THAT the Church has power to appoint ordinances, will, I suppose, be generally admitted: and it is with reference not only to judicial but also to devotional acts, that our Lord's promise, as recorded in the eighteenth chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, was delivered, "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven."
An ordinance is appointed to be a means of grace: if our Lord ratifies in heaven what His Church does upon earth, then to expect the grace which an ordinance is appointed to convey is religion: if, on the other hand, by proper authority in the Church, an ordinance is abolished, still to observe it is an act of superstition.
For a member of the Church of England to expect grace from such an ordinance as Extreme Unction would be superstition: it was once, that is, before the Reformation, an ordinance of our Church; but from that ordinance they who have authority in the English Church have loosed us; and their act on earth is ratified in heaven: we should act in a Judaizing spirit if we were to seek benefit from it.
But Confirmation is still an ordinance of the English Church: it is, as it always has been, the ordinance appointed to convey to the souls of the baptized strengthening grace. Strengthening grace is the inward and spiritual gift, the imposition of hands, the outward and visible sign.
It is an ordinance which was appointed in the Church at a very early period; you have heard in our text how it was regarded by the Apostle to the Hebrews, as connected with the principles of the doctrine of Christ,--how it is placed in juxta-position to Baptism. Bishop Taylor, indeed, argues from this circumstance, that it must have a divine institution, or otherwise St. Paul would scarcely have mentioned it as among the doctrines of Christianity.
As we know that at first it was administered immediately after Baptism, at all events in the case of adults, there can be no doubt that it is to this ordinance that reference is made in our text. It was, undoubtedly, an ordinance observed by the Apostles; for in the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we read, that when the Apostles that were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, and were baptized, they sent unto them Peter and John, who, when they were come, prayed, and laid their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost. This is an exact description of what takes place at Confirmation. Philip, a deacon, baptized the Samaritans: after this, two chief pastors went down to lay hands upon, or, as we say, to confirm them; and God the Holy Ghost, by visibly descending upon the persons confirmed, by that very act declared that our Lord's promise was fulfilled; and what was done by the Church on earth, in instituting this ordinance, was ratified in heaven.
In the nineteenth chapter of the Acts, we find that St. Paul, having met twelve disciples at Ephesus, who had been baptized with John's Baptism, first caused them to be baptized with Christ's Baptism--that Baptism in which the Holy Ghost regenerates the baptized, and then laid his hands on them, i. e. confirmed them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
These facts throw light upon the words of our text. It is certainly true that the ceremony of Laying on of Hands was and is observed on other occasions; in the ordination of the clergy, for instance; in consecrating the elements in the Lord's Supper; and, anciently, whenever a benediction was given, as in the Visitation of the Sick or the Absolution of Penitents. But the Apostle here speaks of what concerns not merely persons in certain conditions, but every member of the Church,--what concerns them all, as does Baptism. In the laying on of hands in ordination, the clergy only are concerned; in laying on of hands when the sick are blessed, the sick only are concerned; in absolving penitents, those only who are under the censures of the Church. It remains, therefore, that, without excluding these, the Apostle refers to the other office, in which the same ceremony was observed, namely, Confirmation. So strong, indeed, is this passage to our purpose, that Calvin himself is compelled to own "that this one place doth abundantly witness that the original rite was from the Apostles."
The Laying on of Hands was, indeed, in the Apostles' time, attended by miraculous gifts. But so also were their preaching and their prayers: miracles were wrought by the Holy Ghost, in the first instance, to give a divine sanction to the ordinances of the Church; and to prove that He could and would, according to our Lord's promise, be really and indeed present with the Ministers of God in all their ministrations; that He would supply the inward and spiritual grace, when penitent and faithful hearts had recourse to the outward and visible sign: and when enough was done to establish this point, miracles gradually ceased. From what the Apostle says, in the twelfth chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians, it does not appear that all were endowed with miraculous powers. And if the cessation of miracles is no proof that preaching and praying are unnecessary, it can lie no proof that the Church is wrong in continuing the ordinance of Confirmation, or the Laying on of Hands.
From their days to ours, through all generations of the Church, this ordinance has continued. The early Church inherited it from the Apostles. In allusion to a passage I have already quoted, St. Cyprian remarks, "The same thing that was done by Peter and John, is still done among us. They who are baptized are brought to the rulers of the Church, that, by prayer and the laying on of hands, they may obtain the Holy Ghost, and be perfected with the seal of Baptism." Tertullian, who flourished about eighty years after the Apostle St. John, observes, that it was the "practice of the Church, after Baptism, to lay on hands, by blessing and prayer inviting the Holy Spirit, who graciously descends from the Father, on bodies cleansed and blessed by Baptism."
By the early Christians, indeed, as Baptism was called the enlightening, so Confirmation was styled the sealing of Christians: hence, when the Apostle, in the 13th verse of the first chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians, speaking of Christ, saith, "In whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise," i. e. the promised Spirit, he was always considered to be speaking in reference to Confirmation. To which he most probably refers also, 2 Cor. i. 21, "Now He which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God; who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts."
Perhaps the word ' sealing' refers to the practice of anointing the person to be confirmed with an unguent or chrism, made of oil and balsam, and hallowed by the prayers of the Bishop: we know, from the best authorities, that this practice prevailed at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century, and that it was intended to signify the grace of the Holy Spirit, then conferred by the laying on of hands; and as it is impossible to state when a practice so early and universally prevailing was introduced, we may suppose that it was an apostolical observance, and, as such, alluded to in the passages I have just quoted.
Before the Reformation, besides laying his hands on the person confirmed, the Bishop also signed him with the sign of the cross, as we still do to those who have been baptized. Indeed, after the Reformation, in the first Book of Edward VI., the rubric directs, that "the Bishop shall cross them on the forehead, and lay his hands on their head, saying, N. I sign thee with the sign of the cross, and lay my hand upon thee, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
Now, these ancient observances were only of value when they formed part of an ordinance appointed by the Church. When, they were thus ordained, it was religious to observe them, and, through the observance of them, to seek grace. But the Church, having authority to loose as well as to bind, thought proper, for reasons into which it is not necessary to enter at present, to discontinue these ceremonies, and to make the imposition of hands, with prayer, the only outward and visible sign in this ordinance. On the principle already advanced, since the Church of England is our authority, it would be superstition on our part, were we to regard these observances as any longer essential; while, if the Church were, in some future Convocation, to bind us to them again, it would then become irreligion to disregard them.
It is on the same principle that we justify another deviation from ancient practice, a deviation in which the Church of England shares with all the Western Churches. The ancient practice was to administer Confirmation, when practicable, immediately after Baptism. At first, the persons baptized were generally adults, and, before receiving the sacrament of Baptism, they underwent, as Catechumens, a long course of training: if they were prepared for Baptism, they were, of course, prepared for Confirmation, and they sought for strengthening grace immediately after receiving the grace of regeneration. Regarding the office in its most important light, as a means of grace, they made no alteration in their practice as it related to infants; but as the Church increased in extent, it became necessary either to defer Confirmation until the Bishop was able to give his attendance, or else to give to Presbyters a power to confirm. The latter course was adopted in the Eastern Churches, in which the presbyters have authority to confirm, and in which, consequently, Confirmation is still administered, even to infants, immediately after Baptism; whereas, in the Western Churches, including our own, the authority to confirm was reserved to the Bishops, which implied a delay as to its administration. [Palmer, Orig. Lit.]
The principle admitted, that Confirmation might be delayed, regard was had to edification, and it was delayed until persons baptized in infancy were able to take upon themselves the vows and promises made in their name at Baptism. This is stated in what is called the Preface to Confirmation, which was inserted as a rubric in the first Prayer Book of Edward VI., and so continued till the last review, when it was directed to be read by the Bishop, or some other Minister appointed by him: "To the end that Confirmation may be ministered to the more edifying of such as shall receive it, the Church hath thought good to order that none hereafter shall be confirmed, but such as can say the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and can also answer such other questions as in the short Catechism are contained: 'which order is very convenient to be observed, to the end that children, being now come to years of discretion, and having learned what their godfathers and godmothers promised for them in Baptism, they may themselves, with their own mouth and consent, openly before the Church, ratify and confirm the same; and also promise, that by the grace of God they will evermore endeavour themselves faithfully to observe such things as they, by their own confession, have assented unto." Then the Bishop asks them, "Do ye here, in the presence of this congregation, renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in your names at Baptism; ratifying and confirming the same in your own persons, and acknowledging yourselves bound to believe and do all those things which your godfathers and godmothers then undertook for you? And every one is expected "audibly to answer, I do." The Bishop then proceeds to administer the ordinance.
It is said at the end of the office for "Public Baptism of such as are of Riper Years," that "it is expedient that every person, thus baptized, should be confirmed by the Bishop, so soon after his Baptism as conveniently may be." The preface and prefatory question of the Bishop are not strictly applicable to these; but as the majority of persons to be confirmed in every congregation must consist of those who have been baptized in their infancy, no practical inconvenience is found to arise from this.
Not only for edification of mind, but for renovation of soul, does it seem expedient thus to defer the Confirmation of those who have been regenerated in infancy. The persons to be confirmed are generally those who are just commencing the career of life, just passing from parental control; going forth into that world, which is to the Christian a field of battle, wherein, under the great Captain of his salvation, he is to fight the good fight of faith, against the world, the flesh, and the devil. There, many an ambush is laid for their destruction, unless their eyes be opened by grace to perceive the pitfall: within are passions, at that age in their vigour, ready to betray them; and the temptations which allure them from without assail their inexperience with more of fascination or of power than at any other period of life. Now, more, therefore, than at any other period of life, they stand in need of that strengthening grace, which this ordinance has been instituted to convey. Now do they need to take unto themselves the whole armour of God,--the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit. This, indeed, is the great idea of Confirmation. It is the arming of the young Christian against the wiles of Satan; it is the strengthening of the feeble hands; the sending forth of him who has already been sworn in as the servant and soldier of Jesus Christ. He was sworn in when he was baptized: he does not at Confirmation make new vows; he only, before receiving the grace which he seeks, repeats the vows which are already upon him.
A person baptized in infancy may say that those vows were not made voluntarily; that as the option of taking or of refusing them was not left to him, he therefore does not feel bound by them.
Be it so: and then, we reply, you may be released, as you think, from your vows; but the consequence is, you cannot exercise the slightest Christian privilege. Whenever you exercise a Christian privilege, you virtually renew your baptismal vows, since it is only to baptized persons, that is, to persons bound by such vows, that these privileges are vouchsafed. If you refuse to renew your vows, you, in effect, place yourselves among the unbaptized; by so doing, you are in a state of nature; by nature you are a child of wrath; and a child of wrath is an inheritor of perdition. But though I say this, I speak of an impossibility; you cannot wash away your Baptism; and therefore, if you count it an unholy thing, and refuse to adhere to the baptismal vows, you will have to answer for much more than the mere heathen,--you have to render an account for having rejected and done despite unto the Spirit of your God.
With reference to those who on this ground refuse to come to Confirmation, we say, that you would be bound by your baptismal vows, even if you did not come to Confirmation, or else you would forfeit your baptismal privileges: the vows imply the existence of spiritual privileges, and the spiritual privileges imply the existence of the vows. But what the Church requires is, that, preparatory to our receiving the Holy Communion, we shall, at Confirmation, renew these vows in a marked and solemn manner, so that you shall never forget that such vows are upon you.
The object of Confirmation is to confer strengthening-grace, through the imposition of hands, upon those who have received regenerating grace through the waters of Baptism, which are consecrated, as the Prayer Book teaches us, "for the mystical washing away of sin;" the Holy Spirit being, in either case, the agent by whom, through the appointed means, the grace is conferred. And when it is for more strength that we ask, it seems reasonable to demand upon our part a public renewal of our vows. We say, "We are the servants and soldiers of Jesus Christ; the enemy is attacking us; we require new strength, and desire to put on the whole armour of God, that we may resist the world, the flesh, and the devil: grant us, O Lord, Thou great Captain of our salvation, the strength we need, through Thy appointed ordinance, that in Thy strength we may go forth conquering and to conquer:" and the answer to our supplication is, "According to your faith, so be it unto you; but first, ye servants and soldiers of Jesus Christ, give proof of your sincerity, by the renewal of your oath of allegiance and loyalty to Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords."
Such and so important is the ordinance of which I am speaking; such and so important, administered as it now is, as a means of edification: but while we insist upon this, we must not, as too many do, forget the primary object of this ordinance, the object to which all others are subordinate,--which is its being the means of conveying supernatural grace to the soul.
Some persons are afraid to regard it in this, the true scriptural light, because they are afraid lest it should be accounted a Sacrament. Now, lot those who are on this account afraid even to investigate the truth, ask their hearts whether the truth be really the object they have in view, or whether they be not merely under the influence of party and controversial feelings. The Church of Rome speaks of seven Sacraments: the Church of Rome must be opposed, and any thing that appears to make more Sacraments than two must be resisted. This is often the debasing feeling of unenlightened Controversialists. Why do we oppose the Church of Rome, when she speaks of seven Sacraments? Take heed, lest in fearing to speak of Confirmation as you ought to do, you betray your ignorance of what a Sacrament is. To this point I must briefly advert.
And, first, of the word Sacrament itself, it is not a scriptural but an ecclesiastical term; a word adopted by the Church, and for the meaning of which, therefore, we must go to the Church. And I will now read to you what the Church of England says upon this subject in the Homily of Common Prayer and the Sacraments: "You shall hear how many Sacraments there be, that were instituted by our Saviour Christ, and are to be continued and received of every Christian in due time and order, and for such purposes as our Saviour Christ willed them to be received. And as for the number of them, if they should be considered according to the exact signification of a Sacrament, namely, for visible signs expressly commanded in the New Testament, whereunto is annexed the promise of free forgiveness of our sins, and of our holiness and joining in Christ, there be but two, namely, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord. For although Absolution hath the promise of forgiveness of sins; yet, by the express word of the New Testament, it hath not this promise annexed and tied to the visible sign, which is, imposition of hands. For this visible sign (I mean, laying on of hands) is not expressly commanded in the New Testament to be used in Absolution, as the visible signs in Baptism and the Lord's Supper are; and therefore Absolution is no such Sacrament as Baptism and the Communion are. But, in a general acceptation, the name of a Sacrament may be attributed to any thing whereby a holy thing is signified. In which understanding of the word, the ancient writers have given this name, not only to the other five, commonly of late years taken and used for supplying the number of the seven Sacraments; but also to divers and sundry other ceremonies, as to oil, washing of feet, and such like: not meaning thereby to repute them as Sacraments, in the same signification that the two fore-named Sacraments are. And therefore St. Augustine, weighing the true signification and exact meaning of the word, writing to Januarius, and also in the third Book of Christian Doctrine, affirmeth, that the Sacraments of Christians, as they are most excellent in signification, so are they most few in number; and in both places maketh mention expressly of two, the Sacrament of Baptism, and Supper of the Lord. And although there are retained by the order of the Church of England, besides these two, certain other rites and ceremonies about the Institution of Ministers in the Church, Matrimony, Confirmation of Children by examining them of their knowledge in the articles of the faith, and joining thereto the Prayers of the Church for them, and likewise for the Visitation of the Sick; yet no man ought to take these for Sacraments in such signification or meaning as the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper are."
This is a long, but it is an important passage. In the first place, you see, the question relating to the number of the Sacraments is not a mere dispute about words. Our wise Reformers would have yielded at once, had such been the case, for the sake of peace. There is indeed a sense in which many other ordinances may be called Sacraments; and so far from denying this, our Church, in the Homily on Swearing, speaks of the sacrament of Matrimony. In this sense the term ought not to be confined to those five other rites to which it is applied by Romanists, but to any ordinance having an emblematical action of sacred import, any rite whatever having an internal or secret meaning. So long as you make a marked distinction between all these ordinances, and Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, there will be no quarrel about names.
Now I bring this before you, that you may see clearly the intention of the Church. Its object was, and is, not to depreciate other ordinances, but to elevate these two. If you regard the two Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion as merely solemn an] edifying ceremonies, as is too often the case now-a-days, you must be surprised at hearing of any dispute upon this point. If such were simply the case, it must be clear to you, from the passage I have read, that our Church would have entered into no controversy on the subject. Other ordinances are solemn and edifying; such is the ordinance of preaching, such is the ordinance of public worship, such is that ordinance of which we are now treating, Confirmation: but these are not to be called Sacraments in any such sense as Baptism and Supper of the Lord.
The two Sacraments of Baptism and Supper of the Lord are, then, something more than edifying and solemn ceremonies. And they are not distinguished from other ordinances merely by the fact of their being means of conveying grace to persons qualified to receive it: for other ordinances are also means of grace, such is Prayer, Confirmation, Fasting: Orders and Matrimony also convey to their respective recipients the grace for which they have recourse to those rites.
The distinction, then, between Baptism and the Lord's Supper, as contrasted with all other ordinances, is this, that they convey a grace peculiar to themselves. And what is this? Let us revert to the Homily of our Church, and there we learn that in these two, the promise of forgiveness of our sins, and of our holiness and joining in Christ, is annexed to the visible signs. Other ordinances may confer grace, but Baptism and the Eucharist alone unite with Christ Himself. "By Baptism," says a great Divine, "we receive Christ Jesus, and from Him the saving grace which is proper to Baptism: by the Eucharist we receive Him also, imparting Himself and that grace which the Eucharist properly bestows." Or let me quote a passage from the most learned Dr. Waterland, rather scholastic, but very expressive of my meaning. "In Baptism and the Eucharist," he says, "we are made and continue members of Christ's body, of His flesh, and of His bones: our union with the Deity rests entirely on our mystical union with our Lord's humanity, which is personally united with his Divine nature, which is essentially united with God the Father, the head and fountain of all. So stands the economy which shows the high importance of the doctrine. And it is well that Romanists, and Lutherans, and Greeks also, even the East and West, have preserved, and continue to preserve it, though some of them have miserably corrupted it by the wood, hay, stubble, which they have built upon it [Works, viii. 28.]
You will now perceive that we are to distinguish between Baptism and the Lord's Supper on the one hand, and the various ordinances of the Church on the other, not by depreciating the ordinances, but by thinking of these two great Sacraments of the Gospel, as the Gospel rightly understood would teach us to think of them. If we believe, as the Church unequivocally teaches, that in Baptism is the laver of regeneration, that in the Lord's Supper the inward part or thing signified is the body and blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper, we at once perceive why these ordinances should be distinguished as different in kind from all others. But let Baptism and the Lord's Supper be regarded, as is too often the case in these days, merely as important ceremonies; and the dispute between us and the Romanists on the subject of the seven Sacraments, is a mere dispute about words.
Returning now to the office of Confirmation; of the order, little need be said. It consists of three parts: the first, the preparation for Confirmation, contains a serious admonition in the preface, with a solemn stipulation in the interrogation and answer, to which I have before alluded; together with the first prayer, which is a supplication for spiritual gifts to the Almighty and Ever-living God, who hath vouchsafed to regenerate those about to be confirmed by water and the Holy Ghost.
The second part consists of the rite itself, the laying on of hands, and the solemn benediction.
The third, or concluding part, consists of general petitions, in the versicles, response, and the Lord's Prayer; in petitions more peculiar to the occasion, contained in the two last collects; and of the final blessing.
Such is the office of Confirmation; and is it not with a melancholy feeling that we come to the consideration of it? We have periodically to consider this ordinance with reference to those who are preparing to receive it. But it has come this day under our notice, merely as a holy rite; and our interest in it is entirely retrospective. Years have passed since the hand of our Bishop, in Confirmation, rested upon our heads--to some of us, many years. Parents, sponsors; they whose hearts once beat in tender anxiety for us, as ours perhaps are throbbing now, at the thought of all the trials, temptations, and difficulties, awaiting our own dear children and godchildren; where are they? Their once familiar faces beaming with that generous unselfish love, that kind of love which none other can ever feel for us, seem to appear before us; but, with respect to most of them, they have gone the way of all flesh; not lost, but gone before us. Whether in the Church triumphant they are cognizant of what passes here below, is doubtful: we can scarcely suppose it; for if they were witnesses of our struggles, they could hardly be at rest; and blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labours. But it is probable, that from time to time, as they are uniting with us in the prayer that it may please the Lord of his gracious goodness shortly to accomplish the number of his elect, and to hasten His kingdom; their righteous hearts may he cheered by the joyful intelligence of our progress in holiness, our advance in grace. Surrounded as we are by angels and invisible spirits, who are ministering to the heirs of salvation; incessant as the intercourse is between the visible and the invisible Church, this seems more than probable, and certainly has ever been a pious opinion in the Church. And while we think of dear ones loved, and now seen no more, can we venture to hope that their spirits have been thus cheered, by such intelligence of our conversion, of that renewal of our nature by the co-operation of God's Spirit with our own self-discipline, which is fitting us for the mansions purchased for those who persevere unto the end, by the cross and passion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?
Let us this day deal honestly with our souls. Let us devote some additional time this night, ere we retire to rest, to self-examination; let us attend to the verdict which our consciences shall return. There was a period in our lives in which our Bishop asked us, "Do ye here in the presence of God, and of this congregation, renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in your name at Baptism?" the promise and vow that you should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh; that you should believe all the articles of the Christian faith; and that you should keep God's holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of your life. There was a time, when to this solemn question we each one of us answered, I do. And to your conscience, and to mine, my brethren, I now, in the name of the living God, put the question: Have you kept the promise, or, are we found liars? Conscience, each man's conscience, I ask the verdict of thee? Dying men, ye are nearer the grave, that is, nearer to heaven or to hell, than you were when this promise was made; God is not to be trifled with. Oh! dreadful thought! Whose, whose is the conscience that does not upbraid him? Who, and where is he that would not be driven to despair, if he had not a Saviour, or if he had a Saviour less than Almighty? Oh! the comfort of knowing that, when the heart is right, when there is a willing mind to do the duty of our station in life, because that station indicates the call of God to each individual, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous; and that through Him, through the strengthening of His Spirit, we can do all things.
But is there any careless one among us, any whose heart has not been converted by the grace of God's Holy Spirit; any who, in asking the question proposed, feels that he has not only not kept his promise and vow, but not endeavoured, not even desired, after the first impression passed away, to do so? Why has that person been brought here? He has been brought here by God's providence to hear God's minister, in the name of God, say to him as I now do, Turn ye, turn ye; why will ye die? If you will turn this day unto the Lord, He will turn unto you, and by turning unto you convert your heart by the grace of His Holy Spirit. Turn to Him, as you only can turn, by renewing your solemn vow and promise of obedience. Will you solemnly, seriously do this, counting the cost, the many indulgences you will have to give up, the persecutions you will have to endure, the mortifications to which you must submit? Will you do this? Will you cut off the right hand of sin, or pluck out the right eye of sin, if need shall be? Will you determine to become religious, considering well what such a vow implies, in all but the hypocrite? Then happy will be this consideration of the order of Confirmation to you; for the Fatherly hand of God will ever be over you; His Holy Spirit will ever be with you, and so lead you in the knowledge and obedience of His Word, that in the end you shall obtain everlasting life. God of His mercy grant that thus it may be with us all!