The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper (6)

Right Reception of the Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper was to be taken seriously, after much preparation, careful self-examination, and Christ-centered participation. Edwards wrote, “’Tis the most solemn confirmation that can be conceived of.... It is more solemn than a mere oath.”[1] He later added, “Those who contemptuously treat those symbols of the body of Christ slain and His blood shed, why, they make themselves guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, that is, of murdering Him.”[2] This solemnity is in keeping with the magnitude of the sacrament. Edwards said, “Christ is the greatest Friend of His church, and that which is commemorated in the Lord’s Supper is the greatest manifestation of His love, the greatest act of kindness that ever was in any instance, infinitely exceeding all acts of kindness done by man one to another. It was the greatest display of divine goodness and grace that ever was.”[3]

The Lord’s Supper is an encounter with Christ, the Puritans said. Both God and the believer act towards each other. Perkins said God’s action is “either the offering, or the application of Christ and his graces to the faithful.” The action of faith in the believer “is the consideration, desire, apprehension, and receiving of Christ in the lawful use of the sacrament.”[4]

John Payne describes Owen’s view of the Lord’s Supper as “a sanctified dramatization of the love of God for His people,” in which “those who exercise faith in Christ experience and partake of Him in the Supper.”[5] Owen called the elements of the Supper “the cream of the creation: which is an endless storehouse, if pursued, of representing the mysteries of Christ.”[6]

The Puritans said participants should prepare for the Lord’s Supper with quantitatively large and qualitatively rich periods of time engaged in meditation. Owen said, “The using of an ordinance will not be of advantage to us, unless we understand the institution, and the nature and the ends of it.”[7] More than mere understanding is required, since “God’s covenant promises are not ‘spiritually sealed’ by the sacraments unless received by faith and an obedient heart.”[8]

This meditation should not cease when the sacrament begins; rather, it should intensify. Owen preached “Twenty-Five Discourses Suitable to the Lord’s Supper” between 1669 and 1682. In this work, Owen instructed the congregation under his care to receive the most benefit from participating in the sacrament. He urged his congregation to first meditate on “the horrible guilt and provocation that is in sin.”[9] Next he urged the congregation “to meditate on God’s purity and holiness, that is, that holiness that would not ‘pass by sin, when it was charged upon his Son.’”[10]

The focal point of the Lord’s Supper is the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are “together received through the exercising of sincere faith.”[11] This outworking of faith is the attempt to see the Son as it were with spiritual eyes. Owen said to his congregation, “That which we are to endeavour in this ordinance is, to get...a view of Christ as lifted up; that is bearing our iniquities in his own body on the tree.... O that God in this ordinance would give our souls a view of him!”[12]

One result of this spiritual sight is the mortification of sin. Owen said, “We labour by faith so to behold a dying Christ, that strength may thence issue forth for the death of sin in our souls.”[13] Another result is the vivification of faith: “God hath appointed him to be crucified evidentially before our eyes, that every poor soul that is stung with sin, ready to die by sin, should look up unto him, and be healed.”[14]

These results are not due to the pursuit of some extra-biblical, mystical experience, but to the cooperative work of the Spirit along with the believer’s personalization of objective biblical truth. At the Lord’s Supper, Owen said, “Christ and His benefits are objectively offered, and received through the exercising of faith and the sovereign agency of the Holy Spirit.”[15] Doolittle wrote, “Let faith make particular application of this blood in all its virtues and efficacies, and say, ‘Here, O my soul, here is pardoning blood, and it is yours. Here is quickening, softening blood, and it is yours. Here is justifying, sanctifying, pleading blood, and this belongs to you.’ This will draw forth faith to do its work at the Lord’s Supper.”[16]

Goodwin compared the sacrament with the sermon and wrote, “Of sermons, some are for comfort, some to inform, some to excite; but here in the Sacrament is all thou canst expect. Christ is here light, and wisdom, and comfort, and all to thee. He is here an eye to the blind, a foot to the lame; yea, everything to everyone.”[17]

Just as careful meditation and preparation were to be used prior to the sacrament, the believer should continue meditating and thinking afterward. As a believer, said Doolittle, I must:

Consider with myself if I have received any benefit thereby.... [I will know this] by the increase of my faith in Christ and love for God; by my greater hatred of sin and power against it; by my longing after the enjoyment of God in heaven; by my prizing this ordinance above my necessary food; and by my resolutions, in the strength of Christ, to suffer for Him who died for me.[18]

Intense participation in the Supper was no mere mental assent to the doctrinal accuracy of the cross, but a heartfelt engagement. Willison offered this meditation for the communicant at the Table: “O now let the sight of a bleeding Saviour make me a weeping sinner. Had I been upon Mount Calvary…could I have stood by with dry eyes or an unconcerned heart, especially when I considered that he suffered all this in my room, and for my sins?”[19] Emotional engagement is so integral to the sacrament that multiple emotions should be expected. If these emotions conflict, the believer should be encouraged, for sorrow (because the believer’s sins put Christ to death) will not prevent joy (at Christ’s death for those sins). Doolittle anticipated a believer’s question, “‘But must I both rejoice and sorrow too? Will not either sorrow keep me from rejoicing, or rejoicing prevent my sorrowing?’ No, he responded, both these may be; both these must be. This mixture of affection well becomes a believer at the Lord’s Table. You may mourn that your sins put Christ to death, and yet you may rejoice that Christ would die for your sins.”[20]

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] Edwards, Sermons, 76.

[2] Edwards, Sermons, 107.

[3] Edwards, Sermons, 86. In his sermon “Christians Have Communion with Christ,” Edwards writes, “I would exhort you to...a serious and careful and joyful attendance on the Lord’s Supper” (Sermons, 150).

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

[5] Jon D. Payne, John Owen on the Lord’s Supper (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 64.

[6] Owen, Works, 9:540.

[7] Owen, Works, 9:583.

[8] Payne, John Owen on the Lord’s Supper, 34. See Joel R. Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 211.

[9] Owen, Works, 9:559, emphasis in original.

[10] Owen, Works, 9:559, emphasis in original.

[11] Payne, John Owen on the Lord’s Supper, 62.

[12] Owen, Works, 9:593.

[13] Owen, Works, 9:582, emphasis removed.

[14] Owen, Works, 9:571. Cf. Galatians 3:1.

[15] Payne, John Owen on the Lord’s Supper, 75, emphasis added.

[16] Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 96.

[17] The Works of Thomas Goodwin, ed. Thomas Smith (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 11:408.

[18] Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 146.

[19] John Willison, A Sacramental Directory…To which are added (by Way of Appendix) Meditations and Ejaculations proper for Communicants before, in Time of, and after partaking of the holy Sacrament (Edinburgh: Sam. Willison and Matt. Jarvie for Alexander Donaldson, 1761), 301.

[20] Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 100. Cf. Paul’s paradoxical description of himself as “sorrowing yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).

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
Joel Beeke