What is Confirmation?
Confirmation is a church practice that falls into the category of what the Anglican Catechism calls “rites and institutions commonly called sacraments.” Along with Confirmation, there are four others like it: Absolution (confessing one’s sins and receiving forgiveness in the presence of a priest), Ordination, Marriage, and Anointing the sick.
These practices, or rites, are deeply charged “sites” of God’s grace. They are “commonly called sacraments” (and for some Anglicans, they just are sacraments) because they are visible signs that confer an invisible grace. But we distinguish them from the two primary sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, because these latter two are “commanded by Christ as necessary for salvation.”
While many Protestants shy away from calling Confirmation a sacrament in the strict sense, the witness of the church throughout the ages, especially in the Anglican wing, has seen fit to uphold them as a vital means through which God mediates grace to us.
Where did Confirmation Come from?
Confirmation arose out of the early church’s reflection on Scripture in connection to how one became a Christian. It was first used to describe what happened when a bishop would lay hands upon, pray for, and anoint the forehead of the newly baptized with oil, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit. The newly baptized/confirmed would then proceed to receive their first Eucharist.
Gradually, in the western churches (Eastern Orthodox churches still confirm infants immediately upon Baptism), Confirmation became separable from Baptism. For Anglican churches, the normal course would be that you were baptized as an infant, and then as a teenager undergo a lengthy instruction (catechesis), which prepared you for Confirmation. Again, Confirmation was necessary before receiving Communion. Confirmation was also unique in that, while a priest could baptize, Confirmation was usually reserved for the bishop.
Puzzling over Confirmation Today
In the recent history of the church, few questions have been so ignored—or generated so much confusion—as Confirmation. A few concerns:
- In its origins, it was connected to Baptism. But does that mean if you’re not confirmed Baptism is insufficient?
- Confirmation has usually been linked to the Holy Spirit. Is the Spirit missing in baptism?
- And what if there’s no bishop around to offer confirmation (as there wasn’t in America for the first 200 years)?
- Today, Confirmation is no longer a prerequisite for receiving Communion. If it’s not necessary for salvation, and not necessary for receiving Communion, why bother at all?
First of all, we would probably do well to begin with different questions. Like maybe the question isn’t just about salvation—am I “in” or “out”? Why not ask: What more does God have in store for us? What kind of life in Christ is God calling us to enter into more deeply?
If we ask these sorts of questions, then we can start to see better what Confirmation is and why we ought to incorporate more into the church’s life.
Clearing Up Confusion: Confirmation as Maturity and Mission
At its most basic, Confirmation refers to the rite in which, after a believer has been baptized, they make a mature commitment to the faith, and receive an increased gifting of the Holy Spirit through the bishop’s prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing. Once again, the Catechism puts it beautifully. When asked, “What grace does God give you in confirmation?” the response is, “In confirmation, God strengthens the work of the Holy Spirit in me for his daily increase in my Christian life and ministry.”
In order to clear up some of the confusion generated around Confirmation, I want re-work some of the questions about Confirmation, and suggest that we think of Confirmation in terms of two key emphases: maturity and mission.
Growing Up: Confirmation as the Sacrament of Maturity
First, Confirmation is the sacrament of maturity in that it represents a deepening or strengthening in the Christian life. In this, it is closely connected with Baptism. But whereas Baptism highlights one’s birth into the body of Christ, Confirmation stresses growth.
In both Baptism and Confirmation, the Holy Spirit is present. (It’s a standard rule of Trinitarian theology that wherever there’s one person of the Trinity, all three are present.) But in Baptism, the Spirit washes away our sin, cleanses our guilt, and regenerates us into new life. In Confirmation, on the other hand, the Spirit deepens and strengthens that life, so that we grow up into more mature Christians.
The great medieval theologian Peter Lombard put it nicely in relating the Spirit’s presence in Baptism and Confirmation: “The virtue … of the sacrament [of Confirmation] is the gift of the Holy Spirit for strength, who is given in baptism for remission.” In other words, the Holy Spirit’s gift of forgiveness in Baptism is but the beginning of a work that is strengthened and enriched in Confirmation.
Some Anglicans have debated whether Baptism is “complete sacramental initiation.” The logic being: if Baptism does the trick, why bother with Confirmation?
This is a slippery question. For if someone means by this that Baptism is somehow insufficient for salvation, then no: Baptism is sufficient. Baptism makes Christians. Full stop!
But if by “initiation” one means that we are always ever being initiated deeper into life with God, then yes, we can say that Baptism is “incomplete,” if only because all of life is incomplete until we see God face to face.
Confirmation, then, is a sacramental practice uniquely related to the Holy Spirit’s ministry of maturity and strengthening—literally, with–firming, being made firm with (Latin, con-) the power of the Spirit. In this, we seek to live out what St. Paul writes in Ephesians about growing up into the full measure of Christ (Eph. 4:13).
Growing Out: Confirmation as the Sacrament of Mission
Second, Confirmation is the sacrament of mission. By this, I mean that Confirmation “marks” a person for undertaking the vocation to which he or she has been called.
In this regard, Confirmation is sort of like Ordination: it marks you out for a specific calling. But unlike Ordination, both lay people and priests are confirmed. And this is because it is every Christian’s vocation to proclaim the gospel and to live into a life of holiness.
This is also why Confirmation is linked to the bishop’s presence. As Ordination into the priesthood requires the bishop’s presence, so too, in Confirmation, the bishop’s presence signifies that the person being confirmed is now charged with the duty of carrying on the apostolic mission.
One area where thinking on Confirmation has gone wrong is to see it as a kind of graduation from Christian education and formation, rather than a commencement. Too often, we have thought that once a person is confirmed, it’s the end of the journey. I’ve been baptized, catechized, confirmed. What else is there? Well, quite simply: everything!
So far from being the end of the road, Confirmation marks a new beginning, a new, deeper sense of vocation. Confirmation marks you out for a life on mission.
Why Should I be Confirmed?
If Confirmation is like being ordained for a life of Christian mission, where’s the mission field?
Mission, we’re starting to see better, doesn’t just happen overseas. It happens everywhere: in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in the ordinary places of our everyday existence. Mission is right where we are, right now.
To reinvigorate and renew the practice of Confirmation is one of the most important tasks for the church today, because renewing the practice of Confirmation means renewing the mission of the church.
It means well-equipped, well-trained missionaries going out into the mission field of life, proclaiming the Gospel in all they do.
It means further equipping all the saints for the work of God’s kingdom.
And, finally, it means a rising generation of Christians who have dedicated their lives to the glory of God in every area of life.
So why should you be confirmed? Why not?