Absolution*

Bibliology
Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson

“And the Scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” (Luke 5:21).

Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 2 June 1850

There are questions which having been again and again settled, still from time to time, present themselves for resolution; errors, that have been refuted and cut up by the roots, reappear in the next century as fresh and vigorous as ever. Like the fabled monsters of old, whose severed neck formed fresh heads, or like the weeds, which extirpated [destroyed] in one place, sprout forth in another.

In every such case it may be taken for granted that the root of the matter has not been reached; the error has been exposed, but the truth at the bottom of the error has not been disengaged. Every error is connected with a truth; the truth being perennial, springs up again as often as circumstances foster it, or call for it, and the seeds of the error that lay about the roots spring up again in the form of weeds, as before.

A popular illustration of this may be found in the belief in the appearance of departed spirits. You may examine the evidence for every such alleged apparition; you may demonstrate the improbability; you may reduce it to an impossibility; still the popular feeling will remain; and there is a lurking superstition, even among the enlightened, that the wildest new tale might be authentic. Now two truths lie at the root of this superstition. The first is the reality of the spirit-world, and the instinctive belief in it. The second is the fact that there are certain states of health in which the eye creates the objects it perceives. The death-blow to such superstition is only struck when we have not only proved that men have been deceived, but also shown how they came to be deceived. Ridicule will not do it. Disproof will not do it. So long as men feel that there is a spirit-world, and so long as to some the impression is vivid that they have seen it, you spend your rhetoric in vain. You must show the truth that lies below the error.

The principle we gain from this is that you overthrow falsehood not by negation, but by establishing truth (cf Romans 12:21). The definitive refutation must be positive, not negative. It is an endless work to be uprooting weeds: plant the ground with wholesome vegetation, and the juices that would have otherwise fed rankness will instead pour themselves into vigorous growth choking the weeds. It is an endless task to be refuting error. Plant truth, and the error will pine away.

The instance to which all this is preliminary is the pertinacious [stubborn] hold that the belief in human absolution retains on mankind. There has perhaps never yet been known a religion without such a belief. There is not a savage in the islands of the South Pacific who does not believe that his priest can shield him from the consequences of sin. There was not a people in antiquity who had not dispensers of divine favor. That same belief passed from paganism into Romanism. It was exposed at the period of the Reformation. A mighty reaction was felt against it throughout Europe. The idea of human priesthood was rejected. Human mediation, in every possible form, was controverted [denied]; men were referred back to God as the sole absolver.

Yet now again, three centuries later, the belief in human mediation is still as strong as ever. That which we thought dead is alive again and not likely, it seems, to die. Recent revelations have shown that confession is daily made in the country whose natural manners are most against it: private absolution asked by English men and given by English priests. A fact so significant might lead us well to pause, and ask ourselves whether we have found the true answer to the question. The negation (denial) we have; we are weary of its reiteration; but the positive truth that lies at the bottom of this craving—where is that?

Parliaments and pulpits, senators and clergymen, have vied with each other in the vehemence with which they declare absolution un-Christian, un-English. All that is most objectionable in the confessional has been with unsparing and irreverent indelicacy forced before the public mind. Still, men and women, whose holiness and purity are beyond slander’s reach, come and crave assurance of forgiveness. How shall we reply to such men? Shall we say, “Who is this that speaks blasphemies? who can forgive sins, but God only?” Shall we say it is all blasphemy, an impious intrusion on the prerogatives of the One Absolver? Well, we may; it is popular to say we ought; but you will observe, if we speak so, we do no more than the Pharisees in this text: we establish a negation, but a negation is only one side of truth.

Moreover, we have been asserting that for 300 years, with small fruit. We keep asserting: man cannot give assurance that sin is pardoned. In other words, man cannot absolve. But still the heart craves human assurance of forgiveness. What truth have we got to supply that craving? We shall, therefore, rather try to fathom the deeps of the positive truth that is the true reply to the error; we shall try to see if there is not a real answer to the craving contained in the Redeemer’s words, “The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (5:24). What power is there in human forgiveness? What does absolution mean in the lips of a mere man? These are our questions for today. We shall consider two points: the impotency of the negation and the power of the positive truth.

THE IMPOTENCY OF THE NEGATION

The Pharisees denied the efficacy of human absolution. They said, “None can forgive sins, but God only”: that was a negation. What did they effect by their system of negations? They conferred no peace; they produced no holiness. It would be a great error to suppose that the Pharisees were hypocrites in the ordinary sense of the term—that is, pretending to be anxious about religion when they knew that they felt no anxiety. They were anxious, in their way. They heard a startling free announcement of forgiveness by a man. To them it appeared license given to sin. If this new Teacher, this upstart—in their own language, “this fellow, we know not from whence He is” (John 9:29)—were to go about the length and breadth of the land, telling sinners to be at peace, telling them to forget the past, and to work onward, bidding men’s consciences be at rest, and commanding them not to fear the God whom they had offended, but to trust in Him—what would become of morality and religion? This presumptuous Absolver would make men careless about both. If the indispensable safeguards of penalty were removed, what remained to restrain men from sin?

The Pharisees had no notion of any other goodness than that which is restrained [prohibitions]; they could conceive no goodness free, but only that which is produced by rewards and punishments—law-goodness, law-righteousness: to dread God, not to love and trust Him, was their concept of religion. And this, indeed, is the ordinary concept of religion—the ordinary meaning implied to most minds by the word religion. Religion means, by derivation, “restriction or obligation”—obligation to do, obligation to do not. And this is the negative system of the Pharisees—scrupulous avoidance of evil, rather than positive and free pursuit of excellence. Such a system never produced anything but barren denial: “This is wrong”; “That is heresy”; “That is dangerous.”

There was another class of men who denied human power of absolution. They were called Scribes or writers—pedants, men of ponderous learning and accurate definitions; from being mere transcribers of the law, they had risen to be its expounders. They could define the exact number of yards that might be traveled on the Sabbath Day without infringement of the law; they could decide, according to the most approved theology, the respective importance of each duty; they would tell you, authoritatively, which was the great commandment. The Scribe is a man who turns religion into etiquette. His idea of God is that of a monarch, transgression against whom is an offense against statute law; and he, the Scribe, is there to explain the prescribed conditions on which the offense may be expiated. He has no idea of admission to the sovereign’s presence, except by compliance with certain formalities.

There are, therefore, Scribes in all ages. Romish Scribes distinguish between venial and mortal sin and apportion penance and absolution. Protestant Scribes, who have no idea of God but as an incensed Judge, prescribe certain methods of appeasing Him. They draw a distinction between different kinds of faith—historical faith historical and saving faith. They bewilder and confuse all natural feeling. They treat the natural love of relations as if it were an idolatry as great as bowing down to mammon. They make intelligible distinction between the work that may and the work that may not be done on the Sabbath Day. They send you into a perilous consideration of the workings of your own feelings, and the examination of your spiritual experiences, to ascertain whether you have the right to call God a Father. They hate the Romish Scribe as much as the Jewish Scribe hated the Samaritan and called him heretic. Yet in their way they themselves are Scribes.

Now the result of this is fourfold: among the tender-minded, despondency; among the vainer, spiritual pride; in the case of the slavish, superstition; with the hard-minded, infidelity. Ponder it well, and you will find these four things rife among us: despondency, spiritual pride, superstition, and infidelity. In this way we have been going on for many years. In the midst of all this, we are informed that the confessional is at work again, for which astonishment and indignation are loudly expressed. It is not to be borne that the priests of the Church of England should confess and absolve in private. Yet it is only what might have been expected.

With our Evangelicalism, Tractarianism, Scribeism, Pharisaism, we have ceased to front the living fact—we are as zealous as Scribes and Pharisees ever were for negatives; but in the meantime human nature, oppressed and overborne, gasping for breath, demands something real and living. It cannot live on controversies. It cannot be fed on protests against heresy, however vehement. We are trying to see who can protest loudest. Every book, every journal, rings with warnings. “Beware!” is written on everything. Beware of Rome; beware of Geneva; beware of Germany. There is danger on every side. Satan everywhere—God nowhere. Everywhere some man to be shunned or dreaded—nowhere one to be loved freely and without suspicion.

Is it any wonder if men and women, in the midst of negations, cry, “You warn me from the error, but who will guide me to the Truth? I want guidance. I am sinful, full of evil! I want forgiveness! Absolve me; tell me that I am pardoned; help me to believe it. Your quarrels do not help me; if you cannot do that, it matters little what you can do. You have restricted God’s love, and narrowed the path to heaven. You have hampered religion with so many mysterious questions and quibbles that I cannot find the way to God. You have terrified me with so many snares and pitfalls on every side that I dare not tread at all. Give me peace; give me human guidance: I want a human arm to lean on!”

This is a cry, I believe, becoming daily more passionate, and more common. And no wonder that all our information, public and private, is to the same effect—that the recent converts have found peace in Rome; for the secret of the power of Rome is this—that she grounds her teaching not on variable feelings and correct opinions, but on facts. God is not a highly probable God, but a fact. God’s forgiveness is not a feeling, but a fact; and a material symbolic fact is the witness of the invisible one. Rome puts forward her absolution—her false, priestly, magical absolution—a visible fact, as a witness of the invisible. And her perversion prevails because it is founded on a truth.

THE POWER OF THE POSITIVE TRUTH

Is it any wonder—if taught on every side distrust of man—the heart should by a violent reaction, and by an extravagant confidence in a priest, proclaim that its normal, natural state is not distrust, but trust?

What is forgiveness? It is God reconciled to us. What is absolution? It is the authoritative declaration that God is reconciled. Authoritative: that is a real power of conveying a sense and feeling of forgiveness. It is the power of the Son of Man on earth to forgive sins. It is man, God’s image, representing, by his forgiveness on earth, God’s forgiveness in heaven.

Now distinguish God’s forgiveness of sin from an arresting of the consequences of sin. When God forgives a sin, it does not follow that He stops its consequences: for example, when He forgives the intemperate man whose health is ruined, forgiveness does not restore his health. Divine pardon does not interfere with the laws of the universe, for it is itself one of those laws. It is a law that penalty follows transgression. Forgiveness will not save from penalty; but it alters the feelings with which the penalty is accepted. Pain inflicted with a surgeon’s knife for a man’s good is as keen as that which results from the knife of the torturer; but in the one case it is calmly borne because it is remedial—in the other it exasperates, because it is malevolent [evil]. So it is with the difference between suffering from a sin God has forgiven and suffering that seems to fall hot from “the hand of an angry God.” It is a fearful truth, that so far as we know at least, the consequences of an act are connected with it indissolubly [forever]. Forgiveness does not arrest the consequences; but by producing softness and grateful penitence, it transforms them into blessings. This is God’s forgiveness; and absolution is the conveyance to the conscience of the conviction of forgiveness: to absolve is to free—to comfort by strengthening—to afford repose from fear.

Now it was the way of the Redeemer to emancipate from sin by the freedom of absolution. The dying thief, who an hour before had been a blasphemer, was unconditionally assured; the moment the sinner’s feelings changed toward God, He proclaimed that God was reconciled: “This day you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). From this absolving tone and spirit came Jesus’ wondrous and unparalleled power with sinful, erring hearts and the life and fresh impulse He imparted to those with whom He dealt. The maniac, freed from the legion, sat at His feet, clothed, and in his right mind (Mark 5:15). The outcast woman, whom human scorn would have hardened into brazen effrontery, hearing an unwonted [unusual] voice of human sympathy, “washed His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head” (Luke 7:38, 44).

And this is what we have forgotten: we have not yet learned to trust the power of redeeming love; we do not believe in the omnipotence of grace. Settle it in your minds: the absolving power is the central secret of the gospel. Salvation is unconditional; not an offer, but a gift (Romans 5:15-18); not clogged with conditions, but free as the air we breathe. God welcomes back the prodigal (cf Luke 15:11-32). God loves “without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). To this men reply gravely, It is dangerous to speak thus; it is perilous to dispense with the safeguards of restriction. Law! law! there is nothing like law—a salutary fear—for making men holy. O blind Pharisee! if you had ever known the spring, the life that comes from feeling free, the gush of gratitude with which the heart springs to duty when all chains are shattered, and it stands fearless and free in the Light, and in the love of God—you would understand that a large trusting charity, which can throw itself on the better and more generous impulses of a laden spirit, is the safest as well as the most beautiful means of securing obedience!

So far, however, there will not be much objection to the doctrine: it will be admitted that absolution is true in the lips of Christ, because of His divinity. It will be said He was God, and God speaking on earth is the same thing as God speaking in heaven. No, my brethren, it is not the same thing. Christ forgiving on earth is a new truth added to that of God forgiving in heaven. It is not the same truth. The one is forgiveness by deity; the other is the declaration of forgiveness by humanity. Jesus told the palsied man to walk, that they might know that “the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24).

Therefore, we proceed a step further. Jesus delegated to His Church the same power He had exercised Himself. “Whose sins you remit, they are remitted” (John 20:23). Now perhaps, it will be replied that that promise belongs to the apostles, that they were supernaturally gifted to distinguish genuine from feigned repentance. To absolve, therefore, was their natural prerogative, but that we have no right to say it extends beyond the apostles.

We, therefore, bring the question to a point by referring to an instance in which an apostle did absolve. Let us examine if Paul confined the prerogative to himself. “To whom you forgive anything, I forgive also: for to whom I forgave anything for your sakes, forgave I it in the person of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:10).

Observe now: it is quite true here that the apostle absolved a man whose excommunication he had formerly required (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), but he absolved him because the congregation absolved him—not as a plenipotentiary [statesman, ambassador] supernaturally gifted to convey a mysterious benefit, but as himself, an organ and representative of the Church. The power of absolution, therefore, belonged to the Church, and to the apostle through the Church. It was a power belonging to all Christians: to the apostle, because he was a Christian, not because he was an apostle. A priestly power, no doubt, because Christ has made all Christians “kings and priests” (Revelation 5:10; cf 1 Peter 2:5, 9).

Now let us turn again, with this added light, to examine the meaning of that expression, “The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24). Mark that form of words—not Christ as God, but Christ as Son of Man. It was manifestly said by Him, not solely as divine, but rather as human, as the Son of Man; that is, as Man. For we may take it as a rule: when Christ calls himself Son of Man, He is asserting His humanity. It was said by the High Priest of humanity in the name of the human race. It was said on the principle that human nature is the reflection of God’s nature, that human love is the image of God’s love, and that human forgiveness is the type and assurance of divine forgiveness.

In Christ, humanity was the perfect type of deity, and, therefore, Christ’s absolution was always the exact measure and counterpart of God’s forgiveness. Herein lies the deep truth of the doctrine of His eternal priesthood (Hebrews 7:24)—the Eternal Son—the humanity of the Being of God—the ever human mind of God. The Absolver ever lives. “For the Father judges no man, but has committed all judgement to the Son” (John 5:22)—has given Him authority to execute judgement also, because He is the Son of Man.

But further than this. In a subordinate, because less perfect degree, the forgiveness of a man as man carries with it an absolving power. Who has not felt the load taken from his mind when the hidden guilt over which he had brooded long has been acknowledged, and met by forgiving human sympathy, especially at a time when he expected to be treated with coldness and reproof? Who has not felt how such a moment was to him the dawn of a better hope, and how the merciful judgement of some wise and good human being seemed to be the type and the assurance of God’s pardon, making it credible? Unconsciously it may be, but still in substance really, I believe some such reasoning as this goes on in the whispers of the heart—”He loves me, and has compassion on me—will not God forgive? He, this man, made in God’s image, does not think my case hopeless. Well, then, in the larger love of God it is not hopeless.” Thus, and only thus, can we understand the ecclesiastical act. Absolution, the prerogative of our humanity, is represented by a formal act of the Church.

Much controversy and angry bitterness has been spent on the absolution put by the Church of England into the lips of her ministers—I cannot think with justice—if we try to get at the root of these words of Christ. The priest proclaims forgiveness authoritatively as the organ of the congregation—as the voice of the Church, in the name of man and God. For human nature represents God. The Church represents what human nature is and ought to be. The minister represents the Church. He speaks, therefore, in the name of our godlike, human nature. He declares a divine fact; he does not create it. There is no magic in his absolution: he can no more forgive whom God has not forgiven, by the formula of absolution, or reverse the pardon of him whom God has absolved by the formula of excommunication, than he can transfer a demon into an angel by the formula of baptism. He declares what everyone has a right to declare, and ought to declare by his lips and by his conduct: but being a minister, he declares it authoritatively in the name of every Christian who by his Christianity is a priest to God. He specializes what is universal. As in baptism, he seals the universal Sonship on the individual by name, saying, “The Sonship with which Christ has redeemed all men, I hereby proclaim for this child.” So, by absolution, he specializes the universal fact of the love of God to those who are listening, then and there, saying, “The Love of God the Absolver, I authoritatively proclaim to be yours.”

In the Service for the Visitation of the Sick, the Church of England puts into the lips of her ministers words quite unconditional: “I absolve you from all your sins.” You know that passage is constantly objected to as Romish and superstitious. I would not give up that precious passage. I love the Church of England, because she has dared to claim her inheritance—because she has courage to assert herself as what she ought to be—God’s representative on earth. She says to her minister, Stand there before a darkened spirit, on whom the shadows of death have begun to fall: in human flesh and blood representing the Invisible—with words of human love making credible the Love Eternal. Say boldly, I am here to declare not a perhaps, but a fact. I forgive you in the name of humanity. And so far as humanity represents deity, that forgiveness is a type of God’s forgiveness. She does not put into her ministers’ lips words of incantation. He cannot bless whom God has not blessed—he cannot curse whom God has not cursed (cf Numbers 22:12; 23:8, 19, 20). If the Son of absolution be there, His absolution will rest.

If you have ever tried the slow and apparently hopeless task of ministering to a heart diseased, and binding up the wound that will bleed afresh, to which no assurance can give comfort, because it is not authoritative, it must have crossed your mind that such a power as that which the Church of England claims, if it were believed, is exactly the remedy you want. You must have felt that even the formula of the Church of Rome would be a blessed power to exercise, could it but once be accepted as a pledge that all the past was obliterated, and that from that moment a free untainted future lay before the soul—you must have felt that; you must have wished you had dared to say it. My whole spirit has absolved my erring brother. Is God less merciful than I? Can I—dare I—say or think it conditionally? Dare I say, I hope? May I not, must I not, say, I know God has forgiven you?

Every man whose heart has truly bled over another’s sin, and watched another’s remorse with pangs as sharp as if the crime had been his own, has said it. Every parent has said it who ever received back a repentant daughter, and opened out for her a new hope for life. Every mother has said it who ever by her hope against hope for some profligate, protested for a love deeper and wider than that of society. Every man has said it who forgave a deep wrong. See then, why and how the church absolves. She only exercises that power that belongs to every son of man. If society were Christian—if society, by its forgiveness and its exclusion, truly represented the mind of God—there would be no necessity for a Church to speak; but the absolution of society and the world does not represent by any means God’s forgiveness. Society absolves those whom God has not absolved—the proud, the selfish, the strong, the seducer. Society refuses return and acceptance to the seduced, the frail, and the sad penitent whom God has accepted. Therefore, it is necessary that a selected body, through its appointed organs, should do in the name of man what man, as such, does not. The Church is the ideal of humanity. It represents what God intended man to be—what man is in God’s sight. And the minister of the Church speaks as the representative of that ideal humanity. Church absolution is an eternal protest, in the name of God the absolver, against the false judgements of society.

One thing more. Beware of making this a dead formula. If absolution be not a living truth, it becomes a monstrous falsehood. If you take absolution as a mystical gift conveyed to an individual man called a priest, and mysteriously efficacious in his lips, and his alone, you petrify [harden like concrete] a truth into death and unreality. I have been striving to show that absolution is not a Church figment, invented by priestcraft, but a living, blessed, human power. It is a power delegated to you and to me (cf Matthew 18:18; James 5:15, 16), and so far as we exercise it lovingly and wisely, in our lives, and with our lips, we help men away from sin: so far as we do not exercise it, or exercise it falsely, we drive men to Rome. For if the heart cannot have a truth, it will take a counterfeit of truth. By every magnanimous act, by every free forgiveness with which a pure man forgives, or pleads for mercy, or assures the penitent, he proclaims this truth, that “the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins”—he exhibits the priestly power of humanity—he does absolve. Let theology say what it will of absolution, the man who forgives gives peace to the conscience—he is a type and assurance of what God is—he breaks the chains and lets the captive go free (cf Luke 4:18).

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Sgwd Clun-gwyn Waterfall, Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales

*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 5. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

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