Lynne Borsos

REL 319

Jonathan Edwards




Edwards & the Lord’s Supper



Jonathan Edwards was a prominent pastor and college president in puritan New England whose theology continues to influence Christians today. He wrote many treatises and sermons on a wide variety of theological issues as he sought to understand and explain man’s relationship with God. The question of the Lord’s Supper and his understanding of how to celebrate it became such an alienating issue between him and his church that his parishioners dismissed him from his pastorship. His view on who should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper primarily reflected his understanding of the nature of the visible and invisible church and the role the sacrament plays within that institution. The purpose of a distinction between visible and invisible reflects our finite ability to judge one another’s faith as humans. The visible church represents those who physically make up the church on earth. The invisible church is Christ’s true church, or those that will really be united with Him in heaven. According to this understanding, not everyone who appears regenerate and shares communion with the visible church is in the invisible church. Also, those who are not members of the visible church may be included as Christ’s elect in heaven. Edwards believed that the visible church only should partake in communion because it signifies God’s covenant with His chosen people. Because of this, the visible church must aspire to reflect the invisible church as closely as possible. By seeing the ordinance from Edwards’s perspective, one can see why the divisiveness of the issue.

            Edwards took over the church in Northhampton, Massachusetts, from his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard had pastored the town for decades and his influence in the community endured long after his death. Participating in the Lord’s Supper reflected communicant church membership, which in turn influenced one’s standing in society. Stoddard had admitted baptized townspeople who were not obviously regenerate to the Lord’s Supper and therefore to communicant membership within the church. He had the “opinion that the presumption should be that baptized adults should partake, even without evidence of being converted”.[1] When Edwards took the pastorship there, he knew of Stoddard’s practice of open communion, to which “many revivalists in the international and intercolonial circles in which he [Edwards] moved were strongly opposed”.[2] Many of these dissenters even claimed that they could definitely discern true Christians. Edwards argued against this opinion but “he felt the force of their point that the church should examine candidates for full communicant membership to be sure they showed the visible signs of commitment in their profession and practice”.[3] When Stoddard was still alive, however, and Edwards studied under him, he “had convinced himself (and his grandfather) he could live with”[4] open communion, as this quote from an early sermon to the parish reflect:

You know not how sweet and satisfying the meat and drink of this feast [the Lord’s Supper] is, and what abundance and variety there is. If you did, you would need no compelling to come; the sense of it would be wings to your feet. You know not what friendship, what communion, what love and joy there is at God’s table. Taste and see that the Lord is gracious: put off your filthy garments; wash yourself from your filthiness; accept of the white raiment Christ offers you; go to Christ and enter with him into his chambers; sit down with him in his feasting and banqueting house.[5]


It is clear as he invited unregenerate hearts to the communion table in hopes of a converting experience that he ascribed to Stoddard’s view. Over time, Edwards view changed:

With his grandfather gone, Edwards was troubled that so many communicant members seemed unconverted. He was not giving up the Stoddardean practice, but in his notebooks he was contemplating tightening it up. He was especially concerned about the young people who took communicant membership for granted without worrying whether they were converted.[6]


Eventually, he did try to tighten up and this attempt to match church membership with his convictions led to “the greatest calamity of his career”[7] as his parishioners responded by dismissing him from his position as pastor.

            The basis for his uneasiness towards open communion resided in his understanding of the church’s relation to the world. Marsden, a biographer of Edwards, states the debated question well:

Was the church to be a separated communion, called out from the world and made up of believers only? Or was it to be a state church to which all respectable citizens belonged?[8]


Stoddard desired to expose people as much as possible to God’s gracious mercy through the gospel and saw the sacrament as a way of calling sinners to repentance as they were confronted with Christ’s sacrifice as signified through the elements.

Stoddard was concerned first of all with fostering conversion through any God-given means possible. Opening the Lord’s Supper was a tangible way to bring people into the presence of Christ’s sacrifice and a sensibility of the depths of their wickedness for which Christ had died.[9]


Perhaps he considered Jesus’ words recorded in John 6:51 as a means of justifying this approach: “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” Just by eating, the eater would receive a special grace.

These good intentions did not satisfy Edwards. He could not in good conscience admit those to communion with Christ’s body who did not visibly profess conversion, as he explained:

I think it is both evident by the word of God, and also granted on all hands, that none ought to be admitted as members of the visible church of Christ but visible and professing saints, or visible and professing Christians.[10]


Those “persons that are adult and in good standing[11] met his requirement for visible saintship. This might seem contradictory with Edwards’s belief that no one can tell with certainty those who were saved from those who are not. Edwards argued that he saw the Bible describe only two kinds of people:

The righteous and the wicked are, in a multitude of places in Scripture, evidently opposed one to the other, and distinguished as saints and sinners, holy and unholy, those that fear God and those that fear him not, those that love him and those that hate him. All mankind are in Scripture divided by these distinctions, and the Bible knows of no neuters or third sort. Indeed those who are really wicked, may be visibly righteous, righteous in profession and outward appearance. But a sort of men who have no saving grace, and yet are not really wicked, the Scripture is entirely ignorant of.[12]


Edwards firmly held to the belief that the church exists “through the blood of Christ, separated from the impure world, and consecrated to God as his people.”[13] While the visible church would not accurately reflect this invisible church because men do not know each other’s hearts, he felt that as a pastor he was responsible to holding his flock to a high standard and making his best judgment possible. He explained his view on visibility:

Visibility is a relative thing, and has relation to an eye that views or beholds. Visibility is the same thing as appearance or exhibition to the eye; and to be a visible saint is the same as to appear to be a real saint in the eye that beholds; not the eye of God, but the eye of man. Real saints or converts are those that are so in the eye of God; visible saints or converts are those who are so in the eye of man.[14]


He took his role very seriously, believing that those admitted to the visible church “are not to look on their admission as what is done merely by man.... they are admitted or accepted of God.”[15] His standard was not unattainable and admitted that the visible church would not be perfect:

It is not my design to affirm, that all who are regularly admitted as members of the visible church in complete standing, ought to be believed to be godly and gracious persons, when taken collectively, or considered in gross, by the judgment of any person or society. This may not be, and yet each person taken singly may visibly be a gracious person to the eye of the judgment of Christians in general.[16]


Edwards realized there was a margin of error when he tried to discern the saved from the unsaved, but those in communion with the church must profess Christ as Lord. The apostle Paul mentions the early church making a “confession of the gospel of Christ”[17] and Edwards saw that profession of faith not being merely verbal but played out through a lifestyle. One cannot “profess the religion that was taught by Jesus Christ, if he leaves out of his professing the most essential things that belong to that religion.”[18] The essential is that those admitted to membership, and therefore to the sacraments, “are in the profession and appearance endowed with the christian grace or piety.”[19] Edwards defined these within whom we can see their faith lived out in their behavior:

their owning the christian covenant, their owning God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost to be their God; and by their visibly joining in the public prayers and singing God’s praises, there is a show and implicit profession of supreme respect to God and love to him; by joining in the public confessions, they make a show of repentance; by keeping Sabbaths and hearing the word, they make a show of a spirit of obedience; by offering to come to sacraments, they make a show of love to Christ and a dependence on his sacrifice.[20]


Edwards argued that Stoddard himself held this understanding of communicant membership within the visible church:

Mr. Stoddard, in his Appeal to the Learned, seems to express the very same notion of visibility, and that visibility of saintship which is requisite to persons coming to the Lord’s supper, that I have here expressed....he declares himself stedfastly of the mind, that it is requisite those be not admitted to the Lord’s supper, who do not make a personal and public profession of their faith and repentance, to the just satisfaction of the church, page 93, 94.[21]


A verbal profession of Christ, however, is not enough, “unless we profess those things wherein consists piety of heart, which is vastly the most essential part of that religion.”[22] This person is one who “visibly makes the covenant of grace his own, promises to perform those internal duties, and to perform all duties with a gracious sincerity.”[23] An unconverted heart can simply not make this commitment:

Now he who is wholly under the power of a carnal mind, which is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be, cannot promise these things without either great deceit, or the most manifest and palpable absurdity.[24]


The verbal profession and outward appearances of saving grace are proof of one’s conversion.[25]

            For Edwards, the Lord’s Supper is “eminently and peculiarly sacred”[26] because of God’s relation to it. He commented on this in his personal writings:

God’s putting his name upon anything, or anything’s being called by God’s name, denoted the holiness of it and its appropriateness to God.... The appellation of “Lord’s day” denotes a day consecrated to an holy use and to the remembrance of Christ, as the appellation of “the Lord’s Supper” denotes a supper so consecrated.[27]


The reason the Lord’s Supper can only be extended to those visible saints, in Edwards view, hinges on his understanding of the sacrament as a covenant ordinance. As Jesus administered the bread and the wine to His disciples, He tells them to partake, saying, “for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”[28] Edwards defined the ritual: “There is in the Lord’s supper a mutual solemn profession of the two parties transacting the covenant of grace, and visibly united in that covenant.”[29] Through the taking of the bread and wine, a statement of faith is made to God by those participating:

they [the communicants] profess to embrace the promises and lay hold of the hope set before them, to receive the atonement, to receive Christ as their spiritual food, and to feed upon him in their hearts by faith.[30]


Within the Lord’s Supper, “Christ presents himself to the believing communicants” and does so “to impart to them all the benefits of his propitiation and salvation.”[31]

Stoddard and his followers argued that the unconverted “are fit to be admitted to the Lord’s supper, that they are duly qualified, fit matter for church-membership.”[32] Stoddard held on the one hand “that none are to be admitted to the Lord’s supper, but such as make a credible profession of real godliness, and are to be admitted under that notion, and with respect to such a character appearing on them” but also believed on the other hand that it is a converting ordinance, or one “designed for the bringing of some men that have no such a character, to be of such a character.”[33] This understanding that the Lord’s Supper was “instituted for the conversion of sinners, as well as the confirmation of saints”[34] seems contradictory and Edwards has many arguments against this view. If the ordinance can convert people, Edwards asked why there is “any talk about a charitable hoping they are converted, and so admitting them?”[35] Furthermore, if Stoddard is indeed right, it makes no sense that those already converted should bother participating.[36] Claiming that the Lord’s Supper is a converting ordinance is to make a claim about the future of the partaker. Edwards argued that the Bible does not defend this view:

It seems the primitive converts to Christianity, in the profession they made of religion, in order to their admission into the christian church, and in their visibly entering into the covenant...did not explicitly make any promises of any thing future. They only professed the present sentiments and habit of their minds, they professed that they believed in Christ.[37]


Through partaking of the Lord’s Supper, however, one is professing Christ’s propitiation for sins and His trustworthiness in providing for His followers. Edwards responded that “To suppose persons ought thus solemnly to profess that which at the same time they do not at all imagine they experience in themselves... is a very great absurdity.”[38] He summarized his belief on this topic as follows:

Some sort of belief, that Jesus is the Messiah, is a qualification properly requisite to a coming to the Lord’s supper; and therefore it is necessary that we should have a charitable hope, that those have such a belief whom we admit; though it be not necessary that we should know it, it being what none can know of another. But as to grace or christian piety, it clearly follows, on the principles which I oppose, that no kind of visibility or appearance, whether direct or indirect, whether to a greater or less degree, no charity or hope of it, have any thing at all to do in the affair of admission to the Lord’s supper; for, according to them, it is a converting ordinance.[39]


Stoddard went further in his argument to argue why he thinks regeneration need not be a requirement for communicant membership. Edwards explained his view:

although persons do not profess that wherein sanctifying grace consists...[if] we see nothing in their lives to make us determine, that they have not had a proper effect on their hearts, we are obliged in charity to hope, that they are real saints, or gracious persons, and to treat them accordingly, and so to receive them into the christian church, and to its special ordinances.[40]


Stoddard argued that “moral sincerity is the qualification which entitles, and gives a lawful right, to the sacraments.”[41] Edwards replied that “There is no such thing as moral sincerity, in the covenant of grace, distinct from gracious security.”[42] Edwards explained the partaking of the Lord’s Supper as the recipient saying to God:

I take this crucified Jesus as my Saviour, my sweetest food, my chief portion, and the life of my soul, consenting to acquiesce in him as such, and to hunger and thirst after him only, renouncing all other saviours, and all other portions, for his sake.[43]


For an unregenerate person to participate in the ordinance, that would be a lie and therefore a sin, as Edwards argued:

None will deny that lying and perjury are very gross and heinous sins, disqualify persons for christian sacraments in God’s sight. But by our author’s account, all unsanctified men that partake of the Lord’s supper, live in lying and perjury, and go on to renew this crimes continually; since while they continue ungodly men, they live in a constant violation of their promise and oath.[44]


One might claim that Israel reflected the church in a way that the Lord’s Supper and Baptism reflect the commands to the nation. Edwards admitted that “God did expressly command all the nation of Israel to be circumcised; and he also expressly commanded the whole nation to come to the passover.[45] Everyone of Israel was expected to participate in the signs of the covenant even though everyone’s heart was not right with God. Further, as a New Testament example, “Christ gave the Lord’s Supper to Judas, when he knew he was unsanctified.”[46] Stoddardeans argued that Judas is clear evidence to support their stance that unconverted men may lawfully participate in the Lord’s Supper. Edwards responded in saying that the important aspect of this example is not Christ’s offer but Judas’s response:

although Judas was really not fit to come, yes, inasmuch as Christ, acting as king of the visible church, did not know it, he might admit him: but not, that it was lawful for Judas himself to come, who knew his heart in this matter, and knew his own perfidiousness and treachery.[47]


Paul reminds the church in Corinth that because partaking in the Lord’s Supper is partaking in the body of Christ and proclaiming His death, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.”[48] John Calvin agreed with Edwards’s interpretation. He claimed that “There is no special virtue inherent in the sacraments themselves. They cannot confer the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon us: they can only bear testimony to them.”[49] In fact, an unsaved person would be cursed and not blessed through participating: “Far from experiencing God’s favour in this way, they only incur greater damnation.”[50] Verses such as “I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”[51] underscore this concept of how following the rituals is not pleasing to God without the worshiper’s heart being in the right place. Martin Luther echoed this belief: “it is not enough to know what the sacrament is and signifies....You must also desire it and firmly believe that you have received it.”[52] Empty actions do not please God.

Edwards held Christ’s bride, the church in high regard and felt personally responsible for encouraging and admonishing her towards holiness. As he saw the Lord’s Supper as signifying Christ’s covenant with His church, Edwards desired to guard it from being tainted by unrepentant hearts that would receive without believing. Because of this understanding of the nature of the ordinance, one can see why it is crucial to protect it from abuse. The seriousness of what he saw at stake in the misuse of communion can be observed in how Edwards admonished his own congregation on a Sunday in which the Lord’s Supper was to be shared:

You pretend to be Christ’s friend, or else why do you come here? And there are many of you that make a further profession than the generality of men under the gospel do. You are like Judas and the other disciples in that respect, that you appear as disciples: you go along with the rest of the disciples; you profess to forsake all and to follow him; you come to Christ as it were with a kiss; you come to meeting and to the sacrament as though you were friends. Inquire whether you ben’t [sic] like Judas also in this other respect, that you betray your Lord.[53]


He spoke harshly because he knew that “God desires sincerity of heart in those that profess religion.”[54] Therefore, one should “come to the Lord’s supper with a sanctified heart”[55] or not come at all.

[1] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 122.

[2] Ibid., 262.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 122.

[5] Quoted in Marsden, 122-3.

[6] Ibid., 129.

[7] Ibid., 123.

[8] Ibid., 160.

[9] Ibid., 122.

[10] “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 436.

[11] Ibid., 434.

[12] Ibid., 446.

[13] Miscellanies, unpublished, number 689.

[14] “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” 437.

[15] Miscellanies, number 689.

[16] “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” 435.

[17] 2 Cor. 9:13.

[18] “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” 438.

[19] Ibid., 434.

[20] Ibid., 438.

[21] Ibid., 437.

[22] Ibid., 438.

[23] Ibid., 446.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 438.

[26] Miscellanies, number 612.

[27] Ibid., 536.

[28] Matt. 26:28.

[29] “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” 458.

[30] Ibid, 458-9.

[31] Ibid., 458.

[32] “Misrepresentations Corrected and Truth Vindicated,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 495.

[33] Ibid., 501.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” 438.

[36] “Misrepresentations Corrected and Truth Vindicated,” 502.

[37] “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” 444.

[38] Ibid., 459.

[39] Ibid., 438.

[40] Ibid.

[41] “Misrepresentations Corrected and Truth Vindicated,” 502.

[42] Ibid., 503.

[43] “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” 459.

[44] “Misrepresentations Corrected and Truth Vindicated,” 505.

[45] Ibid., 521.

[46] Ibid., 522.

[47] Ibid.

[48] 1 Cor. 11:27.

[49] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Tory Lane and Harry Osborne, eds., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), 256.

[50] Ibid., 254.

[51] Hos. 6:6.

[52] Martin Luther, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body and Blood of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989), 253.

[53] Quoted in Marsden, 129.

[54] “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” 444.

[55] “Misrepresentations Corrected and Truth Vindicated,” 527.