by George Swinnock, an edited excerpt from chapter 18 of
“The Christian Man’s Calling,” in
 Works 1.174–192

The Jews had their preparation for their Passover: “It was the preparation of the Passover” (Jn 19:14). Nay, they took their lamb the tenth day of the month, and did not kill it till the fourteenth (Ex 12:3); and, as some of their writers observe, they tied it all the while to their bedposts, that in the interim they might prepare themselves for it. Our Lord Jesus, when He was to eat the Passover, and institute the Supper, would have so much as the house in which He would do it prepared beforehand (Mk 14:15). The ancient fathers and primitive Christians used to sit up whole nights at prayer before the Lord’s Supper, which they call their vigiliæ.

Reader, your care must be to trim your lamp, and make sure of oil in the vessel, now you are going to meet the Bridegroom. Samuel spoke to the inhabitants of Bethlehem, “Sanctify yourselves, and come… to the sacrifice” (1 Sam 16:5); so say I to you, “Sanctify your soul, and then come to the sacrament.” Joseph prepared himself, by shaving himself, and changing his raiment, before he went unto Pharaoh; and will not you prepare yourself by putting your soul into the holiest posture you can, when you are to go in unto the King of heaven and earth? He that would make a good meal, even when he is to feast at another’s cost, must prepare his stomach beforehand by moderate fasting or exercise.

God expects that the hands be pure, but especially that the heart be prepared. “The good LORD,” said Hezekiah, “pardon every one that prepareth his heart…, though he be not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary” (2 Chr 30:18–19). The king speaks of those who came to the Passover with some ceremonial pollution, yet had moral purity; and his words are to this purpose: “Lord, though several of my people have failed in regard of external purification, let it please Thee to pardon them, if they have minded internal preparation.”

Friend, there is no hope of remission without this heart preparation; the devil himself would not come into a house till it was “empty, swept, and garnished” (Mt 12:44). And do you think that the Lord Jesus Christ will come into your heart while it lies nastily and sluttishly, before the filth of sin be swept out, and it be garnished with the graces of His Spirit? Surely that room had need be richly hung with the embroidery of the Spirit, in which the glorious and blessed Potentate will sup and lodge. Where your expectation is great from a person, there your preparation must be great for him. Do you not look, like Herod, to see some miracle done by Jesus, some extraordinary thing for your soul? Therefore I say to you, as Joshua spoke to the Israelites, “Sanctify yourselves, for to morrow the LORD will do wonders amongst you” (Jos 3:5). Oh, sanctify yourself, and tomorrow—on the sacrament day—the Lord will do wonders for you; He will feast you at His own table, He will feed you with His own flesh, He will give you that love which is better than wine, He will embrace you in His arms, and kiss you with the kisses of His mouth; He will delight your eyes with the sight of His beautiful person, ravish your ears with the sound of His precious promises, and rejoice your heart with the assurance of His gracious pardon. Oh, do but sanctify yourself and tomorrow the Lord will do wonders for you!

This preparation consists in a serious examination of yourself, and a sincere humiliation for your sins.

A Serious Examination of Self

“Let a man examine himself, and so” (and no otherwise) “let him eat of [this] bread, and drink of [this] cup” (1 Cor 11:28). “Examine himself,” [Greek:]dokimazetô: some take it to be a metaphor of a goldsmith, as he tries gold in the fire whether it be pure or no; so your duty is to try your graces by the fire of the Word, whether they be true or not. So the Word is used (cf. 1 Pet 1:7). Others take it as an allusion to ministers, who are tried whether they are fit for their office or no (1 Tim 3:10); so you ought to try yourself, whether you are fit for this ordinance or no.

Your serious examination of yourself must be, first, Of the good in you; secondly, Of the evil done by you.

Examine the Good in You

Of the good in you, your duty is to examine yourself in general, concerning your regeneration or spiritual life.

The graces of believers are like sweet perfumes, and scented as far as heaven. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, not of regeneration, but of sustentation. When the prodigal came to himself, then the fatted calf was killed for him (Lk 15). Men must have natural life, before they can eat natural meat; and men must have spiritual life, before they can eat spiritual meat. It was an ancient abuse of the sacrament, cast out by the Carthaginian council, to give it to dead men. The invitation is not to enemies but friends: “Eat, O friends;… drink abundantly, O beloved” (Song 5:1). The water of life is only for the thirsty, and the bread of life only for the hungry. The showbread under the law was to be eaten only by the priests (Lev 24:9); so the bread of the sacrament is to be eaten only by such as are spiritual priests unto God, as saints are (Rev 1:6).

Reader, examine yourself therefore whether you are born again or no. Look into the Word of God, and compare yourself with the characters which are there given of new born creatures. They are sometimes described by their hearts: “God is good to Israel, to such as are of a clean heart” (Ps 73:1). Their hearts are clean, not with a legal cleanness, which denies the being of sin in them—in that sense “none can say, I have made my heart clean,” (this spotless robe is reserved for the saints’ wearing in the other world;) but with an evangelical cleanness, which denies the dominion of sin over them, (this cleanly garment is the saints’ ordinary attire in this world.) We call river water clean water, though there be some kind of illness and impurity in it, because it will not, like pond water, mingle with it, and suffer the filth to rest there, but works it out, and sends it forth in its scum and froth. Now, how is it with you, friend? Does sin rest quietly in you? or is it resisted by you? Do you live sin or loathe sin? Do you count it your pleasure or your poison? When the body is dead, vermin crawl in it without opposition. When the soul is dead, lusts abound in it and reign without any considerable disturbance. An unclean heart is quickly overcome by sin. As when a chimney is foul, it is apt to be fired by every spark that flies up; whereas, when it is clean, though many fly up, it remains safe. So when the heart is unclean, Satan can no sooner throw in his fiery darts, but presently it is in a flame; whereas a clean heart is like wet tinder, not so soon burning when he strikes fire. Godly men, as they have clean hearts, so they have “clean hands” (Job 17:9). The hand is the instrument of action; by clean hands the Spirit of God means clean and holy actings.

Saints are described by their lives. They “walk after the Spirit” (Rom 8:1, 5); they “order their conversation aright” (cf. Ps 50:23). Physicians feel the pulse of the arm, that they may know the state of the vitals. Now, how beats the pulse of your conversation? According to that, judge of the soundness or sickness of your constitution. Do you walk, in reference to yourself, soberly; in reference to others, righteously; in reference to God, religiously (Tit 2:12)?

Your duty is to examine yourself in particular also of those graces, which are specially requisite in a communicant, of your knowledge to discern the Lord’s body. There is a competency of knowledge needful if you would receive acceptably. Do you know the threefold estate of man?—his innocency, apostasy, and recovery; what a pure piece he was, how holy, when he came out of God’s hands; what a miserable polluted creature he has made himself by disobeying God, and hearkening to the tempter; what a glorious remedy God has provided to restore man to his primitive purity. Do you know God as He discovers Himself in His works, but especially as He is represented in the mirror of His Word? Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ, His two natures, His three offices, how He executes them, both in His estate of humiliation and exaltation? Do you know the nature and end of the Lord’s Supper?

An ignorant person can no more discern Christ’s body than a person stark blind can discern the bread. God has expressly forbidden lame and blind sacrifices (Mal 1:8). The hypocrite’s sacrifice is lame, for he halts in God’s way. The ignorant person’s sacrifice is blind for he can give no account of his own work. When the leprosy was in the head, the priest was to pronounce the party “utterly unclean,” and exclude him the camp (Lev 13:44). Do not say, though you are ignorant, yet your heart is good, when God Himself says, “Without knowledge the mind is not good” (cf. Prov 19:2). Fish stink first in the head, and then the whole body putrefies.

Examine your faith. This grace is your spiritual taste, without which you can relish nothing on the Table. This is the bucket, and if it be wanting, I may say to you, as the woman to Christ, “Thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep” (Jn 4:11). This is the hand to receive Christ (Jn 1:12). This is as the arms whereby we embrace Christ; they “embraced the promises” by faith (Heb 11:13). As loving friends that have been a great while asunder, when they meet together, hug and embrace each other in their arms; so the Christian who longs to see the Lord Jesus Christ in the promises, when at a sacrament he meets Him, hugs and embraces Him in the arms of faith.

Examine not so much the strength as the truth of your faith. The wings of a dove may help her to mount up towards heaven, as well as the wings of an eagle. Try whether your faith be unfeigned (1 Tim 1:5). What price do you set upon Christ? To them that believe, Christ is precious (1 Pet 2:7). An unbeliever, like the Indians, sees no worth in this golden mine, but prefers a piece of glass, or a few painted beads, mean, earthly things, before it; but a believer, like the Spaniard, knows the value of it, and will venture through all storms and tempests that he may enjoy it. Do you prize the precepts of Christ, the promises of Christ, the people of Christ, the person of Christ, (is that altogether lovely in your eyes?) and the passion of Christ? Is your greatest glory in Christ’s shameful cross? Do you esteem it above the highest emperor’s most glorious crown? “God forbid,” says Paul, “that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).

Does your faith purify your heart? Having their hearts purified by faith (Acts 15:9), the hand of faith, which opens the door to let Christ into the heart, sweeps the heart clean. Faith looks to be like Christ in glory, and faith labours to resemble Christ in grace. An unbeliever, like a sluttish woman, though he keeps the room of his life a little clean, which others daily observe, yet he cares not how dirtily those rooms of his inward man lie, which are out of their sight;unbelieving and defiled are joined together (Tit 1:15).

Examine your love. The primitive Christians kissed each other at the Supper, which they called osculum pacis (a kiss of peace). They had their “feasts of charity” (Jude 12). “The bread which we [eat], is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). As the bread is made of many grains, and the cup of wine of many grapes united, so is the body of Christ of many members, united under one Head. Eating together was ever a sign of love and friendship. Joseph hereby showed his love to his brethren.

Now, reader, what love-fire has you for this love-feast? Do you love the brethren as brethren, because they are related to God, and because they have the image of God? Or do you love them only for the natural qualities in them, and their courtesy to you? This fire I must tell you is kitchen fire, which must be fed with such coarse fuel; the former only is the fire, which is taken from God’s altar. Do you love a poor, as well as a rich, Christian? Do you love grace in rags as must as grace in robes? Is it their honour or their holiness, which you do admire?

Examine the Evil in You

As your duty is to examine yourself concerning your graces, so also concerning your corruptions. Before a sacrament there should be a thorough search for all your sins. The Jews, before their Passover, searched all over their houses for leaven; nay, they searched every corner and mouse-hole with a wax candle, as some write. There is a threefold leaven: First, A leaven of hypocrisy; “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Lk 12:1). Secondly, A leaven of heresy; “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Gal 5:9). Thirdly, A leaven of enormity or scandal; “Purge out… the old leaven” (1 Cor 5:7). Your care must be to make a diligent inquiry for all this leaven. The iniquities of wicked men will find them out, but good men will find out their iniquities: “I know mine iniquities,” says David (Ps 51). When viruses lie hid in the body, they hinder the strength it might get by food; when sins lie undiscovered in the soul, they will hinder its digesting spiritual meat and drink.

At a sessions, there are some indictments read, and it may be some execution done; but at an assize, there are many malefactors arraigned and many executed, the jail is then cleared of those vermin. A Christian should keep a petty sessions in his heart every day,—do what he can for the conviction and condemnation of his sins;—but before a sacrament he must keep an assize; there must be a general jail-delivery; all his sins must be sought after, indicted, and executed; the room of his heart must be cleared of those vipers. Particularly examine yourself of your sins since the last sacrament; how forgetful you have been of the oath of the Lord which you did then enter into. Be not slight or formal in searching after your sins, like some officers that willingly overlook the thieves they search for; but be as diligent to find them out as you would be to find out the murderers of your father or best friend.

But be sure you compare your heart and life with the Law of God. Oh, how many spots will that glass discover! When the woman has swept her house and gathered the dust up altogether, she thinks there is none left; but when the sun does but shines in through some broken pane of glass, she sees the whole house swarm with innumerable motes of dust floating to and fro in the air. The light of God’s law will make innumerable sins visible to you, which without it will lie hid.

A Sincere Humiliation for Sins

There is requisite, as a serious examination of yourself, so also sincere humiliation for your sins. The cleanly dame is careful always to keep her pewter and brass clean; but against a good time she is very curious to have her vessels not only clean, but bright, and for this end she will not only wash them, but take much pains in scouring them. Christian, now is the good time before which you should scour the vessel of your heart, that no dirt if possible may stick to it. This true humiliation consists partly in mourning for sin, partly in turning from sin.

Mourn for Sin

In mourning for sin: The Pharisees would not eat their common bread “with unwashen hands” (Mt 15:20; Mk 7:2), lest they should transgress the traditions of their elders. Friend, if you should eat this sacred bread with an unwashed heart, you will horribly transgress the commandment of your God. The Jews did eat the Passover with bitter herbs, and truly we Gentiles must eat a broken body with broken bones. The more bitter sin is to you before, the more sweet your Saviour will be to you at the sacrament; “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:4). A wet seed-time will bring a sunshiny and plentiful harvest. One of the fathers observes that David, the greatest mourner in Israel, was the sweetest singer in Israel. Beans thrive best if steeped in water before they be sown, and truly so will your soul if steeped in godly sorrow before you go to the sacrament. “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts” (Prov 31:6). When your heart is heavy under the sense of your unholiness, and you are ready to perish under the weight of your wickedness, then Jesus Christ will give you that wine, that blood which will refresh and make your heart glad.

Those trees shoot highest in summer that shoot lowest into the earth in winter. No Christian usually rises so high in consolation as he that is cast down lowest in evangelical humiliation. There are two in the New Testament famous for their contrition, and they are famous for God’s respect and affection to them. Mary was a great mourner; we seldom have a view of her in Scripture without dew on her face and tears in her eyes (Lk 7:38–39, and 23:27–28; Jn 19:25, and 20:11, 15). But she had the special honour and favour of seeing the best sight which ever mortal eyes beheld before all others, even the blessed Redeemer in the first step of His exaltation: “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils” (Mk 16:9). Mary had sinned greatly and sorrowed greatly, and was upon it greatly respected by God. Peter wept bitterly. A look from love broke his heart in pieces; but Christ took special care to bind up this broken heart, to pour oil into his wounded conscience; and therefore when a messenger is dispatched from heaven to acquaint the world with the joyful news of the Saviour’s resurrection, no name is particularly mentioned in his commission but Peter’s. God gives him an express command, that whosoever should remain ignorant of those happy tidings, he should be sure that Peter have notice of it. “Go your way,” says the angel, “tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him” (Mk 16:7). When a king has some extraordinary good news, and sends a courtier to acquaint his intimate friends with it, but charges him, “Tell them all of it, but be sure such an earl have notice of it: whoever you forget, remember him”;—all will conclude this is the favourite. Peter thought that because he had forsworn Christ, therefore Christ might justly forget him; but Christ took such care, that if but one in the world, besides those two women at the sepulchre, had notice of His resurrection, penitent Peter should be the man. Oh the rhetoric, the power of an unfeigned tear! Repentance has more prevalency with the blessed God than all the robes, riches, crowns and diadems of the greatest potentates in the world.

Oh reader, if you would have heavenly music at the feast, mind this holy mourning! When Joseph’s brethren were sensible of their sin in selling him, then, and not till then, he made them a feast. Jesus Christ made the best wine that ever was of water. The bee, naturalists tell us, gathers the best honey of the bitterest herb; God has solid joy for the broken bones, the contrite spirit. Cast up the accounts betwixt God and your soul, see how infinitely you are indebted to His Majesty. Abhor yourself with Job, bemoan yourself with Ephraim, and judge yourself, as Paul enjoins his Corinthians in relation to this ordinance, as ever you would have God at the sacrament to seal you a general acquittance.

Sacrament days are sealing days; God does then seal His love, and stamp His image more fairly on the soul; now, if your heart be melted into godly sorrow, and made thereby like soft wax, you will be fit for this seal and stamp. The hart in grazing kills and eats a serpent, which so inflames her that she can have no rest till she drink of the water-brooks. Repentance will make you feel the scorching nature of that serpent sin, and thereby long for and relish the water of life.

Turn from Sin

There must be a turning from sin. You can never communicate with true comfort if you do not communicate with a clear conscience. As your duty is to wash your soul in godly sorrow, so also to put off your sinful affections, before you enter into God’s house to partake of this ordinance. If God takes it ill when men “take his name into their mouths,” who “hate to be reformed,” how ill will he take it if such take the body and blood of His Son into their mouths? Christ’s body was not to see corruption, neither will it mingle with corruption. He lay in a new womb, in a new tomb, and He will lie in a new heart. When sin is cast out, then Jesus Christ will enter into your soul. “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” But mark how they must prepare themselves who would approach the Lord: “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded” (Jas 4:8–9).

The Jews before the Passover cleansed all their vessels, which they feared might have leaven sticking to them, burned all the leaven they could find, and cursed all in their house, whether found or not found; as their antiquaries inform us. Truly, when you go to the Supper it concerns you to cleanse your soul of the leaven of sin, by a high indignation at it, and hearty resolution against it. “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump…. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with the old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:7–8). Reader, it would be a trampling under foot the blood of Christ, and counting it as an unholy thing, if you should go to the Table of the Lord with love to any lust. For the Lord’s sake, and for your soul’s sake, take heed of paddling in the blood of Christ, as if it were channel water. Alas! you do little less if you partake of the sacrament without anger and indignation against every sin. True repentance implies an aversion from sin: “If [they] shall humble themselves,… and turn from their wicked ways” (2 Chr 7:14). The burnt child will dread the fire. The Christian who has truly repented is so sensible of the weight of sin and wrath of God, that he is resolved never more to meddle with those burning coals; alas! they are too heavy for him. David, that had repented of his sin, would not drink of that water which had but been the occasion of hazarding men’s lives, though before he could drink the blood of Uriah. Penitent Peter, though before he was so full of self-confidence that he preferred himself before the other Apostles,—“Though all deny thee, yet will not I” (cf. Mt 26:35; Mk 14:31)—yet afterwards, though occasion were offered him of commending himself, forbears it: “Peter, lovest thou me more than these? Lord, thou knowest I love thee” (Jn 21:15–17). He says not, more than these. O reader, it was Esau’s expression, “The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob” (Gen 27:41). So say you, “The days of mourning for the death of my dear Saviour and everlasting Father are come, and now I will slay my most beloved lusts; now will I be revenged of them for their endeavour to rob me of my spiritual birthright, to wrong me of my eternal blessing.”

This repentance exercised before the sacrament would prepare your stomach for the feast, it would cleanse it, and cause it to savour the dainties there; it would make you hungry, and hunger is the best sauce. Artaxerxes, flying for his life, fed on barley bread and a few dried figs, and said it was the best meal that ever he made.

When you had thus prepared your stomach for this heavenly banquet, take heed of relying upon your pains and preparation, either for a right performance of the duty, or for your acceptance in the ordinance. Many a poor creature, I am persuaded, goes with much humiliation for sin, and comes away without any consolation, because they made a saviour of their sorrow. Praise your physician if he have made you sensible of your sickness, but do not provoke him by making your pain to be the plaster for your cure. Alas! your preparation itself needs much pardon; if God should deal strictly with you, your prayers should be found dung, your sighs unsavoury breath, your very tears puddle water. Reflect on them yourself, and compare them with the Law of God, and you will find cause to pray over your prayers, to weep over your tears, to be ashamed of your shame, and to abhor yourself for your self-abhorency.

Do not think with yourself, “I have examined my heart faithfully, and find that I do not come short of the grace of God; I have acknowledged mine iniquities, and been sorrowful for my sins, and therefore I cannot miscarry at this sacrament.” Such a trusting of yourself would be a tempting of your Saviour, and would certainly hinder the success of the sacrament: it would be to you as the cutting off Samson’s locks was to him: Judges 16:20,—He thought to have gone forth as at other times, and shake himself. “And he wist not that the LORD was departed from him.” You may think, after such self-confidence, to go to the Lord’s Supper as at other times; but, alas! what will you do? for the Lord’s Supper will depart from you, and then what sport will Satan and sin, those uncircumcised ones, make with you?

Reader, let me persuade you, when you had been diligent in the trial of your spiritual estate, and have with many tears bewailed the pollution of your nature and transgressions of your life, to cast yourself wholly upon the Lord Jesus Christ for assistance in the duty. As Jehoshaphat, when he had fifty thousand men ready armed for the battle, cried out, “O [LORD] our God,… we have no might against this great company…; neither know we what to do; but our eyes are upon thee” (2 Chr 20:12). So after you have made the greatest preparation possible, do you look up to Christ, and say, “Lord, I have no ability, no might, for this great supper, for a right performance of this great ordinance, neither know I what to do, but mine eyes are unto Thee.” When Asa had an army of two hundred and eighty thousand men of valour to fight with the Ethiopians, he prayed and trusted to God as if he had not one man: “LORD, it is nothing with thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power: help us, O LORD our God; for we rest on thee, and in thy name we go against this great multitude” (2 Chr 14:11). So do you say, “Lord, I have no power for this holy Supper; help me, O Lord my God, for I rest on Thee, and in Thy name I go to this great and weighty ordinance.” Truly could you, after all the provision you have made, disclaim it wholly in regard of dependence, and cast yourself on Christ for assistance; I durst be the prophet to foretell a good day. The gaudy flower, which stands upon its own stalk, does quickly wither; when the plain ivy, that depends upon the house, and leans on it, is fresh and green all the year. He that trusts to his own legs in this duty is as sure to fall as if he were down already. The weak child walks safest, that all the way holds by and hangs upon its parent.


If you were now going to receive, be advised to write after David’s copy; he looked up to God both for assistance and acceptance: “I will go in the strength of the Lord GOD: I will make mention of thy righteousness, yea, of thine only” (Ps 71:16). Let your practice be suitable to His when you go out of your house; and let your prayer be the same as the Spouse’s when you are entering into God’s house. Oh then look up to heaven, and cry mightily, “Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spies thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits” (Song 4:16).

[George Swinnock (1627–1673) was chaplain at New College until his appointment as a Fellow of Bristol College, Oxford, in 1648 shortly after the episcopalian form of church government was abolished in the Church of England. In 1660, after Charles II acceded to the throne, and the episcopal polity was re-established, Swinnock was appointed Vicar of Great Kemble in Buckinghamshire. He was, however, to be deprived of his living for non-conformity within 2 years during the great ejection of 1662. Although little known, his works had enjoyed a reputation as being pithy, pungent and practical. They are often theological but full of vivid illustrations, so that he is amongst the most delightful Puritans to read.]

28 July 2002