For the longest time I was mystified by the sacrament of confirmation: I was never sure what essential function it fulfilled. Catechisms tend to describe it as a giving of some sort of ill-defined “power”. According to the common teaching confirmation is the sacrament that gives us strength to preach the gospel, but I am skeptical: it seems obvious to me that it is possible to preach the gospel without ever having been confirmed, and a lot of people who are confirmed don’t have the slightest clue how to preach the gospel. When push comes to shove I do not deny this common teaching, however I think that there is actually a more profound and inspiring way to understand this sacrament.
The Sacrament of Confirmation is the Sacrament of Promise
The sacrament of confirmation is often spoken of with reference to Pentecost. One of the most important things about Pentecost was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and disciples. Pentecost was the moment in time when the Holy Spirit entered the hearts of mankind and empowered mere sinful humans to preach the saving word of the Gospel to a fallen world. The book of acts reveals that the apostles were filled with power to preach the good news effectively in many different languages, and that their preaching was accompanied by signs and wonders. The sacrament of confirmation is often tied together with these events of Pentecost; the sacrament is said to fill us with the same power that filled the apostles all those years ago, and so we should be able to preach the gospel with power just as they did. So far this all agrees with the traditional understanding of confirmation, however I want to focus in on one particular aspect of the narrative: Pentecost was primarily about the sending and receiving of the Holy Spirit, and so it is also with the sacrament of confirmation.
The sacrament of confirmation is the sacrament in which the Christian logically and formally receives the Holy Spirit into his/her heart. This is not to say that the Christian did not have the Spirit within them temporally prior to receiving the sacrament – in a temporal sense, the spirit may very well have always been in their heart – however in a logical and formal sense, the moment at which the spirit entered into their heart was the moment that they were confirmed. This concept is called retrocausality and it deserves further discussion, but it is a deep topic for another day.
The question of the significance of the sacrament of confirmation is now intimately tied to the question of the significance of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For the answer to this question, let us examine some key scriptural quotes:
Ephesians 1:13-14 RSVCE
13 In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
2 Corinthians 1:18-22 RSVCE
18 As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silva′nus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. 20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God. 21 But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; 22 he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
It would seem that having the holy spirit in our heart serves as a “guarantee of our inheritance”. It is fair to understand a guarantee as a promise, and our inheritance in this context is salvation and heavenly beatitude, therefore another way of paraphrasing/translating the Ephesians quote is “You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, who is a promise of our salvation until we acquire possession of it”
Finally! Something profound! If you have the Holy Spirit in your heart, this is a promise from God that you will succeed in your mission to get to Heaven. God himself guarantees your success. There are only two responses that can be made to this promise: trust or outrage. If you trust this amazing promise, imagine the possibilities that open up for Christian joy! We know that God is trustworthy and desires to keep his promises; we know that God is almighty and therefore has the power to keep his promises; we know that God is unchanging and therefore will not change or revoke his promise. If we therefore trust in God and his promise, what can we do but rejoice, praising and glorifying God, for God is unconditionally promising us Heaven! This is wonderful news! This is true Gospel! The one hitch is, how do you know if you have the spirit?
This is where the sacrament of confirmation comes in. A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. In the case of confirmation the invisible grace is the fact of the indwelling Holy Spirit with the associated promise of God that we will arrive safely and successfully in Heaven. In this way, someone who has been confirmed can derive deep and profound reassurance from the sacrament: Whenever times get tough and they are feeling morally discouraged – perhaps because they are mired in terrible and degrading habitual sins – they can think back to their confirmation and say to themselves “I have the Holy Spirit: I have a promise from God that I am going to get through this and come out the other side as a glorified saint. No matter how bad things look, I have a confident hope that things are going to get better, and one day they will be completely glorious as I enter heaven”
The Sacrament of Confirmation is the Sacrament of Predestination
I suspect that this idea of the Holy Spirit being the guarantee of our inheritance is the essence of predestination. Therefore another way of thinking about the sacrament of confirmation is that it is a visible sign of the invisible grace of someone having been predestined to beatitude.
Predestination should not be understood as predetermination. Predetermination is a form of theological determinism which nullifies free will: it would have our every thought and action scripted out by the sovereign God such that we are mere puppets following his every whimsy. Predestination is different: It is where the destination is fixed, but the path to that destination is up to us to decide. In this case, the destination is heaven. Predestination should be understood as a sort of promise that God makes to us and it should be preached as such: God promises us that we are going to eventually get to heaven and he does this by sending us the Holy Spirit, who serves as a guarantee of our inheritance. However we still have total freedom: we can reject the suggestions of the Spirit, reject Christ and enter into a life of sin and total depravity if we so choose. If we do this, there is a terrible, infinitely painful purgative fire waiting for us in the afterlife which we will have to pass through before we can arrive in Heaven. What’s more, if we never repent of our sinful ways, we will remain in that horrible fire indefinitely! However what must be kept in mind is that we have a promise from God – in the form of the indwelling Holy Spirit – that we are going to eventually come out the other side of that fire.
God promises that he will never leave us: he is going to get us into Heaven by hook or by crook, even if we are stuck in eschatological hellfire. He who has the Holy Spirit has been predestined to eternal life and there is nothing this person can do to screw it up: They can resist the Holy Spirit for as long as they want, but the Holy Spirit will not abandon them. I hesitate to call this “irresistible grace” because the grace can indeed be resisted and indefinitely too, however perhaps it could be called “inescapable grace”, because ultimately the destination of Heaven is fixed and God has the power and wiles to eventually elicit everyone’s free submission.