WE have considered the chief moving causes of a true penitence, first the love of CHRIST and His atoning mercies, awakening godly sorrow and desire of amendment, and secondly the indwelling Presence of the HOLY SPIRIT, converting the inner life into harmony with the Divine Will. We have, moreover, noted some leading signs and expressions of penitence, as its work spreads and deepens within the soul. We need still further to consider the active correspondence and co-operation of the soul with these supernatural workings of the Divine Persons, Who have come forth, imparting to us this higher life. The music of the lyre is given out, when stirred by the breath of heaven, and the harmony thrills and spreads vibrating along all its chords. So with the soul, as the Divine Agents of a true penitence breathe over it. It gives out its own responsive notes, vibrating through all the powers and impulses of life.
There is need of a careful study of the constituent elements of a true practical repentance; for, according to a well-known saying of S. Augustine, it is easier to lead a consistently pure life than to repent well; easier to preserve grace given, than to recover it in its fulness when lost. The second baptism, as repentance was called by the early Church, was ever deemed to be more painful and laborious than the first. One of the most notable controversies stirred within the early Church, is that touching the comparative strictness of penitence. The Novatians, on the one side, excluded many from the possible hope of acceptable repentance in this world, while the sects opposed to them admitted all alike with equal ease. This same controversy must in truth ever live on, through the natural divergence of men's minds in these two directions; some inclining more to leniency, others to severity. Need it be said, to which of these two extremes our hearts are naturally most drawn, of which more especially in our own age we are most in danger? But it is surely the most alarming, as it is the strangest, although the most common, evidence of our natural self-indulgence, that we allow our laxity to enter into our penitence; allow the vefy cause of our sin to enter into that which is alone its remedy,--our weakness of disposition, which caused our ruin, repeated again to mar our only possible hope of recovery.
The text indicates one main feature of the workings of the soul's inner life, which necessarily comes first in the order of penitential grace. The acknowledgment of sin is often the only possible reparation for sin; as it is the one absolutely, and in all cases required. It is the impulse which gushes out the most spontaneously,--the "I have sinned against the LORD," which is ever, as it was in David's case, the first sign of the breaking down of the soul's hardness, of its yielding to the new quickening of life which has begun the work of restoration.
It may be supposed that confession is peculiarly and alone the sinner's personal humiliation; that in this act there can be nothing in common between him and his LORD. That He should bear the penalty of sin, we can more readily understand; but that He should also know in Himself the humiliating acknowledgment of sin, is less conceivable. This shame, it would seem, must be exclusively reserved to the fallen creature. Yet our LORD'S love for us has stooped even to share with us this humiliation. Indeed this manifestation of His love forms the most touching aspect under which He reveals Himself. The mystery of His humiliation is, not merely that, passing out of the unapproachable light in which He was veiled from His creatures, He took the flesh to become thenceforth and for ever His own nature, assuming the limitations and infirmities of the least intelligent of the intelligent creatures; it is not merely that GOD died, yielding Himself to the worst and most shameful penalties of the sin of His fallen creatures. The vision which presents itself to us is that of GOD as a Penitent, for sins indeed not His own, but as if they were His own.
Our LORD gave a startling indication of this acceptance of the penitent's lot, and the penitent's shame, at the very commencement of His life on earth. Such was the mystery of the Circumcision. That sign was specially the sinner's mark. It implied that whoever bore it needed cleansing, the cutting away the foulness of the flesh. By accepting it therefore our LORD at once openly sealed Himself to be for ever thenceforward associated with the line of sinners, as one of themselves, bearing through this means in His Own Person a witness which must for ever condemn Him before the world,--a public confession of His sharing the disease of sin, in common with all His brethren in the flesh. He descended from heaven, and made the first act of His Sacrifice in taking upon Himself the sinner's mark to be indelibly impressed on His Person; the sin for which He was to suffer already acknowledged as His own. It was the morning sacrifice, as the Cross was the sacrifice of the evening.
It is a remarkable feature of the life of the Incarnation, that It repeats Itself in all Its greater developments. Thus our LORD'S three days' separation from His parents, to be found by them in His FATHER'S sanctuary, was the anticipatory picture of the three days' separation in His burial, to reappear in the Majesty of the Resurrection within the Veil. So again the Transfiguration was the temporary outshining of the Glory which was to become in its fulness the permanent clothing of His perfected Humanity. Even so while our LORD fulfilled throughout His life, in small equally as in great things, the idea of penance,--in us an inevitable necessity, in Him alone a voluntary and assumed self-sacrifice,--there were certain great acts in which the acknowledgment of the sin which He had assumed as His own, was more distinctly made, great crises before which we may well pause with amazement.
The Agony was the hour when, within His suffering human Soul, JESUS received the full consciousness of the countless sins of all generations of all mankind, and, as the storm of Divine wrath swept over Him, and forced down His penitent form among the roots of the olive trees in the garden, clotted with the great drops of the Bloody Sweat, He was making His confession j owning Himself the willing and unshrinking bearer of the accumulated iniquities of His brethren in the flesh. He was acknowledging their transgressions, as His own; and their concentrated "sin," as though Himself the sinner, was "ever before Him."
While this was the one specially atoning consecration of Himself in His meritorious Passion, when the full pressure of the transferred sin of mankind sank into His quivering darkened Soul,--the seal of His offering of Himself in death as the representative of the doomed race,--there were in His precious life anticipations of this mystery of humiliation. The Circumcision was not the only expression of His willingness to bear the shame of a sinner's destiny. Our LORD publicly exhibited Himself as a Penitent in His Baptism. As He appeared in the crowd among those who had been stirred by Divine grace to seek the "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins," no wonder the Baptist started back, and "forbade Him, saying; I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?" But that forbidding would have frustrated for ever the hope of the fallen world. The Atoner for human guilt must acknowledge His acceptance of the curse in His own Person. It must be "ever" before Him, even from the beginning. And as He stooped entering the waters, and they flowed down from His head, falling around His form, enveloping the nakedness of His human nature, in its acknowledged need of entire cleansing, He was voluntarily placing Himself in the position of the sinful race, confessing its sins, and its need of cleansing, as His own, that He might bear those sins away, as no longer ours, to be blotted out for ever in the fulness of a perfected reconciliation with GOD. In the life of the Incarnate GOD a chain of penance binds together in one the Baptism and the Agony, as its first link was riveted in the Circumcision.
Here, then, is laid one ground of union between ourselves and our LORD in our penitential acts. For it is not that His acknowledgment of the sin which He bore, is a substitute for ours; that He must bear the public shame, and we be set wholly free; that He must confess our sin, and we remain hidden. Rather He leads us as our example in this, as in every part of our course. His lowly acknowledgment of sin is the motive, the cause, the inducement, as it is the meritorious offering, of our own confessions. We kneel by His side, we speak in His accents, we are partakers of His humiliations, whenever we confess our sins. We are not saved the shame, the bitterness of confession; we are only the more moved to offer it on the assurance of our acceptance in our union with Him.
There is a Confession of sin in secret before the FATHER, "which seeth in secret," and there is a Confession in the ear and before the eye of man, as the representative of the unseen GOD. The one is the simple exercise of the power of access to the throne of grace, which is the blessed privilege of the Spirit of adoption in every true child of GOD. The other is the same filial claim clothed with the securities of the outward ordinance given to be the channel and pledge of a special absolving grace. Special confession to GOD may be made in the presence of the congregation, or before one acting in its name and invested with the sanctities of a Divine commission. The latter, as it is historically a true outgrowth of the former, so is it a perpetuation of the same Divine law.
Our LORD'S acknowledgment of sin was public, and by the power of His sympathy and love He wins the penitent to a like act of self-abasement. And our shame, thus accepted on earth, may through His grace save us from the misery of the exposure of our soul's secret guilt hereafter before the assembled world. The Scriptures assure us, that even now in our earthly course we may anticipate the terror of the Judgment Day. "If," as S. Paul declares, "we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged we are chastened of the LORD, that we should not be condemned with the world." We may escape the anguish of that final exposure by the present endurance of the humiliation of acknowledged sin. S. Bernard says, 'I would, though a sinner, present myself before the tremendous Judge, but as one already judged, in whom He may find nothing more to be judged, because Himself assures me that He will not judge a second time what has been judged already.'
But if the judgment of our soul in this world is to forestall that last Judgment, how much need is there of the searching strictness of an unsparing sentence, such as may indeed represent the scrutiny of the heart-searching, all-holy GOD! If the one judgment is to be the anticipative equivalent of the other, must not also the one judge be as severely true as the other? Must not the conscience, as it is clothed with the authority of GOD, exercise also the firm justice and unsparingness of the truth of GOD? We may surely hope for safety in that most awful searching of the secrets of all hearts before the Face of GOD, but only if we have sought honestly, if we have welcomed earnestly, here in this life, a sifting as sternly austere, as rigidly uncompromising. How otherwise can we plead His promise? How venture to anticipate a release in the records of that last Judgment, if the present judgment of ourselves has been partial? If we flatter ourselves, and dissimulate with our own hearts; if we qualify our sins by self-pleasing explanations, softening one, disguising another, giving to a third the appearance of a right intention, humouring a fourth, covering others under the plea of necessity; if, when doubts arise, we decide always in our own favour; when in perplexity, pass easily over our faults, or judge precipitately,--or if again we shrink from blame, are sensitive as to suggestions, deaf to remonstrances, sore at mistrust, indignant at suspicion, blind to hints and insinuations, keen to see the mote in another's eye, slow to see the beam in our own, attributing our faults to circumstance, or misfortune, or temperament, or outward hindrances, or to others' faults or defects,--or again, if we are ever promising and resolving, never enduring the sharp wound of mortification and self-denial;--if such be the tenor of our confessions, then they correspond not with the future Judgment of GOD ever hastening towards us; we differ from GOD; we weigh by divers measures, and rule by different lines, "and divers weights and divers measures, both of them are alike an abomination to the LORD."
It is because of our great liability to dishonesty, whether direct or indirect, about ourselves, and the natural incapacity of the soul to see and judge itself aright, that our own Hooker so touchingly urges the benefit of confession to a priest. "Because," he says in a well-known passage, "the knowledge how to handle our souls is no vulgar and common art; but we either carry towards ourselves for the most part an oversoft and gentle hand, fearful of touching too near the quick, or else endeavouring not to be partial we fall into endless scrupulosities, and sometimes into those extreme discomforts of mind, from which we hardly do ever lift our heads again; men thought it the safest way to disclose their secret faults and to crave imposition of penance from those whom our LORD JESUS CHRIST hath left in the Church to be spiritual and ghostly physicians, the guides and pastors of redeemed souls, whose office doth not only consist in general persuasion unto amendment of life, but also in the private particular case of diseased minds." [Eccl. Pol. 1. vi. iv. 7.]
It is a most merciful dispensation of Divine love, one, we can scarce doubt, flowing from the Incarnation of GOD, and the law which has determined the transmission of all grace through the ministries of a Manhood hypostatically One with Deity, that his brethren in the flesh, men of like passions and infirmities with himself, are set to be the hearers and judges of the records of the sinner's conscience, even as they are ordained to be the conveyers of the promised blessing of Divine forgiveness. As the Manhood of CHRIST is the treasure-store of all saving grace to redeemed man,--GOD being reconciled to us through His Incarnation, the FATHER having "given all things" [S. John xiii. 3.] into the hands of His SON, and having "given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man," [S. John v. 27.]--so likewise, because His unseen Presence and operations need a visible instrumentality, a seal and sign of His atoning Love, He has constituted men to be to their fellow-men the representatives of His attribute of judgment, the absolvers from the guilt of sin. They who, through a common nature and covenanted grace, are at once kindred with Himself Who sends them, and with those to whom they are sent in His Name, are chosen, because of these special grounds of sympathy, to be the channels of the grace of His eternal Priesthood.
It has been observed in a former lecture, that there is a progress in the conviction of sin, the searching of the conscience gradually becoming more spiritual, more inward, more pervading. Even so in the ministry of Confession there has been a progress of a precisely similar kind. There was among the Israelites, from the beginning, a ministry of priestly confession for particular faults. But it was mainly, if not wholly, confined to outward acts and breaches of positive law. Even in the early Church the ministry of penance touched rather the more grievous sins, which caused scandal under the stricter discipline of those simple times. Only gradually did the law of Confession penetrate beyond the requirements of outward discipline into the secret disorders and needs of the inner life, where no discipline could reach; and as the private prevailed over the public ministry of Confession, and the growing illuminations of the Spirit were diffused, and formed into authoritative rules through the accumulating teaching of the Saints and the spiritual experience of ages,--so the ministry of penitence following the growth of penitence itself, gradually embraced all inner phases of life, all springs of thought or impulse, all shades of character, all degrees, to use an intelligible but technical expression, of "venial" equally as of "deadly" sin.
There are in confessing sin to a fellow-creature benefits which can hardly attach to confession made simply to GOD, what we may distinguish as its moral results. One of these special benefits is its humiliation. There may be in confession to GOD alone as much contrition, as profound a sorrow, as ardent a love, as intense remorse, as resolved a purpose of amendment, but there cannot be the humiliation in confession to GOD alone, which there is in acknowledging the sin openly, undisguisedly before the visible and conscious gaze of a fellow-creature. The idea of humility can scarcely apply to the secret acknowledgment of sin before the veiled Face of the Eternal. As there was not any awakening of shame in committing sin before His unseen Presence, such as there would have been in committing it before the eyes of a fellow-creature, so neither is there an awakening of the sense of shame in acknowledging it before Him alone, which there is in acknowledging it before a fellow-creature. To tell out all that we have done, and have been, not alone by oneself, but before another, as this can only be the fruit of a willingness to be humbled, so it is the sure means of deepening humility. This wholesome shame, which is the pain of Confession, and therefore often the deterring hindrance to its exercise, is of its essence, and is a benefit peculiar to itself. And how great a benefit is this,--to heal pride, which is the root of sin; to cherish humility, to which all grace is promised; to have the joy of being united with our LORD in His lowliest acts; to bear shame on earth, though it be before one eye only, rather than the shame in other worlds before "the ten thousand times ten thousand!"
Again, if to have our sin before us be, as the text indicates, a vital part of true penitence, does not Confession involve a benefit of special moment in this respect also? For it is a law of nature, that a thought shaped in words has a palpable being which of itself it has not. Words are the substantial forms in which the floating ideas of the mind embody themselves, and thus can be grasped. Often ideas cannot be realized at all, till they have taken the shape and form of outward language. The word is not only the expression of the thought: it is its own exponent to itself, its realization, its true means of clearing and defining what otherwise is vague and undetermined. The spoken word has a presence and a life, before which the spirit trembles, when the mere bodiless idea may have lain dormant, or dwelt unimpressively on the mind, because unexpressed. Often we cannot bear to hear the actual name of the deed we have done, of the injury we have committed, of the impurity we have indulged. Our sin is before us, as it was not before, when we have given, or, more galling still, another has given it its true, unsoftened name; when the hitherto secret evil of the heart has, under the guidance of a faithful searcher of the conscience, been plainly spoken out. The spoken word does not pass away into the void air. It rises up before the mind's eye as a living power; it has suddenly acquired a substance and a condemning witness, and like the hand-writing on the wall, it scares the convicted and condemned soul without the possibility of escape.
The subject has led me to speak of the moral, as distinct from the sacramental, benefits of Confession, of its aid in the deepening of penitence, rather than of its value in procuring forgiveness; and the same line of thought leads to a warning, lest Confession itself should need repentance. For nothing is more fatal than the possible self-deceiving of the devout. When religion itself becomes the ground-work of a deceit, who is to unmask the deceiver? If the very truth becomes a lie, with what salt can the salt itself be salted? There may be a glorying in the very humiliation of a confession, and so shame itself feed a new form of pride. There may be a feeling of rest that the sin is over, because it is acknowledged, and so the unwatchful soul fall a ready prey to the already returning temptation. There may be the mere soothing of a troubled conscience sought, and that alone gained. Such flaws may mar the benefits even of a true confession; how much greater the evil and the loss attached to one untrue, or careless!
But a specially solemn caution and warning is needed, when the use of Confession becomes frequent. What is often repeated, from the very instinct of our nature, loses its freshness, and jeopards its carefulness. There is, moreover, a momentous difference ordinarily between a first confession, and a habit of confession. A first confession has more prominently for its object the relief of a burdened conscience. Consolation, hope, the way of return to GOD, are then the chief ideas pressing on the soul. But it would be an evil sign, if these were likewise the absorbing ideas in repeated confessions. Progress in the renewed life, a deepened insight into sin with a view of winning greater victories, increased clearness of vision through increased cleansing in order to rise higher in the spiritual life,--such aims will then assert a growing claim, although the soul still longs for relief from the yet clinging faultiness, and rest, it may be, from yet tormenting fear. Habitual confession, to be true and healthful, combines the mingled aims of the renewal of atoning love, and the increase of the Spirit's power. It is a spring of onward advance, as it is a clearing off of lingering hindrances; the gaining a new step in the ever-progressive growth of the soul unto the full measure of the stature of CHRIST, as it is the ever-renewed sealing of peace. There is required as the criterion of a faithful confession, in one habitually confessing, far more than in one first pouring out the pent-up sins of an unsifted life. We need in such a case the marks of a real steadfast tendency to increasing consistency of spiritual progress.
But a sure relief follows the acknowledgment of sin, under whatever form Confession be made. Be it with GOD alone, no ear but His to hear, or be it clothed in sacramental mysteries, if only the heart be more and more prone to confess its guilt, to bring out each fresh sin, tremblingly alive to the least, faintest presence of sin, and with increased zeal and godly sorrow laying its burden beneath the Cross,--there is surely gained in such penitential acts the most precious assurance of love blotting out transgression, filling the soul with heavenly consolation, burying the acknowledged guiltiness of the fallen in profounder depths than the depths of the sea. There is the answer of peace ever ready, the response of a merciful acceptance breathing in a Countenance which, in answer to the appeal of faith, shines out again and again, in ever-renewed love.
How free and full is the promise assured to Israel! "O Israel, return unto the LORD thy GOD, for thou hast fallen by thy iniquity. Take with you words and turn to the LORD, say unto Him, Take away all iniquity, so will we render the calves of our lips. Asshur shall not save us, neither will we ride upon horses, neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods; for in Thee the fatherless findeth mercy." And again; "I will heal their back-slidings, I will love them freely; for Mine anger is turned away from them." But yet far deeper and more complete in their redeeming love and creative power are the words, uttered in answer to a similar appeal, under the new and more perfect covenant, by the lips of the Incarnate GOD; "Thy sins be forgiven thee; go in peace;" "Thy faith hath made thee whole." More full and certain the assurance, embracing in its result all eternity, must be the witness of Him to Whom all judgment is given both in this world and in the world to come; "Neither do I condemn thee,"--if only the solemn warning, which accompanied the assurance, be kept; "Go, and sin no more."
How unspeakable is the mercy, that whenever we turn to Him, even at our will, however great our sin may have been, though we have nothing of our own to offer, "nothing to pay," yet if only we confess what we have been, in the longing to become what He alone can make us, the Heart of GOD is at once touched, and the springs of forgiveness and peace are opened. How great the love we owe to Him through Whose sufferings this grace has been obtained! How endless the praise due unto Him, Who "according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of JESUS CHRIST from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away?" Unto Him, the Everlasting FATHER, together with the Same JESUS CHRIST, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all glory and thanksgiving for evermore. Amen.