Brethren Archive

Sin After Baptism.

by Robert Govett


"Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour was come, that He should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved His Own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end. And while supper was taking place,* the devil having already (ἤδη) put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him; Jesus—knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he came forth from God and was going back (ὑπάγει) to God—riseth from supper, and layeth aside His garments, and took a towel and girded Himself. After that He poureth water into the bason (τὸν νιπτῆρα) and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded." John xiii. 1-5.
* (γινομένου. The participle is indeed that of the Aorist, but it is only equivalent to the present in this case, as indeed in many others. The very same participle, nay the very same word, is rendered by ὄντος as its equivalent in St. Mark; Matthew xxvi. 6; Mark xiv. 3. So Γενομένης δὲ ἡμέρας. Not ‘when day was past,’ but ‘when day was coming on’ Luke iv. 42. See also John xxi. 4; Acts xii. 18; xvi. 35; xxi. 40).
It appears that the scene presented before us in the preceding words took place after supper was begun, and before it was ended, for Jesus having finished the act, sits down again to table, Judas being yet present and alluded to by the Lord as still unclean; while, after he had received the sop, he at once went out.
The solemnity of the introduction to this act of our blessed Lord bespeaks it to be one of no ordinary character.*
* (It is sometimes said, with careless boldness, that it was a customary thing for the master to wash the guests’ feet, in eastern countries. Not one instance of it can be found in Scripture. The following are all the passages in which the thing is spoken of. Abraham and Lot bid their guests to wash their own feet: Genesis xviii. 4, xix. 2. Laban as host gives water that Abraham’s servant may wash his own feet: Genesis xxiv. 32. And Jesus in the Pharisee’s house complains only, "Thou gavest Me no water for My feet,"—showing what the custom was: Luke vii. 38, 44. See also Genesis xliii. 24; Judges xix. 21; 2 Samuel xix. 24; Cant. v. 3; 1 Samuel xxv. 41, (a proposal of extreme humility), and Exodus xxx. 19, 21, xl. 31).
The Gospel of St. John, while it gives us no account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, devotes half a chapter to the Saviour’s washing His disciples’ feet. And it is the especial glory of this Gospel, that it presents to us Jesus as the Son of God, (and therefore the especial pattern for the sons of God), revealing the Father to His elect Church. The intent of the introduction appears to be, to lead us to admire the unexampled humility and grace that was in Christ Jesus. Though about to exchange this lower scene of trial for the Father’s glory, He did not forget those whom He was leaving behind. And as friends seek to give especial tokens of love at parting, He chose the washing of the disciples’ feet as the means of displaying the constancy of His love. Though about to depart to "His Own that are in Heaven" He would prove that He was not forgetful of "His Own that were in the world." Not even the knowledge of Judas’s treason prevented it. Nor did He thus voluntarily abase Himself through momentary forgetfulness of His dignity. When He stooped in this act of grace, His original dignity with the Father before the world was—His majesty soon to be restored at His ascension—and the acquired dignity which as Son of Man, He was to receive for His meritorious obedience to the Father—all were before His eyes; yet desiring to manifest to His disciples that not the exacting of homage, but lowliness of service is well-pleasing to the Father, He bowed Himself to this deed of condescension.
This first part of the narrative then exhibits the action in itself, as displaying in Jesus the constancy of Divine love, the forbearance of perfect patience, and the lowliness of heavenly humility.
But this heavenly condescension and service were not understood by Peter, and the resistance to the Saviour’s display of unearthly humility presents to us the second division of the history, which we may call----
He cometh therefore to Simon Peter, who saith unto him, ‘Lord, dost thou wash my feet?’ Jesus answered and said unto him, ‘What I am doing, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter.’ Peter saith unto Him, ‘Thou shalt never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me.’ Peter saith unto him, ‘Lord not my feet only, but my hands, and my head.’ Jesus saith unto him, ‘He that is bathed (λελουμένος) hath no need except to wash (νίψασθαι) his feet, but is entirely clean; and ye are clean, but not all.’ For He knew His betrayer, therefore He said, ‘Ye are not all clean' John xiii. 6-11.
I. In pursuance of His design of washing the disciples’ feet, the Saviour, having begun with some of the others, now draws near to Peter in his turn.*
* (This is the force of the little word 'therefore.’ "He began to wash the disciples’ feet." "He cometh therefore"—for whatever He began, that He completed.)
But this act, Peter did not comprehend. Was Messiah thinking of washing his feet? Did the King of Israel think to degrade Himself so? The glory of this lowly service the flesh did not see. In him therefore the flesh speaks. ‘Lord, what art thou about to do? To wash my feet? Let my reason first be satisfied, about the propriety of so singular an act.’
II. But to this implied demand the Savior renders for answer, "What I am doing, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter." It is assumed then, at once, that behind the outward act, lay concealed something deeper. The eye might take in the whole of the action as performed by the Redeemer; but it had a hidden meaning to be seen by faith alone. Secondly, Jesus would silence reply by the assertion of ignorance. To object where we are ignorant is folly. The Saviour further implies in this His answer, that we are not released from obedience by partial ignorance. It is enough for us to see anything to be the command of our Master; it is not fit ground for refusing to comply, that it does not seem reasonable, or that the grounds and intent of it are hid from us. Now is the time of implicit obedience, subject as we must be more or less to ignorance. Hereafter shall be the time of knowledge and satisfaction. This applies especially to the rite before us. No objections against its reasonableness, or because we cannot perceive its intent, will suffice to clear us from its obligation, if only we discern our Master’s command herein. The best trial of the willingness of a disciple is often the enforcement of a command whose reason is not perceived. God is not bound to satisfy our demand of reasons, in order to His just requirement of submission. With Him, in general, knowledge, follows after obedience. "He that will do His will, shall know of the doctrine."
III. But this reply satisfied not Peter. Doubt ripens into rebellion. An appeal to our ignorance is seldom satisfactory, even when knowledge is promised hereafter. "Thou shalt never wash my feet." But the disciple must be warned of the sad consequences of such disobedience. "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me." None can obtain part of the inheritance who is not obedient to Messiah. Small seemingly as was the act of submission required, a willful resistance would have shut him out of glory. But here is somewhat deeper still. Willful resistance is in this case willful uncleanness. And the guests at God’s table may not be unclean, much less willingly and willfully so: Ephesians v. 5. And for everyone that would sit down at the Father’s table, the Son’s washing is required. Human washing will not suffice, as Job saw. "If I wash myself with snow-water and make my hands ever so clean, yet shalt Thou plunge me in the ditch, and mine own clothes shall abhor me" Job ix. 30, 31. But if the Son shall make you clean, ye shall be clean indeed. And the necessity of this was revealed to mourning David after his deep stains of guilt. "Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean, Thou shalt wash me and I shall be whiter than snow:" Psalm li. 7. Hence also concerning the Saviour’s washing we read, "Unto Him that loved us and washed us from our sins in His Own blood, unto Him be glory" Revelations i. 5. And it is observable, as showing the Lord’s allusion to the spiritual meaning of the transaction, that He drops all mention of the feet, and speaks of washing alone. If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me."
IV. The threat had its due effect, and resistance is removed; but now Peter as much oversteps his Master’s will, as before he fell short of it. "Lord not my feet only, but my hands and my head." ‘If washing be necessary to partaking with Thee in Thy glory and inheritance, why cleanse but a part; why not the whole?’ The flesh is ever wrong, both when it darts ahead, and when it lags behind. Observe the wisdom of God, beside the most seemingly plausible objection of the creature. "He that has bathed needs only to wash his feet, in every other part he is clean." The illustration made use of by the Redeemer is simple as soon as the two differing Greek words are rendered in their distinct meanings. After anyone has come up from the bath, the impurities which before adhered to his body have been removed by contact with the water, and he is clean, all but his feet, which still necessarily rest upon the ground. Let his feet then be but washed, and he is wholly clean.
V. The application is equally obvious. Jesus takes it for granted that Peter and the rest had been bathed, and that all he needed was the cleansing of the feet. *
* (It has been noticed that the Savior’s words run almost in the form of a syllogism:
Every one that is bathed needs only to wash his feet:
You are bathed:
Therefore you need only to wash your feet.
Every one whose feet have been washed after bathing is wholly clean:
Your feet have been washed after bathing:
Therefore you are wholly clean.)
It is then as if the Saviour said—‘You were baptized, Peter, once by John, with the baptism of repentance.' (Hence observe, that baptism is total immersion. The necessity of the illustration requires it.) 'You submitted to that rite in token of the remission of sins. Were I then to do as you desire me, and to bathe you entirely afresh, I should be teaching you the imperfection of that washing which once you received. And, which is more important still, I should be giving you to understand that the forgiveness of sins introduced by the Gospel, is as imperfect as that of the Law.’ But Jesus does not so. His present washing recognizes the former one as abiding in its effects. It is not like the many washings of the Law. Baptism is once for all— "One baptism."
VI. The lessons arising from this statement of the Saviour are in the highest degree important, especially in the present day. He takes for granted—1st. The entire uncleanness of man by nature. He who is unbathed is, as the Saviour assumes, wholly unclean. In order to become clean, he must be entirely washed. This sets forth the spiritual truth, that before faith, man is in every part defiled and unclean. The soil of all former sin is upon him, and his evil heart of unbelief is still accumulating evil. Nothing short of entire cleansing can make him clean. This is effected by faith in the blood of the Lord Jesus. Then is he totally cleansed. And baptism is appointed to set forth this complete cleansing of the soul by faith. By faith, all "old sins'’ are "purged" away: 2 Peter i. 9. And as baptism is the representation of this, therefore of the believer it is written, "Arise, and be baptized and wash away thy sins" Acts xxii. 16. And again, "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water" Hebrews x. 22. This is the general bathing spoken of. Therefore, Paul having reckoned up some of the many defilements of sin, and alluding to the baptism of the Corinthians, writes, "And such were some of you, but, ye are washed" 1 Corinthians vi. 11.
VII. Baptism then is the first and total bathing to which the Saviour refers, and which answers to the total uncleanness of man by nature. It exhibits in a figure the great and general forgiveness of past sin which is granted by the Father to all that believe in Jesus. "By Him, all that believe are justified from all things." The Saviour’s answer therefore to Peter is full of consolation to the believer. He would not repeat again the bath. He would do only what was yet needful for the saint—he would wash him partially. As if he had said—‘I am not about to do again what has been done. Your former sins and defilements were forgiven once and forever, when by faith you were united to me; and baptism heralded this truth to yourself and others. That great washing abides in its effects still. The past is blotted out and forgiven freely. But you have offended since that day; and fresh sin has stained your conscience. You need then a second and supplementary washing, that you may be wholly clean. Such is the washing of your feet. The first washing was total; for sin entirely possessed you by nature. This second washing is partial, as your sins now are occasional. You sinned willingly before, with head and hand. You sin involuntarily now, as involuntarily as the bather coming up from the bath gathers on his feet the dust and dirt that defile them. "That which I do, l allow not; for what I would that do I not; but what I hate, that do I." "Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me." "The good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do" Romans vii. 15, 17, 19.
VIII. Thus, while the total defilement of man as a sinner is set forth in the total immersion of the believer once for all, on leaving that evil condition; the partial and unwilling uncleanness of the saint is set forth in the second and succeeding washing. It is intended to teach that daily sin demands a daily cleansing, even after our old sins are purged and put away. The intercession of Jesus to this end, and His ceaseless washing is continually needed. And when this is accomplished, the High Priest over the house of God standing, above the leper, pronounces him clean.
IX. This subject then provides us with the true and scriptural view of a question much agitated in our day—the distinction between sin before, and sin after baptism. Only, in order to the clear and true apprehension of the point, it is absolutely necessary first to see that baptism can only rightly be administered, where there is personal faith that works by love. It is the baptizing of the ignorant and unbelieving infant which has thrown such obscurity over the whole question of baptism. "Believe and be baptized," is God’s command, and God’s order. If you invert that order, no wonder that darkness follows.
X. How direct then the contrast between the Saviour’s doctrine and that of Puseyism! (The principles of Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800–1882.) "We have no account (saith it) in Scripture of any second remission, obliteration, extinction of all sin, such as is bestowed upon us ‘by the one baptism for the remission of sins’" Did not the Redeemer then wash Peter’s feet, and set it forth as a second purification, exhibiting the removal of occasional sin after baptism? "We are then (in baptism) washed once for all in His blood, if we again sin, there remaineth no more such complete ablution in this life." This is true when we see that the second washing is partial. The reason is, that a total cleansing is not needed. "He that is bathed needeth not save to wash his feet." How do the succeeding words of the same party remind us of the Saviour’s words to the Pharisees. "Have ye never read" the Scriptures? "There are but two periods of absolute cleansing, (says Puseyism), baptism and the day of judgment" How then do we hear the High Priest at the close of the washing of feet, (which is neither baptism nor the day of judgment), say, "Ye are clean" "He that is bathed needeth not save to wash his feet, and is clean every whit." Thanks be to God for the gentle grace of the Gospel! While Puseyism would teach us, that a second or third sin after baptism can scarcely leave a faint hope of forgiveness; and that by a single act of transgression after baptism, we have forfeited all revealed provisions of mercy to the sinner, how blessed to turn to the Scripture, and to see Jesus bending in lowly condescension to remove the impurities from the feet of the baptized believer! The Redeemer discerns the great and gracious difference between the willful sin of the unconverted, and the unwilling slips and stumblings of one who is in heart His servant. The sin of the apostate is, "the washed sow to her wallowing in the mire" the other is the involuntary soiling of the washed foot from its necessary contact with earth. If then you are a believer, let nothing call into doubt the past forgiveness, the entire "purging of your old sins" 2 Peter i. 9. If you sin again, you must wash your feet, but no more. You are not lying under the wrath of an unreconciled God. You are clean except your feet; Jesus will stoop to remove that also,* and has provided this secondary washing and its accompanying truth as a gracious consolation to the wounded and galled spirit.
* (It is worthy of remark, that the disciples did not wash Jesus’ feet. In His passage through the world, no soil or stain had clung to Him. The Evil One came but could find nothing in Him.)
"My little children, these things write I unto you that you sin not. And if any sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous" 1 John ii. 1.
XI. Of this double cleansing, the Law also is a witness to us. The blood of the passover lamb saved Israel from Egypt once for all; but the frequent intercessions of Moses were needed for their frequent transgressions in the wilderness. The day of atonement once for all embraced the sins of the year; the ashes of the red heifer were to be sprinkled on the unclean as oft as defilement might arise. And in the law of the priesthood, the analogy is yet more exact. The priests at their consecration were to be bathed in water once for all; but they were to wash their hands and feet as often as they came up to minister in the tabernacle: Exodus xxx. 19-21.
XII. We may hereby also discern the unscripturalness of the doctrine, of believers being without sin. He Who is the Great High Priest of His Church foresaw, that believers would as surely sin, as the bather collects impurities on his feet after leaving the bath. And even to baptized and believing Peter, since He saw sin yet unforgiven upon him, He says, "Except I wash thee thou hast no part with Me.’ And in testimony of the doctrine, that sin yet cleaves to His people, even in their best estate, He both washed His disciples’ feet, and till His coming again, commanded them to wash one another’s. Is washing in order to cleanse that which is clean? As universal then as the command here given to all saints, so universal is the partial defilement of every saint. In the removal of the partial uncleanness contracted in our passage through the world, the saints are to help each other. They are to admonish one another, to confess their sins one to another, to bring gently and lovingly before each other their mistakes, errors, and imperfections.
Thus the second part of the narrative brings out the hidden meaning of the rite, and is intended to display the necessity of the intercession of Jesus for His saints, because of their frequent sins after their first pardon and justification before God. We come now to the concluding portion, which we may call—
"When then He had washed their feet, and had taken His garments, and was seated at table again, He said unto them, ‘Know ye what I have done unto you? Ye call me 'the Teacher,’ (Ὁ Διδάσκαλος) and ‘the Lord,’ and ye say well, for so I am. If I then have washed your feet, being the Lord and the Teacher, ye also are in duty bound (ὀφείλετε, Translated—'He is a debtor’ Matthew xxiii. 16, and "Their duty is" Romans xv. 27) to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that as I have done to you, ye also should do. Verily, verily, I say unto you, no servant (slave) is greater than his lord; and no apostle (ἀπόστολος) greater than Him who sent him. If ye know these things, blessed (μακάριοί) are ye if ye do them" John xiii. 12-17.
I. The Saviour, having appeared for a moment as the servant, now resumes His dress, His place, and His titles. The act that had just passed before them was not to be forgotten, either by them or by the disciples of Jesus till His coming again. He inquires of them if they had comprehended the meaning of what they had just seen? He brings before their eyes the titles by which they commonly addressed Him, and then takes His stand upon the double authority which they acknowledged in Him. "Ye call me ‘the Teacher’ and ‘the Lord.’" 'This is not compliment, not mere empty title. Had it been so, I would have put a stop to it. But you give Me these titles and I confirm them. "Ye say well, for so I am." Do you not perceive then the relations in which you stand to Me? These are real relationships, and duties spring from them. Am I your Teacher? 'You then are My disciples, bound to listen to and obey My instructions. Am I your Lord? You are under obligation then as My servants, to obey Me as your Master.
II. The Redeemer then having brought into view the double right and authority over them which they acknowledged, gathers up all this weight of His authority, the more firmly to fix the command which follows, upon His Church. He deals in this as the mechanic, who takes his heaviest hammer, and sways his arm backward to its full extent, when he would deal the most forcible blow. ‘Since then,’ He says, ‘you confess in Me the right to teach, I as the Teacher sent from God, require of you who own yourselves My disciples, that you wash one another’s feet. Standing as I do in the place of your Lord and Master, I, in virtue of this authority, charge you who confess yourselves My servants, to wash one another’s feet.’ If we are disciples of Jesus, then the washing of each other’s feet is to be practiced by us as part of His teaching. If we be servants of the Lord Jesus, the washing of one another’s feet is part of the work we have to perform. In the preceding scene, the Saviour does not regard the twelve as apostles, for then some might have devised to escape the command, by supposing that it applied to the twelve as apostles alone. But the Saviour has cut off this evasion, by setting those to whom He addressed the command upon the very ground on which we stand, as servants and disciples. And on all who confess these universal and enduring relationships to Jesus, it is made binding. "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet." "Why call ye Me Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say?"
III. The command then to believers to wash each other’s feet is rested, first, on their acknowledgement of the right of Jesus to prescribe to them any ceremony He may think fit, in His double capacity of a Teacher enjoining His disciples, and of a Master laying commands on His servants. But it has another ground also. The Redeemer rests the obligation of the precept on the reality of the fact. Did Jesus wash His disciples’ feet? If He did, you are to wash the saints’ feet. Do you believe that Jesus washed His apostles’ feet? If you do, you are to wash the saints’ feet in token of your belief. Not to do so then is argument of unbelief; for Jesus FOUNDS THE OBLIGATION OF THE PRACTICE ON THE REALITY OF THE FACT. "If I your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet." By this simple test, the question whether the command be intended to be taken figuratively or not, is settled at once. Did Jesus wash His disciples’ feet figuratively? If he did, you may imitate Him and keep the command by a figurative washing. But if it was real and literal, nothing but a real and literal washing will suffice. I say again then—Did Jesus LITERALLY wash His disciples' feet? "Go and do thou likewise!" Confess your Lord and Teacher, though the world scorn!
IV. The Redeemer has founded this command on His Own essential right to obedience, and on our confession of that right. The washing of one another’s feet is a positive ordinance, solemnly enjoined by Him Whom all Christians acknowledge as having the right to appoint what ordinances He wills. The apostles add no further command on the subject. To so awfully majestic a foundation, as the whole authority of our Redeemer laid as the basis for this one command, what could be added? It is indeed once noticed elsewhere, on purpose to show us that in apostolic times, this precept was no dead letter, but a sacred reality, a part of service in the church, and classed among works entitled "good" by the Holy Ghost. "Let not a widow be taken into the number under three-score years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, IF SHE HAVE WASHED THE SAINT'S FEET; if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work" 1 Timothy v. 9, 10. Females then, as we learn from the above words, are as much embraced by it as men.
V. But the Saviour sets forth another ground of obligation still. He pleads that the reason why He performed this act of condescension, was, that it should have the force of an example to be imitated by all His followers. The Lord Jesus might have uttered the command without Himself fulfilling the act, as the commander-in-chief orders the storming party to the breach, but does not head them himself. Our Lord’s act then adds the greater weight to His injunction. He inquires first if they understood His intent in what He had done? He then informs them that He did it by way of making His example binding on His followers. "For I have given you an example, that ye should do, as I have done to you." While then we confess that the life of Jesus in general is intended for an example to us; this deed of His is especially so. It is a pattern-act, to be copied by every disciple. It is not intended so much as a theme for admiration, (the use ordinarily made of it), as for a guide to practice. "I have given you an example that ye should do." And its literality follows from the succeeding words. "As I have done to you." In one respect, this is more blessed even than baptism; for in that we are passive, but in this we are active observers of the Redeemer’s will. And note how forcibly His example is connected with the command. "Ye ought to wash one another’s feet; for I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you."
VI. Example is most forcible when it begins with superiors. On one occasion, as we are informed, it was needful for the safety of the army of the crusade that a certain space should be walled in as speedily as possible.
The English king, who was at the head of the army, put his own hand to the trowel and wrought. The meaning of that lofty example was felt at once by all. It was evident that he meant them all, however lofty their station, to do the same. But there had been no force in the same example in a lower rank. A duke would have passed by the mason plodding at his work, and have felt no obligation on himself to do likewise. But when a king and the general-in-chief did so, the point of the example was not to be evaded. Thus, when the Lord Jesus, the Great Head of our religion, is seen stooping to wash the disciples’ feet, the force of the example is not to be gainsaid. And He Himself states it as effectually precluding and silencing all claim to exemption on the score of rank. "No apostle is greater than His commissioner." If, then, He does it from whom even apostles receive their commission, who may plead superior rank as an excuse?
VII. Jesus saw that the chief obstacle to the fulfilment of this command would be pride. This remnant of earth, therefore, He combats. ‘May not the scholar do without degradation what the Master has done? Can the servant be degraded by stooping as low as his Lord? Such as is the character of the act in my case, such is it also in yours. Do you account it a glory in Me so to condescend, and yet fear degradation to yourself from it?’ To one who doubts whether he ought to fulfil this duty, I would say, ‘Brother, pray that pride and the fear of man may be taken away.’ The evidence for the practice will then be overpowering.
VIII. But, lastly, the Saviour pronounces the disciple "blessed" who keeps this command. "If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them." Jesus foresaw that many would be ready with their commendations of His humility, who would be content with barren admiration. He would urge them on to do the like. He foresaw that His action looked at in the picturesque distance and the classical light of the sacred history would be esteemed beautiful, while any attempt on the part of the disciple to reduce his Lord’s command to practice, would be scoffed at as absurd. But, be the world’s judgment what it will, the judgment of Jesus is, "Blessed are ye, if ye do it." Does then the Christian seek the approval of his Master? He will find it in this case attached, not to the knowledge of his meaning, but to the fulfilment of the deed. "Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it." "Being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed." "He that hath My commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me." Likeness to Jesus, and obedience to Him, is the saints’ true blessedness.
IX. Thus far it has been the writer’s privilege to go with the Scripture. But one might easily understand from our knowledge of human nature, and its remains even in the regenerate, that objections would arise against a command so abasing to the flesh. Two opposite classes of objections are raised against it.
1st. Some rest their resistance to the injunction on their ignorance of its reasons and meaning. ‘What is the use of it? What good would it answer to do it now?’
2nd. The second class of objections takes opposite ground. The objector assumes that he knows and fully understands its intent. ‘It is an eastern custom.’ ‘It was intended to teach us humility.’
To both these classes we may reply—the obligation to perform the present command of the Lord is quite distinct from the question of knowledge or ignorance. Peter was ignorant of the meaning, and on that ground resisted, and his conduct is recorded to teach us the sinfulness of ignorance resisting what is enjoined of God. His duty was the same, whatever was the state of his knowledge. Again, on the other hand, if the Most High should reveal to you, perfectly, every reason of the ordinance, your knowledge, in place of being a release from the performance of the duty, would only bind you more strongly to fulfil it. It is not an enigma, where all that is required is, to find out the meaning, it is an act, to be performed, as you value the authority of Jesus, and desire to experience His declaration of blessedness on performance.
X. Whether it be an eastern custom or no, is nothing to us. To Christians, it has quite lost any old and former meaning it might have had, as soon as our Master takes it up and makes it binding on us. The empty custom of unbelieving man, as soon as ever it is enjoined by Jesus, becomes the solemn and significant rite, to be obeyed by every true disciple. It is idle to inquire—Who do it by nature? We do it on another principle, and for reasons totally unlike theirs. And if any positive command can be established on the word of a Teacher sent from God, the washing of one another's feet is enjoined on the saints by the solemn authority of Jesus. It is idle to talk of it as a question between the eastern and the western nations. Have not the western saints feet, which grow soiled, and need washing? This is all which the command supposes.
XI. To those who pass carelessly by this act of the Saviour and His following command, affirming, that it was only intended to give us a lesson of humility, I would reply, It is not said so by Christ. The significance of the rite belongs as much to the party whose feet are washed, as to the disciple who is called to humble himself in washing them. Such a careless statement as this supposes that we know all the reasons of the command; which we have only to deny. "What I do, thou knowest not now." Jesus does not say, ‘Do this that you may learn humility.’ He hints at several unknown and mysterious reasons. He knew that, had He told His disciples simply that it was a lesson in humility, many would have shuffled by it, regarding it only as one way among many of learning the same thing, and confident that they knew as good or better modes of attaining that grace. But Jesus does not do so; He teaches us that this is to be regarded as an ordinance of cleansing, conveying deep and most important lessons as it regards the standing of a saint before God. While, then, the act of washing another’s feet carries with it, as we confess, a lesson of humility to him who performs the act, yet it carries also a far higher meaning than any self-devised display of humility could do. It teaches him, whose feet are washed, that sins and errors gather upon him, though God’s past forgiveness is unaltered; it sets forth the necessity of Jesus’ intercession, and the duty of the saints’ care for each other, and the gentle admonitions of love. The lesson of humility, then, is only one among many points intended by the Redeemer, and no act of our own can fill the gap left by its omission.
XII. Again, what answer can be returned by him who neglects this rite, to the Quaker, when he pleads, that all rights and ceremonies are abolished—baptism, and the supper of the Lord not excepted? ‘Be consistent,’ he says. ‘Either celebrate the washing of the saints’ feet, according to the command of Jesus, or cease to urge on me the duty of baptism and the Lord’s supper.’ Until the Christian keeps all the Saviour’s commands, the objectors are confirmed in their error. They reject all the ritual commands of Jesus, and, though in error, are at least consistent in error. But the Christian who rejects this, is inconsistent with his principles, and his practice is self-condemned.
XIII. Examine then the evidence for this neglected practice, side by side with those rites which you acknowledge and perform. 1. On the same solemn eve of His betrayal and death, Jesus instituted both the breaking of bread, and the washing of the saints' feet. By what rule do you accept one of these rites, and reject the other? 2. You cannot affirm that the command to celebrate the supper is more clearly stated, more solemnly introduced, or more strongly enforced. Concerning the origin of the Lord’s Supper, we read only, "As they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is My body. And He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, drink ye all of it." The Lord’s Supper takes its origin from the midst of another act. But the washing of feet begins with Jesus’ breaking off from that in which He was engaged, as though that which He was to perform were more important than the supper that then engaged Him. "He riseth from supper, and layeth aside His garments." 3. It was not in consequence of any custom, but wholly out of course, and without example. The washing of feet, if at all, was before supper, not during it. 4. The bread and wine were handed by the disciples from one to another; this, as more solemn, was performed for each of the apostles by the sacred hand of Jesus. 5. The command to celebrate the supper is couched in the general words—"Do this in remembrance of me." But Jesus specifies with great exactness concerning the other rite—"Ye are in duty bound to wash one another's feet." 6. Nothing is spoken concerning the disciple that should refuse to eat at the table of the Lord; but of him that should refuse to be washed, it is said, "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me." 7. After the command to celebrate the supper, no further notice is taken of the act. But after the washing of the feet, Jesus recalls the subject again to their mind, and would have them reconsider its intent. 8. Of the celebration of the supper it might be said, that it was intended for apostles alone; but of the washing of feet, we are expressly taught that it was designed for all who acknowledge Jesus as their Teacher and Lord.
XIV. The reader can compare it for himself with the evidence on which he esteems himself bound to keep the Lord’s Day.
XV. Finally, the fixed relation which the washing of feet holds to the other two rites (or sacraments as they are improperly called) proves that it was intended to be permanent. Baptism is appointed as the sign of that great and fundamental doctrine, that man by nature is totally defiled, and needs a total cleansing. But this washing is appointed as the sign of a no less certain and important doctrine, that sin still adheres to the saint, after that great and general pardon which is given at the moment of faith; and that nothing but the intercession of Jesus can remove the guilt from before God. As surely then as we may not remove the appointed landmark from the one doctrine, so neither may we remove the sign which Jesus has affixed to the other. Moreover, the washing of feet bears an evident relation to the Supper of the Lord. Jesus rose from table and performed the act, before He gave the bread or the cup, to signify, doubtless, the entire cleanness with which that holy Supper should be eaten; even as His apostle afterwards taught. "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup." As then Christians confess that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were intended to be fixed and permanent in the church, throughout all ages, till the Saviour’s coming again, so must this be likewise intended to be permanent. For the washing of feet being permanently related to things which are confessedly enduring, partakes necessarily of the same character of endurance.*
* (It may be permitted here to add a word or two on the history of the fulfilment of this command by the disciples of Jesus. Grotius, in his note on the place, informs us that the practice continued in the Church of Milan up to the days of Ambrose, (4th century). Augustine notes its being regarded as literal in his day. "Brethren perform this action one for another, even as it regards the literal act itself, when they receive each other to their houses. For this custom of humility exists among very many expressed even in the visible deed. Whence the apostle, when he would commend the deserving widow, says, "If she have received the saints into her house, if she have washed the saints’ feet." Among the saints where this custom exists not, what they do not with their hand, they do in heart. (Jesus does not bid us do it in heart). But much better and more exact is it beyond controversy, that it be done by the hand; nor let the Christian disdain to do what Christ hath done. For when the body is stooped to the feet of a brother, the sentiment of humility is either excited in the heart itself, or if it be there already, it is confirmed." St. Bernard (the last of the Fathers, as he is called,) is still more explicit. "What shall we do because we cannot be in this body of sin, and in this evil time, free from sin? Shall we despair? Far be it from us. "If we say," says St. John, "that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." For that we may not doubt concerning the remission of daily sins, we have its sacrament—the washing of feet." This rite is celebrated by the Greek Church, and by the Syrians on Good Friday. It is retained by the Moravians, and by the Baptists of Holland; while, by the Glassites or Sandemanians of our own country, it is practised at the present day. But what are these or a thousand such examples to the grand original command of Christ?)
To the worldly, these remarks are not addressed. To them, the rite must be ever foolishness. But it is in exact accordance with the lowliness and the gracious service which is urged upon the saint now in his time of humiliation; one day to be rewarded with a crown of glory that fadeth not away! The Lord give His people grace to see and practice the truth! The writer’s warrant for this little tract is, "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of Heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of Heaven" Matthew v. 19.  1845


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