See “The Manner of Celebrating the Lord’s Supper,” in Calvin’s Treatises on the Sacraments, 119–22. John Knox agreed with Calvin, teaching that “as the only way to dispose our souls to receive nourishment, relief, and quickening of his substance, let us lift up our minds by faith above all things worldly and sensible, and thereby enter into heaven, that we may find and receive Christ, where he dwelleth undoubtedly, very God and very man, in the incomprehensible glory of his Father” (Charles W. Baird, Presbyterian Liturgies: Historical Sketches [repr., Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2006], 123–24).

[16] See Carl R. Trueman, Luther’s Legacy: Salvation and English Reformers, 1525–1556 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

[17] Carl. R. Trueman and Carrie Euler, “The Reception of Martin Luther in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England,” in The Reception of the Continental Reformation in Britain, ed. Polly Ha and Patrick Collinson, Proceedings of the British Academy, 164 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 65–67.

[18] Trueman and Euler, “The Reception of Martin Luther,” in The Reception of the Continental Reformation, 68–76.

[19] See Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:75–76; Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Supper (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 17–19; Edward Reynolds, “Meditations on the Holy Sacrament,” The Whole Works of the Right Rev. Edward Reynolds (1826; repr., Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 3:68–72.

[20] Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, 59.

[21] Ulrich Zwingli, Writings (Allison Park, Pa: Pickwick Publications, 1984), 1: 92–127; 2:127–45, 187–369. For a recent appreciative survey, see Bruce A. Ware, “The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper in the Theology of Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531),” in The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ until He Comes, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Matthew R. Crawford (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 229–47.

[22] See the discussion in Holifield, The Covenant Sealed, 59.

[23] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholicke,” in Works, 1:611.


Joel Beeke