The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper (5)

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]


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[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
Joel Beeke