1 Corinthians 15:10
But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed on me was not in vain…
(Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.)
1 COR. xv.10.
"By the Grace of God I am what I am."
In the Epistle and Gospel of the day we read the words of two Pharisees, who offer a very striking contrast. The one is S. Paul, the great Apostle, who humbly declares that he is not fit to be called an Apostle, because he had persecuted the Church of Christ. The other is the nameless Pharisee of the parable, who trusted in himself, and despised others. In the case of S. Paul we see the marks of a true conversion, of a real repentance. He had been proud; as haughty and vain of his religion as the Pharisee of the parable; but he had seen his sin and repented of it, wherefore he abhorred himself. He had been brought exceeding low, and then it was that he was accepted to be God's Apostle. When he looked back upon his past life, the picture filled him with shame, and humility. He recalled the day when they stoned S. Stephen, and he was consenting to his death. He remembered how he had seized innocent men and women, and dragged them to prison, merely because they confessed Christ crucified. He knew that many a happy family had been broken up; many a child torn from its mother's arms; many a husband sent to chains and martyrdom, because of the faith of Christ. And remembering these things, S. Paul forgets the glorious work which he had since done for Jesus, and declares himself the least of all Apostles, unworthy of the name. He does not, like that other Pharisee, boast of his good deeds, but only declares humbly that it is by the Grace of God that he is what he is. Here, then, we have a test to try whether our repentance is real or not. When we look back upon our past sins and failures, does the memory make us sad -- make us humble? If we do not hate our old sins our repentance is not true. And again, if the recollection of our faults does not make us humble, we have not really repented. Directly we find ourselves trusting in our own righteousness, and despising others; boasting of what we were, and what we are; walking through the world with our head lifted up, and talking with a stiff neck, let us be sure that we are in great danger. Let us get to our Lord right humbly, crying with the Publican "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner." Learn, too, from S. Paul's words, that if we are trying to lead holy, gentle, pure lives, it is by God's grace that we are what we are. Not by our own sword and our own right hand have we gotten the victory. It is God's grace and help which alone help us to lead a holy life. Let us think, then, how that grace may be obtained. God's grace comes to us through certain channels ordained by God Himself, and these are, speaking generally, the Sacraments and Ordinances of the Church, Prayer, and the study of the Bible.
Let me speak of one special means of grace to-day -- Confirmation. It may be that there are some here who are not confirmed, and are not willing to offer themselves for that holy rite. The hindrances which keep people from Confirmation differ with different people. There is one class of persons which will not be confirmed because it does not care about God, or desire to lead a holy life. A young man or woman of this class says, I mean to have my own way; I am not going to be tied and bound by promises and vows; I shall do what I like, whether it be right or wrong. Such persons are, I hope and believe, uncommon. Then there is a second class of people, which is indifferent about Confirmation, because it does not fully understand the blessings belonging to it. These people have probably never been taught true Church doctrine, and so they tell us that Confirmation may be a very good thing, but they can do very well without it. They tell us that they know such an one who has never been confirmed, and who is a very good man. They assure us that they do not "hold with Confirmation; they do not see the use of it." Precisely, they "do not hold" with it, because they know nothing about it. Then there are others who form a third class, who have grown up, grown old, perhaps, without being confirmed, who tell us that they are too old now; that they have lived all these years without Confirmation, and are all right, and that therefore they see no reason why they should come forward.
Now, I will say a few words to each of these classes of people. First, let me speak to those who refuse to be bound by any vow or promise, because they do not care to lead a godly life. They imagine that if they are not confirmed they are free to do as they like. But it is not so. They are bound by the vows and promises of their Baptism, and they cannot throw them aside. To such persons I say, you are God's children, signed with the Cross, pledged to lead a holy life. If you make up your mind to have your own way, to do what you like, even though it be wrong, then you commit a deadly sin. You are doing just what Satan did, rebelling against God, and the wages of such sin is death. Understand distinctly that, as baptised people, you belong to God; if you sin, you sin against Jesus Christ; if you repent truly, God will pardon you for Christ's sake; if you go on sinning, you will be lost. If you say, I will not be confirmed, because then I shall be free to do as I like, you will be committing deadly sin, and saying what is not true also.
Next, I speak to those who are indifferent about Confirmation, because they do not believe, or probably understand, the benefits belonging to it. Let me speak very earnestly to them. I take it for granted that you want to please God; that you want to lead good lives; to be saved, to go to Heaven. You have been baptised, you bring your children to be baptised. Well, Confirmation and Baptism are very closely connected. Baptism gives us life; Confirmation strengthens us to live that life. Baptism is only the beginning of life. You know we have two kinds of life: that of the soul, and that of the body. When we are born our bodies are alive, but our souls are dead in trespasses and sins; we are spiritually dead. Now life is the gift of God the Holy Ghost; in the Creed we speak of the Holy Spirit as "The Lord, and Giver of life." In Baptism, God the Holy Spirit comes to us, we are born again of water and the Holy Ghost, we become new creatures. We are no longer children of sin, but children of God, and heirs of eternal life. Thus we begin our spiritual existence, and commence to walk in the narrow way. But not all who are baptised go on leading a holy life. It does not follow that because we are born again we shall be saved. We have been made God's children, but we may become prodigals, and leave our Father's House. We have been made heirs of everlasting salvation, but we may forfeit our inheritance. What we need is strength to keep on the right way, to persevere to the end, to resist the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Now think specially about Confirmation. All of you will admit that we are very weak creatures. No one here will dare to say that he is strong enough by himself to keep on the right way. No one here will deny the truth of those words, "We are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God." Well, if we are naturally weak, we need special strength and help, just as a new-born babe requires care, food, warmth, to keep it alive. We want strength to keep our souls, our spiritual nature, alive. Confirmation is one very important means by which this strength, this grace of God, is given to us. In Confirmation, God the Holy Ghost, who gave us life, makes us strong to live such a life here that we may abide with God, and continually dwell with Him hereafter. Surely there is no one amongst us unwise enough to say -- I do not need this strength, I am strong enough by myself. But there are some here, perhaps, who will tell me that they do need strength, that they do want the help of the Holy Spirit, and that they can obtain that strength without being confirmed. They will tell me that they do not hold with rites and ceremonies, and that God can give us His grace without them. Yes, God can, but God will not. God will give us help in His own way, not in our way. He has ordained certain channels, as I have already told you, by which His grace comes to us, and by them only. There are some who say -- "I do not see the need of Sacraments." Then why did God ordain Baptism, and order His disciples to baptise all nations? Why did Jesus, on the night of His betrayal, ordain the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and command His disciples -- "Do this, in remembrance of Me?" Others, again, will say -- I do not see the use of Confirmation, it is only a ceremony. Why then has the Church, from the earliest ages, from the days of S. Paul and the other Apostles, used Confirmation? If it be only a ceremony, what does the Bible mean by saying that when the Apostles laid their hands upon certain persons they received the Holy Ghost? And remember that what the Apostles did, the Bishops, as their descendants, have done ever since. But some men will say -- why cannot God give me grace and strength without these forms? And I answer, simply because it is not God's pleasure; we are not to teach Him, but to obey Him. If you read your Bible you will find that God constantly used earthly means to provide spiritual blessings. When the people were threatened with the destroying angel in Egypt, they were bidden to sprinkle the blood of the Paschal Lamb on their door-posts. This was a rite, or ceremony, but if neglected, death followed. The Israelites, who were bitten by fiery serpents, were commanded to look on the brazen serpent, made and lifted up by Moses. That was a ceremony, but to disregard it meant death. When Naaman wished to be healed of his leprosy, he was bidden to wash in Jordan seven times. That was a ceremony, but it was the only means of his cure. There must be a channel, a communication, between God and man through which His grace comes. Suppose you were to come to a deep well, but had no pitcher or other vessel to let down into it, of what use would the water be to you? You forgot that "the well is deep, and you have nothing to draw with." You have seen the telegraph instruments in the post office. Well, there is plenty of electricity there to send your message for hundreds of miles, but if there is no wire the force of the electricity is in vain.
But perhaps some men will say to me -- I know certain sects who do not believe in Confirmation. My brethren, how does that concern you? I know certain people who never wash themselves, who never pray; but what have they to do with us? I am speaking to believers, to Church people, not to outsiders. I am speaking to those who are baptised into the Church of Christ, and for whom it was promised that they should be brought to the Bishop, to be confirmed by him. I think, then, that you must see that it is right to be confirmed, because the Church has ordered Confirmation, and used it from the beginning; and next, that it is good for us to be confirmed, because we are too weak of ourselves to lead holy lives. Now let me say a word, in ending, to those who have grown up, grown old, perhaps, without Confirmation. What is their excuse? They say -- I have neglected Confirmation so long, it is not worth while now. I have gone on so far without it, and I am all right. My brothers, how do you know that you are all right? You cannot see into your own heart, God can, and does. You may think you are alive, and behold, you are dead. You cannot be all right whilst you are disobeying God. Remember Samson. He knew not that the Spirit of the Lord had departed from him. What if the Holy Ghost has left you, and you know it not? What if the Holy Spirit no longer dwells in you, what must the end of such a life be? Eternal death. Do you tell me that you have delayed so long that it is too late now? I answer, it is not too late to mend. Suppose a man to have neglected prayer for years, is that any reason why he should not begin to pray now?
If any of you have neglected a plain duty, and shrunk from receiving the precious gifts of the Holy Spirit, make up for the past now; do not offer excuses, but never rest till you can say with truth, "By the grace of God I am what I am."
Parallel VersesKJV: But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.