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HOLINESS IN CHILDHOOD.
“And the Child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon Him.”
IF any proof were needed of the true and proper humanity of our blessed Lord, we should have it in these words. He was subject to the laws and conditions of our nature; He was as truly a child as we have been; He grew; He waxed strong in spirit; He was endowed with gifts from His heavenly Father, being “filled with wisdom:” His understanding, reason, and conscience, were illuminated as ours; “the grace of God,” the spirit of holiness, humility, love, “was upon Him.” This subjection of His person to the laws of human nature is again recorded where St. Luke says, He “came to Nazareth,” being about twelve years old, “and was subject unto them.” “And Jesus increased 18in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” One of the earliest Fathers of the Church says, He came “not disdaining nor going in a way above human nature; nor breaking in His own person the law which He had set for mankind; but sanctifying every age by the likeness it bears to Him. For He came to save all men by Himself,—all, I mean, who are by Him born again unto God,—infants, and little ones, and children, and youths, and those of older age. Therefore He went through the several ages; for the sake of infants being made an infant, sanctifying infants; to little ones He was a little one, sanctifying those of that age, and giving them an example of godliness, righteousness, and dutiful subjection.”1313 S. Iren. lib. ii. c. 39.
In this passage we have many great truths recorded. One is the baptism of infants; another is the regeneration of infants baptized, in which assertion, without so much as naming it, their right to baptism is affirmed; and lastly, the parallel between the perfect holiness of our Lord in all ages from childhood, and the sanctity of those in whom the grace of regeneration has its true and perfect work.
There is evidently a correspondence, by way of analogy, between His miraculous conception and our regeneration through the Spirit. He took our nature 19not by natural descent, but by a miracle; we received, by supernatural operation in holy baptism, that thing which by nature we could not have.
Again: there is the same kind of analogy between the sanctity of our nature in His divine Person, and the sanctification of our person by the grace of our new birth. The sanctity of His divine nature prevented in His humanity every motion of the reason, heart, and will. The whole inward nature of His human soul, with all its faculties, powers, affections, was filled and hallowed by the Godhead of the Eternal Word.
And such, in measure and proportion, it is the design of God that our regenerate life should be. We were born again in infancy, when we were passive and unconscious, for this very end, that before we become conscious and active, the preventing grace of God might begin its work upon us. Baptismal regeneration is the very highest and most perfect form of the doctrine of God’s free and sovereign grace, preventing all motions, and excluding all merit on our part. Strange that the jealousy which some profess for this great doctrine of the gospel does not make them of keener sight to discern it. If we were not passive and unconscious; if our will had begun actively and consciously to unfold itself, and follow its own inclinations, we should become at once sinners in act, and the natural 20resistance of our hearts to the grace of God would be aggravated and confirmed. And this, in fact, we do see in unconverted heathen, and may believe of persons who have not received baptism, and of those who after baptism have sinned against the grace they have received. It is strange, I say, that they who rest all their theological system upon the sovereignty of God’s grace should not perceive that its very highest and most perfect form is baptismal regeneration; and still stranger it is that, by a happy inconsistency, they act as if they had faith in that blessed truth which they profess not to believe; for we find that they universally address children with the words of divine truth, and set before them spiritual things, which can only be spiritually discerned. To do this without believing them to have received the preventing grace of God is simple Pelagianism, which such persons religiously abhor. I hardly know whether to say that they disbelieve it or no; for though they do not believe it, they so act as nothing but faith in it would make reasonable; and that is much better. Their practice is more pious than their theory. Indeed, it is seldom found, that they do not believe the regeneration of their own children, or some thing equivalent to it, call it by what name you will. But although they may break the full effect of an imperfect belief, yet it is not possible to be wanting 21in it, or in any measure to withdraw the thankful trust of our hearts from that mystery of grace, with out serious danger, great forfeitures of blessing, and sometimes lamentable evils; for without a real and active faith in the grace of regeneration, there can hardly be a true view of the nature of the regenerate life. Accordingly we find the same persons incredulous of the degree of illumination, conscientiousness, and self-government, of which children are capable. They treat them as imperfect beings, give them dangerous liberty, postpone the age of responsibility, make light of their early wildness, on the theory that it is inevitable, and may be recovered in after-years. They suffer the development of childish faults, and let their characters grow distorted, and their gait, as it were, to become artificial and faulty.
Whatever may be said of the care and wise instruction of parents and teachers who have a defective faith in holy baptism, it must be self-evident that all their guidance and watchfulness would be made indefinitely more sensitive and vigilant, if they fully believed the great grace which God had bestowed upon their children. How highly the parental office is elevated by the thought that they are made the guardians of regenerate souls! That which is by nature so sacred, by faith how much more hallowed is it! There is committed 22to them not the one talent which nature gave, hut the ten talents of God’s kingdom. They are bound by a tenfold responsibility; “for unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”1414 St. Luke xii. 48. Surely they ought to watch over the tokens of God’s presence with their children, as the blessed Virgin “kept all His sayings in her heart;” not fully knowing what God has committed to them; to what stature of saintliness in God’s kingdom their children may attain; what large capacities of light and sanctity may be in them, even while they are amusing them with toys, and speaking of them as if they had no ears to listen. How do they know who their children may be? Great as the parental care of the fathers and mothers of eminent saints has been, yet how little did they realise at the time what they were one day to become! How, on looking back in old age, when their sons and daughters have been edified to the perfection of a saintly life, must they have said: ‘Who ever imagined what that thoughtful and docile child really was, and what lay hid in him? What a trust was ours; and with all our fancied care, how little did we realise its greatness!’
If this were indeed the temper of parents, who can say what might not be the holiness of families 23and homes? they would be consecrated by the vow of sanctity; ruled by a discipline of perfection. Even parents still charged with household cares, and in the midst of the world, would in some sort live the life of the retired and devout, and by their prayers, fastings, alms, charitable works, and abstinence from the world, train up their children in the simplicity and fervour of a consecrated state. If parents would only repress the vanity and self-flattery which they indulge, while they push their children forward in artificial and ostentatious habits, or correct in themselves that still more guilty indolence and neglect which makes them abdicate the personal office and duty of instructing and ruling their children, even so their households would bear more tokens of holiness. But how shall this ever be, unless the grace of regeneration be faithfully believed and cherished? If there be any one feature that distinguishes the homes of the faithful of earlier days, it is the reverence with which they looked upon their children, after they had received them back from the font, to be reared up for God. What is it but the doctrine of baptismal regeneration which has so strongly developed in the Catholic Church the paternal character of God? And in the consciousness of this heavenly Fatherhood there is contained a whole order of spiritual affections, which issue from the 24grace of regeneration; such, for instance, as dutifulness, submission, docility, confidence, gladness, a holy fearlessness and filial love; and these are in a peculiar manner the basis of the saintly character. They may be called the sanctity of childhood: “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ,” of which children are susceptible.
Now in the history of the saints there are two things chiefly remarkable. One is, the depth of personal religion which they have displayed at an age when, in these days, we are wont to look upon children as little more than sentient and irresponsible beings. We read of charity, almsgiving, prayer, self-denial, in children of six or eight years old; and martyrdom at the age of fourteen, or even at twelve,—the age consecrated by the single mention of our Lord’s early obedience, and His questioning with the doctors in the Temple.
The other remarkable feature is, their precocity of general character and powers. No doubt it is but a fallacious evidence of this to allege cases of early intellectual cultivation. We read of boys of fourteen received among the graduates of learned universities, and the like; but all this evidently depends on variable states and tests of learning, and, after all, relates only to the intellectual powers, which are sometimes raised to a very high culture, while the rest of the mind is cramped and stunted. 25I speak, therefore, of the precocity of moral and spiritual life; the fulness and strength of character which youths have often shewn. They have begun to live and act as men among men, while as yet they were hardly in the dawn of manhood. They manifested a resolution and collectedness of mind which follows upon long deliberation, and is the result of a well-tried discipline. They were strong, wise, gentle, fearless, inflexible,—ruling themselves and mankind, leading armies, presiding in councils, governing churches, controlling assemblies, guiding courts and nations, at an age when, in these days, men are still in nonage and tuition. Surely some such great and visible facts were originally observed by the Church when it was prescribed that the offices of deacon and priest might be conferred on youths of twenty-three and twenty-four years of age, and even the Episcopate at thirty. And certainly, in comparing the average formation of character now with that of men who were nurtured up from holy baptism in faith of their regeneration, and in religious homes or devout schools of discipline, it must be confessed that in the science of the saints, and in the practice of life, we are backward and unripe. If we were asked to find a reason for it, I believe the truth would be best expressed by saying that these later ages have lost faith in the miraculous conception 26and holy childhood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as the type and pledge of our regeneration in holy baptism, and of the development of our regenerate life; and not only so, but that a false and shallow system of theology has grown up, and thrust down this high doctrine from its place. A prevalent notion in these later times is, that the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is superstitious and delusive; that it tends to deadness, worldliness, unspirituality; that the Christian life of those who have been religious from childhood is generally tame, cold, and formal; that true Christian perfection is to be found in penitents and those who are converted late in life; that experience of sin and guilt is the stimulus of personal responsibility, and the very life of the conscience; and that the fervour, zeal, and activity of the converted sinner is the true perfection of the Christian character.
Now the analogy we have been considering, between the sanctification of our nature in the Person of our Lord, and the sanctification of our persons through the gift of regeneration, will suggest to us some very important truths, which have the force and extent of first principles in the theory and practice of a holy life. And these we will now shortly consider.
1. In the first place, then, we may learn what is the effect of sin after baptism upon the regenerate 27nature. As in all other truths, so in this, men have gone into both extremes, some making post-baptismal sin all but unpardonable, and others, hardly needing to be forgiven; some making its soils indelible, some treating it as if it left in the soul no soil at all. Now is there not some evident confusion in all this? And does not the confusion begin in our not clearly distinguishing between the effect of sin upon the relation in which the regenerate man stands to God, and its effect upon the inward and regenerate nature?
Again: when we speak of sin after baptism, surely another and a primary distinction is required; for all baptized men have sinned, therefore they have all sinned after baptism. To solve this difficulty, the distinction of sins into venial and mortal has been laid down. But in one sense, and that a most true sense, all sins are mortal. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”—“The wages of sin is death.” The conceiving of a sinful thought is a direct sin against the Spirit of holiness. Moreover, the privation of original righteousness is a state of sin: “We have all sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Not to be holy is to be sinful; there is no third estate. Therefore all baptized men have sinned, in one sense mortally, and that after baptism.
But the distinction, as it is recognized in the 28Litany, is plainly this:—There is one class of sins partly of omission, partly of commission, arising from our original corruption and infirmity of nature, and from the subtilty and strength of temptation; they seem to cling to our fallen nature even after regeneration, almost like mortality itself. And these are sins which neither rescind the remission of sins freely given in baptism, nor hinder the advance of our sanctification; such, for instance, are evil thoughts and motions of our humanity, flashes and transitions of temper, rash words, wanderings of the heart in prayer, and the like, which are both striven against and followed by compunction and confession. There is another class of sins which both cancels the relation of present forgiveness with God and hinders the growth of sanctification in the soul: such as sins of the flesh, evil imaginations, and temper if indulged, habitual pride, uncharitableness, and the like. Now, between these two classes there can be no third. Sins must either cancel or not cancel our forgiveness; hinder or not hinder our advance in sanctification; and they will accordingly be mortal or venial.
It is plain, then, that when we speak of sin after baptism, we do not mean those venial sins which the holiest of regenerate men have committed. Such sins are, in fact, little more than the remainder of that nature which needed regeneration; 29and their continued presence in the soul arises from the fact, that God has ordained our restoration to holiness to be wrought not by a single act of His will, but by a progressive probation of our own. We may, therefore, dismiss this class.
Of the other,—that is to say, of those sins which cancel our relation of present forgiveness, and hinder the sanctification of our souls,—this is to be said. There is a distinction to be drawn between the effect of such sins on our relation towards God, and the effect of them on our inward and regenerate nature; or in common words, between the guilt and the defilement of them.
As to the guilt, this we know, that upon a true repentance it shall be absolutely forgiven.
But our present subject is the parallel between the sanctity of our Lord, and the holiness of the regenerate. It is, therefore, the effect of sin upon the inward and regenerate nature that we are now considering; and of this it has been already said, that its effect is, to hinder the advance of our sanctification; and if so, it is no less than a direct antagonist of the grace of our regeneration, and a defeat of the purpose of God in our new birth of the Spirit: it is a resistance to the preventing grace of God, a refusal to be led by Him, and to follow His guidance and illumination. The work 30of the new creation is brought to a stand; the capacities and powers of the new nature are baffled and thwarted; and, further, the mind of the flesh is thereby released from the power which held it in check. From our first childhood sin unfolds itself by its own energy, and by the deliberate motions of the will, and thereby gains to itself a new condition. From its potential it passes into an actual reality; and by act and reality it directly strengthens its own energies, and confirms itself in its own particular forms, such as lust, anger, pride, falsehood, sloth; and having become formal, becomes also habitual; and that raises a twofold opposition to the Spirit of holiness. The passive and unconscious state of the fallen being passes into active and conscious sin. What was at first a passive inability becomes an energetic resistance, an excited enmity, and a conscious warfare of the will. By this means the soul becomes inflamed, darkened, and defiled. The continual actings of the desires, lusts, imaginations, leave soils and stains, and, as it were, deposit a crust of evil upon the whole spiritual nature. It multiplies its own plague-spots in darkness. And the spiritual being inclines to the state and fellowship of fallen angels, to which the regenerate sinner is akin both in nature and in apostacy. How little parents seem to know what they are doing when they make light 31of their children’s early sins! They are doing nothing less than their best to undo God’s grace in the regeneration of their children, to make their salvation doubtful, and their future sorrows and losses many and inevitable.
2. And this brings us to a second inference. We may hence learn the true relation of repentance to regeneration. Those who have no faith in holy baptism look upon repentance or conversion as the perfect aim or design of the dispensation of grace. They consider it as the accomplishment of the mind of the Spirit towards us, and place it on the highest step of our ascent to God. And how can they help doing so, while they believe nothing of the true sanctity of the regenerate? How can they understand that what they put forward as the highest state is but the lower; that which they regard as the perfect work is only the remedy,—blessed indeed, but, at best, no more than the remedy,—after the grace of regeneration has failed to work its perfect work in us? In one sense, in deed, all saints need repentance; the holiest, who from childhood grow in light and sanctity, grow also in compunction, tears, and humiliation: but this is not what we commonly call repentance. We mean the conviction, sorrow, remorse, and turning of the adult, after falls, from sin to God; that is conversion. Now if there be any truth in what has been 32said, it is clear that the necessity of this kind of conversion or repentance arises out of the disobedience of the regenerate, and from the falls of those that sin grievously after baptism. That which is put forward as the perfection of the saints is the recovery of fallen Christians. And the reason why this theory maintains itself so strongly and is so popular is, because it is the interest of the majority to hold it. The great multitude of Christians are in that state. “Many are called, and few are chosen.” All are regenerate, but saints are few. The multitude are at best to be numbered among penitents; and their own case fixes their theology, and sets bounds to their belief. What is true of themselves, they think is true of all, and true alone; partly, I say, from being bribed, as it were, to hold a theory that will make the best of their own case; and partly because the very nature of their case must make them unconscious of the realities which others know who have never fallen as they have. Besides, the tokens and evidences of repentance are just those that are most perceptible to the world. They appeal to the ear and to the eye, and force themselves upon the notice of men. The zeal, fervour, activity, which converted or converting men exhibit are so nearly akin to the same qualities in the mind and character of worldly people, that they are more 33easily understood and appreciated. The character of true saintliness, as it is most remote from the world, and even opposed to it, is least under stood and valued by the world. It is either simply not perceived to exist, or it is thought eccentric, weak, and unprofitable. This will explain why the popular religion will always incline to exalt repentance to the position of the leading idea and design of the gospel. But when we pass from the judgment of sight to the discernment of faith, we shall see that it is but remedial and secondary; that it is a painful and laborious undoing of the tangled and stubborn perversity of the disobedient will; that it is, as it was called of old, a kind of regeneration, implying thereby the freeness of God’s mercy, the greatness of the necessity, the dangerous state of the lapsed Christian, the depth of the injury done to the spiritual nature; so that it can be likened only to the original state of sin and death, and healed by a work second only in greatness to the original operation of preventing grace upon the soul. All this shews us that the repentance of baptized men is as the difficult and precarious recovery of those who, after the partial cure of a death-sickness, fall into relapse. The powers of nature are wasted, the virtues of medicine baffled, and the disease grows doubly strong. A sad exchange for those who once walked in white 34raiment, and were numbered among the children of God.
3. Lastly, we see in what it is that they who have been kept and sanctified from their regeneration exceed the blessedness of penitents. They have never fallen away from their first estate. The grace of their election, though it has been resisted and grieved, has never been baffled and reduced to inaction. Not to have fallen into the pollution of the world, the flesh, and the devil, how high a grace! How unspeakably great is the loving-kindness of Him who has thus kept them! From what has the grace of regeneration protected them;—from what dangerous familiarity with evil—from what excitements of the carnal mind—from what defilement of the imagination—from what obliquity of the will—from what unfeelingness of heart! To be free from all this, how blessed! To be ignorant of that which must be unlearnt with pain and sorrow by all who will enter God’s kingdom! From what hours of bitter remorse—from what years of toil, weakness, and infirmity, are they preserved! And what a delusion is it to believe that the visible fervour and zeal of penitents is evidence of a higher state of grace! What can their zeal or fervour do in comparison with the unconscious strength and stedfast principle of those that have ever walked with God? It is not, indeed, to be denied that we 35do sometimes see in “righteous persons who need no repentance” a torpor and sluggishness of spirit; but still oftener the world so judges of them be cause it cannot read the tokens of their state aright. The depth and inward force of true holiness are beyond the world’s ken; the calm and unmoved collectedness with which they set themselves to the greatest tasks, worldly eyes cannot discern from torpor and tameness. Why should they exhibit the noise and excitement of effort, whose very nature is moulded into unconscious obedience? They do great things in silence; and the world thinks that because they say little, they do nothing. The haste and exertion which penitents must needs use to make up their lost time and ground, has in them long since passed into the stedfast and quiet consistency of a mature piety. Why should they “strive or cry?” Why should their voice be heard in the streets, whose life has been sheltered under the shadow of the Most High, and nurtured into the peace and strength of habitual faith? There is in the deep, burning zeal of a saintly mind an intensity which the excitement of converts can never approach. Even in those peculiar graces which are thought to be the ail-but exclusive property of penitents, the fervour, self-chastisement, resolution, entire devotion of their whole being to God, what is there to compare with the glowing charity, the 36vivid compunction, the perfect mortification, and absolute self-oblation of those that are early sanctified? Great and blessed as are the graces and acts of penitents, they are but approximations to the sanctity which they might themselves have attained, had they preserved their baptismal life from soils and lapses. The very visibleness and loudness, I may say, of their religion betrays difficulty and effort. The movements of nature are easy and spontaneous, and though done without reflection, are more truly the acts of the whole being than those things which we do by rule, and thought, and with conscious preparation. In the one case it has become our own, in the other it is a borrowed nature. This is the ripe fruit of holy childhood; and to this every one that is born again may, in his measure, attain. The holiness of children is the very type of saintliness; and the most perfect conversion is but a hard and distant return to the holiness of a child. Let us, then, lay to heart the great gift which has been bestowed upon us. Our baptism was a change greater than any which can come on the sons of Adam, except death and the resurrection. Let us humble ourselves with plaints which cannot be uttered, for the sins, by deed and thought, which in childhood, boyhood, and youth, we have committed against the grace of our regeneration. And though perhaps it may be now too late 37for us—though we cannot make what is done to be undone—though we cannot hope to be numbered among those who have never fallen from the favour of our heavenly Father, yet we may hope to have our lot in the regeneration among the order of penitents. For us, alas, the unconscious purity, the ripe wisdom, clear illumination, piercing insight, calm strength, meek inflexibility, the patience, the charity, the full, consistent, changeless perfection of the saints, is perhaps impossible. But let us, by prayers and labours, by word and by example, strive to rear up the elect of God, from their childhood, in the sanctity of Jesus Christ. Strive to make your homes to be holy, and your families to be households of saints. There is one great school of the regenerate, which is the Church, and one Master, the “Holy Child Jesus.” Under and through Him let us foster the children of His king dom. And then who can say how broad and resplendent the note of sanctity may once more shine forth upon our tossed and distracted Church? what virtues of grace and truth may go forth from our spiritual sons to heal the springs of life throughout this fallen world?38
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