Henry Sloane Coffin – A Yale Baccalaureate Sermon

J.R. Waller, MBA

A Yale Baccalaureate Sermon by Henry Sloane Coffin is taken from The Creed of Jesus and Other Sermons by Henry Sloane Coffin and published by The Greater Heritage.

Note, this post remains true to the original format and content of its original 1907 version, however we have added footnotes to help readers learn about certain words and/or passages.

About Henry Sloane Coffin

Henry Sloane Coffin (1877-1954) was a renowned American minister and educator. He pastored Bedford Park Presbyterian Church and Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, both in New York City. The latter became one of the most influential churches in America under his leadership. He was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and served as President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He earned a B.A. and M.A. from Yale University, B.D. from Union Theological Seminary, and also studied at New College at the University of Edinburgh, and at the University of Marburg in Germany.

The Creed, Programme, Prayer, and Experience of Jesus
A Baccalaureate Sermon to the graduating class of the Divinity School of Yale University, preached June 2, 1907.

9) After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

10) Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

11) Give us this day our daily bread.

12) And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

13) And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.Matthew 6:9-13 (KJV)

THESE words might be called “Jesus’ Confession of Faith.” A creed underlies every prayer, for one must have some sort of conception of the God one addresses, and a sincere man’s actual creed is best discovered when one hears him pray. And this is Jesus’ own creed, the faith by which He lived and worked and died. Put its sentences into creedal form and this is at once apparent. “I believe in God, our Father, Mine and all men’s, whose name of love is alone to be reverenced supremely as the ideal; whose will for earth is the establishment of His social order of heavenly love; who has so arranged His world that all His children will be given daily bread, if we live to fulfill this, His purpose; who freely forgives us our debts in the measure in which we are able to receive His forgiveness, that is, as we have forgiven our brethren; who never leads any child of His into a situation where he may be tempted to evil without providing deliverance for him, if he follows His leading.” Is not that a fairly complete statement of the convictions Jesus preached, lived in and died by?

This confession has only one article. It is from first to last about God – His fatherhood, His character of love, His purpose for earth and heaven, His care for the daily needs of His children, His forgiveness, His guidance and deliverance. There is but one thing fundamental in a man’s theology – his thought of God. What he thinks of Him determines his thought of the universe, of the present life and the future, of all men and himself, of God’s relations to universe and self and humanity. If God be thought of as the Absolute, then all His relations with us will be philosophical relations; and we shall talk of His infinity, transcendence, immanence, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience; and religion will be primarily speculation. “There is but one thing fundamental in a man’s theology – his thought of God.” If with the historic Latin theology we speak of God as King, we can speak of His eternal decrees, His sovereignty, His rebellious subjects, the satisfaction of His justice and the like; and His relations with us will be official relations. If we go “through nature to God,” we shall arrive at nature’s God; His relations with us will be expressed in the scientific words of the day – the terms of biology or psychology or sociology; and we shall have natural or psychical or social law in the spiritual world as the statement of our religious faith. If we go through Jesus to God and think of Him as Father, and the particular kind of father Jesus conceived Him, then every word in our theology must be a household, a home-like word, and all God’s relations with us will be personal relations. Even if for convenience’ sake we employ a word that does not belong to intimate family affairs, like the word “kingdom,” we must be careful, as Jesus was, to give it a thoroughly personal interpretation. A creed needs but a single article. Given what God is like, one can easily conclude what such a Being will do with anybody, under any circumstances, anywhere, at any time.

But were we to offer this confession as a summary of faith to a body of evangelical Christians, we should at once be told that it had unpardonable omissions. Where is the divinity of Jesus? It is here. What is the religious value of the statement that in Jesus dwelt “all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” but this, that whenever we wish to think of God we think of Jesus of Nazareth? God is for us Christians eternally Jesus-like. He never wills anything for anybody that Jesus did not will for someone. The aim of the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is not to assert something about Jesus, but to assert something about God.“The divinity of Jesus is our way of stating the character of our God.” Jesus is the Way, but the way is of value only as it takes one to the end, the Father revealed through Jesus. If Jesus is divine, we know what to think of God; and whether we conceive Him as Lord of heaven and earth, of as the indwelling Spirit within ourselves, He is always a Jesus-like Lord and a Jesus-like Spirit. We shall never ask, “Does God do thus and so? – does He punish, does He elect, does He forgive, does He answer petitions?” – without framing our question, “Did Jesus punish, or elect, or forgive, or grant requests, and how did He do so?” The divinity of Jesus is our way of stating the character of our God. And the God we get at through this creed is the duplicate of the Jesus who utters it. If one defines divinity by the God addressed in the Lord’s Prayer, one is forced to call Him, in whom the identical character is embodied on earth, divine.

Or where is the doctrine of the atonement in this confession? Here, too, implicitly. For what is the religious value of that doctrine but its statement of the character of the God, who commends His own love to us sinners by all that He does to redeem us, and of the manner of men His reconciled children must be? And that surely is plainly here: – our Father, who givest, forgives, deliverest; and we – do Thy will, forgive our brethren, seek Thy Kingdom.“You and I as ministers of religion must have a theology to shape our preaching, our conduct of public worship, our practical leadership of the Church of Christ.” The particular steps in the history of God’s redemptive work, with its fullest disclosure of His eternal suffering because of, and with, and for His children on Calvary, are not mentioned; but the God spoken to here is the kind of Father who spares not His own Son, and freely gives His children all things needful to attain the measure of the stature of the fulness of His Firstborn. And is not our criticism of the historic doctrines of salvation their misrepresentation of the Christian God? Start with an orthodox conception of God, that is, the God of Jesus, Himself Jesus-like, and we shall not go far astray in our interpretations of the Cross, or of any other of His marvellous works for the children of men.

So one might go on with the list of doctrines and show how the essence of each is given in this simple confession of faith uttered by Jesus in prayer with His disciples. The point is that it gives a true conception of God. You and I as ministers of religion must have a theology to shape our preaching, our conduct of public worship, our practical leadership of the Church of Christ. Let us think rightly of God. We are to preach God, and to preach Him as though He were preaching Himself through us. Let every sermon be a message about this God, and this God’s message through us. Public worship is to be the conscious social fellowship of a congregation with this God.” Let us think rightly of God. We are to preach God, and to preach Him as though He were preaching Himself through us.” Let us offer no prayer and select no hymn which is untrue to this thought of Him, and that will require a strict care of the language we use in devotions, and a judicious exclusion of at least fifty percent of the current hymns. As pastors we are to bring men and women and little children into personal intimacy with this God, and to make the organization we lead correctly represent Him in every detail of its work – the way in which its support is raised, people are seated in His house, and its members treat one another socially. Let us see to it that the type of spirituality we personally stand for and propagate is consistent with this conception of God, our variety of spirituality – Jesus-likeness.

  1. These words contain not merely a confession of faith, but a statement of purpose. They are a programme as well as a creed. “Our Father, I will deal with Thee as a son in trust and obedience and love, and with every child of Thine as a brother; I will hallow Thy name of love by seeking so to represent it that Thou shalt be lovely in all eyes; I will make Thy purpose Mine, and seek to live in and further the Kingdom of justice, kindness and faithfulness in the earth; I will be confident that, seeking first Thy kingdom, I shall not fail of daily bread; I will not run into any temptation unled, but when led into a trying situation will rely absolutely on Thy deliverance as I obey Thy leading.”

It is worth noticing that the same words contain Jesus’ programme and His creed. His theology was really subordinate to His purpose, and He was interested in it only as it promoted His purpose. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,” He announced in the synagogue, not to give men correct ideas as to God and themselves, but to bring in the era of gladness and liberty and light and health in unison with the will of God. There is little that is strictly new and original in His theology. One can doubtless find every clause of the Lord’s Prayer somewhere in a Jewish document. The originality of Jesus lies in His clear grasp of God’s purpose for the sons of men, and in the fine discrimination, with which He took the materials at hand in the faith of His own people, and with them made His Father’s purpose plain to His brethren. First a purpose, then a creed was His order. “Seek ye first His Kingdom,” and correct ideas will be among the addenda sure to follow.

You and I have our theologies. They diverge more or less from those held by many of the best Christians with whom we are to do our work. Let us make clear to ourselves that our bond of fellowship is unity of aim, and not agreement in opinion.“Let us make clear to ourselves that our bond of fellowship is unity of aim, and not agreement in opinion.” We shall often find in our own congregations and in our communities our strongest allies in people, whose doctrinal positions are widely different from ours, but whose hearts cherish the same ambition to redeem men into full-grown sons of the Most High and to transform earth into a household of brethren dwelling together in peace and goodwill. The Church unity for which Jesus prayed was not oneness of organization, nor uniformity or worship, nor identity of creed; but community of purpose – “that they may all be one, even as Thou Father are in Me, and I in Thee.”

In the statement of our creed we must see to it that every clause is convertible into a plank in a working platform. The commonest of heresies is a false emphasis. The Church has spent precious time discussing details of its theology which had no direct bearing on the Christian purpose – the method and extent of the inspiration of Scripture, the doom of those dying out of Christ, the virgin birth of our Lord, and so on – and has often separated itself from those who were thoroughly at one with it in aim, because they differed in certain opinions. Truth is precious, and its frank statement is usually a plain duty; but the accomplishment of those things for which Jesus toiled and shed His blood and ever liveth is more precious still. Whether we be radical or conservative in theology, we are bound not to emphasize either our dissents or our assents to the detriment of cooperation with those who are one with us in devotion to the programme of Jesus.

Theology is often slightingly spoken of to-day, and a distinction made between doctrinal and practical preaching. If a man who had left home in infancy were to return in manhood, the most practical thing one could do for him would be to tell him his relationships to the people he found in the home. “This elderly man is your father, this woman your sister, this crippled child your invalid brother who has never properly developed.” A Christian theology points out our relatives in the universe. “This Being you instinctively turn to with reverence is your Father, whose name is love. These people you live with and trade with are your brethren, whom you are to dwell with in cooperation for the good things of life, never in competition; whom you are to work with for the joy of serving the family, never for the sake of what you personally make out of your work; and whom you are to consider as the owners of all you individually control, so that you think of them as much as of yourself in your employment of whatever you call yours. “A Christian theology points out our relatives in the universe.”This unfortunate you are sending off to a jail is an invalid child of your Father’s, whom you must treat as an invalid and do what you can to supply with health. This man, who belongs to a backward race here at hand or on the other side of the globe, and whom your civilization would like to be rid of because he does not easily fit into it, is a brother for whom your Father’s eldest Son died. This world in which you find yourself, so pleasant and yet so difficult to understand and be satisfied with at times, is your Father’s house, or one of His houses, where He puts you to get your education, and which He wants you to make a household of love like the heaven you dream of.” That is doctrinal preaching in the spirit of Jesus, and it is most practical.

Men sometimes ask, “Is it necessary to believe a creed in order to be saved?” It depends on what we mean by “saved.” If we mean by it what Jesus did when He said to Zacchaeus, “To-day is salvation come to this house,” then a creed is absolutely essential to salvation, the creed that embodies the purpose of God. When Jesus visited Zacchaeus’ house He gave him that sort of a doctrinal sermon, and Zacchaeus stood and said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have wrongfully exacted aught of any man I restore fourfold.” The theology of Jesus showed Zacchaeus his right relations and gave him his purpose. And when Zacchaeus set himself to make Jesus’ creed his personal programme, Jesus said, “To-day is salvation come to this house.” We shall be the means of saving men by preaching that sort of theological sermon.

  1. This is the Lord’s prayer as well as His creed and His programme – words He uttered with His disciples, looking up and speaking to Another, and feeling Himself in communion with this Other. It makes all the difference in the world whether one thinks of the Christian purpose as something to be striven for by us mortals and won perhaps after numberless aeons of struggle, or as the will of a God, of whom and through whom and unto whom are all things and who is as almighty as love can be, who associates Himself with us, makes His strength perfect in our weakness, His wisdom in our foolishness, His hope in our discouragement.
“Christian prayer is a conscious entering into the purpose of God for one’s self and one’s brethren, that God and we together, being of one will, may attain it.”

Here again we cannot emphasize too strongly that the same words, which form this prayer, form also a declaration of the purpose of those who utter it. Every one of Jesus’ prayers is a programme for man as well as a petition to God. He bade His disciples, “Pray ye the Lord of the harvest, that He would send forth laborers,” and then the narrative continues, “These twelve Jesus sent forth.” “Go ye” stands side by side with “Pray ye.” When He said in Gethsemane, “Thy will be done,” He was not uttering a passive submission like helpless old Eli’s, “It is in the Lord, let Him do what seemeth Him good,” or a grim resignation to the inevitable like the Stoics; He rose from His knees, gave Himself into custody, walked to the cross. Even His last prayer made in complete exhaustion, “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit,” He Himself carried out. He placed His life in God’s keeping, and left it there in calm assurance that it would be safely kept. We so often pray, “I commend,” but instead of actually putting ourselves in God’s hands, and leaving ourselves in God’s hands, and leaving ourselves there, expect our Father to drag us from ourselves, while we continue self-conscious and self-willed. Then we wonder that we have not the consciousness of God’s presence. Communion with the Christian God, the God of this prayer, can be obtained only be sharing His purpose. That is what communion with the Christian God means, companionship with Him in common interests. “Hereby we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.” A friend visited Bengel, the great New Testament scholar, one evening, and finding him so engrossed in his studies that he did not notice his presence, sat down in a corner of the room and waited for him to finish. By and by he saw Bengel close his books, straighten out the papers on his desk, and kneel down beside it; and he overheard this prayer: “O God, you and I understand each other. Amen.” Sharing God’s purpose in his studies, he had a sense of companionship; the prayer was simply a bringing into clear consciousness of that which was an abiding fact. Non-Christian prayer is largely an asking of God to do something that man cannot or does not wish to do. Christian prayer is a conscious entering into the purpose of God for one’s self and one’s brethren, that God and we together, being of one will, may attain it.

Brothers in the ministry, the secret of power for us lies first in our grasping the purpose of God in Christ, and then in making that purpose a life-long prayer. Only he who devotes himself to it in the consciousness of fellowship with a Mightier and a Wiser and a Better than he, will have force to achieve his part in it. One of his contemporaries said of Robert Bruce, an eminent minister in Edinburgh, in the time of James the Sixth, “O! what a strange man is this, for he knocks down the Spirit of God upon us all.” “Brothers in the ministry, the secret of power for us lies first in our grasping the purpose of God in Christ, and then in making that purpose a life-long prayer.”His power is explained in the account of a Sabbath, when he was preaching at Larbert. A party of gentlemen who had heard him in the morning were waiting for the afternoon service, and, being eager to start on their home journey, sent the bellman to the vestry to find out whether the service could not begin at once. The bellman returned saying that he did not know when the minister would come out; he believed there was somebody with him, for he heard him many times say with the greatest seriousness, “That he would not – that he could not go, unless He came with him; and that he would not go alone;” adding, that he never heard the Other answer him a word. And the old narrator adds: “When he came out in a little while, he was singularly assisted.”

  1. This brings us to a final point that these words are not only creed and programme and prayer, but the record of Jesus’ experience. Where did this knowledge of God come from? Was it a series of ideas Jesus brought to earth from heaven ready made? Or were they communicated to Him in some miraculous way? If so, He was not made in all points like unto His brethren. He found out God, precisely as all the children of men must, by living with Him and experiencing what God is to us – our singular Assistance. He started life with an exalted view of God, taught Him by parents who inherited the best in Israel’s religion; He lived with the God of His fathers, only as none other had ever lived, in unbroken accord with Him; and He made the greatest of all discoveries, the discovery of the God whose purpose is set forth in this prayer. He was

“the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea.”[1]

Other great souls from mountain-peaks, from their highest moments of inspiration, had seen dimly and from afar what Jesus saw plainly. He was the pioneer into the complete knowledge of the purpose and character of God. Read the words again as the account of an experience, a chapter from Jesus’ autobiography: “I have discovered God, My Father and all men’s: I have found that His character compels supreme adoration; that His will is that earth shall contain a brotherhood of His children dwelling together, as they do in heaven, the sphere of His ideals; that He has cared for Me faithfully as I have striven to fulfil His will; that He forgives freely as we forgive, and so has been entirely at one with Me, who have always forgiven My brethren; that He has never led Me into any temptation without providing a way of escape, that I might in His strength meet and vanquish it.” Are not the words of this prayer the record of the spiritual explorations of One who

“. . . lived with God in such untroubled love

And clear confiding, as a child on whom

The Father’s face had never yet but smiled;

And with men even, in such harmony

Of brotherhood, that whatsoever spark

Of pure and true in any human heart

Flickered and lived, it burned itself towards Him”?

And because it was an experience, He said to His brethren, “Follow Me.” To share His purpose and make it our prayer is to repeat His experience and join in His credo.

“The individual religious experience has a universal application. Why? Because our experience, however limited, is a window through which we look out and see God.”

You and I are to be ministers of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. What do we really know of Him? It is a solemn moment for any conscientious man when he faces an individual or a congregation, knowing that he is expected to say what he is sure of, because he has experienced it and believes it as he believes himself. Men ask for this, and this only. One of Father Taylor’s sailors said to him in Boston: “When a man is a preachin’ at me, I want him to take somert hot out of his heart and shove it into mine – that’s what I call preachin’.” We may feel that our ministry will be far too limited by this. How can we young men, strangers probably to a life’s deepest sorrows and darkest perplexities, minister out of our scanty personal knowledge of God to souls in far direr straits than we can even dream of? Listen to Paul: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (there is the starting point always – the religious experience of the historic Jesus, giving us the God of Jesus), “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (where did that name come from? That was Paul’s personal discovery in Macedonia when Titus met him with the heart-relieving news of the state of affairs at Corinth), “who comforteth us in all our affliction, that” . . . that we may be able to comfort them who are in a similar affliction? Not at all! “That we may be able to comfort them that are in any affliction, through the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” The individual religious experience has a universal application. Why? Because our experience, however limited, is a window through which we look out and see God. We can bring our brothers up to the window and say, “Look and see! See what I see? No two pairs or eyes ever saw just the same landscape out of the same window. We see what we bring with us the eyes to see. “Look and see Whom I see!” And God adapts Himself to every child’s needs who seeks Him.

Perhaps we shrink from the seeming egotism of making our personal experience of God the basis of all we say and do as ministers. There are two kinds of guides who take travelers through Continental cathedrals. One is the garrulous talker, who stands you in front of a sacred painting and reels off for the thousandth time his description of its fine points, and the remarks noted art critics have made upon it; and you come away with a confused recollection of the jumble of things he said, and of certain personal peculiarities of his own in manner, or voice, or appearance. The other is the man seemingly in harmony with the reverent quiet of the great church, who leads you silently up to some picture, draws the curtain, steps aside, leaving you face to face with the sacred scene; and you come away with an impression of Christ as He was interpreted there by the master-hand of the artist. We use the Lord’s Prayer and are not conscious of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. All its clauses are parts of His religious experience and come to us through Him, but He obliterates Himself that He may be the Way to the Father. There is a certain impersonality about all truth that forever makes it impossible for one to utter that which is supremely true to him in an egotistic fashion, as though it were his private property.

“How sure it is

That, if we say a true word, instantly

We feel ‘tis God’s, not ours, and pass it on

As bread at sacrament, we taste and pass

Nor handle for a moment, as indeed

We dared to set up any claim to such!”[2]

My brothers, it is our personal participation in the religious experience of Jesus that gives us the basis for our ministry as preachers and pastors and leaders of His Church. But it is comforting and fortifying to recall that intensely personal as must be our knowledge of God, it is not a knowledge that we alone possess. To guard us from idiosyncrasies that would put us out of touch with our brethren in the household of faith; to certify us that our message rests on no mere subjective illusion; to solemnize us with a sense of responsibility to those, through whom, by a true apostolic succession of the Spirit, we have received our Gospel; we are to remember that we are ministers of the Church of Jesus Christ. Behind us in the Christian centuries, and about us in every place throughout the world to-day, are ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, who have shared this creed, lived for this purpose, found fellowship with the Father through this prayer, to attest that they have entered into the experience of their Lord and ours; and who join with us in our appeal, “O taste and see that our God is good, as good as Jesus said He was, as good as was Jesus Himself. We have been loved, trusted, used, forgiven, cared for, guided, delivered by Him. We know Whom we have believed.”

“Finding, following, keeping, struggling,

Is He sure to bless?

Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,

Answer, Yes.”[3]

More from Henry Sloane Coffin

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[1] From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

[2] From Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61).

[3] From the hymn Art Thou Weary, Art Thou Languid? by St. Stephen the Sabaite (725-96) and John Mason Neale (1818-66).

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