AT the period of which this chapter speaks, the infant Church was suffering under the scourge of persecution. 'The chief agent in this inhuman work was Saul of Tarsus; and to his fury the holy martyr Stephen had just fallen a victim. Of those who professed the Christian name, the apostles alone remained at Jerusalem; the rest being all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. So far, however, were the views of those who persecuted the Church from being realized in its anticipated destruction, that the very steps which they took to overwhelm it, were the means of its increase and extension; for "they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word." Among these was Philip the deacon, who, nothing daunted by the [355/356] cruel death of his fellow labourer Stephen, "went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. And the people, with one accord, gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did." "But when they believed Philip, preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John, who, when they were come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Ghost, for as yet he was fallen upon none of them, only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost." Such is the narrative of facts to which the text has reference. And in this transaction we perceive distinctly an apostolical authority for that rite of "laying on of hands," which our Church has retained to this very day, and which is about to be administered here. The coincidence between the practice of the apostles, and that which is now followed, is striking in the three following particulars; namely, in that the rite was performed by the highest grade of officers in the Church; that it took place after baptism; and that the subjects of it were those who made a personal profession of their [356/357] faith, and of their religious obligation. The question how far there has been a correspondence in the effect of the rite, as administered by the apostles, or as administered in ages long subsequent to their's, is one the answer to which does not so readily appear.
When St. Paul, at Ephesus, baptized in the flame of the Lord Jesus those who had already been baptized unto John's baptism; and then laid his hands upon them, so that the Holy Ghost came on them, it is said, "they spake with tongues and prophesied." Were we certain that this visible effect of receiving the Holy Ghost had been uniformly manifested in the apostolic age, it would constitute a most remarkable difference between the effect of the primitive and that of the modern administration of the rite. But in the text no such visible effect is recorded or spoken of; and if in any instance no miraculous consequences followed, but only the ordinary influences of the Holy Spirit were conveyed or confirmed, we might be justified in asserting that as to those instances, at least, there is no evidence that the effect of the rite, in modern times, is in any thing less profitable than it was when administered by the apostles' hands. But leaving this question out of view, there is evidence that the rite was maintained in the Church when the age of miracles had passed away; nor does any reason appear why it should not, therefore, with [357/358] as much propriety, be continued and retained now. "The ancient custom of the Church," says Hooker, "was, after they had baptized, to add thereunto imposition of hands, with effectual prayer for the illumination of God's most Holy Spirit; to confirm and perfect that which the grace of the game Spirit had already begun in baptism. To pray for others is to bless them for whom we pray. To add to prayer and benediction imposition of hands, hath been in all ages usual, as a ceremony betokening our restrained desires to the party for whom we present unto God our prayer. Israel thus blessed Ephraim.and Manasses, (Joseph's sons) putting his hands upon them and praying. The prophets who healed diseases by prayer, used therein the self-same ceremony. In consecrations and ordinations of men unto offices of divine calling, the like was usually done from the time of Moses to Christ. He himself was an observer of the same custom. With imposition of hands and prayer, his great works of mercy were done for restoration of bodily health; and so great spiritual advantage did the people who believed him to be a prophet sent from God, expect from this act, that they brought unto him young children, who had no malady to heal, and no sins to answer for, that he might put his hands upon them and pray."
"After the ascension of our Lord, that which [358/359] he had begun his apostles continued, whose prayer and imposition of hands were a mean whereby thousands became partakers of the wonderful gifts of God. The Church had received from Christ a promise, that signs and tokens should follow those who believed. The power to perform them was communicated by K imposition of hands; which power, common at the first, in a manner, unto all believers, all believers had not power to communicate to all other men. But whosoever might have been the instrument of God to instruct, convert, and baptize them, the gift of miraculous operations was conveyed only by the apostles' hands. The miraculous graces of the Spirit continued after the apostles' times, as Irenaeus testifies; but then the power of communicating them, so long as it pleased God to continue the same in his Church, was only by prayer and imposition of hands of the Bishops, the apostles' successors, for a time, even in that power. When those miraculous graces ceased, confirmation still continued. The fathers every where impute unto it that gift or grace of the Holy Ghost, not which maketh us first Christian men, for that is received in baptism, but which, when we are made such, assisteth us in all virtue, armeth us against temptation and sin. Such is the testimony, especially of Tertullian and St. Cyprian. The fathers, therefore, being thus persuaded, held [359/360] confirmation as an apostolic ordinance, always profitable in God's Church, though not always accompanied with equal largeness of those external effects which gave it countenance at the first. Where the person baptizing was a Bishop, ' and the subject an adult, confirmation often took place immediately. Where the person baptizing was below that grade, the Bishops did after confirm those whom such had before baptized. I deny not, says St. Jerome, that the custom of the churches is, that the Bishop should go abroad, and imposing his hands, pray for the gift of the Holy Ghost on those whom Presbyters and Deacons, far off in lesser cities, have already baptized. Which custom St. Cyprian grounds upon the example of St. Peter and St. John. The limitation of this rite to the office of Bishop Was deemed proper, because the safety of the Church dependeth upon the dignity of her chief officers; to whom, if some eminent offices of power above others should not be given, there would be in the Church as many schisms as Priests. And again, the reason why Bishops alone did ordinarily confirm, ' was, not because the benefit, grace, and dignity thereof, is greater than of baptism; but rather, because by the sacrament of baptism, men being admitted into Christ's Church, it was both reasonable and convenient, that if he baptize them not, unto whom the chiefest authority and [360/361] charge of their souls belongeth, yet for honour's sake, and in token of his spiritual authority over them, (because to bless is an act of authority,) the performance of this ceremony should be sought at his hands. In the case of children especially, there is a manifest propriety in the administration of this rite. For being by baptism admitted to live in the family of Christ, the delay of imposition of hands, and the looking forward to its taking place, furnish motive and opportunity to season their minds with the principles of true religion, and to lay a good foundation for the direction of their whole lives."
"To the benefit of such instruction, imposition of hands and prayer being added, our warrant for the good effect thereof," says the same Hooker, whose views of this rite I have here compressed, "our warrant for the good effect thereof is the same which patriarchs, prophets, priests, apostles, fathers, and men of God, have had for such their particular invocations and benedictions; which, as I suppose, no man professing the truth of religion will easily think to have been without fruit." While then, my brethren, we pretend not to exalt this rite into the dignity of a sacrament, of several essential characteristics of which it is evidently destitute, yet do we think it a ceremony most worthy to be retained, not only for its ancient usage, being [361/362] clearly traced to the apostolic times, nor for its wide and universal observation, being found in substance in almost all the churches of the world; but for its own intrinsic propriety and excellence, and for the great advantage and benefit of which it may be made productive.
Indeed, the very sacrament of baptism itself, being administered, as it generally is, in infancy, both implies and requires some subsequent act in the subject of it, to make the obligation completely binding. And since the infant assumes this obligation by his sureties, until he is of age to take it upon himself, most fitting is it, that this should be by a public act, made in the presence of the congregation, to the highest authority in the Church; and most proper also is it that the baptismal vow being thus acknowledged and assumed, there should be connected with it that ancient form of dedication and of blessing, the imposition of hands, by those to whom God has given authority to stand and bless in his name, in token that the person is appropriated and pledged to God's service, and also to denote that his grace and power, which are never withheld from those who sincerely desire ad seek it, are assured to the individual. I shall say no more in vindication of the rite itself, but shall proceed to show what has been more largely insisted on in that course of religious instruction which many of those who are candidates for the rite, have diligently attended, namely, the [362/363] nature of the obligation which rests upon those who have not already been confirmed to receive this rite, and the motives which should influence their resolution.
Confirmation being an open avowal and acknowledgment of an intention to serve God, our obligation to make that avowal and acknowledgment is but the consequence of his right and authority to require it. Now his right and authority being indisputable, and commencing with the gift of bur being, your sponsors, in your very infancy, engaged that you should believe and do what he has enjoined. What you are to believe, is summed up in the Nicene and the Apostles' Creeds, which, agreeably to the eighth article of our Church, ought thoroughly to be received, for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture. What you are to do, is summed up in the Ten Commandments, which were republished by our Lord himself, in those two comprehensive propositions, which teach us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and our neighbour as ourselves. These two branches of duty to God and to our neighbour are set forth, in their more enlarged particulars, in the Church Catechism; and the performance of these, together with the belief which has already been mentioned, constitutes that which your sponsors promised in baptism, and what you undertake in the rite of confirmation. I would refer all who [363/364] would know their Christian duty, as resulting from their Christian faith, to that summary of the commandments which is found in our Catechism; and then I would beg them to consider the simplicity, the propriety, the excellence, and the advantage, of what God our heavenly Father enjoins. This is the more necessary because of those false views of religion which abound in the world, and which are alike derogatory to the goodness of God, and the happiness of men. In consequence of these views, many think of religion as if it were a something wholly averse to our interest and advantage, a gloomy system of unintelligible dogmas, a severe and burdensome round of observances, a melancholy and unnatural mode of life, in opposition to all our cheerful inclinations and dispositions. That it is opposed to our corrupt propensities and unhallowed desires, I shall not pretend to deny. But this is not because the requirements of religion are not pro-motive of good, but because our hearts are inclined to evil. We have lost that purity and holiness which could find delight only in pure and holy gratifications, and are prone to seek present pleasure, though the objects in which we find it be such as conscience condemns, and reason cannot but disapprove. Were not our judgment become the willing slave of our depraved affections, we could not voluntarily commit sin, any more than we could voluntarily imbibe poison, [364/365] or expose our flesh to the burning flame. For as necessarily as these acts produce injury and suffering, so necessarily does sin, in the view of an uncorrupted judgment, produce punishment. But the law of our mind is over-borne by the law of our members, by the corrupt desires which insist upon gratification, though at the expense of innocence, and virtue, and ultimate safety. Still, the decision of the judgment remains. It declares that the law which God has given is holy, and the command holy, and just, and good. While the man is pursuing evil, he is sensible of his errors, and alive to their consequence. He is therefore often heard to say, that he sees and approves the good, though he does not follow it; that he hates the wrong, though he is pursuing it; and thus, in the language of Scripture, he is compelled to confess that the law is spiritual, even though he is carnal, sold under sin. If such is the excellence and the propriety of what God commands and religion requires, even in the view of those who themselves are going astray; and if, in even the most hardened minds, there is a sense of compunction whenever sin is voluntarily committed; it is no wonder if, when the obligations just set before you, have been stated, and the question contained in our Catechism is put to any baptized person, "Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe and to do as thy sponsors have promised for thee?" The answer [365/366] should be strongly and decidedly, "Yes;" and even reiterated and affirmed by a word of assurance and asseveration, implying the greatest certainty "Yes, verily." Thus far, then, there is no difficulty. Every one who is made acquainted with what religion requires, and has capacity to discern the beauty of virtue, and the fitness of truth, can freely answer as to the obligation to receive and to observe them. And I would ask no higher encomium or tribute to their excellence, than the repentant confession of the worst of men, when having long neglected their dictates, and strayed into the greatest extremes of vice and error, they have been awakened to perceive the misery and the danger which their folly has caused. To confess our obligation, then, to believe and obey all that our religion enjoins, is what all must do; and that not merely because our sponsors promised for us that we should, although there are binding motives arising out of that consideration; but because, exclusive of either their promises or our own, this course is required by conscience, by our best judgment, by our relation to God, by the excellence of his precepts, by their glorious tendency and reward, by regard to our own dignity, character, interest, and advantage, and by every motive which can operate upon a reasonable mind.
A confession made necessary, and enforced upon us by so many motives, possesses, in itself, [366/367] no merit, contains nothing indicative of character, and may be made alike by those who totally disregard the obligation, as by those who diligently fulfil it.
What follows in this answer, is of more importance; and however, from infancy, we may have repeated it, without attaching to it any meaning, or thinking it of any more consequence than what went before, yet now we are bound, and especially those who in confirmation are about to assume their baptismal vows, not lightly to take the words upon our lips. They contain, it will be seen, the first promise made in the Catechism. They form the very clause by which we renew the solemn engagement of our baptism, which in confirmation we are to ratify and confirm. When we repeat them in that rite, they remind us that the vow of God is upon us, and they demand, besides, the attention of every Christian, for they comprise the very condition and terms of our ever lasting salvation. I propose this answer in the Catechism to every individual, as the test of his spiritual character and condition. By baptism you have been brought into Christ's Church; you have also been instructed in your privileges; you have been taught your duties, and you have confessed your obligation to fulfil them. Thus made a subject of the washing of regeneration, would you know whether you are also a subject of the renewing of the [367/368] Holy Ghost? Thus adopted into God's family, and admitted into the Christian Church, would you know whether you have been made a living member of the same 1 Or, to meet the case of those before me who have offered themselves for the rite of confirmation, would you ascertain whether you are safe in assuming your vows; whether you may with confidence come before God and his Church, to profess your Christian character, and in the language of our baptismal service and of Scripture, "to put on Christ?" Examine yourself by the answer which we are considering. Can you say, in the view of your obligations to believe and do what your sponsors promised for you, and in answer to the question, whether you are bound to undertake them, "Yes, verily, and by God's help so I will?" Can you say this as for the present moment, with a sincere desire from this time forward to fulfil it? If without reserve, as in the presence of the Searcher of hearts, you can say so, then indeed you owe your hearty thanks to God for having called you to this state of salvation through Jesus Christ; and should offer to him the earnest prayer for his grace, that you may continue in the same unto your life's end. If, however, you cannot sincerely and without reserve make this promise; if the world and its pleasures seem to your mind more important than the favour of God; if you think that at some future time and distant day it will be time enough [368/369] to attend to the concerns of religion; of if you are too indifferent and careless to have any desire, or to make any resolution, on the subject, then, though the obligation remains upon you in its full force, the privileges of baptism are not yours. Under such circumstances it would be wrong in you to make the declaration which is here required. "Know ye not," says St, Paul, "that ye are his servants to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness." And if, indeed, sin is the object of your desire, and obedience the object of your aversion; if you care not to believe and do what your sponsors promised, and what God requires; how can you, consistently with truth, in the presence of God and of his congregation, renew the promise, ratify the vow, confirm the obligation, which they undertook for you? I speak thus plainly, because I would not deceive you, nor would I have you deceive yourselves. What but evil can come of a delusion in a business so important! What but danger can come of mockery in entering into a solemn covenant with him to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid?
As a reason to animate us in the endeavour to grow in true religion, we should remember that we cannot be saved by the piety of those around [369/370] us. We may live in a community eminently religious; we may be the members of a pure and evangelical church; our family, our friends, our parents, our companions, may all be religious; but unless that be our character personally, it will avail us nothing in the view of conscience or of God--nothing in the changes and chances of this mortal life--nothing in the hour of death--nothing in the scenes of judgment and of eternity.
Solicitude for our interests may induce those to whom God has committed the care of us, to endeavour every thing for our spiritual good. They may have devoted us to God; they may have promised in our behalf that renouncing the devil and all his works, the vain pomps and glory of the world, and the sinful desires of the flesh, we should neither follow nor be led by them; and also that being instructed in the things which we ought to know and believe to our soul's health, we should obediently keep God's holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of our life. This they may have done in perfect sincerity; and God accepting their act, we may have been admitted to all the privileges and advantages of his Church. Beyond this, together with their diligent teaching, and their fervent prayers, the fondest parents could not go. And had we died in infancy, he who is not an hard master, who asks not impossibilities, would have [370/371] received us and rewarded them, saying, as our Saviour did, in the language of approbation, "They have done what they could."
But reason, Scripture, and the very words of their engagement on our behalf, fix a limit beyond which their peity cannot be made available by us. They promised for us, until we came of age to take it upon ourselves; and until then God accepted their act as if it had been our own. But when that period has arrived, when we are able to understand our duties, and to know our privileges, it depends upon ourselves whether we will perform the one, and secure the other.
That it is great folly to undertake these vows without understanding their nature and import, great mockery to profess intentions which we have not deliberately framed, and great contempt of God to approach him in a solemn covenant without meaning to regard its terms, I again repeat; and this I need not urge upon any here present. The uncorrupted simplicity of early youth must shrink from such a culpable course of conduct, which nothing but its thoughtlessness and inconsiderateness could make probable or excuse. If, however, you are enabled to pronounce this declaration in sincerity, though it be with fear; if, considering the peril of being found indifferent to the favour of God, or in such a state as deprives you of the privileges of his gracious covenant; you now determine, that by God's [371/372] help you will believe and do what your sponsors promised for you; you may be assured that this very determination is the result of the operation of God's Holy Spirit; as it is an earnest and pledge of his continual assistance, so long as you diligently cultivate and employ it. Your own inability the Church expressly declares in that address of the Catechism which immediately follows the summary of the Commandments--"My good child, know this," is its language, "that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace, which thou must learn, at all times, to call for by diligent prayer."
Thus does the Church direct to means by which God's help is to be procured; and we ought ever to bear in mind, therefore, that whenever we promise to do any thing, as here, by God's help, or by God's grace, we should consider ourselves as engaging to seek that grace, and that help, by the means which he has appointed; and of these that which the Catechism next suggests, prayer, is the most effectual, and that to which God has given his promise to accompany it with a blessing. And if we resort to it with sincerity and humility, employing all our watchfulness to avoid the temptations and snares by which we are surrounded, and our diligence to grow in grace and in knowledge, we may be [372/373] certain that he who has promised to give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him, will nourish in us those pious dispositions which will detach us from the world, and fit us for his service here, and for his presence hereafter.