Explaining Baptism to Hindus in the 19th Century


Things seen are temporal, says St Paul, but things unseen are eternal. Yet though our faith goes beyond sight, and the hope, which fastens our souls as an anchor amid storms, has its holding ground behind the veil of sense, it does not follow that in this temporal life things visible may not be pledges and symbols to us of what is to come. God, who shews His eternal power by the worlds which He upholds, shews also His life-giving purpose in His Son, and ever renews His work, not only by the Spirit which animates the Body, but by words and symbols of what was done of old. Thus the words of Scripture still express the motives which Apostles felt, and which we should feel. The prayers of ancient sufferers for the truth still waken in us a daring or a patience such as theirs. The washing with water, (which curiously resembles the religious bath spoken of among Hindus,) still represents to us the saving health of Christ, and the cleansing of His followers’ souls from stain. The pledge we give in this rite, either with our own lip or by that of others, is still the Christian vow of holiness; the promises, repeated in accompaniment, still pledge to us in a way the Divine faithfulness; and by coming, or bringing any one, to such a rite we both express our faith in Christ [Thus Baptism was anciently called “the sacrament of faith.”], and bind ourselves to whatever prayer or education on man’s part can make the Divine work effectual in the soul.

“You have asked me to explain the connection, briefly hinted at, between baptism and original sin. The idea, then, of Christianity is deliverance. Christ shews what kind of a Deliverer He is, by teaching us to pray, Deliver us from evil. The greatest evil is sin, which causes chiefly the entanglement and misery you deplore in the world. He who becomes subject to Christ is free from sin. We even say, with something of figure, that He is dead to sin and alive to God. Here then are two states, one of bondage to evil, and all that it involves, and the other a glorious deliverance from whatever debases or alienates our souls from the God of our health. But every such state has a beginning. If sin were only outward crime, we might say the bondage began in mature years. But if sin has root in some principle or shortcoming deeply ingrained in us, we have its capacity, or nature, so soon as we begin to be. Thus Man seems born from the womb like a wild ass’s colt. He brings with him into the world the seeds of a disease. He has tendencies in him, which, as natural forces, are capacities of good, but which require, like volcanic elements, to be bound down and subjected to the will which gives them limit for a good end. Thus nature, which, if left lawless, becomes the enemy of the Divine purpose, must be brought into the kingdom of God, and become an instrument of grace, its discords being thus blended into harmony. Such tendencies and such needs seem to begin with our beginning. Again, if our soul’s health were our own working, it might begin in mature life, or at any arbitrary term. But since it is the gift of God, and is also to be wakened with the concurrence of human instruments, its capacity may most fitly be said to begin when we are first commended to the grace of God, and born into His Church. Thus we think, a child new born partakes of Adam who fell, or of man who falls, and one baptised is a member of Christ, and an heir of His kingdom. We do not mean that the first is a murderer, like Cain, or the second a saint, like St John; but the one is in a way of being ruined, and the other in a way of being saved.

The same doctrine may be also stated variously. Those who lay hold most easily on things external, will lay stress on the natural birth, and on the religious rite; while those who see more with the eyes of the mind will think rather of a disease of the soul, and of the saving influences by which our Deliverer heals us from it. But if there is deliverance in a house, it may be said that the door delivers us. Thus the Mosaic law might be called (as by St Stephen) ‘the covenant of circumcision,’ and baptism, as the ritual admission into a better covenant of the grace of God, may be said (as by St Peter) to save the soul, or to wash away sins. Our righteousness, you will remember, is shewn in our Lord’s prayer to begin with the Divine forgiveness. Again, if a man accepts a gift, or becomes subject to some gracious Lord, he must not be ashamed of professing his acceptance or allegiance. Thus we count no man a Christian until he has enlisted himself by open baptism in the army of the cross of Christ. We do not doubt that whoever thus comes to God is in no wise cast out, but receives from Him every grace needful to his soul’s health. With our own people, indeed, where we have fair reason to hope for Christian education, we baptise little children; for Christ said, Suffer them to come unto me; and the mercy of God is like an overflowing cup, and outruns our answering capacity, or accompanies its least beginnings. But with strangers, and with all who have wandered far from God in any idolatry or darkness, we require knowledge of our faith, and signs of sincerity in it. For our service, as St Paul teaches us, is a service of the reason, or a worship of the mind. St Peter too declares, that the baptism which saves is ‘not the putting away of filth of flesh only, but the answer of a good conscience towards God.’ But whatever human being is thus rightly consigned to the grace of the Eternal Spirit in the body of Christ’s Church, we earnestly believe that the God of all comfort is both able and willing to serve him to the uttermost; and this belief is a sufficient answer to the charge of arbitrariness which was brought against us. For we do not proclaim as good news a remedy from the Healer of souls, and then say that it is a mockery to any one; but we make its powers of healing embrace every human soul, to which on man’s part it is rightly applied. It is true that the words healing, and deliverance, or redemption, imply a disease not less than the general sinfulness of our race; but there is no greater difficulty in this than in the existence of evil in the world, which you not only admit as fully as we do but even rather exaggerate.

“Baptism then is an expression of human faith, and a pledge of Divine faithfulness. It goes upon the idea that there is such a disease as human sinfulness, and embodies the promise of God to heal every one who comes to Him in the Spirit of His dear Son. As an external rite, it may be said to admit men only into the visible Church; but it is a symbol of something deeper, and admits into a fellowship of promises which concern the soul. Thus to our mingled being, with our necessities of sensuous apprehension, the rites which speak of Christ and dedicate us to His service, are what faith and the strong crying of the spirit are to our innermost man. They are not then unworthy instruments of Him who embodied His Word in man, that He might lift us into spiritual life. For in these things we see as it were again our Master, and while we give ourselves to Him are assured that He is given to us. Nor what God has joined in spirit and form can man rightly put asunder.

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