John M. Mason
Letters on Frequent Communion
Copyright © 2001 Naphtali Press
Letters on Frequent Communion – Part One (( The text for this new edition of these letters is taken from The Complete Works of John M. Mason (New York: 1849), and has been corrected and edited. Mason was “a distinguished Presbyterian divine and noted American pulpit orator. … The Associate Reformed Church, to which he belonged at this time, had been wont to celebrate the Lord’s Supper but once or twice annually. Mason believed in more frequent communion, and both by his pen and his tongue went forward to advocate reform in this respect. A pamphlet, consisting of “Letters on Communion,” which he published, brought him prominently before the religious world, and thereafter John Mitchell Mason was not an uncommon name in the assembly of American Christians. … The mind of Dr. Mason was of the most robust order, his theology Calvinistic, and his style of eloquence powerful and irresistible as a torrent.” McClintock & Strong. ))
John M. Mason
- Letter 1: Introduction
- Letter 2: Frequent Communion an Indispensable Duty
- Letter 3: Objections Answered – Innovation
- Letter 4: The Subject Continued — Irreverence — Want Of Preparation
- Letter 5: Of the customary appendages to the Lord’s Supper; particularly public fasts and thanksgivings
- Letter 6: Public Fasts and Thanksgivings Continued
- Letter 7: The Evils occasioned by Sacramental Fasts and Thanksgivings
- Letter 8: Some Popular Pleas for Sacramental Fasts and Thanksgivings, briefly Considered
- Letter 9: Benefits of Scriptural Communion
LETTER 1: Introduction
We should greatly undervalue our spiritual mercies, were we insensible that “the lines have fallen unto us in pleasant places; yea, that we have a goodly heritage.” The unadulterated faith once delivered to the saints; that religious polity which Christ has instituted for his Church; and a worship, on the whole, scriptural; are benefits which God bestowed on our fathers, and which by his grace they have transmitted unto us. To insure our peaceful enjoyment of them they underwent no ordinary trials. It is the fruit of their labors, their tears, and their blood, which merit from their posterity an everlasting remembrance.
But, brethren, we should prove ourselves unworthy of such an ancestry, if, under the pretext of prizing their attainments, we become indifferent about our own; if we lose their spirit while we boast of their names: much more, if, falling short of their excellence, we do not endeavor to regain and surpass it. Magnanimous men! they not only cherished their light, but applied it to expose delusion, and to explore the paths of forgotten truth. Far from being satisfied with previous reformation, they inquired if any corruption had been retained, any error unnoticed, any duty overlooked; and exerted themselves to supply the defect, both by condemning what was wrong and by performing what was right. No favorite prepossessions, no inveterate habits, either appalled their courage or paralyzed their efforts. According to their knowledge they cheerfully sacrificed whatever is contrary to the simple and spiritual ordinations of their Lord. Accompanied herein with his blessing, they were eminently successful, and have left us an example, which it is our glory to imitate. And we are to imitate it by comparing with the scriptural pattern that branch of the church to which we belong, that we may discover whether there yet remains aught which needs correction. No opinion can be more dishonorable or dangerous than this, that reformation being already achieved, we have nothing to do but to tread quietly on in the track of precedent. Godliness is not the nursling of tradition. If we have no better reason for our sentiments and practice than that they were the sentiments and practice of our fathers before us, our religion is not a rational but a mechanical service. Christianity allows no implicit faith, except in the divine testimony. It is not enough that a point of doctrine or worship has the sanction of venerable names and ancient custom: these may command respect, but can neither obligate conscience nor relieve us from the trouble of examining for ourselves, because there is no believing by proxy. Like the Bereans, in whom the gospel excited a spirit of noble inquiry, we are to search the scriptures for the warrant both of our religious profession and our religious observances. We are charged to PROVE all things, and to HOLD FAST that which is good. The charge embraces not merely such things as we have not hitherto adopted, but whatever we already possess. “Try ALL,” saith the Holy Ghost, “hold fast that which abides the trial, and let go the rest.” And we shall answer, then, to our Master in heaven, we are bound to review our religious order and usages; and if we shall find them in any particular at variance with his appointments, thankfully to own our mistake and faithfully to amend it. No plea can justify our refusal; for whatever purity we may really enjoy, none of us have the vanity to claim an exemption from error, nor to suppose that the furnace of the sanctuary can detect no dross in our gold. A church may in her leading characters be sound and evangelical, and yet in some parts of her conduct go exceedingly astray.
The duty now recommended appears to be peculiarly seasonable and urgent.
1. We profess to be Jehovah’s witnesses; to maintain his truths against corruption; and for this end to keep up a distinct communion. If we expect our testimony to make a desirable impression upon others, we should ascertain whether we ought not to begin with reformation at home. It will be superlative happiness, indeed, if we be able, after the conscientious discharge of this duty, to lift up our heads and say, we are clean. Let us not be too confident that such would be the issue; for,
2. A number of ourselves more than suspect, that, in one of the most interesting parts of public worship, we have deviated far from propriety. They see in our commemorations of the REDEEMER’S DEATH neither that frequency nor simplicity, which were the delight and the ornament of primitive churches. In their estimation, the supper of the Lord is treated with a neglect which we would tremble to show towards any other of his institutions. Instead of pressing to it through every difficulty and with holy joy, we approach it in general as seldom as can at all consist with the decency of Christian profession. Once in twelve months, or once in six, is commonly deemed a sufficient remembrance of him ” who loved us and gave himself for us.”
They see, moreover, our sacramental feasts loaded with encumbrances for which they cannot discover any scriptural warrant, and that to these encumbrances is owing in a great measure the evil of which they complain.
These things they deplore: they are deeply convinced that the authority of the Lord Jesus; the purity of his ordinances; the very design of the holy supper; and the good of languishing Zion, require a speedy and an effectual remedy.
On this momentous topic do the following letters, brethren, address you. They are intended to urge the great duty of frequent communicating; to sift the objections by which it is opposed; and to place in the light of truth some of those observances which obtain among us. However unworthy of their subject, they claim attention for their subject’s sake. In the boldness of the gospel, they not only solicit but demand an impartial hearing. You owe it to yourselves, to the truth, to God. You owe it likewise to your brethren, who, against the torrent of prejudice, have adventured to put more marked honor upon the blessed Jesus by more frequent, and, as they conceive, more evangelical commemorations of his love, than have been usual. And if it shall appear that they are right; that we have been criminally remiss in celebrating that death which is the spring of every living hope; that all apologies for our neglect are lighter than vanity; and that any of our customs want the approbation of the Holy Ghost, and really stand in the way of our obedience; the question will be decided with all who love Jesus Christ more than fashion, and they will unite in a reform as general as it will be glorious.
LETTER 2: Frequent Communion an Indispensable Duty
Our obligation to keep the sacramental feast is the dying command of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have received of the Lord, saith the Apostle Paul, that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; this do in remembrance of me.” After the same manner also, he took the cup when he had supped, saying, “This cup is the New Testament in my blood; this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord’s death till he come.”
This institute, being drawn up with some latitude, does not ascertain precisely, how often the supper is to be celebrated. Something is, no doubt, committed to Christian prudence. The situation of a church, or of her members, may occasionally render communicating inexpedient, or even impracticable. By not restricting it to certain periods, which it would then be clearly sinful to omit, Christ has preserved his people from the embarrassments which incidental hindrances would otherwise have created.
But in providing for lawful impediment, he has given no sanction to carelessness. It would be a strange inference from the words of the Apostle, and a profligate abuse of gospel liberty, to conclude, that, as the Lord has prescribed no stated times of communicating, we may innocently abstain as often and as long as we please. Some, indeed, appear to act upon this notion. Whether they communicate twice in a year, or once; or only every other year, is to them indifferent. But whoever justifies this irregularity from the indefinite terms of the institution, ought to reflect, that the same apology will justify a professor who should communicate but once in his whole life. With such carnal sophists, however, I have nothing to do. The real disciple who loves his Master, will not permit himself to shuffle. He will candidly confess, that the very phraseology of the text implies frequency. The words as often, occurring twice in two lines, can signify nothing less, if they signify anything at all. Whence it follows, that frequent communicating is positively enjoined; and, consequently, that infrequent communion is a violation of the commandment which the Savior delivered with his departing breath.
It may be asked, how are we to mark, in this case, the limit between duty and sin? Where does the one terminate, and the other commence? I answer, that the indefiniteness of the command will obviate the difficulty on the one hand; and fervent love to Christ on the other. There is little wisdom, and less tenderness, in anxiety to tread as near to forbidden ground as we possibly can, without crossing the boundary. This is perilous casuistry, as many of the godly have found to their cost. In an hour of worldly prudence, they have made experiments, with great safety, as they thought; but which issued in agony of conscience, and a broken heart. On the subject before us, as well as on every other which is liable to doubts, spiritual caution will teach us to remove from danger. But wherever the line be drawn, it is pretty evident that our ordinary practice lies far on the wrong side. Considering the place which the supper holds in the Christian life, and the ease with which it may be celebrated; it is a satire on language to call yearly or half-yearly communions, frequent. Every believer’s heart will tell him so. And here, while meditating on the command often to show forth the Lord’s death, he is entreated to ponder a few considerations which ought to awaken sensibility and to influence conduct.
Although it cannot be disputed, that the very words of institution require frequent communion, yet their emphasis is mostly overlooked. An accurate inspection will convince us that they are more happily adapted to the nature and ends of the ordinance, than any other mode of expression; and contain an argument which should thrill our very souls. They hold out the memorial of Emmanuel’s death, as a test not merely of obedience but of love; and the frequency of our acts of obedience as the measure of our love. This do in remembrance of ME: For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord’s death. As if he had said, “In this bread and wine, O my people, I leave you my memorial. Here is the symbol of my broken body, and here of my streaming blood. In my deepest sorrows you were not forgotten by me; and I require you to keep this feast as a proof that I am not forgotten by you. Realize, O my people, that it is your Lord’s death which ye show forth every time you eat this bread and drink this wine. As ye love me I charge you; as I have loved you, I charge you; This do in remembrance of me.”
Say, then, O thou whom Jesus hath delivered from the wrath to come, doth he not here fix a standard of thy gratitude to his grace? If thou art in this manner to testify thy remembrance of him, wilt thou not do it oftener, the more thou rememberest him? If this is the mean by which thou art to show forth his death, will not thy use of it be regulated by thy sense of thine obligations to his death? And does not the tenor of this command teach thee, that the frequency of thy sacramental commemorations of him will be in proportion to the ardor of thy love? Alas, brethren, if this is a criterion of love to our Lord, the pretensions of most of us are low indeed.
That the foregoing view of the Redeemer’s precept is not erroneous, will be evident from a delineation of the principal features of his supper.
1. The sacrament of the supper is an important part of our practical testimony to the cross.
This holy ordinance contributes as much, if not more than any other, to keep alive in the earth the memory of that sacrifice which, through the eternal Spirit, our High Priest offered up unto God. In a powerful appeal to the senses, it arrests attention, and strikes with awe, while the scenes of Gethsemane and Calvary pass along in symbolical review. In this holy ordinance, we proclaim to the surrounding spectators, that we are not ashamed to confess the despised Jesus before a crooked and perverse generation. We proclaim to the carnal world, that we have renounced their master, their idols, their hope; and have “avouched the Lord to be our God.” We cry with the apostle, “God forbid that we should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This, indeed, is the only ordinance in which, as believers, we make a public, social, and separate confession of his name. In other services of the sanctuary, we are mingled with the crowd: our profession, though public and social, is not separate, and does not distinguish us from others. In the worship of a godly family at home, it is, indeed, social and separate, but not public. In holy baptism, it is separate, and public, but not social, or at most very imperfectly so. It is only in the supper of the Lord, that these three characters of the church’s practical confession completely unite. One humble commemoration of his death is a better testimony to his grace, and sinks a deeper conviction into the breasts of the profane, than years of empty profession, or angry controversy.
2. The supper is an affecting representation of the communion which believers have with Christ Jesus.
They appear at the sacramental table as members of a family of whom Christ is the head: the federal head by legal, and the spiritual head by vital union. This double relation establishes between them and their Lord a common interest, which is recognized and sealed in the holy supper. On the one hand, they, in worthily receiving the symbols of his body and blood, receive him by faith as a crucified Savior, vow adherence to his cause, and claim the right of communicants in the benefits of his covenant. On the other hand, he accepts the vow and admits the claim, divinely sanctioning their title to all the blessings which he hath to confer. The peace of God, which passeth understanding; access to him as a reconciled Father; grace to help in every time of need; in a word, life, light, strength, consolation, victory; his presence, his Spirit, his fullness, his kingdom, his glory – all these he owns to be their portion; all these he promises to give them. So that the sacramental seal of their being “planted together in the likeness of his death,” bespeaks, at the same time, the preparation and earnest of their being “planted also in the likeness of his resurrection.”
3. The supper exhibits the union and communion of believers with each other in Christ.
They are citizens of the New Jerusalem, enjoying equal privileges under a common charter – children of the same family, sitting down to a feast provided by paternal love. They do “all eat the same spiritual meat, and do all drink the same spiritual drink.” If there is aught in religion to make them feel that “they being many are one body;” that they are the purchase of the same blood, and monuments of the same grace; that they are combating in a common. warfare, are partakers of a common salvation, and heirs of a common inheritance; that they have one faith, one calling, one hope – it is the communion of the body and blood of the Lord. Thrice blessed ordinance! which clothes spiritual principle with visible form, and repeats to the senses what the scripture hath solemnly addressed to the heart, that in the nations of the saved there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female for they are all one in Christ Jesus.
4. The death of Christ, commemorated in the supper, is the point in which the leading doctrines of redemption concentrate their rays, and where they shine with united luster.
Draw nigh, O Christian, and by faith contemplate in the cross of Jesus the infinite evil of sin. Nothing less than a sacrifice of infinite value can procure its pardon. To expiate its guilt, God manifested in the flesh becomes a curse; to wash away its stain, his precious blood is poured out. See in the agonies of Him who is Jehovah’s fellow; see in the sword of vengeance that cleaves his heart the accursed sinfulness of the sin which thou hast committed; and which, without his interposition, would have sunk thee forever into the lowest hell!
I Draw nigh, and contemplate the rigors of Jehovah’s justice in the punishment of sin.
He hath sworn in his holiness, and by many infallible signs he hath demonstrated, that it shall not escape. The waters of his flood have swept from the earth a whole generation of rebels. Fire from heaven consumed the sinners of Sodom. Sword, and famine, and pestilence, have repeatedly avenged his quarrel. Nay, “the damnation of hell” is prepared for apostate angels and the impenitent among men. But neither the flood of waters nor the flood of fire; nor famine, nor pestilence, nor sword; nor that everlasting destruction from his presence; no, not even hell with all its terrors; not any of these, not all of them combined, ascertain so dreadfully Jehovah’s determination to punish sin, as his “not sparing his own Son.” Oh how should we have supported the weight of that wrath, which bowed down to the earth and laid low in death the Word incarnate!
Draw nigh, and contemplate the richness of the Father’s grace in our salvation.
Apostates from his favor and rebels against his government, we were objects of his just and sore displeasure. Without the least impeachment of his righteousness, he might have sworn in his wrath that we should never enter into his rest. But in the multitude of his mercies he provides for us, even for us, a ransom that delivers from going down into the pit. God so loved – how mighty the emphasis! – so loved the world that he gave – not an angel, nor a host of angels – but his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Draw nigh, and contemplate the love of Christ; a love without parallel, and beyond comprehension. Though he was in the form of God, and thought it not robbery to be equal with God, yet he made himself of no reputation, and took, upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. Source of eternal wonder! Lo “the Creator of the ends of the earth” descends into a tabernacle of flesh, and sojourns among men! And whence, blessed Lord, whence this condescension? It was for “the good of his chosen.” He assumed their nature that he might occupy their place; might take their guilt; might become a curse for them that they might be made the righteousness of God in him. Yes, dear Christian, he put his soul in thy soul’s stead; be drank for thee the cup of trembling; it was thy guilt which nailed him to the ignominious tree; thy guilt which rolled the billows of wrath in upon his sinless soul. It was in bearing thine iniquity that hell’s blackest midnight thickened upon his spirit, and wrung from him that agonizing cry, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? Hath he passed through the fires of the pit to save thee? and doth he “stake all the glories of his crown to keep thee?” and wilt thou, canst thou, darest thou be backward in promoting the frequent commemoration of his love? O Savior, if we forget thee, let our right hand forget her cunning!
Draw nigh once more, and contemplate the harmony of the divine attributes in the recovery of sinners.
In this astonishing death, mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. While the blood of expiation flows, and fire from above consumes the sacrifice, a cloud of incense, rising up from the altar, announces at the throne of God an offering of a sweet-smelling savor. Now God can be just, and the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus. Into this plan of grace and truth the angels desire to look. They see, with admiration, the prince of this world cast out; his prey torn from his hands; his kingdom of darkness rent to its foundation. They see God’s threatening fulfilled; his government exalted; transgression punished; and yet his name glorified in the salvation of the transgressor. Justice, appeased, puts up her sword, while Mercy lifts the wretch from the abyss of his pollutions and his crimes. O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! Yea, it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
These are considerations which render the death of Christ infinitely interesting to a believer, on which he cannot meditate too often nor too intensely. The very life of his soul lies in experiencing their power. The more his faith is exercised upon them, the more will he imbibe of their virtue, and be conformed to his crucified Head. In proportion, then, as it is his duty to be under the influence of those evangelical principles, which a sanctified view of the death of Christ begets and cherishes, it is also his duty to be engaged in the frequent commemorations of his death. And hence I add, that
As the death of the Lord Jesus is thus inseparably connected with the great doctrines of godliness, so, in the,
5th place, it has a mighty efficacy in quickening the graces and mortifying the corruptions of believers. Those who are best acquainted with themselves, know that nothing but communion with Christ in his death can conquer their depravity. Their old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that hence forth they should not serve sin. Let them declare when it is that sin, in every shape, is most detestable in their eyes; when their desires for perfect deliverance from it are most ardent; when the emotions of lust expire within them. Is it not when they obtain a commanding view of their Lord Jesus, as bearing their sins in his own body on the tree? Yes, one believing glimpse of Christ crucified does infinitely more in “subduing their iniquities,” than all their resolutions, their watchfulness, their struggles, without it. Let them declare, also, when the adversary gets the advantage over them; when the “law in their members, warring against the law of their mind, brings them” most easily “into captivity to the law of sin and death; “is it not when their views of his cross are beclouded, and “faith in his blood” enfeebled?
On the other hand, when is every holy grace most lively and flourishing? If “the peace of God rule in their hearts,” and his love be “shed abroad therein by the Holy Ghost” – if they be “clothed with humility” – if “patience have her perfect work” – if hope tower, and faith triumph, and love to the brethren glow – if, trampling on this miserable world, they “set their affections on things above,” and “press towards the mark for the prize of their high calling of God in, Christ Jesus;” it is because they are “crucified with Christ;” it is in bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus is made manifest in their mortal flesh. If such, then, is the connection between the cross of Christ and the life of faith; if such its influence on a believer’s peace, and holiness, and comfort, and preparation for “an abundant entrance into the kingdom” of his Father; how important the duty of retaining the spiritual impressions of it; how strong the necessity of frequent and very frequent recurrence to that ordinance which is destined to recall it afresh to our memories, and which, by sensible tokens, so evidently sets forth Christ crucified!
6. In the holy supper believers are often admitted to near intercourse with the God of the spirits of all flesh.
Communion is one of the most prominent features of the ordinance. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? It is here seen that the fellowship of believers is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And here the Lord not only attests its reality, but is often pleased to give them a sweet and powerful sense of it. Covered with celestial food, food such as angels never tasted, how often has the sacramental table been to the children of promise a scene of delight ineffable! The kind invitation, Eat, O friends! drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved! hath thrilled their very souls. They can well remember how bountifully their God hath dealt with them, while they were endeavoring to honor him by showing forth the death of his Son. They came hungry, and he hath set them down to a feast of fat things, and hath satisfied them with the goodness of his house, even of his holy place. They came disconsolate, and he hath given them beauty for ashes; the oil of Joy for mourning; the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. They came with feeble and with fainting steps, and he hath strengthened them with might by his Spirit in the inner man. They came bowed down under the weight of the body of death, and groaning beneath the oppressions of unbelief, and he hath “removed the burden from their shoulders.” The spirit of bondage hath fled before the spirit of adoption: Abba, Father! was their gracious aspiration. In the liberty of the gospel they have cried out, O Lord, truly I am thy servant I am thy servant; thou hast loosed my bonds! In a word, he hath disappointed all their apprehensions; he hath dried up their tears; hath stilled the inward tumult; hath dissipated their darkness; hath poured his consolations into their hearts; hath enabled them to “enter with boldness into the holiest by the blood of Jesus;” caused them to “see his power and his glory; sealed them up by the Holy Ghost unto the day of redemption,” and sent them away encompassed with these “songs of salvation:” Because thy loving kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee: thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits! who forgiveth all thine iniquities; Who healeth all thy diseases; who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with loving-kindness and tender mercies; who satisfieth thy mouth with good things, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
This, indeed, hath not been the happiness of every believer; nor is it always the happiness of any believer. But it certainly hath been, and yet is often enjoyed at the table of the Lord: perhaps more often, proportionably, than in any other exercise. And this, not because it is in itself more holy than the rest, or because access to God therein is in itself more near; but he will put a special honor upon it and upon them who love it, because it is that ordinance, which, in a special manner, puts honor upon his Son Jesus.
And now, Christian, interrogate thine own heart. Say, as in the sight of thy beloved, is it not thy duty and thy privilege often to keep the feast in remembrance of him? Wilt thou refuse to display before the world a bold and generous testimony for his name? Is it to thee unprofitable or unpleasant to recognize, at short intervals, thy union and communion with him and in him with all the household of faith? Art thou in danger of entertaining, from the frequent commemoration of his death, too deep an abhorrence for sin? Of realizing, too sensibly, its eternal opposition to Jehovah’s purity? Of esteeming too highly his pardoning grace? Of being unduly affected with the love of Jesus? Of admiring to excess that holy plan by which God is infinitely magnified and thou hast escaped the wrath to come? Canst thou not find frequent employment for a sanctifying Savior? Hast thou no lust to subdue? no grace to quicken? no mercy to ask? Hast thou won the crown? all thine adversaries slain, and all thy conflicts over? Art thou indifferent about meeting with thy God? Are his consolations small with thee? or the light of his countenance a thing of naught? But why rend thy bosom with questions like these? No believer can think thus. And can he apologize to his own conscience? can he apologize to his Lord, for infrequent, very infrequent, attendance upon that ordinance in which his self and all the benefits of his covenant are represented, sealed, and applied? Did he intend, suppose ye, that this memorial of his death should be thrust into a corner of the year? Or could they who heard the tender and piercing words, This do in remembrance of me, have believed that any who love his name would treat it with such indignity? No never, never! Were Paul to rise from his rest and to visit our churches, one of the first things he would miss is the communion-table. What would be our confusion, should he address us in inquiries like these: “How often do you remember your Redeemer in the sacramental feast ? every Sabbath ? every other Sabbath? every third Sabbath? every month?” Alas! no. This was never heard or thought of among us. “How often, then?” Oh! I feel the rising blush – but the shameful trust [truth] must come out: “Generally, not more than twice in the year.” What astonishment would seize the apostle! He would hardly own us for disciples. Is this, Christian brethren, our kindness to our Friend? This our reverence for his injunction, our return for his love? We are verily guilty concerning our Brother. It becomes us to rouse from our lethargy; to throw ourselves abashed at his feet ; to implore his forgiveness; to evince our sincerity by correcting our fault; and no longer disobey him and forsake our own mercies.
LETTER 3: Objections Answered – Innovation
The duty of frequent communion is so undeniable, and the argument by which it is enforced appeals with such power to every gracious principle, that there seems no room for objection. But objections are made; and by those, too, who, we must hope, desire to walk in all the commandments of the Lord blameless. Experience teaches us, that prejudice, even in upright minds, is sufficient to obscure the most luminous truths, and to magnify the most trifling difficulty into an impassable mountain. I shall, therefore, attempt to obviate those objections, which appear, from their popularity, to be thought most important.
I. It is said that the measure proposed would innovate upon the established order of the church.
To this I reply, that if it be, indeed, an innovation, and if, as it has been proved, it is nevertheless our duty, then it is high time the innovation was made, and the habits of old transgression removed. Let not the terror of an ill-sounding epithet defeat a needful and scriptural alteration. The cry of innovation is no proof that a measure is not both lawful and wise. It was raised by the prelatists against our venerable ancestors; by the apostates of Rome against the illustrious reformers; by the Scribes and Pharisees against Christ himself. But happily the fact is otherwise. Frequent communion is not an innovation. The odium of this charge lies upon our present practice. Many consider as a part of the good way, whatever is older than themselves. But when we speak of innovation in the church of Christ, we are not to inquire merely what was done by our fathers, or grandfathers, or their sires: but what was the order of the church from the beginning? How did Christ ordain? How did his Apostles conduct? In what state did they leave the church? Now it is notorious, that during the first three centuries of the Christian era, communions were held with a frequency of which, among us, we have neither example nor resemblance. It is also notorious, that the original frequency of communions declined as carnality and corruption gained ground: and it is no less notorious, that it has been urged as a weighty duty, by the best of men, and the best of churches, in the best of times.
A brief illustration of these points, may not be unacceptable to the reader –
As to the first; it is demonstrable that among the primitive Christians, the celebration of the supper was a part of the ordinary sanctification of the Lord’s Day.
To begin with the Apostles. We learn from Acts 20:7, that on the first day of the week – the disciples came together to break bread. Hence it is evident, not only that Christians assembled on the Lord’s Day for public worship, but that they did not part without commemorating his death. What else can be meant by breaking of bread? It is a phrase, borrowed from Christ himself, to signify the communion of the supper. And most assuredly his people did not assemble on his day for any common or carnal purposes. Nay, it is intimated that sacramental communion was a principal, if not the principal object of their meeting. Prayer, praise, and preaching of the word, were, doubtless, their stated exercises; but of such moment was the supper considered, that in recording their employment on the Sabbath, the sacred historian mentions nothing else; they came together to break bread. The argument must be decisive with all who allege this place to prove that the Apostolic churches sanctified the first, instead of the seventh day of the week. For the historian does not more positively say that they came together, than that they came together to break bread. Indeed, the strength of the argument, drawn from this passage, to prove the change of the Sabbath, lies in the supposition that this “breaking of bread” signifies the sacrament of the supper; because it is the only expression from which we gather that the meeting of the disciples was both a stated one, and for religious ends. It is plain that they were not called together to hear the Apostle preach; but that he preached to them on the first day of the week, because they then came together, of course, to break bread: for he arrived at Troas the Monday preceding; and instead of assembling them, as he might easily have done, he appears to have waited six days, that he might meet them on the seventh, which was the Lord’s Day. And designing to depart on the morrow, or Monday, he was so pressed for time that he protracted his sermon till midnight. All which difficulty he would have avoided by summoning the church in the foregoing week; but he chose rather to undergo it, than not to give his Apostolical sanction to the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, or lose the pleasure of joining with the brethren in commemorating his death. You must, therefore, admit either that this celebrated passage (( Its true meaning, and the strong argument which it affords for the change of the Sabbath, are ably stated in that learned work, entitled, Sabbatum redivivum, part 2, p. 517-520. [Ed. This is a reference to Sabbatum Redivivum: or the Christian Sabbath Vindicated; in a Full discourse concerning the Sabbath, and the Lord’s Day . By Daniel Cawdrey, and Herbert Palmer: members of the [Westminster] Assembly of Divines, divided into four parts (London: 1645-1652). Parts 2-4, which were promised in 1645, but delayed at that time because the authors wished to perfect them but not delay the publication of the first part which was foundational to the rest. These parts were published in one volume in 1652 and have their own pagination; hence the author’s reference to that section as part 2. The seven year delay was mainly due to the passing of Mr. Palmer in 1647 at age 46, devolving the work of perfecting the remaining parts on Mr. Cawdrey, as he explains in the preface to the second volume.] )) contains no proof that the primitive Christians habitually sanctified the Lord’s Day; or that weekly communions were their constant practice.
To the same purpose is the testimony of Paul. 1 Cor. 11:20. He had reproved the Corinthians for their scandalous dissensions in the place, and at the time of public worship. You come together, he says, not for the better, but for the worse. For when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions (schisms) among you. Ver. 17-18. That these “schisms” occurred in their indecent manner of communicating is undeniable. For, with reference to them the apostle proceeds, v. 20: When ye come together, therefore, into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. “By your shameful behavior, the ordinance is so prostituted that it resembles nothing less than the supper of the Lord.” The apostle tells us, that their irregularities happened, when they came together in the church, and that the scene of them was the table of the Lord. Whence it follows, that the celebration of the supper was a regular concomitant of their stated meetings for public worship; and these, we know, were held at least every Lord’s Day. The conclusion results necessarily from the tenor of the apostle’s argument, “which 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.” (( Erskine’s Theological Dissertations, p. 262. [Ed. John Erskine, Scots Presbyterian divine (1721-1803), Theological Dissertations (London, 1765; second edition corrected with Life, London: 1809; and Edinburgh, 1808).] ))
Weekly communions did not die with the apostles and their contemporaries. There is a cloud of witnesses to testify that they were kept up, by succeeding Christians, with great care and tenderness, for above two centuries. It is not necessary to swell these pages with quotations. The fact is indisputable. (( Plin. Epist, lib. 10. ep. 97. p. 724. ed. Veenhusii. Just. Martyr. Apol. 2da. opp. p. 98. D. Paris. 1636. Tertull. de orat. p. 135-136. ed. Rigaltii. -Whoever wishes to see these, and numerous other testimonies to the same effect, cited at large, may consult Erskine’s Dissertation on frequent communicating [See Theological Dissertations]; and especially Bingham’s Origines Ecclesiastica, Book 15. Chap. 2, where a multitude of authorities are collected and elucidated [Joseph Bingham (1668-1723), Origines ecclesiasticae: The antiquities of the Christian church (London, 1878). See also, Works (London, 1829). )) It was even common to communicate three and four times a week, and in some place every day. Communion every Lord’s Day, however, was universal; and was preserved in the Greek church till the seventh century; “and such as neglected three weeks together were excommunicated.” (( Erskine’s Dissertations, p. 271. ))
In this manner did the spirit of ancient piety cherish the memory of a Savior’s love. There was no need of reproof, remonstrance, or entreaty. No trifling excuses for neglect were ever heard from the lips of a Christian; for such a neglect had not yet degraded the Christian’s name. He carried in his own bosom sufficient inducements to obey, without reluctance, the precept of his Lord. It was his choice, his consolation, his joy. These were days of life and glory; but days of dishonor and death were shortly to succeed; nor was there a more ominous symptom of their approach, than the decline of frequent communicating. For as the power of religion appears in a solicitude to magnify the Lord Jesus continually; so the decay of it is first detected by the encroachments of indifference. It was in the fourth century, that the church began very discernibly to forsake her first love. The ardor of primitive zeal gave way to a cold formality, and the Supper of the Lord, sooner perhaps than any other institution, fell a prey to its malignant influence. “About the year 324, it was decreed at a council held at Illiberis, in Spain, that no offerings should be received from such as did not receive the Lord’s Supper: which shows that some, who called themselves Christians, were beginning to neglect the dying command of their professed Lord.” (( Concil. Illiberit. Can. 28. ))
“About the year 341, a council at Antioch decreed, that all who came to church, and heard the scriptures read, but afterwards joined not in prayer and receiving the sacrament, should be cast out of the church, till such time as they gave public proof of their repentance.” (( Concil. Antioch. Can. 2. ))
“Towards the close of the fourth century, men grew more and more cold and indifferent about the Lord’s Supper; so that the elegant Chrysostom complains, ‘In vain we stand at the altar; none care to receive.'” (( Chrysostom, Hom. III. in Ephes. ))
“At length, communicating weekly, or even monthly begins to appear burdensome. The greater part received the sacrament only three times a year; and some not so often. This occasioned the council of Agde, or Agatha, in Languedoc, met in the year 506, to decree, that none should be esteemed good Christians who did not communicate, at least, at the three great festivals, Christmas, Easter, and Whitsunday: (( Concil. Agath. Can. 18. )) and accordingly, from that time forward, those of the church of Rome esteemed themselves, in so far, good enough Christians, if they communicated thrice a year; and that it was presumption to receive oftener.” (( Erskine’s Dissertations, p. 267, 268, 271. )) And, mark it well, reader; their sense of the necessity of frequent communions decreased, in proportion as they became addicted to will-worship; and the superstition of un-commanded holidays.
From such an outset, matters proceeded, very naturally, from bad to worse, till the unblushing degeneracy had nearly discarded sacramental communion altogether. The council of Lateran under Pope Innocent III. in 1215; that very council which established the accursed tenet of auricular confession; and the more accursed tenet of transubstantiation, decided a yearly communion at Easter, to be sufficient: (( Bingham’s Origines Eccles. Book 15. ch. 9. 6. Mosheim, vol. 3. p. 250. Fleury, Historie Ecclesiastique, tom, 11 p. 279-280 (4to). This eminent popish historian, compelled to own that yearly communications were the effect of “the remissness and lukewarmness of Christians,” seems himself a little scandalized at the decree of Innocent’s council. The only apology, which his ingenuity could suggest, is as severe a censure as a Protestant would desire. They did nothing more “than conform to the practice already tolerated by the church.” “Dans l’usage introduit par lc relâchement et la tiedeur des Chrestiens, la plupart ne communioient plus qu’une fois I’an, a Pâques – Ainsi le concile de Latran ne fit – que se conformer a I’usage deja toleré par l’eglise.” Ibid. p. 281, i.e. The council only sanctioned “remissness and lukewarmness,” out of respect to an old custom. Ah Popery! [Ed. Claude Fleury (1784-1723), Historie Ecclésiastique (Paris, 1840, 6 vols.). )) The decision was not more unscriptural, than it was crafty and impious. For by removing this sacrament from ordinary view, and connecting it with the pomp of Easter, it augmented the artificial devotion of an ignorant and deluded age, and signally promoted the idolatry of the host.
Here, then, we have traced infrequent communion to its source – the example, traditions, and enactions of apostate Rome. So firmly was this conviction riveted in Calvin’s breast, that he scrupled not to term annual communions, a contrivance of the devil. (( The very words of Calvin are, “And truly, this custom, which enjoins communicating once every year, is a most evident contrivance of the devil; by whose instrumentality soever it may have been determined.” “Et sane haec consuetudo quae semel quotannis communicare jubet, certissimum est diaboli inventum; cujuscunque tandem ministerio invecta fuerit.” Calvin, Instit. lib. iv., cap. 17, 46. )) The authority of Rome is surely not so venerable, nor her bequests so precious, that we need be over-nice in departing from her precedents. Certain it is, that the best of men and the purest of churches, have been so far from considering frequent communion as a rash and hurtful innovation, that they have both desired and urged it as a most blessed reformation. A few testimonies to this purpose, may be gratifying to the reader.
The excellent Calvin complains, that in his day, professors, conceiting they had fully discharged their duty by a single communion, resigned themselves for the rest of the year to suppineness and sloth. “It ought to have been,” he says, “far otherwise. Every week, at least, the table of the Lord should have been spread for Christian assemblies; and the promises declared, by which, in partaking of it, we might be spiritually fed.”
Entirely with Calvin agrees his cotemporary, that able defender of the reformation, Martin Chemnitz. He closes a series of judicious remarks with the following strong expression: “they are neither true nor faithful ministers of Christ, who, by any means whatever, either lead away or deter the people from the frequent use of sacramental communion.” And what he understood by frequency is clear from the very next words, in which he feelingly extols the “most lovely examples of genuine antiquity.”
The admirable Witsius, after a short detail of the original frequency of communicating, and of its decline with the “increase of numbers and the decrease of zeal,” exclaims,
“Alas! how far are we at this day from the sanctity and zeal of the ancients?” It is true, he was not without apprehension, that, in a general corruption of manners, a too great frequency might depreciate the ordinance. There was little reason, as we shall shortly see, for the good man’s fear, and less for his precaution. Modern Christianity is in no danger of running into an extreme by emulating, on this subject, the ardor of an apostle.
Calderwood, in his elaborate controversy with the prelatists, lays the blame of infrequent communion on the want of zeal and love which throws us so far behind the primitive church, but insists that this should be no obstacle to its restoration.
Had I intended, or did the limits of this discussion permit, it would be easy to adduce on the same side of the question a long list of illustrious names, not more graceful to my page than savory to the church of Christ. The general sentiment of those who have thought most profoundly as well as piously on the subject, accords perfectly with the preceding. Nor is it the sentiment of individuals merely; it has been expressed in the most solemn manner by the purest churches of the reformation.
The constitution of the Belgic or Dutch church of 1581 appointed the supper to be celebrated every other month. (( Voetii disputat. Tom. iv. P. 761. ))
The discipline of the Reformed churches of France, after noticing that it had. not been usual with them to celebrate the holy supper oftener than four times a year, recommends a greater frequency; (the due respect being preserved), that believers, treading in the footsteps of the primitive church, may be exercised, and may increase in faith by the frequent use of the sacraments. (( Bien qu’on n’ait pas accoutumé de celebrer dans nos Eglises la sainte Cene, plus souvent que quatre fois I’an; toutefois il seroit bien a desirer, qu’elle se celebrast plus souvent, le respect qui y est requis etant gardé; parceque il est tres utile que le peuple fidele soit exercé, et qu’il croisse en la foi, par l’usage frequent des sacramens, comme aussi l’exemple de l’eglise primitive nous y convie. Discipline des Eglises Reformées, chap. xii. 14. On this canon, Mr. L’Arroque observes, that at the synod of Orleans, in 1562, a minister of Picardy, who used to celebrate the supper every month, was advised to follow the custom of the other churches, merely for the sake of uniformity. It seems, however, that they had thought better of the matter, as the canon in its present form was drawn up by the synod of Paris in 1565. L’Arroque, Defence de la Discipline des Eglises Reformées de France, p. 290 (4to). ))
The church of Scotland, at her first reformation, insisted upon four communions in the year; (( First Book of Discipline, Art. XIII. )) and there is every probability that she would have gone farther, but from an opinion that the people, just emerging from the darkness and bondage of popery, were unable to bear it. This conjecture is founded upon what actually took place at the modeling of that plan of doctrine, worship, etc, by the Westminster Assembly, which united in one most evangelical communion the churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The directory for public worship prescribes the frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper: nay, it supposes that it should be so frequent as to supersede the necessity even of a previous intimation. “Where this sacrament cannot with convenience be frequently administered, it is requisite that public warning be given the sabbath day before the administration thereof.” How often should it be administered to render this warning needless? Let this question be pondered by those who think semi-annual communions sufficient; yet that very directory have we adopted and affect to admire. Alas! what a flagrant contradiction between our profession and practice!
As an instructive comment on this part of the directory, it may be added, that several of the ministers who assisted in its compilation, and a great part of those who were ejected in the time of Charles II. for non-conformity, are certainly known to have celebrated the holy supper every month in their own congregations. (( Erskine’s Dissertations, p. 274. )) Before this, in the days of Laud’s corruption and tyranny, those eminent men of God, Mr. Robert Blair and Mr. Cunningham of Holywood, made such mutual arrangements as afforded their people opportunities of communicating eight times in the year. (( Erskine, p. 279. ))
The foregoing facts will convince every honest inquirer, that frequent communion is not an innovation. It will be hard, indeed, if the combined suffrages of Apostles and reformers, of the best of men and the purest of churches, cannot wipe off the imputation. But it attaches, with an indelible stain, to our existing custom, which can boast of no such authority. This, which we are so afraid of altering, is a real innovation on Christian order, and an unhappy desertion of Christian principle. If innovation is, in truth, our abhorrence, let us endeavor to get out of its labyrinth; and, retracing our wandering steps, let us return to the old way in which the first confessors of the cross have walked before us, and where we may expect to find much rest unto our souls.