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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
1. Our Lord’s words on Absolution.—We find these in the following passages: Matthew 16:16-19, especially this word spoken to Peter, ‘I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’; Matthew 18:18 (spoken to all the Apostles), ‘Verily I say unto you, What things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and what things soever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’; John 20:21 ff. ‘Jesus therefore said to them again, Peace be unto you: as the Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this he breathed on them, and said unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them: whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.’
The first of the sayings—that about the keys and the binding and loosing—we might have been under some compulsion to take as for Peter alone, if it had not been that the like saying is repeated to all the Apostles afterwards. The words were special to Peter, as the early history of the Acts shows; but they were not limited to him. And following as they do on his great confession—being a prize and reward of that confession—they belong to him as a man who had attained by the revelation of the Father to a true faith that Jesus was the Christ the Son of God: they belonged to all the Apostles as men of like faith: and they belong to the whole Church of which these twelve were the nucleus, in proportion as that faith is alive in it. In regard to the saying (in John 20:23) about the forgiveness and retaining of sins, it was spoken in ‘a general gathering of the believers in Jerusalem’ (see Luke 24:33), and ‘there is nothing in the context to show that the gift was confined to any particular group (as the Apostles) among the whole company present. The commission, therefore, must be regarded properly as the commission of the Christian society and not as that of the Christian ministry’ (Westcott, in loco).
The ‘keys’ may be understood as the keys of the porter at the outer door of the house, and as symbolic of authority to admit into the kingdom of heaven or to exclude from it. Or they may be taken as the keys of the steward for use inside the house, and as symbolic of authority to open the stores or treasuries of the household of God and to give forth from these treasuries according to the requirements of the household. It is rather in this second sense that authority is given to bind and to loose, which in Rabbinical usage meant to forbid and allow in matters of conduct; that is to say, to interpret the will of God and to enjoin rules of life in harmony with that will. This is the work of the steward of the mysteries of God, and has to do directly with things, not persons. But the first sense, that of admitting and excluding, which has to do with persons, is what is chiefly meant by the power of the keys, and it is as an exercise of this power and of the power given in the words, ‘Whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them,’ that absolution must be considered.
Our Lord’s words seem at first reading to invest the Church with absolute authority, and to promise that Heaven will follow and ratify the action of the Church on earth, whatever that action may be, in forgiving or judging, in admitting into the kingdom of heaven or excluding from it. But we recoil from this as impossible. There is no Church, how great soever its claims in regard to absolution, which does not admit that God alone forgives sin. We feel, however, that we must find a great sense in which to understand so great words as those of our Lord in these commissions. And we observe that before the words in John 20:23 our Lord breathed upon His disciples and said, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost.’ He imparted to them His own very Spirit, so enabling them to be His representatives and equipping them to continue His work. (The faith which Peter had by revelation of the Father, that is to say, by the same Spirit, was an equivalent endowment before he received the promise of the keys). It was evidently the purpose of the Lord Jesus that His Church should continue the exercise on earth of the power which He constantly exercised and set in the forefront of His ministry, the power of saying to the penitent, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee’; and of saying this with such assured knowledge of the truth of God and such sympathetic discernment of the spirits of men, that what was done by the Church on earth should be valid in heaven, and the word of Christ by the Church powerful to give comfort to truly penitent souls.
The Lord is concerned not only that men be forgiven, but that His disciples should know that they are forgiven. The grace of forgiveness has not its proper power in transforming their lives unless they know that they have it. As long as men are under fear and doubt they are not Christ’s freemen: their religion is still only regulative. It is when they have an assured sense of forgiveness and reconciliation to God that a great impulse of gratitude, with a new life in their souls, makes them free indeed, and strong in their freedom to serve God. Christ accordingly equips His Church to convey this assurance of forgiveness, and if a Church does not succeed in doing this, especially if, as often, the current idea in the Church is that to be assured of forgiveness is abnormal and unusual, the Church is greatly failing in its mission. If the form of our Lord’s promise in John 20:23 ‘Whose soever sins ye forgive,’ etc., seem too absolute, we must remember that the gift of the Holy Spirit, which He then gave the sign of imparting, is a gift of exceeding power, and that no limit can be set to the degree in which God through Christ is willing to give the Spirit. ‘He giveth not the Spirit by measure’ (John 3:34). And our Lord is speaking, according to His wont, to the ideal Church, to the Church which receives in the fulness with which He is willing to bestow. Just as, speaking at the high level of the ideal, He says to His servants in another place (Luke 10:16), ‘He that heareth you heareth me: and he that despiseth you despiseth me’; so He says here, ‘Whose soever sins ye forgive, they arc forgiven,’ etc. But all these and such like promises depend for their fulfilment on the Spirit of Christ working, nay, reigning, in the Church. This power and reign of the Spirit ebbs and flows according to the faith and receptivity of the Church; and while it is the duty of the Church to believe in God being with it, and while the Church ought to clothe itself with the mighty assurance of heaven assenting to its judgments, it can dare to do so, and will be able to do so, only in proportion as it has sought and obtained the indwelling of the Spirit.
The words of our Lord before us certainly do not mean that forgiveness by the mouth and at the will of man is always to be followed by a ratification of God in heaven, even though that man be an apostle. But they do imply that when Christ’s servants do their work in the enlightenment and guidance of the Spirit, they will be able to convey messages of grace which will be according to the truth of things, and therefore valid in heaven: they will be able also to convey assurances of forgiveness, which will be owned of God as true, and will be made effective by His Spirit in penitent souls. So then the great and chief means by which the Church has in all ages fulfilled the work which is sustained by these startling promises, is the preaching of the gospel of reconciliation by Jesus Christ. By preaching in the power of the Spirit, thousands of souls have been in all ages receiving remission of sins and an assurance of forgiveness. Although the preaching is public, and the preacher has little or no separate knowledge of individual hearts, there is a ‘privacy of publicity’ in which whatever message he has from God is made an absolution Divine in power and assurance to one and another of the hearers. So effectual is preaching in the Spirit, that it may perhaps be found that in the Churches in which there is no ordinance with the title of ‘private absolution,’ the sense of forgiveness of sins is truer, deeper, and more widely spread than in those which have such an ordinance, and count it necessary. Obviously another means by which the Church carries out the Lord’s purpose of conveying absolution to the penitent is by the sacraments. But there is great occasion also for the Church to afford full opportunity for individual help to souls in spiritual trouble, and such individual dealing as may in its issue amount to private absolution. In every revival of religion the need for this is felt. There are souls in doubt whether their repentance and faith are true, and whether they are themselves accepted of God. Such souls seek the help of the Church, and often greatly profit by it. ‘Inquiry-rooms’ have been of notable service in modern ‘missions,’ and it is a common thing for people in trouble of conscience about some special sin to long to unbosom themselves about it to one whom they feel to have spiritual authority. Evangelical religious newspapers have found that they supply a demand by setting apart a column, often largely used, for the answers of some minister of reputation to men who open their minds to him, confess their chief sins, doubts, or temptations, and seck comfort through him. All the Churches, to a greater or less extent, supplement the preaching of the word by ‘discipline,’ and their admission to communion and exclusion from it tell powerfully on the individual conscience. The effectiveness of all such dealing has a natural basis in the fact of experience that a man’s judgment of himself is greatly influenced by the judgment of his fellow-men. It belongs to human nature that the judgment of the community in which a man lives so tells upon his spirit that it is hard for him to bear up against it. This is carried to a higher power in the Church, in the sphere wherein the Spirit of Christ works. The testimony of men who are spiritually minded and in communion with God is felt to have an authority such that great relief is given to souls by the Church’s absolution, and great burden imposed by its refusal. And justly, for the discernment of spirits is one of the gifts of the Spirit of Christ to His servants. They all have it in some measure, some in a wonderful measure (1 Corinthians 2:15, 1 John 2:20; 1 John 4:1), and it may be recalled that after our Lord promised to Peter that on him He would build His Church, He did not say, as we should have expected, ‘I will give thee the keys of the Church,’ but ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’: from which we infer that, while the Church and the kingdom are not conterminous, the Church is meant to be a true realization of the kingdom, and its judgments valid for that kingdom. In an ideal Church this would be fulfilled. In any actual Church the power spoken of, at once gracious and awful, varies in its effectiveness according to the fulness of the Spirit in its office-bearers and members.
2. History of Absolution in the Church.—In the NT age there is no trace of the practice of private confession to ministers of the Church for private absolution (James 5:16 cannot be so interpreted). But very early in the history of the Church it became customary for those who, after baptism, had fallen into gross sins, especially the sins of idolatry, adultery, or murder, to be cut off from fellowship, and to be readmitted after repentance manifested by public confession in the church. This readmission was an absolution, which came to be spoken of as the Church’s power to forgive sins,—a power, however, declared by Tertullian (de Pudic. xxi.) to belong to the Church only in so far as she is composed of spiritual men. This power in the 2nd cent. was claimed as vested in the whole episcopate, and, by and by, in every single bishop; still later, in every priest. And from the time of Leo the Great (Bishop of Rome a.d. 440), the custom grew of private confession and private absolution.
In the Middle Ages there were many discussions as to whether the priest had power simply to declare the forgiveness of sins, God alone having power to forgive, or whether the priest truly himself exercises a power to forgive as representative of God.
The final doctrine of the Church of Rome, as fixed by the Council of Trent, combines both these views. God alone forgives sins, and He does this solely on account of the sinner’s repentance. But the priest is the necessary instrument of God. God has been pleased to make the priest’s absolution the means by which the grace is conveyed, and the word of the priest is a judicial act in which he passes sentence on the penitent. The priest is entitled to use the words of the ritual, ‘I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’ It is admitted that ‘perfect sorrow for sin without addition of external rite blots out the stains, and restores the peace of God in the soul’; yet this perfect sorrow involves in a well-instructed Catholic the intention of confessing and receiving the priest’s absolution when opportunity offers. Protestants truly penitent may indeed receive the peace of God, because this desire of confession may be regarded as implicit in them. But confession to the priest is a necessary duty, and priestly absolution may not be omitted without loss of salvation.
The Lutheran Church did not entirely abolish confession and absolution; but Luther made changes which very greatly altered its character. Confession was not made compulsory: it was a free opportunity that might be used in ease of sins about which the penitent could not otherwise attain to peace. Luther made it unnecessary in confession to enumerate every individual sin; and so little was absolution sacerdotal that it might be given by a Christian layman. In course of time, private confession to the pastor mostly died out in the Lutheran Church. But it has often been spontaneously resumed in times of religions revival, of which interesting examples may be found in Dr. Buchsel’s Erinnerungen. He testifies strongly to the benefit both to pastor and people of the Privatbeichte, as he calls the Lutheran method, in contradistinction to the Roman Catholic Ohrbeichte vol. ii. p. 113 ff.). And he justifies the word of absolution spoken by the minister, ‘I absolve thee,’ etc., defending it from the objection that it is falsified and of no effect if the absolved lag not truth and faith, by saying that in that case it is still effectual for judgment, as in the case of the misuse of the Lord’s Supper, or, indeed, of the preached gospel.
In regard to the Anglican Church, in its ordinary service ‘the absolution or remission of sins to be pronounced by the priest alone, the people still kneeling,’ is no more than a gospel proclamation of God’s pardon to the penitent, ending in a prayer for true repentance. The exhortation before the Communion contains this invitation, to be pronounced by the curate: ‘If there be any of you who … cannot quiet his own conscience, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned minister of God’s word, and open his grief, that by the ministry of God’s holy word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with ghostly counsel and advice to the quieting of his conscience, and avoiding of all scruple and doubtfulness.’ From this, the teaching of the Church of England appears to be similar to that of the Lutheran, making confession exceptional not compulsory, and absolution not sacerdotal, but a part of the ministry of the Word.
In the service for the visitation of the sick, the minister is enjoined ‘to move the sick person to make a special confession of his sins if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession the priest shall absolve him (if he humbly and heartily desire it) after this sort: “Our Lore Jesus Christ, who hath left power to His Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in Him, of His great merey forgive thee thine offences: and by His authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” ’
In the Presbyterian Churches the words ‘absolve’ and absolution’ are used only of the restoration to Communion by the minister and elders—i.e. the Kirk-Session—of those members of the Church who have fallen into any scandalous sin by which Christ is publicly dishonoured. These are usually dealt with first by the minister in private: then they appear before the Session, or before a delegation of it, to make acknowledgment, and profess repentance. Thereupon they may be addressed and ‘absolved,’ by which is meant restored to Communion. This dealing has been undoubtedly, when used with spiritual tact and tenderness, a great means of deepening both the sense of sin and the trust of God’s forgiveness, and it has the effect of giving many who had lost character a new spiritual start. The value, however, of this discipline depends wholly on the measure in which those who administer it are Christian, not legal, in their spirit, and on the support which the discipline receives from the spiritual level of the general body of the Church.
3. Conclusion.—Absolution, in the full meaning of bringing men into the sense of God’s forgiveness and keeping them in that sense, may be said to be the primary work of the Church and its ministry. This work is carried out mainly by preaching, sacraments, and individual dealing with souls. The short history given above indicates the more or less fitting and successful methods by which the Christian Church has endeavoured to fulfil especially the duty of individual dealing. In order that a Church may be truly successful in this work of grace, it must be largely and widely pervaded by the Spirit of Christ in its whole membership. The gift of power in this work is not confined to the ministry; it is found wherever there is a deeply spiritual mind and Christian experience. Men in spiritual trouble do not betake themselves to a priest or minister unless they feel him to have the spiritual authority that belongs to Christ-like character. A merely official spiritual authority is not seriously believed in. What comforts and assures in time of soul-trouble is the word or sign of acknowledgment from the Christian company speaking by those who truly represent it—those who are truly called of God to the ministry, or who are shown by their goodness to be in the fellowship of God. On the trainingship Shaftesbury a had boy met with an accident; he was taken to the little hospital. When he was awake at night he talked to the nurse. One night he said, ‘Sister, I think I am dying, and it is so hard; but I think if you kissed me as if I was a good boy, I could bear it.’ This boy, conscious of an evil past and struggling to escape from it, felt as if the kiss of that good woman would give him cheer, and hope of acceptance with God—would be, in fact, an absolution. A Christian minister, in converse with a dying man in whom he discerns a true repentance, may be able to say with great power, ‘Brother, be assured thy sins are forgiven thee,’ and great blessing of comfort to the man may follow, may indeed be looked for. Only in a high moment of spiritual impulse and assurance could the minister venture to say, ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus I absolve thee from thy sins.’
Literature.—The Commentaries on the Gospels, especially Westcott on St. John, Bruce on St. Matthew, Dods on St. John; Bishop Harold Browne’s Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles; A Catholic Dictionary by Addis and Arnold, art. ‘Penance’; Canon Carter’s The Doctrine of Confession in the Church of England; Dean Wace’s Confession, and Absolution; Dr. Drury’s Confession and Absolution; Dr. Büchsel’s Erinnerungen aus dem Leben eines Landgeistlichen; F. W. Robertson, of Brighton, Sermons, 3rd series, v.; Selby, The Imperfect Angel, etc., xii.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Absolution'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/a/absolution.html. 1906-1918.