Project Canterbury

The Value of Confession
by Selden Peabody Delany
Dean of All Saints' Cathedral, Milwaukee

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1914.


On one of the busy days of His Galilean ministry, our Lord had barely landed on the shore of the lake when the people of Gennesaret "ran through that whole region round about, and began to carry about in beds those that were sick, where they heard He was." S. Mark adds this general comment, "And whithersoever He entered, into villages, or cities, or country, they laid the sick in the streets, and besought Him that they might touch if it were but the border of His garment: and as many as touched Him were made whole" (S. Mark 6: 56).

This is wonderfully symbolic of the presence of Jesus in the midst of this suffering, sinful world. The gospels picture Him as standing in the midst of the multitude, the source of healing and power and forgiveness; and as many as touch Him are made whole of whatever plague they had. This was not merely a historical event that took place nineteen centuries ago in Galilee. It represents the continuous and constant relationship of the Divine Saviour to suffering humanity. He is present in the world to-day in and through His Church. As of old we may bring to Him the sick and the sorrowful and the sinner. As many as touch Him, with the touch of faith, will be made whole.

The most serious malady that human nature can suffer is the malady of sin, for that is a malady that has eternal consequences. Physical disease cannot affect our eternal destiny, except by setting our minds on God and the treasure in heaven, and thereby making more certain the salvation of our souls. But sin destroys the inner sources of vitality and power. It strikes at the immortal core of our being. What a blessing it would be if Jesus were still here, and it were possible for the sinner to go to Him and touch Him and be cured from his fatal malady! Is He here or not? If He is here, is it possible for us to touch Him and be made whole? No more important questions than these can be asked of the teachers of religion to-day.

Christian experience answers these questions in the affirmative. He is here, though the normal channel of His activity is His Church. He acts through His accredited ministers and representatives. We can touch Him and He touches us through the sacraments. He touched us first of all through the regenerative water of our Baptism; but again and again He heals us from sin through the restorative words of absolution. The healing effect of Baptism may of course be experienced only by adults, for they alone have committed actual transgressions; and adult baptism is rare to-day in Christian lands. But the healing effect of absolution is something we all may experience.

It is an experience that is most convincing. It can be adequately described only as the healing touch of Jesus. A man, for example, has struggled with temptation for many days, perhaps for many weeks. The struggle seems to him to be hopeless. He makes his confession, and suddenly his whole outlook upon life is transformed. Those particular temptations seem to have lost their power over him. The old desires are driven out, and the scars of past sins are healed. As he looks back at the man of a few days ago in the grip of temptation, it seems as though he were looking at another man than himself. He cannot believe that he could have been so allured by those temptations. What has happened? Nothing more nor less than a miracle of healing. It is really a greater miracle than the cure of a physical disease, because so much more important and far-reaching in its effects on the real life of the man.

There is nothing that so convinces one of the truth of religion as this transformation of the inner life resulting from confession and absolution. One is then certain that the risen Jesus is indeed present in the midst of His Church, as the dogmatic teaching of the Church asserts. This conviction in turn reacts upon one's faith in other directions. The whole faith of the creeds appears more reasonable than before. Doubts and difficulties are dispelled. For this reason confession is often the best remedy for the intellectual difficulties of the sceptic. This is so, not because the sceptic is necessarily wallowing in the mire of sin, as is too often assumed by the orthodox; he may be living a very clean and respectable life. Confession is good for him because it brings him in contact with the healing touch of Jesus; and that effects an upheaval in his spiritual consciousness which he cannot ignore. This experience convinces him that the Christian religion is the source of real power; and therefore the mysteries of the faith appear more likely to be true.

The nature of this malady of the soul which is healed by absolution may be learned by studying the diseases and imperfections healed by our Lord during His earthly ministry. This is not to deny the literalness of the narratives of healing contained in the gospels; it is simply to call attention to the striking similarity between the effects of these diseases on the body and the effects of sin on the soul. Sin is sometimes like palsy or paralysis, in that it paralyzes all moral effort and dissipates spiritual enthusiasm; sometimes like leprosy, in that it withers and deadens the activities of the spirit; sometimes like an issue of blood, in that it drains away our moral energy; and sometimes like a fever, in that it consumes the vital forces of the soul and spreads delirium to the mind. Sin enfeebles or destroys the perceptive faculties of the soul, leaving us spiritually blind or deaf; it renders us spiritually dumb and so incapable of prayer and worship, or lame and crippled and so unfit for works of mercy.

Jesus touches us through absolution, and all is changed. Our spiritual faculties regain their normal power; the consuming fire of sin is extinguished; once more we have a relish for spiritual exercises and acts of devotion; for us all values seem to be transvalued; and peace and harmony once more reign within the soul. The words of S. Cyprian, which describe so beautifully the enormous spiritual change wrought by his baptism, may be quoted as indicating something of the nature of this transformation of life brought about by absolution:

"After the stain of my earthly life had been washed away by the birth-wave, and a light from above poured into my purified and reconciled breast, and after I had drunk the Spirit from heaven and a second birth had restored and made me a new man--at once in a marvellous fashion my doubts began to be set at rest, doors which had been shut against me were thrown open, dark places grew light, what had seemed hard before was now easy of accomplishment, and what I had thought impossible was now seen to be within my power" (S. Cyprian, Ad Donat. IV., quoted by Swete, The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church, p. 115).

How supremely the world needs absolution to-day! The daily newspapers tell us the sad story of debauchery, intrigue, quarreling, bloodshed, war, and crime. Perhaps two-thirds of the news of every day is a chronicle of sin. One often lays down the paper with a sigh, rarely with a sense of inspiration. Moreover, the world realizes its evil plight. There are plenty of remedies being suggested every day. Take up the more serious monthly and quarterly magazines, or read the editorial columns of our great metropolitan dailies, or follow the reports of conventions and congresses, and you will learn of many remedies eagerly proposed for the sickness of the world--political remedies, legal remedies, medical remedies, and social remedies. One man tells us that socialism will rid us of all evils and usher in the millenium; another, that the proper kind of education will give us a new race of supermen; another, that if marriages were properly regulated and eugenic principles enforced, humanity would ultimately be saved by the gospel of good health.

But who shows any interest in these learned proposals? The oppressed workingman smokes his pipe and reads the "yellowest" newspaper he can buy; the tired business man attends the musical comedy or the vaudeville; and the blasé clubman spends his moments waiting for an engagement reading Life or The Sketch. It is a pathetic situation. Those who are the most infected by the sickness of the world have no interest in the cures offered them by the regenerators of mankind.

"The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.'' We are all infected with the same fatal disease. There is only One who can heal us; and He is moving in and out amongst us on His errands of mercy, though our eyes are holden that we cannot see Him. Rich and poor, scientist and scrub-woman, capitalist and workingman, reformer and those who will not be reformed--we all need the healing touch of Jesus Christ. Sin is at the root of all human ills--social, economic, industrial, and political. Only the Divine forgiveness can cure sin. If the whole world should go to confession tomorrow, the millenium would soon be here.

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