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Vol. 2, Sermon 2 - Baptism - part 1

By Frederick W. Robertson

      Preached March 10, 1850

      "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."-Gal. iii. 26-29.

      Wherever opposite views are held with warmth by religious-minded men, we may take for granted that there is some higher truth which embraces both. All high truth is the union of two contradictories. Thus predestination and free-wilt are opposites: and the truth does not lie between these two, but in a higher reconciling truth which leaves both true. So with the opposing views of baptism. Men of equal spirituality are ready to sacrifice all to assert, or to deny, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. And the truth, I believe, will be found, not in some middle, moderate, timid, doctrine which skillfully avoids extremes, but in a truth larger than either of these opposite views, which is the basis of both, and which really is that for which each party tenaciously clings to its own view as to a matter of life and death.

      The present occasion* [*The recent decision on the Gorham case of the Privy Council.] only requires us to examine three views.

      I. That of Rome.

      II. That of modern Calvinism.

      III. That of (as I believe) Scripture and the Church of England.

      I. The doctrine of Rome respecting baptism. We will take her own authorities.

      1. "If any one say that the sin of Adam . . . . is taken away, either by the powers of human nature or by any other remedy than the merit of the One Mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ, . . . . or denies that the merit of Jesus Christ, duly conferred by the sacrament of baptism in the church form, is applied to adults as well as to children-let him be accursed."-Sess. v. 4.

      "If any one deny that the imputation of original sin is remitted by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is conferred in baptism, or even asserts that the whole of that which has the true and proper character of sin, is not taken away, but only not imputed-let him be accursed."-Sess. v. 5.

      "If any one say that grace is not given by sacraments of this kind always and to all, so far as God's part is concerned, but only at times, and to some, although they be duly received-let him be accursed."

      "If any one say that by the sacraments of the New Covenant themselves, grace is not conferred by the efficacy of the rite (opus operatuni), but that faith alone is sufficient for obtaining grace-let him be accursed."

      "If any one say that in three sacraments, i. e., baptism, confirmation, and orders, a character is not impressed upon the soul, i. e., a certain spiritual and indelible mark (for which reason they can not be repeated)-let him be accursed."-Sess. vii. cap.7-9.

      "By baptism, putting on Christ, we are made a new creation in Him, obtaining plenary and entire remission of all sins."

      It is scarcely possible to misrepresent the doctrine so plainly propounded. Christ's merits are instrumentally applied by baptism; original sin is removed by a change of nature; a new character is imparted to the soul; a germinal principle or seed of life is miraculously given; and all this in virtue not of any condition in the recipient, nor of any condition at all except that of the due performance of the rite.

      This view is held, with varieties and modifications of many kinds, by an increasingly large number of the members of the Church of England; but we do not concern ourselves with these timid modifications, which painfully attempt to draw some subtle hair's-breadth distinction between themselves and the above doctrine. The true, honest, and only honest representation of this view is that put forward undisguisedly by Rome.

      When it is objected to the Romanist that there is no evidence in the life of the baptized child different from that given by the unbaptized sufficient to make credible a change so enormous, be replies, as in the case of the other sacrament, The miracle is invisible. You can not see the bread and wine become flesh and blood; but the flesh and blood are there, whether you see them or not. You can not see the effects of regeneration, but they are there, hidden, whether visible to you or not. In other words, Christ has declared that it is with every one born of the Spirit as with the wind. "Thou hearest the sound thereof." But the Romanist distinctly holds that you can not hear the sound-that the wind hath blown, but there is no sound-that the Spirit hath descended, and there are no fruits whereby the tree is known.

      In examining this view, at the outset we deprecate those vituperative and ferocious expressions which are used so commonly against the Church of Rome-unbecoming in private conversation, disgraceful on the platform, they are still more unpardonable in the pulpit. I am not advocating that feeble softness of mind which can not speak strongly because it can not feel strongly. I know the value, and in their place, the need of strong words. I know that the Redeemer used them: stronger and keener never fell from the lips of man. I am aware that our Reformers used coarse and vehement language; but we do not imbibe the Reformers' spirit by the mere adoption of the Reformers' language; nay, paradoxical as it may seem, the use of their language even proves a degeneracy from their spirit. You will find harsh and gross expressions enough in the Homilies, but remember that when they spoke thus, Rome was in the ascendency. She had the power of fire and sword; and the men who spoke so were candidates for martyrdom, by the expressions that they used. Every one might be called upon by fire and steel to prove the quality of what was in him, and account for the high pretension of his words. I grant the grossness. But when they spoke of the harlotries of Rome, and spoke of her adulteries, and fornications, and lies which she had put in full cup to the lip of nations, it was the sublime defiance of free-hearted men against oppression in high places, and falsehood dominant. But now, when Rome is no longer dominant, and the only persecutions that we hear of are the petty persecutions of Protestants among themselves, to use language such as this is not the spirit of a daring Reformer, but only the pusillanimous shriek of a cruel cowardice which keeps down the enemy whose rising it is afraid of.

      We will do justice to this doctrine of Rome. It has this merit at least, that it recognizes the character of a church: it admits it to be a society, and not an association. An association is an arbitrary union. Men form associations for temporary reasons; and, arbitrarily made, they can be arbitrarily dissolved. Society, on the contrary, is made, not by will, but facts. Brotherhood, sonship, families, nations are nature's work: real facts. Rome acknowledges this. It permits no arbitrary drawing of the lines of that which calls itself the Church. A large, broad, mighty field: the Christian world: all baptized: nay, expressly, even those who are baptized by heretics. It shares the spirit, instead of monopolizing it.

      Practically, therefore, in the matter of education, we should teach children on the basis on which Rome works. We say as Rome says, You are the child of God: baptism declares you such. Rome says as Paul says, " As many of you as are baptized into Christ have put on Christ."

      Consequently, we distinguish between this doctrine as held by spiritual and as held by unspiritual men. Spirituality often neutralizes error in views. Men are often better than their creeds. The Calvinist ought to be an Antinomian-he is not. So, in holy-minded men, this doctrine of baptismal regeneration loses its perniciousness-nay, even becomes, in erroneous form, a precious, blessed truth.

      It is quite another thing, however, held by unspiritual men. Our objections to this doctrine are,

      1. Because it assumes baptism to be not the testimony to a fact, but the fact itself. Baptism proclaims the child of God. The Romanist says it creates him. Then and there a mysterious change takes place, inward, spiritual, effected by an external rite. This makes baptism not a sacrament, but an event.

      2. Because it is materialism of the grossest kind. The order of Christian life is from within to that which is without-from the spiritual truth to the material expression of it. The Roman order is from the outward to the creation of the inward. This is magic. The Jewish Cabalists believed that the pronunciation of certain magical words engraved on the seal of Solomon would perform marvels. The whole Eastern world fancied that such spells could transform one being into another-a brute into a man, or a man into a brute. Books containing such trash were burnt at Ephesus in the dawn of Christianity. But here, in the midday of Christianity, we have belief in such spells, given, it is true that it is said, by God, whereby the demoniacal nature can be exorcised, the Divine implanted in its stead, and the evil heart transformed unconsciously into a pure spirit.

      Now this is degrading God. Observe the results: A child is to be baptized on a given day; but when that day arrives the child is unwell, and the ceremony must be postponed another week or month. Again a delay takes place-the day is damp or cold. At last the time arrives; the service is read; it may require, if read slowly, five minutes more than ordinarily. Then and there, when that reading is slowly accomplished. the mystery is achieved. And all this time, while the child is ill, while the weather is bad, while the reader procrastinates-I say it solemnly-the Eternal Spirit who rules this universe must wait patiently, and come down, obedient to a mortal's spell, at the very second that it suits his convenience. God must wait attendance on the caprice of a careless parent, ten thousand accidents, nay, the leisure of an indolent or an immoral priest. Will you dare insult the Majesty on high by such a mockery as this result?

      3. We object, because this view makes Christian life a struggle for something that is lost, instead of a progress to something that lies before. Let no one fancy that Rome's doctrine on this matter makes salvation an easy thing. The Spirit of God is given-the germ is implanted; but it may be crushed, injured, destroyed. And her doctrine is, that venial sins after baptism are removed by absolutions and attendance on the ordinances: whereas for mortal sins there i-not no hope-but no certainty ever after until the judgment-day. Vicious men may make light of such teaching, and get periodic peace, from absolution, to go and sin again; but to a spiritual Romanist this doctrine is no encouragement for laxity. Now observe, after sin life becomes the effort to get back to where you were years ago. It is the sad longing glance at the Eden from which you have been expelled, which is guarded now by a fiery sword in this world forever. And, therefore, whoever is familiar with the writings of some of the earliest leaders of the present movement Romeward, writings that rank among the most touching and beautiful of English compositions, will remember the marked tone of sadness which pervades them-their high, sad longings after the baptismal purity that is gone-their mournful contemplations of a soul that once glistened with baptismal dew, now "seamed and scarred" with the indelible marks of sin.

      The true Christian life is ever onward, full of trust and hope: a life wherein even past sin is no bar to saintliness, but the step by which you ascend to higher vantage-ground of holiness. The "indelible grace of baptism," how can it teach that?

      II. The second view is that held by what we, for the sake of avoiding personalities, call modern Calvinism. It draws a distinction between the visible and the invisible Church. It holds that baptism admits all into the former, but into the latter only a special few. Baptismal regeneration as applied to the first, is merely a change of stat-though what is meant by a change of state it were hard to say, or to determine wherein an unbaptized person admitted to all the ordinances would differ in state from a person baptized. The real benefit of baptism, however, only belongs to the elect. With respect to others, to predicate of them regencration in the highest sense, is at best an ecclesiastical fiction, said "in the judgment of charity."

      This view maintains that you are not God's child until you become such consciously. Not until evidence of a regenerate life is given-not until signs of a converted soul are shown, is it right to speak of being God's child, except in the judgment of charity. Now we remark,

      1. This judgment ofcharity ends at the baptismal font. It is never beard of in after-life. It is like the charitable judgment of the English law, which presumes, or is said to presume, a man innocent till proved guilty: valuable enough as a legal fiction; nevertheless, it does, not prevent a man barring his windows, guarding his purse, keenly watching, against the dealings of those around him who are presumed innocent.Similarly, the so-called judgment of charity terminates with infancy. They who speak of the Church's language, in which children are called children of God, as being quite right, but Only in "the judgment of charity," are exactly the persons who do not in after-life charitably presume that all their neighbors are Christians. "He is not a Christian." "She is one of the world," or "one of the unregenerate." Such is the language applied to those who are in baptism reckoned children of God. They could not consistently apply to all adults the language applied in this text: "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus."

      2. Next, I observe that this view is identical with the Roman one in this respect, that it creates the fact instead of testifying to it. Only, instead of baptism, it substitutes certain views, feelings, and impressions, and asserts that these make the man into a child of God. The Romanist says baptism, the Calvinist says faith, makes that true which was not true before. It is not a fact that God is that person's Father till in the one case baptism, in the other faith, have made him such.

      3. Observe the pernicious results of this teaching in the matter of education. Here, again, I draw the distinction between the practical consequences which legitimately ought to be, and those which actually are deduced from it. Happily men are better than their views. Hear the man speaking out of his theological system. and then hear him speaking out of the abundance of his heart. Hear the religious mother when the system is in view, and all are indiscriminately, except a certain few, corrupt, vile, with nothing good in them, heirs of ruin. But hear her talk unguardedly of her own children. They have the frailties, weaknesses, common faults of childhood; but they have no vice in them: there is nothing base or degraded in her children! When the embraces of her child are round her neck, it will require more eloquence than you possess to convince her that she is nursing a little demon in her lap. The heart of the mother is more than a match for the creed of the Calvinist.

      There are some, however, who do not shrink from consistency' and develop their doctrine in all its consequences. The children follow out their instructions with fearful fidelity. Taught that they are not the children of God till certain feelings have been developed in them, they become by degrees bewildered, or else lose their footing on reality. They hear of certain mystic joys and sorrows; and unless they fictitiously adopt the language they hear, they are painfully conscious that they know nothing of them as yet. They hear of a depression for sin which they certainly have never experience-a joy in God, making His service and His house the gate of heaven; and they know that it is excessively irksome to them-a confidence, trust, and assurance of which they know nothing-till they take for granted what has been told them, that they are not God's children. Taught that they are as yet of the world, they live as the world; they carry out their education, which has dealt with them as children of the devil, to be converted; and children of the devil they become.

      Of these two views, the last is by far the most certain to undermine Christianity in every Protestant country. The first at least assumes God's badge to be an universal one, and in education is so far right, practically: only wrong in the decision of the question how the child was created a child of God. But the second assumes a false, partial, party badge-election, views, feelings. No wonder that the children of such religionists proverbially turn out ill.

      III. We pass to the doctrine of the Bible and (I believe) of the Church of England.

      Christ came to reveal a name the Father. He abolished the exclusive "my," and He taught us to pray, "our Father." He proclaimed God the Father-man the Son: revealed that the son of Man is also the Son of God. Man, as man, God's child. He came to redeem the world from that ignorance of the relationship which had left them in heart aliens and unregenerate. Human nature, therefore, became, viewed in Christ, a holy thing and divine. The revelation is a common humanity, sanctified in God. The appearance of the Son of God is the sanctification of the human race.

      The development of this startled men. Sons of God! Yes; ye Jews have monopolized it too long. Is that Samaritan, heretic and alien, a child of God? Yes. The Samaritan, but not these outcasts of society? Yes, these outcasts of society. He went into the publican's house and proclaimed that "he too was a son of Abraham." He suffered the sinful penitent to flood His feet with tears. He saw there the Eternal Light unquenched-the eye, long dimmed and darkened, which yet still could read the Eternal Mind. She, too, is God's erring, but forgiven, beloved, and "much-loving" child. One step farther. He will not dare to say-the Gentiles?-the Gentiles who bow down to stocks and stones? Yes, the Gentiles too. He spake to them a parable. He told of a younger son who had lived long away from his father's home. But his forgetfulness of his father could not abrogate the fact of his being his son, and as soon as he recognized the relationship, all the blessings of it were his own.

      Now this is the revelation. Man is God's child, and the sin of the man consists in perpetually living as if it were false. It is the sin of the heathen, and what is your mission to him but to tell him that he is God's child, and not living up to his privilege? It is the sin of the baptized Christian waiting for feelings for a claim on God. It was the false life which the Jews had led: precisely this, that they were living coerced by law. Christ had come to redeem them from the law, that they might receive the adoption of sons. But they were sons already, if they only knew it. "Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, whereby ye cry Abba, Father." To be a son of God is one thing; to know that you are, and call Him Father, is another-and that is regeneration.

      Now there was wanted a permanent and authoritative pledge, revealing and confirming this: for, to mankind in the mass, invisible truths become real only when they have been made visible. All spiritual facts must have an existence in form for the human mind to rest on. This pledge is baptism. Baptism is a visible witness to the world of that which the world is forever forgetting. A common humanity united in God. Baptism authoritatively reveals and pledges to the individual that which is true of the race. Baptism takes the child and addresses it by name: Paul-no longer Saul-you are a child of God. Remember it henceforth. It is now revealed to you, and recognized by you; and to recognize God as the Father is to be regenerate. You, Paul, are now regenerate; you will have foes to fight-the world, the flesh, and the devil: but remember, they only keep you out of an inheritance which is your own-not an inheritance which you have to win by some new feeling or merit in yourself. It is yours; you are the child of God-you are a member of Christ-you are an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

      Observe then-baptism does not create a child of God. It authoritatively declares him so. It does not make the fact, it only reveals it. If baptism made it a fact then and there for the first time, baptism would be magic. Nay, faith does not create a child of God any more than baptism, nor does it make a fact. It only appropriates that which is a fact already. For otherwise see what inextricable confusion you fall into. You ask a man to believe, and thereby be created a child of God. Believe what-that God is his Father? But God is not his Father. He is not a child of God, you say, till he believes. Then you ask him to believe a lie.

      Herein lies the error, in basis identical, of the Romanist and the Calvinist. Faith is to one what baptism is to the other, the creator of a fact; whereas they both rest upon a fact, which is a fact whether they exist or not-before they exist; nay, without whose previous existence both of them are unmeaning and false.

      The Catechism, however, says: In baptism . . . I was made a child of God. Yes, coronation makes a sovereign; but, paradoxical as it may seem, it can only make one a sovereign who is a sovereign already. Crown a pretender, that coronation will not create the king. Coronation is the authoritative act of the nation declaring a fact which was fact before. And ever after coronation is the event to which all dates back, and the crown is the expression used for all royal acts: the crown pardons, the prerogatives of the crown, etc.

      Similarly with baptism. Baptism makes a child of God in the sense in which coronation makes a king. And baptism naturally stands in Scripture for the title of regeneration and the moment of it. Only what coronation is in an earthly way, an authoritative manifestation of an invisible earthly truth, baptism is in a heavenly way: God's authoritative declaration in material form of a spiritual reality. In other words, no bare sign, but a Divine sacrament.

      Now for the blessings of this view.

      1. It prevents exclusiveness and spiritual pride, and all condemnation and contempt of others; for it admits those who have no spiritual capacity or consciousness to be God's children. It proclaims a kingdom, not for a few favorites, but for mankind. It protests against the idea that sonship depends on feelings. It asserts it as a broad, grand, universal, blessed fact. It bids you pray with a meaning of added majesty in the words, Our Father.

      Take care. Do not say of others that they are unregenerate, of the world. Do not make a distinction within the Church of Christians and not-Christians. If you do, what do you more than the Pharisees of old? That wretched beggar that holds his hat at the crossing of the street is God's child as well as you, if he only knew it. 'You know it-he does not: that is the difference. But the immortal is in him too, and the Eternal Word speaks in him. That daughter of dissipation whom you despise, spending night after night in frivolity, she too has a Father in heaven. "My Father and our Father, my God and your God." She has forgotten Him, and, like the prodigal, is trying to live on the husks of the world-the empty husks which will not satisfy-the degrading husks which the swine did eat. But whether she will or not, her baptism is valid, and proclaims a fact-which may be, alas I the worse for her, if she will not have it the better.

      2. This doctrine protests against the notion of our being !separate units in the Divine life. The Church of Calvinism is merely a collection of atoms, a sand-heap piled together, with no cohesion among themselves, or a mass of steel filings cleaving separately to a magnet, but not to each other. Baptism proclaims a church. Humanity joined in Christ to God. Do not say that the separating work of baptism, drawing a distinction between the Church and the world, negatives this. Do not say, that because the Church is separated from the world, therefore the world are not God's children. Rather that very separation proves it. You baptize a separate body, in order to realize that which is true of the collective race, as in this text, "There is neither Jew nor Greek." In all things it is the same. If you would sanctify all time, you set apart a sabbath-not to show that other days are not intended to be sacred, but for the very purpose of. making them sacred. If you would have a "nation of priests," you set apart a priesthood; not as if the priestly unctions of instruction and assisting to approach God were exclusively in that body, but in order, by concentration, to bring out to greater perfection the priestly character which is shared by the whole, and then thereby make the whole more truly " priests to God to offer spiritual sacrifices." In the same way, if God would baptize humanity, He baptizes a separate Church, in order that that Church may baptize the race. The Church is God's ideal of humanity realized.

      Lastly, This doctrine of baptism sanctifies materialism. The Romanist was feeling his way to a great fact when he said that there are other things of sacramental efficacy besides these two-Baptism and the Supper of the Lord. The things of earth are pledges and sacraments of things in heaven. It is not for nothing that God has selected for His sacraments the commonest of all acts-a meal, and the most abundant of all materials-water. Think you that He means to say that only through two channels His Spirit streams into the soul? Or is it not much more in unison with His dealings to say that these two are set apart to signify to us the sacramental character of all nature? Just as a miracle was intended not to reveal God working there, at that death-bed and in that storm, but to call attention to His presence in every death and every storm. Go out at this spring season of the year; see the mighty preparations for life that Nature is making; feel the swelling sense of gratefulness, and the pervasive expanding consciousness of love for all Being; and then say, whether this whole form which we call nature is not the great Sacrament of God, the revelation of His existence, and the channel of His communications to the spirit?

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