What is confirmation? That depends on who you ask! Roman Catholics and Episcopalians have a quite high view of confirmation. The Episcopal Church doesn’t include confirmation as one of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church (the others being baptism, Eucharist, matrimony, anointing the sick, reconciliation [formerly called penance], and ordination). But it has sometimes used language like “minor sacrament.”
It became tied to baptism as the “confirmation” of the vows made during that sacrament. Bishops performed baptisms, but as the church spread over wide geographic distances, that practice became impractical. Bishops can’t be everywhere! As time went on, confirmation became a completion of baptism.
The Presbyterian Church, as well as many other denominations, believes that the only sacraments are the ones Jesus specifically directs the church to observe: baptism and Eucharist (holy communion, or the Lord’s Supper).
John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.19.13), emphasizes confirmation as teaching a catechism—but definitely not as a sacrament:
“How I wish that we might have kept the custom which, as I have said, existed among the ancient Christians… Not that it would be confirmation as they fancy, which cannot be named without doing injustice to baptism; but a catechizing, in which children or those near adolescence would give an account of their faith before the church…
“If this discipline were in effect today, it would certainly arouse some slothful parents, who carelessly neglect the instruction of their children as a matter of no concern to them.” (Yikes!) Hey John, why don’t you tell us how you really feel?
Calvin is pretty blunt on the matter, but at least the spirit of his language remains intact today. Confirmation is seen as a time of teaching the faith (well, at least, a general outline) and as a time for the confirmands to bear witness to the faith. A resource published by the Presbyterian Church (USA), Professing Our Faith—A Confirmation Curriculum, has this description:
“Because his or her family said ‘Yes’ to God on behalf of the child, this young person’s life has been different. Saying yes to God means saying no to other things. During this time of confirmation instruction, your students have the opportunity to understand more fully the church’s faith and then to declare that it is also what they believe. They will stand before the congregation on their own and say ‘Yes’ to the baptismal promise that they are indeed Christ’s own forever.”
Congregations have various ways of going about this.
The practice (or perhaps “almost sacrament”?) of confirmation retains the tie between teaching and baptism. Baptism is a complete act, in and by itself. It is only done once, provided it is a Trinitarian baptism (in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Confirmation is a supplemental but valuable act.
It’s not a question of being “one and done.” Confirmation is not the end; it’s a new beginning. It’s not about the joke of bats living in the church and people coming up with various proposals for getting rid of them—none of which worked. But then one day, everyone saw that the bats were gone. They asked the pastor if he knew anything about it. “Yes,” he said, “I confirmed all of them, and I figured I would never see them again.”
A reaffirmation, a confirmation, of those questions asked at baptism says it all. To the parents: “Relying on God’s grace, do you promise to live the Christian faith, and to teach that faith to your child?” And to the congregation: “Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture [the children] by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church?”