Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 26



Preached March 17, 1850

  Frederick W. Robertson

“The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us.” - I Peter 3:21

Last Sunday we considered the subject of baptism in reference to the Romish and modern Calvinistic views. The truth seemed to lie not in a middle course between the two extremes, but in a truth deeper than either of them. For there are various modifications of the Romish view which soften down its repulsive features. There are some who hold that the guilt of original sin is pardoned, but the tendencies of an evil nature remain; others who attribute a milder meaning to “regeneration,” understanding by it a change of state instead of a change of nature; others who acknowledge a certain mysterious benefit imparted by baptism, but decline determining how much grace is given, or what the exact nature of the blessing is; others who acknowledge that it is in certain cases the moment when regeneration takes place, but hold that it is conditional, occurring sometimes, not always, and following upon the condition of what they call “prevenient grace.” We do not touch upon these views. They are simply modifications of the Romish view, and as such, more offensive than the view itself; for they contain that which is most objectionable in it, and special evils of their own besides.

We admitted the merits of the two views. We are grateful to the Romanist for the testimony which be bears to the truth of the extent of Christ’s salvation - for the privilege which he gives of calling all the baptized, children of God for the protest which his doctrine makes against all party monopoly of God - for the protest against ultra-spiritualism, in acknowledging that material things are the types and channels of the Almighty Presence.

We are grateful to the Calvinist for his strong protest against formalism - for his assertion of the necessity of an inward change - for the distinction which he has drawn between being in the state of sons, and having the nature of sons of God.

The error in these two systems, contrary as they are, appeared to us to be identically one and the same - that of pretending to create a fact instead of witnessing to it. The Calvinist maintains that on a certain day and hour, under the ministry of the Word, under the preaching of some one who “proclaims the Gospel,” he was born again, and God became his Father; and the Romanist declares that on a certain day, at a certain moment by an earthly clock, by the hands of a priest apostolically ordained, the evil nature was expelled from him, and a new fact in the world was created - he attained the right of claiming God his Father.

Now if baptism makes God our Father, baptism is incantation; if faith makes him so, faith rests upon a falsehood.

For the Romanist does no more than the red Indian and the black negro pretend to do - exorcise the devil, and infuse God. The only question then becomes, which is the true enchanter, and which is the impostor? For the juggler does, by the power of imagination, often cure the sick man; but the mysterious effects of baptism never are visible, and never can be tested in this world.

On the other hand, faith would rest upon a falsehood: for if faith is to give the right of calling God a Father, how can you believe that which is not true the very moment before belief? God is not your Father. If you believe He is, your belief is false.

The truth which underlies these two views, on which all that is true in them rests, and in which all that is false is absorbed, is the paternity of God. This is the revelation of the Redeemer. This is authoritatively declared by baptism, appropriated personally by faith, but a truth independent both of baptism and faith - which would still be true if there were neither a baptism nor a faith in the world. They are the witnesses of the fact - not the creators of it.

Here, however, two difficulties arise. If this be so, do we not make light of Original Sin? And do we not reduce baptism into a superfluous ceremony?

Before we enter upon these questions, I must vindicate myself from the appearance of presumption. Where the wisest and holiest have held opposite views, it seems immodest to speak with unfaltering certainty and decisive tone. Hesitation, guarded statements, caution, it would seem, would be far more in place. Now, to speak decidedly, is not, necessarily, to speak presumptuously. There are questions involving great research, and questions relating to truths beyond our ken, where guarded and uncertain tones are only a duty. There are others where the decision has become conviction, a kind of intuition, the result of years of thought, which has been the day to a man’s darkness, “the fountain-light of all his seeing,” which has interpreted him to himself, made all clear where all was perplexed before, been the key to the riddle of truths that seemed contradictory, become part of his very being, and for which more than once be has held himself cheerfully prepared to sacrifice all that is commonly held dear. With respect to convictions such as these, of course, the arguments by which they are enforced may be faulty, the illustrations inadequate, the power of making them intelligible very feeble; nay, the views themselves may be wrong; but to pretend to speak with hesitation and uncertainty respecting such convictions would be not modesty, but affectation. For let us remember in what spirit we are to enter on this inquiry. Not in the spirit of mere cautious orthodoxy, endeavoring to find a safe mean between two extremes - inquiring what is the view held by the sound, and judicious, and respectable men, who were never found guilty of any enthusiasm, and under the shelter of whose opinion we may be secure from the charge of any thing unsound; nor in the spirit of the lawyer, patiently examining documents, weighing evidence, and deciding whether upon sufficient testimony there is such a thing as “prevenient grace” or not; nor, once more, in the spirit of superstition. The superstitious mother of the lower classes baptizes her child in all haste because she believes it has a mystic influence on its health, or because she fancies that it confers the name without which it would not be summoned at the day of judgment. And the superstitious mother of the upper classes baptizes her child too in all haste, because, though she does not precisely know what the mystic effect of baptism is, she thinks it best to be on the safer side, lest her child should die, and its eternity should be decided by the omission. And we go to preach to the heathen while there are men and women in our Christian England so bewildered with systems and sermons, so profoundly in the dark respecting the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, so utterly unable to repose in eternal love and justice, that they must guard their child from Him by a ceremony, and have the shadow of a shade of doubt whether or not, for omission of theirs, that child’s Creator and Father may curse its soul for all eternity! We are to enter upon this question as a real one of life and death - as men who feel in their bosoms sin and death, and who want to determine no theological nicety, but this: Whether we have a right to claim to be sons of God or not? And if so, on what grounds? In virtue of a ceremony, or in virtue of a certain set of feelings? Or in virtue of an eternal fact - the fact of God’s paternity? I reply to two objections.


I. The apparent denial of original sin.

II. The apparent result that baptism is nothing.


I. The text selected is a strong and distinct one. It proclaims the value of baptism. “Baptism saves us.” But it declares that it can only be said figuratively: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us.”

Now the first reply I make is, that in truth the Romish view seems to make lighter of original sin than this. Me thinks original sin must be a trifling thing if a little water and a few human words can do away with it. A trifling thing if, after it is done away, there is no distinguishable difference between the baptized and unbaptized; if the unbaptized Quaker is just as likely to exhibit the fruits of goodness as the baptized son of the Church of England. We have got out of the land of reality into the domain of figments and speculations. A fictitious guilt is done away with by a fictitious pardon, neither the appearance nor the disappearance being visible.

Original sin is an awful fact. It is not the guilt of an ancestor imputed to an innocent descendant, but it is the tendencies of that ancestor living in his offspring and incurring guilt. Original sin can be forgiven only so far as original sin is removed. It is not Adam’s, it is yours; and it must cease to be yours, or else what is “taking away original sin?”

Now he who would deny original sin must contradict all experience in the transmission of qualities. The very bound transmits his peculiarities learnt by education, and the Spanish horse his paces, taught by art, to his offspring, as a part of their nature. If it were not so in man, there could be no history of man as a species - no tracing out the tendencies of a race or nation - nothing but the unconnected repetitions of isolated individuals and their lives. It is plain that the first man must have exerted on his race an influence quite peculiar - that his acts must have biased their acts. And this bias or tendency is what we call original sin.

Now original sin is just this denial of God’s paternity, refusing to live as His children, and saying we are not His children. To live as His child is the true life - to live as not His child is the false life. What was the Jews’ crime? Was it not this: “He came unto His own, and His own received him not:” that they were His own, and in act denied it, preferring to the claim of spiritual relationship, the claim of union by circumcision or hereditary descent? What was the crime of the Gentiles? Was it not this: that “when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful?” For what were they to be thankful? For being His enemies? Were they not His children, His sheep of another fold? Was not the whole falsehood of their life the worship of demons and nothings instead of Him? Did not the parable represent them as the younger son - a wanderer from home, but still a son?

From this state Christ redeemed. He revealed God not as the mechanic of the universe, not the judge, but as the Father, and as the Spirit who is in man, “lighting every man,” moving in man his infinite desires and infinite affections. This was the revelation. The reception of that revelation is regeneration. “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not; but to as many as received Him to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to as many as believed on His name.” They were His own, yet they wanted power to become His own.

Draw a distinction, therefore, between being the child of God and realizing it. The fact is one thing; the feeling of the fact, and the life which results from that feeling, is another. Redemption is the taking of us out of the life of falsehood into the life of truth and fact. “Of His own will begat He us by the word of truth.” But, remember, it is a truth; true whether you believe it or not; true whether you are baptized or not.

There are two ways in which that revelation may be accepted. 1. By a public recognition called baptism. 2. By faith. In two ways, therefore, may it be said that man is saved. “We are saved by faith.” But it is also true, figuratively, “Baptism saves us.”


II. If baptism is only the public recognition and symbol of a fact, is not baptism degraded and made superfluous?

1. Baptism is given as a something to rest upon; nay, as a something without which redemption would soon become, unreal-which converts a doctrine into a reality-which realizes visibly what is invisible.

For our nature is such, that immaterial truths are unreal to us until they are embodied in material form. Form almost; gives them reality and being. For instance, time is an eternal fact. But time only exists to our conceptions as an actuality by measurements of materialism. When God created the sun, and moon, and stars, to serve for “signs and for seasons, and for days and years,” He was actually, so far as man was concerned, creating time. Our minds would be only floating in an eternal Now, if it were not for symbolical successions which represent the processes of thought. The clock in the house is almost a fresh creation. It realizes. The gliding heavens, and the seasons, and the ticking clock what is time to us without them? Nothing.

God’s character, again, nay, God Himself, to us would be nothing if it were not for the creation, which is the great symbol and sacrament of His presence. If there were no light, no sunshine, no sea, no national and domestic life, no material witness of His being, God would be to us as good as lost. The Creation gives us God: forever real in Himself, by Creation He becomes a fact to us.

It is in virtue, again, of this necessity in man for an outward symbol to realize an invisible idea, that a bit of torn and blackened rag hanging from a fortress or the taffrail of a ship, is a kind of life to iron-hearted men. Why is it that in the heat of battle there is one spot where the sabres flash most rapidly, and the pistols’ ring is quicker, and men and officers close in most densely, and all are gathered round one man, round whose body that tattered silk is wound, and held with the tenacity of a death-struggle? Are they only children fighting for a bit of rag? That flag is every thing to them: their regiment, their country, their honor, their life; yet it is only a symbol! Are symbols nothing?

In the same way, baptism is a fact for man to rest upon, a doctrine realized to flesh and blood. A something in eternity which has no place in time brought down to such time expressions as “then and there”.

2. Again, baptism is the token of a church: the token of an universal church. Observe the importance of its being the sacrament of an universal church instead of the symbol of a sect. Not episcopacy, not justification by faith, nor any party badge, but “one baptism.” How blessed, on the strength of this, to be able to say to the baptized dissenter, You are my brother: you anathematize my church - link Popery and Prelacy together - malign me; but the same sign is on our brow, and the same Father was named over our baptism. Or to say to a baptized Romanist, You are my brother too - in doctrinal error perhaps - in error of life it may be too: but my brother - our enemies the same our struggle the same - our hopes and warfare the very same. Or to the very outcast, and you, my poor degraded friend, are my brother still - sunk, oblivious of your high calling; but still, whatever keeps you away from heaven keeps you from your own. You may live the false life till it is too late: but still, you only exclude yourself from your home. Of course this is very offensive. What! The Romanist my brother! The synagogue of Satan the house of God! The Spirit of God dwelling with the Church of Rome! The believer in transubstantiation my brother, and God’s child! Yes, even so; and it is just your forgetfulness of what baptism is and means, that accounts for that indignation of yours. Do you remember what the elder brother in the parable was doing? He went away sulky and gloomy, because one not half so good as himself was recognized as his father’s child.

3. Baptism is seen to be no mere superfluity when you remember that it is an authoritative symbol. Draw the distinction between an arbitrary symbol and an authoritative one-for this difference is every thing.

I take once again the illustration of the coronation act. Coronation places the crown on the brow of one who is sovereign. It does not make the fact, it witnesses it. Is coronation therefore nothing? An arbitrary symbolical act agreed on by a few friends of the sovereign would be nothing; but an act which is the solemn ratification of a country - as every thing. It realizes a fact scarcely till then felt to be real. Yet the fact was fact before - otherwise the coronation would be invalid. Even when the third William was crowned, there was the symbol of a previous fact - the nation’s decree that he should be king: and accordingly, ever after, all is dated back to that. You talk of crown-prerogatives. You say in your loyalty you “would bow to the crown, though it hung upon a bush.” Yet it is only a symbol! You only say it “in a figure.” But that figure contains within it the royalty of England.

In a figure, the Bible speaks of baptism as you speak of coronation, as identical with that which it proclaims. It calls it regeneration. It says baptism saves. A grand figure, because it rests upon eternal fact. Call you that nothing?

We look to the Bible to corroborate this. In the Acts of the Apostles Cornelius is baptized. On what grounds? To manufacture him into a child of God, or because he was the child of God? Did his baptism create the fact, or was the fact prior to his baptism, and the ground on which his baptism was valid? The history is this: St. Peter could not believe that a Gentile could be a child of God. But miraculous phenomena manifested to his astonishment that this Gentile actually was God’s child-whereupon the argument of Peter was very natural. He has the Spirit, therefore baptism is superfluous. Nay, he has the Spirit, therefore give him the symbol of the Spirit. Let it be revealed to others what be is. He is heir to the inheritance, therefore give him the title deeds. He is of royal lineage-put the crown upon his head. He is a child of God - baptize him. “Who shall forbid water, seeing these have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?”

One illustration more from the marriage ceremony; and I select this for two reasons: because it is the type in Scripture of the union between Christ and his Church, and because the Church of Rome has called it a sacrament.

A deep truth is in that error. Rome calls it a sacrament, because it is the authoritative symbol of an invisible fact. That invisible fact is the agreement of two human beings to be one. We deny it to be a sacrament, because, though it is the symbol of an invisible fact, it is not the symbol of a spiritual fact, nor an eternal fact: no spiritual truth, but only a changeful human covenant.

Now observe the difference between an arbitrary or conventional, and an authoritative ceremony of marriage-union. There are conventional acknowledgments of that agreement, ceremonies peculiar to certain districts, private pledges, betrothals. In the sight of God those are valid; they can not be lightly broken without sin. You can not in the courts of heaven distinguish between an oath to God and a word pledged to mail. He said, “Let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay.” Such ail engagement can not be infringed with out penalty - the penalty of frivolized hearts, and that habit of changefulness of attachment which is the worst of penalties. But now, additional to that, will any one say that the marriage ceremony is superfluous - that the ring he gives his wife is nothing? It is every thing. It is the authoritative ratification by a country and before God of that which before was for all purposes of earth unreal. Authoritative therein lies the difference. Just in that authoritativeness lies the question whether the ceremony is nothing or every thing.

And yet remember, the ceremony itself does not pretend to create the fact. It only claims to realize the fact. It admits the fact as existing previously. It bases itself upon a fact. Forasmuch as two persons have consented together, and for as much as a token and pledge of that in the shape of a ring has been given, therefore, only therefore, the appointed minister pronounces that they are what betrothal had made them already in the sight of God.

Exactly so, the authoritativeness is the all in all which converts baptism from a mere ceremony into a sacrament. Baptism is not merely a conventional arrangement, exceedingly convenient, agreed on by men to remind themselves and one another that they are God’s children, but valid as a legal, eternal truth, a condensed, embodied fact.

Is this making baptism nothing? I should rather say baptism is every thing. Baptism saves us.

One word now practically. I address myself to any one who is conscious of fault, sin-laden, struggling with the terrible question whether he has a right to claim God as his Father or not, bewildered on the one side by Romanism, on the other by Calvinism. My brother, let not either of these rob you of your privileges. Let not Rome send you to the fearful questioning as to whether the mystic seed infused at a certain moment by an act of man remains in you still, or whether it has been so impaired by sin that henceforth there is nothing but penance, tears, and uncertainty until the grave. Let not Calvinism send you with terrible self-inspection to the more dreadful task of searching your own soul for the warrant of your redemption, and deciding whether you have or have not the feelings and the faith which give you a right to be one of God’s elect. Better make up your mind at once you have not; you have no feelings that entitle you to that. Take your stand upon the broader, sublimer basis of God’s paternity. God created the world - God redeemed the world. Baptism proclaims separately, personally, by name, to you - God created you, God redeemed you. Baptism is your warrant, you are His child. And now, because you are His child, live as a child of God; be redeemed from the life of evil, which is false to your nature, into the life of light and goodness, which is the truth of your being. Scorn all that is mean; hate all that is false; struggle with all that is impure. Love whatsoever “things are true, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report,” certain that God is on your side, and that whatever keeps you from Him, keeps you from your own Father. Live the simple, lofty life which befits an heir of immortality.