Paul’s call to self-examination in 1 Corinthians 11 has shaped the Reformed way of celebrating the Lord’s table for better or for ill. In those churches that emphasize self-examination in their fencing of the table, Paul’s requirement can sometimes appear to overshadow the ultimate purpose of the ritual itself. In 17th century England, many honest church goers felt overburdened by the call to “make your calling and election sure,” interpreting it as a command to purge any semblance of doubt from their mind before approaching the communion table. Ministers in the English church were quite aware of this problem and sought to comfort their parishioners by pointing to the close connection between the promises of God and their visible signs or ordinances. Edward Polhill, though not a minister, devotes a portion of his Precious Faith (1675) to the various means that one may use to find assurance of salvation. Among these means Polhill includes knowledge of holy desires, hatred of evil, good works, prayer, and finally, the sacraments. For Polhill, the Lord’s table is a place of blessing for those who wish to be blessed, not a place of condemnation and not a place for morbid introspection. Rather, it is the table upon which the Lord himself spreads a Feast for his beloved. Self-examination is meant to be a preparation for the Supper, and it is not meant to destroy assurance. On the contrary, as the philosophers even say, it is necessary to “know oneself” in order to properly know God.
Self-examination is a root which bears Self-knowledg, and at the top of it grows Assurance, which is the knowledg of gracious self. Awake therefore, O Believer, down into thy own Heart, rifle the labyrinths, and break open the false bottoms there; see what of Sin is in thee: Is there any darling Sin, such as cogs with thy complexion, or falls in with thy calling, or any way steals away thy Heart and Affections from God? Be sure that this is an accursed thing, a Deliah; as the word imports, an exhauster of thy peace and joy. However fair it may look to sense, it is virtually sorrow and wrath. See again, what of Grace is there in thee, do thou repent of Sin, and believe on the Lord Jesus, and love God and his holy Ways? Are thy Graces genuine, such as act thee in the power of the Spirit, and square thee to the holy Canon of the Word, and level thy Thoughts and Intentions at the Glory of God? If thou thus search into thy Heart. and do it in truth and faithfulness to the holy Light; I dare say, thou art ready for the sealing of the Spirit, and the very frame of thy Heart is a real prayer for it. O how soon may the Spirit come, and by a Divine irradiation on thy Soul tell thee, That thy Repentance is a Repentance unto Life, and thy Faith precious Faith, and View thy Love Love in Sincerity? How soon may it apply and seal the Promises to thy Heart, as if it should say to thee, Thou repentest indeed, and the Mercy in the Promise is thine; Thou believest indeed, and the Salvation in the Promise is thine; Thou lovest indeed, and thine are the supersensual superintellectual good things prepared for the lovers of God. And now thou maist say much better than Seneca, Qualis somnus? O how sweet is the rest and repose which the self-searching Soul finds in the bosom of Christ and Grace? He that comes to that sealing Ordinance of the Lords Supper must prepare himself for the Soul by Self-examination, Δοκιμαζὲτω δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐαυτὸν, Let a man examine himself, saith the Apostle, 1 Cor. 11.28. Examine as a man would do Gold or Silver by the fire, or by the Touchstone; in like manner must he do so, that he may fit himself for the Seal of Assurance, of which the Sacramental Elements are Symbols (p. 435).
The goal of self-examination, Polhill reveals, is not self-condemnation, nor is it the discerning of an absolute assurance of election but the discovery of Christ in the soul. Of course one might retort, what about the one who does not find Christ there? Polhill recommends that the one who wants to discover Christ there should make the gift of grace evident by means of good works and by wrestling with God in prayer.
Let thy Motto be Plus ultra, and thy Christian Arms like Josephs, a fruitful bough by a well. Thou hast Faith, but be strong in it, that thou maist wrestle with God, and not let him go till he bless thee with Assurance; be great in it, that he may condescend to thee, and say, Be it unto thee even as thou wilt. Thou hast a being in Christ, but be rooted in him by a more close adherence, and intimate Union within him, grow up into him in statures of Grace till thou come to the oyl of gladness upon his head. There is some holy Love in thee, but be rooted and grounded in it, that thou maist comprehend the breadth and length, and depth, and height, and know the love of Christ which passeth knowledg, and be filled with all the fulness of God (p. 437).
Polhill does not recommend to those who are weak in faith that they excuse themselves from celebrating the sacrament of the table on account of their weakness. Rather, they should approach the table and partake of Christ as a further aid to their assurance, not as something too holy or too lofty for them.
There God makes a Royal feast, a feast of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well resined; he sets forth Christ crucified, whose flesh is meat indeed, whose blood is drink indeed. Come, eat his flesh and drink his blood, that you may live for ever; Eat and let thy Soul delight it self in fatness; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved Soul, or as the Original Text may be read, Be drunk or happily inebriated with the sweet Love of Christ; the same crucified Christ, which in the Sacrifice on the Cross satisfied Gods heart, at this Sacrament can satisfie thine. Never any Feast like this, which chears the Heart of God and Man; How will God manifest his Love here in Salutations, Kisses, and Unctions The Jews at their Feasts used many demonstrations of Love; such as Salutations, faying to their Guests, Peace be unto thee; Kisses; from whence afterwards Christians derived their Kiss of Charity; or as Tertullian calls it, Osculum Pacis, A Kiss of Peace; and Oyl poured out upon the Head, called therefore Oleum laetitiae, The Oyl of gladness: And cannot God do much more at his Table? Cannot he salute thee, and say, Peace, Peace, to thee, because thou trustest in him? Cannot he kiss thee with the kisses of his mouth, and cause one Promise or other to drop sweetness into thy heart? Cannot he give thee the rich anointings of the holy Spirit, and sill thee with all joy and peace in believing? Let thy Spikenard, thy Faith, and Love, and other Graces send forth their smell, that he may break a Box of Spikenard in thy heart, and fill, and perfume it with the sweet odours of his Love: Wait upon him in this Ordinance, there he doth by outward and visible Elements, seal Pardon and Salvation to thee; and believe it, he that puts one Seal to thy Sense, can put another to thy Heart; unto the Seal of Elements, he can add the Seal of the Holy Spirit; with the outward Bread and Wine, thou mayst have the hidden Manna, and heavenly refreshments from Christ. Whilst thou art renewing thy Covenant, and avouching the Lord to be thy God, he can own thee, and avouch thee to be one of his Children, and this will be more to thee than a World (pp. 447-8).
Rather than exclude the weak from the table, Polhill sees it as part of their training in assurance, and rather than advise them to abstain because of their weakness of self-examination, he urges them to partake for the sake of discovering what self-examination may not always reveal, that is Christ in the soul. The table, he assures them, will awaken the grace that is within as they witness the heavenly refreshments of Christ and become happily inebriated with the sweet kisses of God’s promises that are given there. For, “If ever thou meetest with the suavities and ravishing beauties of free grace, it must be in the sanctuary of ordinances” (ibid).