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“Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.”
THIS passage of our Lord’s life, when He sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, and the words He spake to Simon and to this penitent sinner, are too familiar to need recital. We may therefore turn at once to some of the instructions conveyed by this event.
We see in it a type of His whole kingdom upon earth, of His ministry of forgiveness, and of the various spiritual states to be found among His servants.
His words to Simon, though full of tenderness, had a tone of divine upbraiding. The Pharisee was no doubt a righteous man; but he had no loving and lowly affections. He called Jesus “Master,” but he honoured Him with a cold, distant propriety. He gave his Master no kiss; 136 he had neither ointment for His head, nor water for His feet; and yet the name of Simon was not known in the city as a sinner.
But this poor sullied soul, a by-word among men, had no cold reserve, no false shame hiding her true shame; in the sight of all men she broke through to the presence of her Master. He had roused her to know her misery; He had brought her to repentance and to herself. Her whole heart was love, sorrow, and self-accusation. Therefore she received the divine words of absolution: “Thy sins be forgiven thee.”
The point to which we may specially direct our attention is this self-accusing spirit: its necessity and its blessedness.
1. For, first of all, it may be said, that the kingdom of Christ is founded upon those who accuse themselves of their sins. It has both an exterior and an interior foundation; an outer and an inner court. On His part it is a perpetual ministry of absolution; on our part, a perpetual confession.
He died that He might absolve all sinners. To dispense the absolution purchased in His own blood is His own sovereign prerogative. When on earth, He exercised it in person. His words gave perfect pardon both in earth and heaven. He said to the penitent, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” and 137all was blotted out. This was the application of His own redemption to individual souls: the in-gathering of the fruit of His own cross and passion. And this ministry of forgiveness is of perpetual necessity.
His absolution from sin is as necessary to all penitent and self-accusing sinners now as it was then, and ever will be to the end of the world. And He has not ceased to dispense it. His love and pity were not dried up when He ascended into heaven. Therefore He left still on earth the same power, against which Pharisees and unbelievers cavilled, bequeathing their very words to the inheritors of their unbelief: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” He said to His Apostles, “As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you:”—that is, with the same mission of forgiveness: “All My communicable authority is in your trust for the life of the elect,”—“And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them: and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.”5252 St. John xx. 21-23. He thereby entrusted to them the prolonged exercise of this His own prerogative. The very same full and divine power of absolving all who accuse themselves is in His Church now, and shall be 138 till He comes again. This is the great commission which includes all besides. He gave to His Apostles the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and with them all power to open and shut, to bind and loose. Baptism is an exercise of that sovereign power. The remission of original sin is a full and plenary application of the heavenly keys. Children born into this world of sin are thereby admitted into the kingdom of God. So also is the special absolution, which, like baptism, is given to individual souls, one by one, on distinct and penitent confession: and so too the remission which is given in the holy Eucharist, and in other acts of the Church, by which lesser sins of incursion and infirmity are forgiven: all these are exercises of the one great absolving power which springs from the person and the passion of our Lord, and is continued by His presence through the hands of His pastors, in every age, until this day. The ministry of reconciliation is always at work; the blood of the Good Shepherd is ever being applied to the souls for whom He died.
But this continual absolution on His part demands a continual self-accusation on ours; the one is as necessary as the other. And therefore it may be truly said, that His kingdom is founded on those who accuse themselves. They are its true and enduring foundations. When all empty and 139false Christians shall pass away, they shall be found united to Him Who is eternal. The kingdom of Christ descends from heaven to earth, having three distinct companies united in one fellowship; those who are with Him on high, sinless and unfallen, that is, holy angels, who never sinned; another, fallen, but sinless now, the spirits of just men made perfect; the third, still on earth, fallen and sinful, but repenting and kneeling at the foot of the cross, accusing themselves before Him night and day. Such is His kingdom: part in heaven now, arrayed in white, and crowned; part waiting upon earth, in sackcloth and penance still. This is the Church visible on earth, the congregation of the faithful, that is, of the baptised. But baptism is an outward grace, which unites penitent and impenitent in one; repentance is an inward bond, which unites none but His true servants. And of repentance there is one unbending and absolute condition—a true self-accusation at the feet of Jesus Christ. There is no exemption from this law. Baptism without repentance avails nothing, and repentance without self-accusation is impossible. In the midst of the visible Church He numbers, by direct intuition, the fellowship of true penitents. In them He dwells, and to them He listens. He has no communion with those who do not know their need of 140 His absolving pity. This law of repentance is laid on all, even on the greatest saints: it often seems to press more heavily on them than on others; for as they have more sanctity, they have more of love; and as they have more of love, they have more of sorrow. As the light rises upon them, they see more clearly their own deformities. It is the greatest light of sanctity that reveals the least motes of evil; as things imperceptible in the common light of day float visible in the sunbeam.
And if this is true of those in whom our dull eyes see so little amiss, how true must it be of ourselves! What ought our whole life to be, but a life of self-accusing? Can we come into His presence without shrinking? Does not every thing accuse us of sin? God and His holy angels, our Lord Jesus Christ and all the company of heaven, our fellow-Christians and our fellow-sinners, the accuser of the brethren and our own conscience; and if these should hold their peace, the very stones would cry out. Our whole life, from childhood, rises up against us. Each several age is a distinct witness. Every season, and every year, by our whole inward consciousness bears some witness against us. Happy for us if we so feel and realise our true state before Him! It is a token Who has come to us. It is the absolver coming to convince, that He may pardon. When we 141repent, we are His by a twofold bond. We were already His by baptism; we are His now by penance. He has revealed Himself to us by faith; He is now revealing us to ourselves by an awakened consciousness of sin. He is drawing us within the inner circle of His kingdom, where He sits in the tribunal of self-accusation, arrayed in the white stole of His eternal priesthood, ever saying, “Thy sins be forgiven thee;” “Go, and sin no more.”
2. And this further teaches us that self-accusation is the test which separates between true and false repentance. Among the members of the visible Church, the faithful and unfaithful may be, for the most part, easily distinguished by their open and manifest lives; yet among the seemingly faithful, it is not always easy to discern the truly converted from those who have never in heart turned to God. Many seem to others, and to themselves, to be faithful Christians, who have little penitence; and many are believed, and believe themselves, to be penitents, who have never truly repented. The one only sure discerning test is the spirit of self-accusation.
Under all the manifold appearances of religion and of repentance, there are at last two, and only two, states or postures of mind: the one is self-accusation, the other self-defence.142
This runs deep into the conscience and the heart.
I am not speaking of hypocrites, who live grossly and profess fairly, nor of the more palpable forms of irreligion; but of persons outwardly blameless, and of strict observance in religion: such, in a word, as Simon the Pharisee. Their very freedom from grosser sins generates a spirit, which in the world would be called sensitive honour, in religion is self-righteousness. Their theory of the Christian life is, to be upright, faultless, without soil, without reproach; to have a consciousness of their own integrity, justice, and goodness. And such they often really are in their dealings towards men. In the outward keeping of the second table they seem beyond blame. And yet they fall far short in all things towards God,—in love, worship, devotion, humility, abasement, repentance, spiritual affections, realisation of the sympathy and passion of our Lord, and compunction under the sense of a fallen and sinful nature. Their perceptions of God’s holiness, of the piercing spirituality of His law, and of the malignity of sin, are dim and languid. Therefore the consciousness of their own inward state is shallow and untrue. Their whole effort is to clear themselves of such sins as strike the world’s eye; they have little shrinking from the eye of God. They believe its universality 143by an intellectual conviction; but they have little feeling of its purity, which is known only by a spiritual perception. Moreover, their own inward eye is short of sight. And in the consciousness of their hearts they find no startling sins. Sinfulness, as distinct from sins of act, is, for their conscience, an idea too fine and impalpable. They fall, therefore, into a spirit of security, which is a spirit of self-defence. Their confessions are close, vague, qualified, and apologetic. They feel no need to confess to any but God alone. They think that it is well, perhaps, for greater sinners to use special humiliations and special helps; but they conceive that they can well enough quiet their own conscience with God in secret. I do not say that this may not often be true; but no one can deny that it may as often—some will perhaps admit oftener—be false. It is strange how dry and unloving such hearts often are towards the person of our Lord. There is a cold, exact, judicious, and commendable propriety, an avoiding of extremes and emotions of enthusiasm and irregularity, which, if there were but life, depth, and fervour, would be exemplary. Without these things, they become heartless, frigid, and self-complacent.
It is very difficult to convince such hearts of sin. The searching words of a pastor sound to 144 them as reproofs; the lightest noting of omissions is taken for rebuke; the gentlest admonition is received as charges against their character. Their pastor seems to them as an accuser, and they must needs be their own defenders. Who that has had the oversight of souls has not known how much of this spirit of self-defence lives in the heart even of the good?
And if it is so with such persons, how much more with the less religious, who, the faultier they are, have generally a more vivid spirit of self-defence! How sullen, estranged, and full of offence they grow, when faithfully admonished; and how dangerous and useless is such a spirit! How useless, because it is but a little while, and a deathbed or the day of judgment will force them to behold their very selves. How dangerous, because there is no greater slight and provocation of the majesty of God. Nothing so deafens the ear against both warnings and promises, nothing so hinders the influx of divine grace, and so estranges the heart from the pastors of Christ. Instead of friends, guides, physicians, comforters, they become censors and accusers. The whole heart and will is turned away from them. We become pursuers of the unwilling, not receivers of the willing and penitent. It is the habitual thought and care of these self-defenders to elude their pastor’s eye, and 145to conceal their festering wounds. Self-defenders fly from his sight and voice, as self-accusers seek it. The whole tide of the soul is turned in the wrong direction. And the minister of reconciliation waits, in sadness and silence, till the heart, knowing at last its own plague, opens of its own accord. This is the sure discerning test which separates the penitent from the impenitent in the interior court of Christ’s kingdom.
3. And hence we see that the true source of this self-accusing spirit is love. A heart once touched by the love of Christ no longer strives to hide its sin, or to make it out to be but little. To excuse, palliate, or lighten the guilt even of a little sin grates upon the whole inward sense of sorrow and self-abasement. “Against Thee, Thee only,” is the language of true penitents. The wrong done to God and the hardness towards our crucified Lord are their chief motives to repentance. They have no peace but in laying their sins to their own charge. The remembrance of sin makes them to feel ungenerous and heartless. They have nothing left but to turn accusers of themselves; to take part against themselves before the tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ. They come with a forward and earnest will, to lay open their own grief, and to bear their own shame; for in their conscience there is a 146 presence which opens them from within. He that entered when the doors were shut, passes within their heart; and the iron gate, so close, heavy, and impenetrable, opens of its own accord. Their sorrow is not turbulent, clouded, and unquiet, as the sorrow of self -justifying minds when they are detected and reproved, but gentle and soft, with a brightness even in its shadows. It is a sadness which humbles and sanctifies, making the will pliant, and even the words of self-accusing to be sweet. “While I held my tongue, my bones consumed away through my daily complaining; for Thy hand is heavy upon me day and night, and my moisture is like the drought in summer. I will acknowledge my sin unto Thee, and mine unrighteousness have I not hid. I said, I will confess my sins unto the Lord; and so Thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin.”5353 Ps. xxxii. 3-6. So long as we defend ourselves, God accuses us, and we go heavily all the day long, our hearts glowing and smouldering within: so soon as we accuse ourselves at His feet, God and all the powers of His kingdom shelter and defend us. This is our true solace and relief.
Now there are two signs by which we shall know whether our confessions are the self-accusations of penitent and loving hearts.147
The first is, that our confessions be humble. The Pharisee, in the parable, stood and prayed with himself, as separate from the common herd: Simon invited his Master, and sat at meat with Him. Many give thanks, not for what God has made them, but for what they are; and bid themselves to their Lord’s presence, “feasting themselves without fear.” They confess, pray, communicate, as a matter of right and undoubted freedom; never staying to ask, Am I meet to draw near? am I worthy that He should come under my roof? The words of Peter, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” perplex them; they think them contradictory and unmeaning: they desire His presence, and they think that enough. Not so he that “stood afar off, and smote upon his breast,” accusing himself in the sight of God and man; not so she that had no care or consciousness of cavilling eyes, kneeling at her Redeemer’s feet. This is one sure sign of a true penitent: a willingness to be humbled, to bear shame before man as well as before God; to go alone into the presence of men and angels, with no excuses or diminutions, no inculpations of others, or mitigating pleas. “Every man must bear his own burden,” when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed; and a humble confession strives to. anticipate that hour of isolated trial, 148 and to fall down alone, as guilty above all, before the judgment-seat of Christ.
The other sign is, that it be an honest self-accusing. And to this honesty it is essential that we should use a moral diligence, that is, a sincere, careful, and leisurely attention to remember and to recount the sins of our past life and of our present state.
It is plain, indeed, that no man can recall the whole tissue and train of his past life; no human memory can store it up, no human consciousness can sustain it. Therefore it is enough that we confess all we can remember, according to these three rules.
First, the kind of our sins: not in vague general terms, such as, “I am proud,” or “I am angry,” and the like; but specifically accusing ourselves of the instances in which we have so offended.
Secondly, we must confess the number of our sins: not strictly every act, which is impossible, but morally; that is, whether they have been isolated events, or frequent and habitual.
And lastly, the circumstances which may change the character, or aggravate the sinfulness of what we have done: as, for instance, the persons against whom we have offended; for an act of disrespect is far guiltier if committed against a parent than against an indifferent person: and the time; for 149sins derive a peculiar character from the season; as, if we sinned after great warnings, or in the midst of great blessings or chastisements. And again, the manner, that is, whether deliberately, and with mature intentions; for even lesser sins have greater guilt when they are committed with slighter outward temptation, and therefore with stronger inward sinfulness; or whether against motions to forbear; or persisted in after the moment of temptation, by the obstinacy of a perverse heart. These plain rules will be enough for a sincere conscience; for where the will is right, rules are but little needed.
Humility and honesty, then, are the two sure signs of a sincere self-accuser: where these are, we may be strong in hope that the grace of a loving and penitent heart has been bestowed by the Spirit of God.
How pitiful and tender is this great ministry of peace! All that the Absolver demands of us is, that we kneel down before Him and condemn ourselves. What miracles of Divine compassion are working day by day! Throughout His whole Church on earth the Blood of atonement is perpetually descending,—sins are perpetually blotted out for ever, hearts cleansed for eternity. There is a strange contrast between the outer and the inner courts of His temple. Some who seem nearest to 150 the kingdom of God are farthest off; such as the unhumbled, unconvinced, who dissemble, and profess; pray, and live without a law upon their will; communicate, and have no shrinking when their unworthiness meets His searching presence: and such too as are impatient of a law or a truth above themselves; self-flatterers and fearless; the lordly spirits who walk erect, ruling, criticising, judging, and pronouncing judgments in His Church and at His altars, on His faith, sacraments, and servants. Verily, “many that are first shall be last.”
In like manner, there are those who seem afar off, but are nearest, even already within the threshold of His kingdom; for sinners with compunction are nearer to Him than the righteous without humility. “Publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before” Scribes and Pharisees. The world believes none of these things. It knows what penitents once were; for it is keen-eyed and retentive. It remembers their wanderings and scandals j but it has no spiritual discernment to read the conversion of a soul. The world rebukes self-accusers as shameless, unmanly, wanting in self-respect, and believes them still to be what they are now no longer. But there is One who knows all,—at whose feet they daily kneel. He has seen all by His divine intuition. He has 151heard all in His patient ear of mercy. Go, then, to Him continually; never suffering a sin to sink unconfessed into the heart,—for harboured sins soon fester, and one sin “will eat as doth a canker,” infecting the whole soul. Fear Him not, for He is pity. Only lay open your grief to Him, and the blood of sprinkling shall come down. He will bind up your oldest and sorest wounds. Believe in your absolution as a point of faith. Draw near to Him, morning and night, especially as you approach the altar, and there, before Him, lift up your eyes to His heavenly throne. Whom do you behold surrounding Him on every side? A great company of saints now,—a little while ago a great company of penitents; humbled and self-accusing here on earth,—now spotless as Himself.152
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