A Guide to the Holy Sacraments in a Series of Lectures on the Baptismal Service, Delivered in Trinity Church, New Haven, Preparatory to Confirmation.
By Harry Croswell.
New Haven: G.B. Bassett and Co., 1857.
"God is mine helper."--Psalm liv: 4.
When you promise, "by God's help," to "renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, and all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh"--and also "obediently to keep God-s holy will and commandments, and to walk in the same all the days of your life"--what duty is implied in this peculiar form of the promise?
In the preceding Lectures of this course, it has been our aim to give a plain and simple exposition of the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration, as taught in the Bible and Prayer Book; and we are now prepared to devote our inquiries, in the remainder of the series, to the great practical lessons connected with the subject; the whole being designed, as we have already stated, for the instruction of those whom we may hope to present for the rite of Confirmation.
The question now under consideration is of vital importance, for many reasons, but chiefly on account of an existing state of things, for which it is [49/50] difficult to account, and which is calculated to awaken the deepest anxiety. It is a fact, well known to every observer, that a large portion of those who have received the sacrament of Baptism, either in their infancy, or in mature age, remain wholly negligent of the duties and obligations required in their Christian Covenant; that is, many of them have failed to present themselves before the Lord, to ratify and confirm the vows and promises made in Baptism; while many others have fallen into the still more glaring inconsistency of renewing their vows in Confirmation, without advancing, as in duty bound, to the participation of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Now, why is this? How are we to account for this strange and culpable neglect and inconsistency? Have they been accustomed to look upon Baptism as an unmeaning ceremony, without any binding obligation? This would seem incredible. The solemn import of the vows and promises made in Baptism, and the imposing circumstances under which they are generally made would seem to forbid such an idea. Whether the recipient be an infant or an adult, the obligation is precisely the same. This is sufficiently apparent from the language put into the mouth of the Catechumen by the Church. To the question—"What did your sponsors for you in Baptism?" the child is taught to answer--"They did promise and vow three things in my name: First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, ilic pomps and vanity of this wicked [50/51] world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian faith; and thirdly, that I should keep God's Holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of my life." And then, again, in answer to the question—"Dost thou not think that thou art bound to believe, and to do as they have promised for thee?" "Yes, verily, and by God's help, so I will." And it is also apparent, in the question addressed by the Bishop to every candidate for Confirmation:--"Do ye here, in the presence of God, and of this congregation, renew the solemn promise and vow that ye made, or that was made in your name, at your baptism, ratifying and confirming the same, and acknowledging yourselves bound to believe, and to do all those things which ye then undertook, or your, sponsors then undertook for you?" Surely, then, no well instructed child can be ignorant of the duties and obligations imposed on him in this sacrament. He cannot, for a moment, imagine that Baptism is an unmeaning ceremony, or that he is at liberty to neglect or disregard the vows and promises of that holy ordinance. And if the child cannot be supposed to be ignorant, or mistaken in this matter, it would be an insult to the common sense of the more mature recipient of Baptism, to impute to him such a gross misconception of the plainest rule of duty. Can the adult believe that his baptism is a mere idle ceremony, an act of solemn mockery, an unmeaning rite? It cannot be. How then are we to account [51/52] for his neglect to ratify and confirm his baptismal vows and promises, or his inconsistency in coming to confirmation, without availing himself of the privileges of the holy Communion of the body and blood of Christ?
Brethren, we have had the benefit of some experience and much observation on this subject; and we have found that, in nine cases out of ten, when baptized persons have been pressed on this question, they have put in the plea of unfitness. This may be perfectly honest and conscientious; but if so, it is a most unfortunate plea; for the same want of fitness that would exclude them from the ordinances of God, in his earthly kingdom, would equally exclude them from the kingdom of glory. But why will any man fall short of this kingdom? Is he excluded by any arbitrary decree of God? By no means. If he incurs the penalty of the death eternal, it is because he will not come to Christ that he may have life. And so, by parity of reasoning, if he comes not to the privileges of the holy communion on earth, it is because he will not fit and prepare himself for that sacred ordinance. But how can he thus fit and prepare himself? Where can he go and seek the help that he so sensibly feels that his infirmities require?
This brings us directly to the question under consideration. When you promise, "by God's help," to renounce sin, and to obey God's holy will and commandments, what duty is implied in this peculiar [52/53] form of the promise? Is it not a plain acknowledgement that you are unable, of yourself, to perform these solemn obligations? And is it not an equally plain and positive promise, that you will seek the help of God? This, then, brings the inquiry to a narrow point. We blame no one for refusing to come to confirmation and communion in a state of conscious unfitness; but we do blame him for neglecting that help to preparation which he has, by fair implication, promised to seek. To every one, then, in this condition, we address the simple question, have you sought this help? Have you sought it in the way of God's appointment, and in the manner enjoined by the Church?
This inquiry is plain and simple, and without mystery. We all know what is meant by the way of God's appointment; or, in other words, in what way he requires us to seek his help. On every page of Scripture we are taught that prayer is the great prescribed medium of our communication with God. What Jacob saw in vision, is always apparent to the eye of faith. Prayer is like the ladder standing on the earth, and reaching to Heaven; and the ascending and descending angels may be supposed to bear the petitions of men up to the mercy seat, and bring down the blessings of Heaven upon the petitioners. Prayer, like the buoyant flame, or cloud of incense, will rise from the altar below; while blessings, like the drops of refreshing rain, will fall from the fountain of all good, upon the souls [53/54] of humble-hearted supplicants. But without a similitude, the whole may be expressed in the Savior's own language: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you; for every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened." The way, then, which God has appointed to seek his help, is in prayer. It would be idle, and worse than idle, to think of any other mode of communication with our Heavenly Father; and it would be the height of presumption to expect any desired blessing at his hands, without condescending to seek it in this way. We must place ourselves precisely in the posture of helpless and dependent children; and we must look up to God as a kind and beneficent parent, ready to bestow upon us every good and perfect gift, but still possessing the perfect and indisputable right of prescribing the terms and conditions on which alone his blessings can be imparted. He is best acquainted with all our wants and desires; and he alone can know what will most certainly subserve our interests. He can best judge whether our petitions are just and reasonable, and how far his compliance may prove a blessing on the one hand, or a curse on the other. We know that he will act with a single eye to our benefit. We know that we can go to him in perfect trust and confidence that he will not deny any reasonable petition. We know that he will not mock nor deceive us. We feel assured that he has [54/55] the same love, and kindness, and compassion for us, only in an infinitely greater degree, as an earthly parent. And we perceive, in this language of the Savior, nothing less than an earnest and affectionate call to every one, to accept and partake of all the benefits of Christ's redemption. And we must be satisfied that this call cannot be made in mockery, and that the promises by which it is accompanied, cannot possibly be delusive, when we are bidden to ask, to seek, and to knock; and when we are assured, that if we will ask, we shall receive; if we will seek, we shall find; if we will knock, it shall be opened to us, we must believe that the renewing and sanctifying influences of Divine grace will be given to every one who asks, that every one will find the way of salvation who seeks for it, and that the kingdom of heaven will be open to every one who will knock for admittance.
Such, then, is the way of God's appointment. We must ask for his help in prayer. But we must remember that prayer itself may be so offered as to fall very far short of the spirit of supplication implied in the Savior's language. In the first place, an humble sense of dependence must be at the foundation of every supplication--we must feel our necessity. God is an omniscient being and requires no information at our hands. He knows our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking, but he requires an expression of our feelings; and the sense of our necessity should be as strong as if [55/56] we were dependent children asking a favor at our father's hand--nay, stronger, as if we were poor beggars, asking an alms at the door. We must not, indeed, approach, him as bond slaves, but with that humble awe and reverence which may denote, in some slight degree, our sense of the immense distance between earth and heaven; and of the disparity between a wretched and impotent worm of the dust and the infinite and Almighty Being, that inhabiteth eternity. We must also ask in faith. That is, with perfect trust and confidence in God, with an entire belief and persuasion that he possesses power to supply our necessities, and that he will not withhold any good thing from them that lead a godly life. We must believe that he is a God of infinite love and beneficence, and is consequently willing to bestow upon his faithful servants every thing that his wisdom shall deem suitable and necessary. "If you have faith and doubt not," said Jesus to his disciples, "if ye ask in faith, not doubting, of the power or will of God, to do whatsoever is for his glory and your good, what things soever you desire in prayer, BELIEVE that you shall receive them, and ye SHALL receive them.” But this promise must not furnish a ground for unreasonable or presumptuous petitions; for we must ask also according to the holy will of God. If we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us. But, above all, we must ask in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every prayer, petition, and supplication, if it be not [56/57] in his prescribed form of words, must be offered through his merits and mediation, or it cannot find acceptance with our heavenly Father. Neither penitence, humility, nor faith can avail us any thing, except for the sake of that blessed Savior, by whose all-prevailing intercession we are permitted to approach the throne of grace.
And if such is the way of God's appointment, it will be perceived, by a moment's examination, that the Church founds her instructions on the same grand principle. As to the manner of seeking help from God, she enjoins, in all her standards, the same rule. She plainly teaches that no blessing can be received except through the help of God. And every where she prescribes prayer as the only medium through which this help can be sought. In one of the first prayers in the baptismal service, the language of the Savior, already cited, is incorporated to show, first, the duty of prayer; and second, its efficacy; and in every instance in which a promise is accompanied by the expression, "by God's help," the obvious inference is that this help is to be faithfully and diligently sought in prayer. But the obligation is not left to inference alone. In the Catechism it is expressly taught. The Catechumen, after recounting the promises made in baptism, after acknowledging his obligations to perform these promises, and after solemnly declaring his purpose to do so, by the help of God, is thus addressed in the affectionate language of the Church: "My good [57/58] child, know this, 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." And so in the language of the Article cited in our former lecture: "Faith is confirmed, and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God." Thus, then, we learn that the Church is in perfect agreement with the Word of God, in prescribing the manner in which that help is to be sought, the want of which is impliedly acknowledged in the baptismal promises.
And we are now prepared to press the question again upon the attention of those who are pleading a want of fitness as an excuse for neglecting the confirmation of their baptismal vows, and for rejecting the proffered blessings of the holy communion. Have you sought the help of which you confessedly stand in need, in the way of God's appointment, and in the manner enjoined by the Church? If you cannot answer affirmatively to this inquiry, it is not surprising that you should feel unprepared to enter into new engagements. It is but natural that you should shrink from adding to the promises so long disregarded, or to the vows already broken. But are you resting in a safe condition? Or can you hope that the plea of unfitness, under such circumstances, can be offered, as a prevailing excuse, at the tribunal of final judgment? Will you die in your sins, when a remedy is freely provided? Will [58/59] you perish for the want of that help which you can receive for the asking? If so, we must conclude that you have either totally misapprehended the nature of your Christian covenant, that you have looked upon baptism as an idle or unmeaning ceremony, as little else than an act of mere mockery, or that, after having sincerely made, and perhaps formally ratified, the solemn vows and promises of the baptismal covenant, you have fallen into a strange insensibility as to its indispensable obligations. And in either case your condition is most dangerous. From this dilemma it is all-important that you should now escape. Be assured then that this can be effected only by a diligent improvement of the opportunity that still remains for seeking help from God, whose grace alone is sufficient for all your necessities, and which alone can save you from final condemnation.
"Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat,
Where Jesus answers prayer;
There humbly fall before his feet,
For none can perish there.
Thy promise is my only plea,
With this I venture nigh;
Thou callest burdened souls to thee,
And such, O Lord, am I.
Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
By Satan sorely pressed,
By war without, and fear within,
I come to thee for rest."