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It is clear, then, that not only were there ministers delegated by Christ Himself to exercise the highest sacerdotal functions, but also that provision was made that the exercise of those functions should be perpetual.
This seems the place to discuss certain objections which have been urged against the doctrine of Absolution.
The power to absolve was given in the words, “ As My Father sent Me, so send I you : Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” (John xx. 22.)
Any bonâ fide attempt on the part of the Church to give effect to these words has occasioned, in these latter days, great stumbling.
Some men have said that there cannot be any delegated power of remission conferred by them, or by any other words. It is virtually implied that Christ Himself could not have given any such power. So it is said that these words must be taken as merely giving authority to preach the Gospel.”
The Gospel, it is said, makes known the terms on which God will forgive; and so, when our Lord says, “ Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted,” there are those who assert that He really means, “ If ye preach the Gospel, and any one believes it, then God will forgive that man his sins (without any further ministerial action on your part].”
Now, inasmuch as Christ Himself had, in the plainest
terms, and on two occasions, given to the Apostles a commission to "preach the Gospel” (Matt. xxviii. 19; Mark xvi. 15), it is inconceivable that the Lord should, on this occasion, have expressed so siu.ple a matter as preaching the Gospel is, in terms so exceedingly ambiguous, and so certain of being misunderstood. How could any one, who wished his meaning to be clear, tell certain persons to do a particular thing, when he really meant them merely to publish the news that, on certain conditions, another would do what they were commissioned to do; they who were told to do it having no part, even ministerially, in the actual doing ?
I say, ministerially, for no one imagines that the declaration of absolution is anything but ministerial.
Now it appears to me far less dishonouring to our Lord at once to reject His words, and to refuse to entertain them, than to put on them a gloss which makes Him express a very plain and ordinary thing in terms so very extraordinary, startling, and ambiguous.
That these words were liable, if acted on, to prove a stumbling-block, is clear from the fact, that He Himself had been once accused of blasphemy for claiming to do what His words to the Apostles apparently gave power to do He claimed to forgive the sins of the man sick of the palsy, in the words, “Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.” (Matt. ix. 2.) And when accused by His adversaries of usurping the prerogative of God, He neither softened nor explained away His words; nor did He assert that, as God, He possessed an inherent right to forgive. On the contrary, He claimed the authority, not as the Son of God, but as the Son of Man, “that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins." He claimed, then, on this occasion, to exercise, not an inherent, but a delegated power : and this delegated power He, in His turn, delegated to the Apostles. “All power,” Hle says, “is GIVEN unto Me in heaven and in earth, go ye TAEREFORE;" “ As My Father sent Me, 80 send I you. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.”
By such words our Lord could not have meant to give power merely to declare the terms on which God will forgive, for He must have been conscious that He Himself had been accused of assuming to absolve, and He must also har: been conscious that, in future ages, His Church would ground on the plain meaning of these words a similar power
to absolve. I am ashamed to have to take up the reader's time with considering such a subterfuge; but my labour has not been lost if what I have said leads him to realise the extreme plainness and simplicity of our Lord's words on this occasion, and so the dangerous folly of attempting to put an evasive meaning on them.
In the second place, it has frequently been asserted that, though these words of Christ convey a real absolving power, yet that this power was limited to the Apostles themselves, and could not, like the authority to administer the sacraments, be conveyed by them to others.
But what reason have we to make such a difference between the power to administer sacraments and the power to absolve, that the former should be for all time, and that the latter should be limited to the Apostles and expire with their lives ?
The two Sacraments, and the form of Absolution, are alike means of grace, instituted for the consolation and assurance of penitent sinners; and so it seems most unlikely that those sinners who lived in the immediate vicinity of the original Apostles should possess, for a time only, a means of grace which was denied to all other members of the Church.
It is incredible that a power against sin, or for the consolation of sinners (which this power was), should be confined to the time when the Church was the purest, i.e., the most free from sin. As one of our greatest divines, Jeremy Taylor, has well asked, "When went it (the power of remitting and retaining] out ? When the anointing and miraculous healing ceased ? There is no reason for that; for, forgiveness of sins was not a thing visible, and, therefore, could not be of the nature of miracles, to confirm the faith and Christianity first, and, after its work was done, return to God that gave it; neither could it be only of present use to the Church, but as eternal as sin is: and, therefore, there could be nothing in the nature of tho thing to make it so much as suspicious that it was presently to expire.”— Bp. JEREMY Taylor's “ The Office Ministerial,” in vol. i. p. 13, Eden's edition.
It has also been most ignorantly urged against absolution, that the Apostles performed miracles, and that because they did this and their successors do not, there fore they have no authority to pronounce absolution. But what connexion is there between the two ? Christianity is for the comfort and healing of the soul, not of the body. The gifts of healing were given to establish the truth of Christianity. When its truth was fully established they passed away; but all in Christianity that has to do with the comfort or healing of the soul must still continue.
It is a remarkable fact, that the only mention of miraculous cures as accrediting the Apostolic commission is given, not in connexion with Absolution, but in connexion with “ the preaching of the Gospel ;" or rather with “believing." “ These signs shall follow them that believe,” &c. (Mark xvi. 17). Would any one say that no one now believes, because we do not lay hands on the sick and they recover ?
There is somehow an idea that even a delegated and conditional
power of Absolution is too sacred a matter to be exercised by man; but when we attentively consider it, is it one whit more difficult to apprehend that man can absolve than that man can administer the Lord's Supper ? if we have, that is, the slightest respect to the terms in which Christ and St. Paul speak of the Eucharist.
For when a minister, acting on Christ's commission, administers the Eucharist, what does he do but enable his fellow-sinner to partake, in a heavenly and spiritual way, of the Body and Blood of One at the right hand of God ?
Is it one whit more easy to believe that one man can be the instrument, in God's hands, of communicating to another that inward part, to which the Saviour applieg such terms as His Body and His Blood, than to believe that the same man can, in the name of the same Omnipresent Saviour, and by the use of certain words, make his penitent fellow-sinner a partaker of the Atonement purchased by the breaking of that Body of Christ, and the shedding of His Blood ?
Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Absolution are all alike in this respect, that they are means of applying the Atonement, or Blood of Christ, to the believer through the action of others, i.e., ab extrâ.
They differ in this respect from prayer or from internal acts of faith, for a man can pray and exercise faith without any intervention of his fellow-man; but he cannot either baptizc, or administer the Lord's Supper to, or absolve himself; and so, if he receives any benefit through these appointments of Christ, he must submit to receive that benefit through the instrumentality or intervention of another, and that benefit comes from the exalted Human Nature of Christ. Whether it be the remission of sin, as in Baptism, or the strengthening and refreshing of his