On Frequent Communicating: Scripture and The Eucharist
19 min read
19 min read
The prejudices of many pious and well-disposed people, against the late overture of the synod of Glasgow and Air, concerning frequent communicating make it necessary to acquaint them with the reasons on which that overture was founded, that men of honest minds may see if there is cause for that strange and hideous outcry which has been raised against it.
Others, better qualified for such a talk, have thought fit to decline it. Several of my Fathers and brethren, both at the meeting of synod, and since, have urged me to undertake it: But their solicitations would scarce have moved me to publish anything on the subject, so crude and indigested as what follows, had not To me circumstances convinced me, that the silence of those who are convinced of the goodness of the overture has had much worse effects, that could have flowed from even the weaker defence.
The question, whether the synod’s overture should be rejected or approved, depends on two subordinate enquiries. Is the design of dispensing the Lord’s Supper in every congregation, at least four times a year, in itself good? And are the means proposed for gaining that end, the moft proper, and lead exceptionable?
Let us begin with enquiring if the design of dispensing the Sacrament thus often is in itself a good one. — And here let us for once suppose, that there is no Scripture precept or pattern obliging us to frequent communicating.
Supposing this, it must at least be allowed, there is no restraint laid upon us, in the word of God, from partaking frequently of the Lord’s Supper. If no precise time is fixed in Scripture for dispensing and receiving it, and if no precise degree of frequency is enjoined, yet none dare allege, that there is any time in which we are prohibited to dispense and receive that ordinance, or that any degree of frequency is absolutely prohibited. From this, it follows, that we are left at liberty to dispense the Lord’s Supper as often as is confident with the right performance of other religious exercises, and the due discharge of the common duties of life.
And if such a measure of frequency is lawful, may I venture a step further, and pronounce it, if not necessary, yet at least in the highest degree gree expedient? If the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of so comforting and improving a nature, as almost all acknowledge it, should we not account the frequent enjoyment of it a privilege?
And if God has not deprived us of that privilege, do we act a wife and friendly part for our own fouls, in depriving ourselves of it?
To give this argument its due force, let us consider a little the nature and design of the Lords’ Supper, and what benefits may be expected by those who worthily receive it.
It is the ordinance our Lord Jesus has peculiarly set apart to keep up the remembrance of his sufferings and death. There we see the loving and lovely Jesus laying down his life as a sacrifice and atonement for our sins; and shedding; his precious blood to purchase for us happiness large as our wishes, and lairing as eternity. We fee the Lord of Life suffering a painful, an ignominious, an accursed Death ; that by thus fulfilling the condition of the covenant of redemption, he might secure grace and glory, and every good thing, not to us only, but to an innumerable multitude, which no man can number, of all tongues, and kindreds, and nations, and languages. We behold the height and depth, the length and breadth of divine love to a perishing world: Of the Father’s love in inflicting upon him such unparalleled sufferings, that we might not suffer of his own love and condescension in cheerfully bearing them. We behold the Son of Man glorified, in bearing that load of wrath, without fainting under it, which would have sunk a whole world in irrecoverable misery. We behold God glorified in him, and all the divine perfections shining with united lustre, the justice of God sweetly Combining with his mercy to punish our Surety, that we the offenders might be forgiven. From a deep and heart-affecting sense, that we, and all the children of Men, who obtain salvation, must be wholly indebted to that amazing transaction for obtaining it; we are made to fay, ” God forbid that we should glory, save in the cross of Christ. We will remember thy love more than wine: We will rejoice in thy salvation, and in the name of thee our God will we lift up our banners: For thou, Lord, haft made us glad through thy work, and we will triumph in the works of thy hands. Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift: And blessed be he who hath come in the name of the Lord to fave us. Hosannah in the highest.”
Ask your own hearts, O Christians, are you in any danger of remembering these things too much? And if you remember them at all, can you do it in any better method than that which infinite wisdom has prescribed?
Suppose a Friend, who had received a deadly wound in defending us from danger, should, when about to expire, present us with his picture, and recommend it to us with his dying breath, to keep it as a token and remembrance of his friendship and affection. What would gratitude oblige us to do? Would we cast it into some by-corner out of sight? Would we suffer it to be sullied with dust? or buried under lumber, neglected and forgotten? Would we not rather hang it in our chief room? Would we not honour it, not only by care to preserve it from abuse, but by frequent looks, thereby to renew, and, if possible, to increase an affectionate remembrance how much we were indebted to our departed Friend? Can we then pretend to honour our Redeemer, when we answer his care in providing and recommending his supper as a representative of his death, by contrary care, in seeking pretences to lay it aside?
The Lord’s Supper is a visible badge of our Christian profession. — Nature has taught mankind, and God himself has confirmed it, that every religion should have some solemn rite whereby it may be known to the very eye, from other religions. Circumcision, the Passover, etc. under the Mosaic economy, were all intended, (not excluding other ends) to be signs between God and his people, i. e. rites whereby they might be distinguished from idolaters: And therefore a terrible threatening was levelled against the neglecters of these rites, that soul must be cut off from his people: He has put off the badge of my people, and therefore must not share in their privileges. All this being highly rational, Christianity has its distinguishing rites, as well as Judaism had.
Prayer, thanksgiving, and such-like holy exercises are common to almost all religions and observed by the Jew, the Turk, and the Heathen as well as the Christian. — Baptism we receive in our infancy, and without our own consent; and therefore it cannot be the principal criterion of our Christian profession. — But by partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we distinguish ourselves from all who despite the gospel of Christ, and testify, in the most public manner, our regard to a crucified Saviour, our concern to keep up the remembrance of his death,’ and our resolutions to adhere to him and his cause, while by others he is disregarded and set at nought.
Our Lord well knowing how loath we are to undertake anything difficult, although for the sake of him who was our best benefactor, would not burden us with any number of troublesome ceremonies : And therefore he only appointed this one ordinance, by which we mould openly declare ourselves on Christ’s side, and proclaim to the world our grateful, affectionate sense of his unparalleled love. Ought we not then to be frequent in thus openly confessing Christ before men, while too many are ashamed of him and his words in this adulterous and perverse generation?
The Lord’s Supper is also intended as a seal and confirmation of the fullness and freedom of the offers of grace in the everlasting gospel. For as really as the minister offers the bread and wine to the communicants, so really God the Father offers Christ, the bread of life, to every one of us for the’ nourishment of our souls. — And are there any, whose faith is so lively and vigorous, that they seldom need the help of this ordinance to strengthen and increase it?
Is not the Lord’s Supper an ordinance, in which God is often pleased to vouchsafe special communion with himself, and his Son Jesus Christ? Does it not greatly tend, through the divine blessing, to strengthen the communion of the mystical body of Christ, and to warm and enlarge our affection to all who love our Lord Jesus in sincerity? Does it not often prove meat indeed, and drink indeed to the fainting foul a means to convey large measures of spiritual nourishment and growth in grace? Indeed suitable impressions of Christ’s loving us, and giving himself for us a sacrifice and an offering to God, of a sweet smelling favour, are the great means by which holy dispositions are begun, carried on, and perfected in the soul. And what can tend more to awaken a lively sense of these things, than beholding the symbols of the broken body and shed blood of Christ? How many, who went to the Lord’s table feeble and faint-hearted, have received such plenteous communications of light and life from the glorious head of influences, that they have been made to renew their strength, to mount up with wings as eagles, to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint?
Who is there amongst us, whose need of the Lord’s Supper, for one or other of the above purposes, does not frequently return? Has then God provided for us so rich an entertainment? Does he allow us often to regale ourselves with it? Yea, even invite us in the most warm and earned manner? And, is it not a contempt of the goodness and condescension of God, and injuring our own spiritual interests, to neglect any opportunity of fitting down at the table of the Lord? Our soul necessities, says the judicious Mr Willison do call for frequency in partaking:
“For we are oft ready to forget Christ, and therefore we oft need this ordinance to bring him to our remembrance. We are oft subject to spiritual deadness, weakness of faith, and decays of grace arid therefore have frequent need of this ordinance for strength and quickening.. There is ground to fear, that the infrequent celebration and participation of this blessed feast, which Christ hath prepared for us, is an evil that many in this church are chargeable with, and for which the Lord may plead a controversy with us. How can we expect but he will depart from us, when we stand at such a distance from him, and come so seldom near him in the method he hath appointed? Can we look for the smiles of Christ’s countenance, when we live so much in the neglect of his dying words? Is it any wonder our hearts are so hard when we are so seldom applying the blood of Christ for softening them; or that our graces be so weak and withered when we so little use the means for Strengthening and cherishing them? Is not the frequent use of this ordinance, in the way Christ hath appointed, an excellent help to soften our hearts, renew our repentance, strengthen our faith, inflame our love, increase our thankfulness, animate our resolutions against sin, and encourage us to holy duties; and shall we willingly neglect it? It is no wonder that we complain we miss what we aim at and expect in this ordinance when we are so little sensible of former neglects. It is a sad sign our receiving of the sacrament is not right, when it leaves not in us earned breathings for the like opportunity. It is impossible for us to meet with Christ, and taste of his sweetness and fullness in this ordinance, and not long for another meeting.”Sacramental Catechism, p. 86. and Preface, p. 9.
Thus far Mr. Willison. Many excellent reflections to the same purpose may be found in Charnock’s Works’ vol. II. p. 758. — 768, which those who have the book would do well to peruse.
The two preceding paragraphs abundantly prove, that if frequent communicating cannot be urged as absolutely necessary, it may safely be recommended as highly expedient and beneficial. But, perhaps, upon inquiry, we shall find in Scripture an express injunction of frequency nay, of a precise degree of frequency in partaking of the Lord’s Supper. For, that a prince should require a tribute to be paid him by every one of his subjects, and yet never express what sum should be paid, and at what time, is incredible. In like manner, I cannot easily bring myself to believe, that our Lord should require his church, to the end of the world, to eat bread, and drink wine in commemoration of his death, without specifying how often he would have it done. The Jews, though they understood not the utmost significance of the Paschal rite, yet had full directions how often, and in what day they were to sacrifice and eat the Lamb. If then the word of God has assigned no precise time for partaking of the Lord’s Supper, will it not follow, that the gospel is more obscure than the law; and that our Lord, when he took the veil from off Moses’s face, covered with a thicker vail his own?
1 Corinthians 11:26. bids fair for containing such a special direction. As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord’s death till he comes. Dr. Bury observes (Constant Communicant, p. 33.), that the words, this bread, and this cup, must refer to some particular bread and cup, well known among the Jews, of which, as often as they eat and drank, they were bound to remember the sufferings of Christ: That accordingly (if we may credit Buxtorf and Leo Modena) it was usual at their feasts, for the master of the house, to take a loaf of bread, and bless and break it, and give to each person about the bigness of an olive; and if there were three or more eating together, to take a glass from off the table, and bless it also, and give to each of the guests a little of the wine in the glass. — If these remarks be well founded, it will follow, that if the Jews knew how often they had such festivals, that was direction sufficient how often to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
But I mention this, rather as a subject of inquiry, than a hypothesis with which I am fully satisfied. There are many natural and obvious objections against it, which I do not think that ingenious writer has removed.
Dr. Wettenhall has offered another conjecture, that a certain determinate frequency in communicating is enjoined in these words, 1 Corinthians 11:25. This do ye, as oft as ye drink, in remembrance of me. He observes, that the particle it is not in the original, and is not supplied in the vulgar Latin, the Syriac, or any of’ the old versions. He then goes on to argue thus:
“If with our own, and most modern translations, we supply the particle, and thereby understand the cup in the sacrament, this makes the command to signify just nothing. For, what sense is there in this form of speech, Drink this cup, as oft as ye drink. Or, if we repeat the noun, instead of using the pronoun, Drink this cup in remembrance of me, as often as ye drink this cup in remembrance of me. We must, therefore, conclude, that the verb stands here absolutely, or by itself. And probably it is used in the Hellenistical sense of the word for feasting or banqueting, and so the text will run thus, Do this in remembrance of me, as often as you feast, or, on all your holy feast. Now, for as much as every Lord’s Day was, even when this epistle was writ, already among the Christians a holy feast, therefore the command will come to thus much, Do this, or celebrate my supper every Lord’s Day at least. At least, I said, for other holy feasts they might have besides the Lord’s Day, but this most ii surely they all had. See 2 Pet 11:13. Jude ver. 12. compared with 1 Cor 11:20, 21. The plain meaning then of the command, This’ do, as oft as ye drink, in remembrance of me, is, I know that you, my disciples, will keep every first day of the week as a holy feast, with joy and gladness, in memory of my resurrection and I intend to order it. Now, see that every such day you remember my sufferings too, as well as my resurrection.”Dr Wettenhall, Due Frequency, p. 6—13.
These are the only passages that look like an injunction of any precise degree of frequency in partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Mr. Charnock has indeed cited one from the Old Testament for the same purpose.
“The practice, says he, of weekly communicating perhaps, was grounded on Ezek. 43:27. And it shall be upon the eighth day, and so forward, the priest shall make your burnt offerings upon the altar, and your peace – offerings, and I will accept you, saith the Lord.” A prophecy of gospel times, and the cessation of the ceremonial law of daily sacrifices: By burnt-offerings being meant the Lord’s Supper, the remembrance of the great burnt-offering whereby our peace was made: And by “peace-offerings, prayer and thanksgiving, which are called sacrifices, Heb. 8:15. And on the Lord’s Day, being the eighth day, following upon the seventh, the Jewish Sabbath.”Charnock’s Works, vol. II. p. 756,
But I much doubt if the primitive Christians, fond as some of them were of allegorizing and mystical interpretations, ever carried their regard for these to the ridiculous height of building upon them a practice of such importance as weekly communicating. It is more probable their practice was founded on a New Testament precept, plain to them, tho’ to us dark and obscure.
But that obscurity will be no plea for our seldom communicating. For whatever difficulty there may be in finding an express precept, the Apostolical Example, which is as binding as a precept, is so clear and obvious, that he who runs may read it. And to me, it seems something. strange, that those who suppose the apostolical practice sufficient to change the Sabbath from that day on which God, in the fourth Commandment had enjoined it to be kept, should pay so small regard to it in this instance, where it alters no command moral or positive,. but serves to clear-up a material circumstance in observing a precept which otherwise might seem indeterminate. — Let us, therefore, take a survey of such passages of Scripture as throw any light on this important subject.
The sacrament was instituted by our Lord that night in which he was betrayed. From this circumstance, allow me to remark, that it may lawfully be dispensed on other days, as well as the Sabbath.
Less than a week after, even the very day of our Lord’s resurrection, being the first day of the week, and the Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Supper is again dispensed by Jesus himself. For that day, while two of the disciples are walking together to Emmaus, Jesus comes up with them, and takes occasion, beginning at Moses and all the prophets, to expound to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. But tho’ this heavenly preacher speaks to them as never man spoke, still they were ignorant it was he: fond, however, of his company, they constrained him to abide with them, as the day was far spent. And it came to pass, says Luke, as he fat at meat with them, he took the bread and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them: and their eyes were opened, and they knew him. Jesus could have discovered himself to them how and when he pleased. Sure then, he who does nothing in vain had some wise reason for choosing to do it in these, rather than in other circumstances. And what reason so probable, as to put distinguishing respect on the sacrament of the supper, by making it the first means of manifesting himself to these disciples? Why else were the disciples so careful to report this circumstance? And why was the evangelist so punctual to record, that they reported not only the thing but the manner, in what manner he was known to them by the breaking of the bread? Must then our Lord’s choosing this manner of manifesting himself to them preferably to all others; must the care of the disciples in reporting this manner and much the care of the evangelist in recording both the one and the other: must all this, I say, be imputed to mere chance? Did they account this an insignificant circumstance tho’ they appear to lay particular stress upon it? And tho’ they seem to honour it, did they intend that we should pass it by without the high regard? I know not how a rational answer can be given these questions by such who interpret the passage of common bread. Cartwright betakes himself to a strange shift. It was not, says he, the breaking of the bread itself, by which Jesus was known to his disciples, but something peculiar in his manner of asking a blessing before meat. Is not this commentary, a plainly contradicting the text? And can that cause be a good one, which reduces so able a critic to so poor an evasion?
The expressions used by Luke in this passage (Luke 24:19) seem so parallel to his expressions when recording the original institution of the sacrament (Luke 22:19), that I am persuaded few would have mistaken his. meaning, had not the church of Rome misapplied this passage, to prove from the example of our Lord, that it is sufficient to distribute the bread in the sacrament without the wine. But would it not have been easy to have confused that formula, by observing, that eating of bread, is a phrase for the whole of a feast, and therefore the mention of it does not exclude other ingredients of a feast, besides, the Papists themselves allow, that tho’ the bread may be distributed without the wine, it is never to be consecrated apart. But there is no mention even of the consecration of the wine. If then the evangelist’s silence is no proof that the wine was not consecrated, it is as little proof that it was not distributed.
From this passage I remark,
Acts 2:42. we are told of Peter’s converts that they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine, and in fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in prayer. The words προσκαρτεροῦντες, which we render continued steadfastly, properly denotes constancy, or perseverance in an exercise, or waiting continually upon anything, as appears from the use of the same word, Acts 1:14, 6:4, 8:13 and 10:7, Romans 8:12. and 13:6. And therefore whatever is meant by breaking of bread, it is plain they were as constant in that, as in attending on the apostle’s doctrine, and public prayer. All then we have to inquire is, if the expression relates to the Lord’s Supper, or to a common meal.
Dr. Whitby explains it of the latter, in his notes on this passage.
“I see, says he, no necessity to think these words relate to the receiving of the sacrament, for the phrase of the breaking of bread is used by the evangelist, Matthew 15:36. and Mark 8:19, 20. when they relate christ’s miraculous feeding the multitude.”
But in answer to this, I would observe:
It is said of the same persons, Acts 2:46. And they continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread in a house, did participate in the food with gladness and singleness of heart.
Suppose we were to retain the common translation, breaking of bread from house to house, that Would be no conclusive argument, that the Lord’s supper is not intended: for the multitude of the faithful might render it inconvenient for all to partake of the sacrament in one house, and on that account, it might have been dispensed fucceffively, in different houses.
But our translation is plainly faulty, and the cause of the mistake is easily traced out: Καθ’ ἡμέραν, in the first clause of the verse, signifies daily, or from day to day and hence it was imagined, κατ’ οἶκον muft signify, in every house, or from house to house : whereas it is evident, from the use of the preposition κατ’α, when applied to place, that it denotes some precife determinate place. See Luke 8:39, 10:32,33, 15:14, and 23:5. Acts 9:42. 11:1, 13:1. and 16:7. 1 Corinthians 16:19. Colossians 4:15. Philemon ver. 2, and never relates to more places than one, except the substantive to which it is joined be in the plural number, as Luke 8:22. Acts 5:15. 8:1, 3. and 20:20. or be connected with an adjective denoting universality, as Acts 15:36. Accordingly Scaliger observes, that in an old Roman inscription, ταμιαυ του κατὰ πόλιν, does not signify the treasurer of every town, or the treasurer from town to town, but the treasurer cf the town, viz. Rome. To confirm, these remarks, I might observe, that neither the Arabic nor Syriac version renders κατ’ οἶκον from house to house, but only at home, or in a house.
The temple being a house of prayer for all nations, that part of worship the disciples were at liberty to perform there, and accordingly, they continued daily with one accord in the temple. But they could not dispense the sacrament there, without drawing upon themselves certain deduction. They were therefore under the necessity of holding private conventicles for that purpose, in places where they might be in less danger of disturbance.
Both Jews and Proselytes were careful to provide a large upper room in their houses for religious exercises. What more probable than that the primitive christians having performed their daily devotions in the temple, at the hour of prayer, should then repair to a large upper room to partake of the Lord’s supper, perhaps that very upper room in which our Lord instituted the sacrament, Mark 14:15, 22. and where the eleven continued, with Mary, in prayer and supplication, Acts 1:13, 14. This is the more likely from what we are told, Acts 5:42. Daily in the temple and in a house, (for so it should be rendered ) they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ. In the temple, to convert infidels in the private house, to strengthen and confirm believers. From this passage, it is probable, that the church at Jerusalem received the Lord’s Supper every Day.
The next passage, to our purpose, is Acts 20:7. And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, &c.
From this passage it is plain:
That in all church meetings the Lord’s Supper was dispensed, is further evident from 1 Cor. 11:20, 21. The apostle had said a little before, that their meeting together was not for the better, but for the worse: this he proves from their behaving themselves so in these meetings, that they neither did nor could eat the Lord’s Supper as became that holy institution. When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, i.e. it is not so to do it as that sacred action ought to be performed. Now, this argument evidently supposes, that whenever they assembled together, they came to eat the Lord’s Supper; for otherwise their coming together, so as not to eat the Lord’s Supper, would be no proof that their coming together was for the worse. Had the apostle charged the Corinthians as guilty in some particular meetings in which the Lord’s Supper was immediately concerned, we had then understood that it was not a constant exercise in their worshipping assemblies : but on the contrary he charges them with profaning the Lord’s supper in all their meetings: and what is termed coming together, ver. 17. coming to the church, ver. 18. coming to one place, ver. 19. is termed coming together to eat, ver. 33. Which shows, that whenever the Christians met together in one place for religious exercises, eating of bread was a part of their employment.