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The Touch of Christ: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments

By Granville Mercer Williams, S.S.J.E.
Rector of St. Paul's Church, Brooklyn, New York

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1928.

Chapter IV. The Sacraments of Initiation

IN the Apostolic Church, as the Rev. N. P. Williams has pointed out, the three Sacraments now known as Penance, Baptism, and Confirmation originally formed one single "Sacrament of Initiation" by which the convert was cleansed from his sins, born anew into God's family, and strengthened by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The connection of the three stages of the rite is clearly indicated in the words ascribed to St. Peter after his sermon on the Day of Pentecost:--"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." [Acts ii, 38.] The words show us the close connection in the Apostolic Church at the time the account was written of the three elements of: (1) repentance with some explicit renunciation of sins, (2) forgiveness and regeneration wrought by baptism and (3) the reception of the indwelling Holy Ghost. Elsewhere in Acts the "receiving of the Holy Ghost" is expressly connected with prayer and the laying on of the Apostles' hands after Baptism. Confession of sins as a preliminary to Baptism was apparently usual in the case of the procedure of John the Baptist [Matthew iii, 6, "And (they) were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins"]. And we read elsewhere in Acts, "And many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds." In both these instances the confession of sin spoken of is unquestionably an open and public confessing of wrongdoing.

This single "Rite of Initiation"--repentance, forgiveness, and the reception of the Holy Spirit,--developed in course of time into the three separate Sacraments known as Penance, Baptism and Confirmation. This development was partly due to the introduction of the practice of Infant Baptism of which we have no explicit mention in the New Testament. The Sacrament of Confirmation represents the conclusion of the ancient rite of initiation "cut off and made into a separate Sacrament," and in the West postponed until the child has arrived at "years of discretion" in order that at least part of the process by which admission is gained to full membership in the Church of Christ, may be experienced under conditions of full consciousness and intelligent responsibility. In the Eastern Churches, "Chrismatisation," or the anointing with oil which corresponds to our Western Confirmation, is still administered to infants directly after Baptism. Penance again, was separated from the single "Rite of Initiation" and made into a separate Sacrament in order that forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism might be assured. When Baptism was administered only to adults as the crown and seal of a conscious conversion of the will to God, the Sacrament of Penance--a "second plank after shipwreck" as it has been termed--was less necessary than is now the case when Baptism is administered in unconscious infancy. In the present use of the Church, Penance is the Sacrament by which the assurance of forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is secured. Its Biblical basis is found in the words ascribed to our Lord in the twentieth Chapter of St. John's Gospel (words which are used by the Bishop in the normal Ordination of Priests in our own Church) : Jesus "breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain they are retained." The claim made by our Lord as the representative of God, to forgive sins was called blasphemous by His enemies during His life time. In the case of the story of the healing of the paralytic, the whole point of the narrative lies in the new claim that God has given this power of declaring forgiveness in His Name unto men. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. But there were certain of the scribes sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only? And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether it is easier to say to the sick of the palsy, thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins (he saith to the sick of the palsy), I say unto thee, Arise," etc. [Mark ii, 5-9.]

This power to pronounce authoritative forgiveness in God's name claimed and possessed by Jesus, He explicitly transmitted to His Church through His disciples in the words already quoted from the Johannine Gospel.

The method by which this power has been exercised in the Church has varied from age to age. At first it was probably employed only in connection with the Sacrament of Baptism, when, after some preliminary act of renunciation and confession of sins, the neophyte received remission of sins as well as a new birth unto righteousness in the waters of Baptism itself. The tendency to postpone Baptism until practically the end of life, an illustration of which may be seen in the case of the Emperor Constantine, for fear of falling into sin afterwards, seems to show that originally the power of forgiveness possessed by the Church was thus strictly limited to the "Sacrament of Initiation." The same limitation is indicated by the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews "For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance." [Hebrews vi, 4-6.]

It has already been suggested that the custom of Infant Baptism was one of the causes which led the Church to recede from this stringent position and to provide, in the Sacrament of Penance, "a second plank after shipwreck" in the case of sins committed after Baptism. Another cause for the growth of Penance as a separate Sacrament is found in the effects of the persecutions upon the growing Church. Before terrors of death or torture, some baptized Christians gave way and renounced the faith, or burnt incense to the emperor. Could they be forgiven? The older and sterner view said "No." But a milder view, which ultimately gained complete acceptance, and which we may believe was more in accordance with the teachings of our Lord, held that it was possible and desirable that such offenders should be assured of Divine forgiveness upon repentance. Thus Penance as a separate Sacrament came into use. Originally there was generally required a long preliminary period of penitential exercises, after which the penitent was allowed to come before the Christian assembly and make a public confession of his wrongdoing, whereupon he was absolved by the Bishop, and readmitted to communion with the Faithful.

The practice of private Confession to a priest, which later came to be the almost universal method by which the Church exercised its prerogatives of Divine forgiveness, appears to have arisen originally in the huge monastic institutions of the Irish Church. There Confession was used, not only by "open and notorious evil livers," but by those who were striving to be saints. Lesser faults, as well as grave ones, were submitted to the Father Confessor, that true contrition might be encouraged, and the sense of sin deepened, and that advice, encouragement, and absolution might be received. This private, or "auricular Confession," as it is sometimes called, is now in general use not only in the West, but in the Eastern Churches as well. The practice was explicitly retained by the Church of England at the Reformation, and in the Office for the Visitation of the Sick in the English Book of Common Prayer there is given a form of Absolution which is that generally used by priests hearing Confessions in our own communion. One of the longer Exhortations in the Communion Office in the Book of Common Prayer bids all whose consciences are troubled to avail themselves of the privileges of the Sacrament of Penance. An increasing number do so year by year to their great and endless comfort.

The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is properly regarded as the gateway into the Christian Church. The words ascribed to our Lord in the Fourth Gospel during his conversation with Nicodemus, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God," proclaim it such. [John iii, 5.] Modern criticism regards this Gospel as a pious meditation upon the meaning of the Person of Jesus, rather than a purely historical account of His life and ministry; but even granting that these actual words were not spoken by Jesus, at least they reveal the importance attached to the Sacrament of Baptism, early in the history of the Spirit-guided Church. We have already given reasons for believing that in spite of the opinion of some critics, our Lord did, in fact, institute this Sacrament.

In St. Paul's teaching on the Sacrament, in his Epistles we note two distinct functions of Baptism, namely, in the words of the Church Catechism, that it is both "a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness." The "new birth unto righteousness" requires as its completion the gift of the Holy Spirit, conceived originally as given through the concluding rite of laying on of hands. If we should go on to reason from this that only through Confirmation can there come to the soul the first gift of the indwelling Spirit, it is plain that the present practice followed both by the Roman Catholic and by our own Church, of placing Confirmation a dozen years or so after Baptism, cannot be justified. Some Anglican theologians frankly accept this position, and would have us revert to the more primitive practice (still used in the Eastern Churches), of having Baptism, even of infants, followed immediately by Confirmation.

On the other hand, the official teaching of our Church as given in the Church Catechism, is in entire agreement with the teaching of the Church of Rome as expressed (by St. Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastic theologians. According to this teaching, "Confirmation is not a necessary Sacrament in at all the same sense as Baptism, it confers further graces of the Spirit, especially for growth and stability in the Christian life, and for boldness to confess Christ and 'fight manfully under His banner,' but nothing other in kind or in essential principle from what Baptism has already given." [Quick: "The Christian Sacraments," p. 182.]

It is in the conception of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as the means not only of the forgiveness of sins, but also as the new birth unto righteousness through the coming of the presence of the Holy Spirit, that we must look for the solution of a difficult problem in connection with the almost universal custom of Infant Baptism now prevalent in the Church. Our justification for this practice must rest primarily not in any difficult and abstract theory of the remission of a guilt of "Original Sin" in the infant, but rather in the belief that Baptism marks the child as a "member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the Kingdom of heaven."

The Augustinian doctrine of "Original Sin" has behind it a profound truth,--the observed fact that mankind is indeed "fallen," that there is a rift in the lute, that there is a tendency to do the evil from which the nobler part of us shrinks,--in short, that it is easier for us to be bad than to be good. As we give way to this tendency of our nature, and commit "actual sins," the sense of guilt and the need of Divine forgiveness and absolution is borne upon us. But to conclude, as St. Augustine concluded, that this very tendency towards evil, for which we personally are not responsible, in itself brings condemnation from God, and that all un-baptized infants are therefore condemned to the torments of hell, and that the baptism of infants has for its principal purpose deliverance from a "wrath of God," resting on them because of this Original Sin, such a conception is neither rational nor decent, nor is it, thank God, Scriptural, Christian, nor Catholic. It is not upon considerations such as these that we should base our custom of Infant Baptism, but rather upon the words of Jesus, "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not for of such is the Kingdom of heaven." [Matt. xix. 14.]

In case of necessity, any person may and should administer the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Water should be poured thrice on the flesh of the person to be baptized, preferably on the head, accompanied by the words "I baptize thee, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."

As we have seen, frequent references in the Book of Acts to baptism in "The Name of the Lord Jesus," suggests that the use of the three-fold formula of Baptism is not strictly primitive. Indeed it seems probable that Baptism originally was unaccompanied by any form of words, Baptism "in the Name of the Lord Jesus" meaning merely that the person baptized confessed his faith in Jesus as Lord. In this connection, the account of the Baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip "the deacon" is instructive:--"And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." [Acts viii, 36, 37.] In the same way, the three-fold formula of Baptism probably represents a later requirement of faith in the Holy Trinity on the part of the candidate for the Sacrament. It is well known that the so-called Apostles' Creed is mainly the old Roman baptismal Creed, representing a still further development in the faith required of the neophyte. But granting all this, it is evident that it would be most presumptuous and unjustifiable for an individual to set aside or neglect the long tradition of the Spirit-guided Church, that the words accompanying Baptism, "I baptize thee, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost," form a necessary part of the rite. The Sacrament of Confirmation has been touched upon already in our treatment of Holy Baptism, and but a word or two further is required. Since it imparts the Holy Spirit for the strengthening of the Christian soul in its warfare against evil, it is well not to delay it too long. Children can profitably be confirmed at a much younger age than is generally customary in the Episcopal Church, for if they acquire the habit of the use of the Sacraments of Penance or Confession and Holy Communion before the stress of adolescence is upon them, it is a great help to them in meeting the difficult problems of life. And although there is much to be said for the administration of the Sacrament of the Holy Spirit directly after Baptism, our Western practice of deferring Confirmation has its advantages. I can remember that the distinguished Serbian Ecclesiastic, Bishop Nicolai Velimirovitch, on his visit to America some years ago, spoke of our custom of deferring Confirmation until the child had come to years of discretion, as one of the usages in which the Western Church seemed to have the advantage of his own Eastern Communion.

The outward and visible sign of this Sacrament, is not fixed as is the sign in Holy Baptism. The Anglican Church bases its practice on the usage described in the Acts of the Apostles and employs the laying on of the hands of a Bishop. The Roman Catholic Church combines the touch of the Episcopal hand with an anointing with oil, while in the Eastern Churches the Sacrament is known as Chrismatisation, and consists of an anointing with oil blessed by a bishop, but usually administered by the Parish Priest.

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