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Confirmation as Universal Practice
It is helpful to think of Confirmation in the local practice, in light of the wider and historic practice of the Church. Starting with the question “Who has a right to/must take the Supper?” When the New Testament Church first began, a baptized person confessed Christ, was baptized and took the Supper. Their children would be baptized as infants and go through a period of catechism before communing. Both groups went through a rite which admitted them to the full benefits of church membership; the Lord’s Table.
This rite of Confirmation varied through the centuries but it always was in practice in one form or another. Some traditions made the rite less of a ceremony and others more of a ceremony, and some made it a sacrament. Nevertheless, Confirmation remained in various liturgies as a rite of initiation to the Lord’s Table.
What is Confirmation
The word Confirmation is used to describe the rite wherein a person is set apart for God and makes a profession/confession of faith before the congregation of their church. Confirmation generally takes place after a period of instruction by the Church. Opinions and practices differ on the years and location of instruction in relation to Baptism and Communion. Some place this period of instruction before baptism, and others after baptism. While others place it before and others after first communion. Practices are diverse in the particulars but the main acts are agreed upon (though not in this order) that a person confesses Christ, is baptized, and takes Communion.
A Reformed Perspective
How have the Reformed understood and practiced this historic rite? Two important considerations for theologians in the Reformed tradition were protecting the sacrament of Baptism and restoring the historic practice before the medieval corruptions. Calvin wished that, after a child had been sufficiently instructed in the catechism, the child would make public profession of one’s own faith. (4.19.13) This profession would be in the pure form of the ancient Church and not surrounded by ceremonial abuses of the medieval Church.
We must remember the significance of Baptism so that we do not attribute to Confirmation what belongs to Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ and made partakers with his death. It is where the judgment of God is signed and sealed for us in Christ and his Spirit is given to us. In Baptism Christian believers are saved not by works but by the washing of regeneration and God’s mercy (Tit 3:5). This is only a summary of how we should begin to understand Baptism. Yet this reality that Baptism (the visible Word) points to must be embraced by faith. When an infant is baptized the promise is ratified and our faith is strengthened in God’s promises. When the person can, they confess their faith and it is their means of accepting the promise already ratified in their baptism, not a means of grace in its own right. Therefore in the rite of Confirmation it is not proper to devalue or question the validity of our Baptism.
Staying consistent with the monergistic work of God in salvation, the Reformed said in Confirmation it is God who confirms the person. Through the Church God confirms his work in the believer. It is through the ordained officers of the church this work is confirmed
the rule of the covenant is that the church must nurture its youthful members, who were born as children of the covenant and incorporated as members by baptism, to where they can make an independent personal profession of faith and on that basis admit them to the Lord’s Supper. (4.585)
The rite of Confirmation, is the work of God through the Church. In it we see God’s faithfulness continue to the next generation. Where he continues to be God to us and our children as he promised.
I want to reflect for a few posts on Confirmation. It’s almost like you never hear of it happening or when someone mentions it, they usually are Roman Catholic or Lutheran. Did Presbyterians forget about this? What is it? Why did the Church have it? I hope to inspect these questions in a somewhat helpful way and before considering the rite of Confirmation it is helpful to back up and begin with defining the term Church.
What is the Church? It’s not the building, though we refer to the building that way. It’s not an institution though we refer to denominations that way. It is an organism, it is a communion. Jesus described the Church as a vine and Paul described it as a body. Both of these examples find their life in Jesus, who gives vitality to the Church. We are members of Christ, in election, his death, resurrection and now seated with him in heaven. Thus with Christ as the Head and the Church as the body, all baptized persons are members of his body.
The question is raised about our children. Are they excluded from this body? Aren’t they people like us finding joy and awe in the world they live in? Don’t they enjoy learning about God and how awesome he is? They marvel at the works of creation made by God. They gaze at the number of the stars, are mesmerized at how animals act and who eats what. They seem to be non-stop growing in the joy of the Lord in everything from playing in water to playing with musical instruments.
Adults engage in God’s world too. Sure it takes more to amuse us. We aren’t as easily brought into wonder and awe but it still happens. We also are moved when we are reminded of God’s forgiveness and love in Jesus. We spend hours and dollars to witness parts of God’s creation. We started a long time ago learning about God and seeing how his works proclaim his glory.
What does this have to do with Confirmation? Confirmation is the beginning of the road. Confirmation is not when they are brought into the body of Christ, Baptism did that. During Confirmation they have been set apart and recognize God’s Gospel call to them. They are on the journey of growing in the Lord. Confirmation is not the first time they confess Christ as Lord, and it will not be the last time. It is their profession of the faith they hold not a ratification of the faith.
We are the baptized, and because of that we are exhorted to seek the Lord’s Table. Abraham Kuyper wrote in his book “The Implications of Public Confession” that the relationship of Baptism to Communion was like that of a newborn. Born and immediately washed because it was born unclean. But the washing was not the goal because soon the babe is brought to the mother’s breast for nourishment. You cannot desire the sacrament of purification and neglect the sacrament of nourishment.
The admonishment by the Apostle to examine ourselves is given to the baptized. When the Session has deemed that a person is able to recognize their sin and their savior they are qualified to receive the “sacrament of nourishment.” Some may retort that a child should have a more mature confession of faith and perhaps be older. Two thoughts. First every person is different but the call on them is the same. Again Kuyper is helpful, “The number of years required for each individual to be qualified for his personal confession was determined by God at the time of that person’s creation… Through those years baptism sounds the plea: Seek the Lord’s holy supper.” (17) Lastly, I can understand the desire to see the young ones “further down the road”. But perhaps there’s a reason we were exhorted by our Lord to have the faith of a child rather than an adult.