“May these precious seasons make me fruitful.” These words, found in the diary of a certain Isaac Staveley, who worked as a clerk for coal merchants in London during the 1770s, were written after he had celebrated the Lord’s Supper with his church, Eagle Street Baptist Church, in 1771.
In the rest of this diary, Staveley makes it evident that the celebration of the death of the Christ at the Table was a highlight of his Christian life. In the evening of March 3, he recorded that he and fellow members “came around the table of our dear dying Lord to feast on the sacrifice of his offered body, show his death afresh, to claim and recognise our interest therein, to feast on the sacrifice of his offered body as happy members of the same family of faith and love.” How many today view the Table this way?
Packed into these few words, Staveley reveals his conviction that the Lord’s Supper was a place of communion — communion with Christ and with his people. It was a place of spiritual nurture and of witness. And it was a place of rededication, both to Christ and to his church family.1
Unprized Means of Grace
I suspect that Staveley’s words sound strange to the ears of many modern evangelicals, who might think they are reading the diary of a Roman Catholic or High Anglican, not that of a fellow Reformed evangelical from the eighteenth century. Indeed, the oddity of Staveley’s words to the ears of evangelicals today reveals how much we have lost over the last two centuries. We are out of touch with a tradition that highly prized the ordinances as vehicles of spiritual grace.
“We are out of touch with a tradition that highly prized the ordinances as vehicles of spiritual grace.”
It is not simply that we have come to use mainly the word ordinance for the Lord’s Supper and baptism, rather than the word sacrament, whereas many Baptists like Staveley would have been quite comfortable with the latter term in the eighteenth century. Rather, under the impress of the rationalistic mindset of Western culture, we have lost a sense of mystery about the dynamics of the Table.
John Calvin (1509–1564), who stands at the fountainhead of the tradition of which Staveley was a part, was quite content to leave it as a mystery as to how the emblems of bread and wine are employed by the Holy Spirit to make Christ present at the celebration of his Supper. And roughly down until the opening of the nineteenth century, anglophone evangelicals followed in his stead, treasuring the presence of Christ at the Table without feeling pressured to explain exactly how this worked.
Diluting the Wine
How did this understanding of the Lord’s Supper lose its way?
During the nineteenth century, church services became primarily places of evangelism. But the Lord’s Table was not a converting ordinance, and thus great evangelistic preachers like Alexander Maclaren (1826–1910) — though not C.H. Spurgeon (1834–1892), it needs to be noted — came to regard the Table as a rite of little import in the Christian life. The emergence of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church — with men like John Henry Newman (1801–1890) and John Keble (1792–1866), who revived the doctrine of transubstantiation — also served to push evangelicals toward downplaying the importance of the Lord’s Supper.
Finally, the revivalist nature of much of evangelical life in the nineteenth century, shaped as it was by altar-call preachers like Charles Finney (1792–1875), Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874) and D.L. Moody (1837–1899), served as another key factor that led to the loss of a richer view of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, for some, the altar call became an alternate ordinance/sacrament (in fact, Finney posited it as such, as part of his so-called “new measures”). Rather than the Table being the place where sinners met with God and heard reassuring words about the saving work of Christ that dealt definitively with their sins (making the Table a place of rededication), it was the altar call that came to function as such.
Retrieving the Old Tradition
These events in the nineteenth century reveal how we came to the point where the Table is no longer a significant part of the spiritual life of many evangelical churches. Yet how desperately we need to confess our sins together with God’s people and hear afresh, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). In the busyness of Western culture, and even church life, do we not long for an oasis of quiet, where we can commune with Christ by his Spirit with our brothers and sisters? Indeed, I would say, with Calvin and Spurgeon, that this needs to happen on a weekly basis (but be that as it may).
“Do we not long for an oasis of quiet, where we can commune with Christ by his Spirit with our brothers and sisters?”
One of the richest texts from our past as evangelicals is the Second London Confession of Faith (1677/1688), which was drawn up by the English and Welsh Particular Baptist community and was based on the Presbyterian Westminster Confession (1646) and the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration (1659). This confession not only served as the main confessional text of the Particular Baptists in England, Wales, and Ireland into the nineteenth century, but it was also adopted by the oldest Baptist associations in America, where it became known as the Philadelphia Confession (in the north) and the Charleston Confession (in the south). Indeed, it was the Charleston Confession that was used to draw up the confession of faith — the Abstract of Principles — of the seminary where I serve, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
In Chapter 30.1 of this Baptist confession, it is stated,
The Supper of the Lord Jesus was instituted by him the same night wherein he was betrayed, to be observed in his churches unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance, and shewing forth the sacrifice of himself in his death, confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits thereof, their spiritual nourishment, and growth in him, their further engagement in, and to all duties which they owe unto him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other.
Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper for five reasons, according to this paragraph. The Supper serves as a vivid reminder of and witness to the sacrificial death of Christ. Then, participation in the Lord’s Supper enables believers to grasp more firmly all that Christ has done for them through his death on the cross. In this way, the Lord’s Supper is a means of spiritual nourishment and growth. Fourth, the Lord’s Supper serves as a time when believers recommit themselves to Christ. Finally, the Lord’s Supper affirms the indissoluble union that exists, on the one hand, between Christ and believers, and, on the other, between individual believers.
Rich Means of Grace
One cannot come away from reading these paragraphs on the Lord’s Supper without the conviction that those who issued this confession were deeply conscious of the importance of the Lord’s Supper for the Christian life.
The London Baptist preacher Benjamin Keach (1640–1704), who signed this confession, speaks for his fellow Baptists when he states, probably with reference to the Quakers, who had discarded the observance of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper,
Some men boast of the Spirit, and conclude they have the Spirit, and none but they, and yet at the same time cry down and vilify his blessed ordinances and institutions, which he hath left in his Word, carefully to be observed and kept. . . . The Spirit hath its bounds, and always run[s] in its spiritual channel, namely the Word and ordinances.2
In other words, the Spirit uses the Scriptures, the word of God, and baptism and the Lord’s Supper to strengthen his people on their spiritual pilgrimage in this world.
In this hearty appreciation of the Lord’s Supper, these early Baptists were firmly in the mainstream of Puritan thought. The Puritans generally regarded the Supper as a vehicle that the Spirit employed as an efficacious means of grace for the believer. The seventeenth-century Baptists and their heirs in the eighteenth century, like Isaac Staveley, would have judged the memorial view of the Lord’s Supper — the dominant view among today’s evangelicals — as far too mean a perspective on what was for them such a rich means of grace.
Indeed, in seeking to articulate a richer and more biblical view of the Lord’s Table, contemporary evangelicals may do no better than to listen afresh to what is written in chapter 30 of the Second London Confession.