The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper (2)

Papal Errors in the Lord’s Supper

The Puritans viewed transubstantiation as “repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense and reason.”[1] John Owen (1616–1683) wrote, “This is one of the greatest mysteries of the Roman magic and juggling, that corporeal elements should have a power to forgive sins, and confer spiritual grace.... No part of Christian religion was ever so vilely contaminated and abused by profane wretches, as this pure, holy, plain action and institution of our Savior: witness the Popish horrid monster of transubstantiation, and their idolatrous mass.”[2] Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) explained, “The end of the sacrament is not that we may eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ without a metaphor. And if we should suggest a thing so horrid and so monstrous as the papists do in their doctrine of transubstantiation, would that be any benefit to us?”[3]


Perkins said the signs of the Supper do not change with respect to their “substance” but in their being set apart “from a common to a holy use.”[4] He refuted the doctrine of transubstantiation with these arguments: (1) How could Christ’s body literally be eaten before He was crucified? His disciples ate the bread in the first institution of the Supper. (2) The bread is broken into parts, but every communicant receives the whole body of Christ. (3) The bread is the “communion” of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 10:16) and therefore is not itself the body. (4) If this were truly Christ’s body, would that body not only be made from the substance of Mary but also “of baker’s bread”? (5) Over time, remainders of the bread will mold and leftover wine will sour, proving they retain their substance as food. (6) Transubstantiation overthrows the analogy between a sign and what it represents by replacing the sign with the reality.[5]

Transubstantiation turns bread into an idol, Perkins said, adding, “By this means, bread is exalted above men and angels, and is received into the unity of the Second Person” of the Trinity. Perkins said that this is evident in how Roman Catholics treat the bread after the Supper: “Therefore the Host (as it is called) or the bread in the box, carried in procession and worshiped, is nothing else but a wheaten or bread-god, and an idol, not inferior to Aaron’s calf.”[6] For this reason the Puritans objected to the Anglican practice of kneeling to receive the Supper, saying it implied the superstitious worship of the bread and cup.[7]

Perkins was willing to acknowledge that the Supper was a sacrifice of praise for Christ’s death on the cross and the presentation of ourselves as living sacrifices in response to His mercies, accompanied by the sacrifice of alms given to the poor (Heb. 13:15–16; Rom. 12:1). In the Supper, Christ’s sacrifice is sacramentally present in the symbols and mentally present in the believing remembrance of communicants.[8]

But Perkins rejected the notion that the minister serves as a priest who offers a real, bodily sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, for the Puritans recognized “only Christ’s oblation [offering] on the cross once offered.”[9] He presented the following arguments:

  1. The Holy Spirit says in Scripture that “Christ offered himself but once” (Heb. 9:15, 26; 10:10). The Papist response that this is true of a bloody sacrifice but not the unbloody sacrifice of the mass fails to account for the teaching that without blood there is no remission of sins (Heb. 9:22). This distinction is not based on Scripture and so “is but a forgery of man’s brain.”
  2. The offering up of Christ’s substance in the sacrifice of the mass must either continue His sacrifice or repeat it, either of which implies that Christ’s work on the cross was incomplete (Heb. 10:1–3). But Christ said of His work, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
  3. Christ commanded us to partake of the Supper in remembrance (Luke 22:19), which means we look back to something done in the past, not something happening right now.
  4. The Scriptures teach that Christ did not hand off His priesthood to another but continues in it forever (Heb. 7:24–25). Human priests, if they indeed offered sacrifices, would be taking Christ’s place as the only Priest.
  5. If the priest does offer Christ’s real body and blood to God, that priest becomes a mediator between God and Christ. It is absurd for mere men to mediate for Christ.
  6. The fathers of the ancient and medieval church said the sacrifice of our worship and our eating of Christ are spiritual, not the drinking of human blood.[10]


The Puritans opposed the Roman doctrine that the sacraments had inherent power from God to confer grace; Perkins said the effect of a sacrament is subject to God’s will. He wrote, “No action in the dispensation of a sacrament conferreth grace as it is a work done, that is, by the efficacy and force of the very sacramental action itself.” On the contrary, the sacraments work by addressing the mind of believers with the promises of the covenant, leading them to consider those promises rationally and so be confirmed in faith, Perkins said. He also specified that the grace conferred is not the grace of justification but an increase of sanctification. “A man of years must first believe and be justified, before he can be a meet [qualified] partaker of any sacrament,” Perkins said.[11] To make a sacrament effective by doing the work (ex opera operato) makes it an idol, for only God can give grace.[12]


[1] “Westminster Confession of Faith” (29.6), in Westminster Confession of Faith (1994; repr., Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2003), 117–18.

[2] John Owen, “Two Short Catechisms,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 1:490–91.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, Sermons on the Lord’s Supper (Orlando, Fla.: The Northampton Press, 2007), 5.

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

[5] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:76. For further Protestant polemics against the Mass published in English, see Alexander Cooke, Worke, More Worke, and a Little More Worke for a Mass-Priest (London: Jones, 1628); David de Rodon, The Funeral of the Mass, or, The Mass Dead and Buried without hope of Resurrection, trans. out of French (London: T. H. for Andrew Clark, 1677); Owen, “A Vindication of the Animadversions on ‘Fiat Lux,’” in Works, 14:411–26; William Payne, The Three Grand Corruptions of the Eucharist in the Church of Rome (London: for Brabazon Ayler, 1688); and three sermons: Edward Lawrence, “There Is No Transubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper”; Richard Steele, “The Right of Every Believer to the Blessed Cup in the Lord’s Supper”; and Thomas Wadsworth, “Christ Crucified the Only Proper Gospel-Sacrifice,” in Puritan Sermons, 1659–1689 (repr., Wheaton: Richard Owen Roberts, 1981), 6:453–529.

[6] Perkins, “The Idolatrie of the last times,” Works, 1:680. For “bread-god” the original text says “breaden god.”

[7] Mayor, The Lord’s Supper in Early English Dissent, 18–19, 50–51. See Willison, “A Sacramental Catechism,” in Works, 2:80.

[8] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholike,” in Works, 1:593.

[9] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholike,” in Works, 1:593.

[10] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholike,” in Works, 1:594–95.

[11] Perkins, “A Reformed Catholicke,” in Works, 1:610–11.

[12] Perkins, “The Idolatrie of the last times,” in Works, 1:680.


Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction
Joel Beeke