The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper (Pt. 3)

Some scholars say the Puritans became overly scholastic in their view of the Lord’s Supper

Holifield, for example, says that Puritan pastors performed the sacramental actions, “hoping that the service would thus convey doctrinal information.”[11] Contrasting the Puritan approach with Calvin’s approach, he says, “Calvin had been wary of overemphasizing the merely didactic possibilities of sacramental worship, but in Puritan circles the Lord’s Supper was unreservedly a vivid spectacle calling to mind the saving truths of the gospel.”


“One reason why we so little value the ordinance [of the Lord’s Supper], and profit so little by it, may be because we understand so little of the nature of that special communion with Christ which we have therein,” wrote John Owen.[1] It’s the nature of that special communion, or presence of Christ, that we turn in this post.

Edward Reynolds (1599–1676) affirmed “a real, true, and perfect presence of Christ” in the Lord’s Supper.[2] He said this was not merely Christ’s divine omnipresence, nor was it the physical presence of His human body. Christ is present “by the powerful working of his Holy Spirit” just as the sun is present to the earth in the shining of its warm rays.[3] Reynolds wrote, “The main end of the Sacrament … is to unite the faithful unto Christ.” Since our union with Christ is mystical and not physical, His presence is mystical and not physical.[4] It is indeed a union with Christ’s “sacred body” in heaven, but this does not require the physical presence of His body in the bread for communicants to receive the graces of His glorified humanity.[5]

William Perkins said there is a “sacramental union” between the signs and realities to which they point, which explains how sign and reality are often interchanged in Scripture (Gen. 17:10; Exod. 12:11; Deut. 10:16; Matt. 26:28; Luke 22:20; John 6:51, 53; Acts 7:8; 1 Cor. 5:7; 10:17; 11:24; Titus 3:5). The sacramental union is not a natural union or “mutation of the sign into the thing signified” but a “respective” union, or union by way of analogy, so as to draw the soul of the Christian to consider the spiritual reality and apply it.[6] As a result, unconverted persons “receive the signs alone without the things signified,” while the converted “do to their salvation receive, both the sign and the thing signified.”[7] Matthew Henry (1663–1714) explained, “We live in a world of sense, not yet in the world of spirits; and, because we therefore find it hard to look above the things that are seen, we are directed, in a sacrament, to look through them, to those things not seen, which are represented by them.”

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