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that are without, God will judge,” says St Paul. “ Put away from yourselves that wicked person,” said the
And by these principles the Christian church of primitive times was guided.
II. But when we consider the end and aim of such ecclesiastical discipline, we shall find, that it was by no means opposed to the declarations and expressions of the Redeemer which we have before quoted. The visible church was designed to be an institution of instruction, it was to train and educate its members for the invisible kingdom of God. But though she deemed it necessary to exercise a severe discipline, yet was it by no means her intention to make a violent expulsion and rooting out of the unworthy, but this discipline was to be a means for the instruction, the improvement, and purification of its members. The purpose of it neither could nor was meant to be any oth tha to bring the excommunicated Christians to a sense of their guilt, and to lead them to repentance and sorrow for their errors and sins, and thus to improve them and win them back again. “God hath no pleasure in the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn again and live." Mindful of this truth the early Christian church exercised a severe discipline, not from a desire to punish, but with the intention of improving and converting, of awakening “ that godly sorrow” in men's minds that worketh a repentance unto salvation, not to be repented of.” Wherever, therefore, an honest repentance and change of heart was manifested, the church was bound again to comfort, and again to receive into her communion, the excommunicated person. Thus does St Paul exhort the Corinthians, who had excommunicated the
person stained with incest, to receive him again into communion, when he had exhibited unequivocal signs of repentance. “ Sufficent unto this man is this punishment which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with over much sorrow. Wherefore, I beseech you, that
confirm your love toward him. To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also.” This principle was in general followed by the primitive church, and she settled, by different ordinances, the proofs of repentance and fidelity, which those who had fallen were to offer, and the duration of their exclusion from church communion and the Lord's supper, according to their different transgressions, and their spiritual stations. Of these Poenitentes, as they were called, Tertullian writes, they should express their contrition by their whole appearance, and should pray with fasting to God for forgiveness of their sins, should publicly make confession of their sins before the church, and imploring all their Christian brethren to pray in their behalf, should especially throw themselves down before the presbyters, and the known friends of God.” They had to go through four steps of penance in all. First of all, they had to stand at the church-door in robes of mourning; then they were allowed only to be present at the reading of the holy Scriptures, and the sermon; then they were permitted to be present at public prayer, but kneeling; and, lastly, they were permitted to attend the whole divine service and the communion. 66 The Christians," writes Origen, “ bewail those who are carried away by lust or any other passion, as if they were dead, and after they have given long continued proofs that their souls are changed, they receive them again as catechumens, as though they had risen from the dead.” If their repentance was considered sincere, and of sufficent duration, they were signed with the sign of blessing, the bishop and the clergy laid their hands on them, and they were again admitted into the church, and granted absolution. Thus did the church act like a tender mother, who indeed seems to withdraw her love from her disobedient and troublesome children, but only in order to rouse in them a feeling of sorrow for their ingratitude and obstinacy, and then again opens her arms to them, to embrace her children, and, full of love, to press them to her bosom, when they see their crime, and turn with repentance and tears, and pray to be received again and forgiven.
St John says,
all outward exercises of penance have in and for themselves no worth, my brethren, but only in as far as they are the actual expression of the inmost feelings, and the pure sensations of the heart. If these feelings are absent, this true penitence of the heart, there remains nothing but hypocrisy. Of this the teachers of the early church, who were inspired by the true spirit of the gospel, failed not to warn their hearers. They impressively referred Christians to the nature of inward Christian penitence, which only finds a suitable form of expression in these outward acts of penance. Thus, among others, Tertullian writes: “If a man condemns himself, God acquits him: believe me, so far as thou sparest not thyself God will spare thee.” Is not this exactly what St Paul exhorts the Corinthians : “ Judge yourselves, brethren, that ye be not judged ;” and what
“ If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness ?” Thus, too, did the pastors of the church of that time lay great stress on the difference between the absolution of the priests, and the forgiveness of sins by God, exactly as we always remind you,
that the absolution which you receive from us in the penitential chair, only has its right signification and import, when you are fit recipients for forgiveness of sins, through the inward disposition of your hearts, which are known only to the omniscient God, and as we Sunday after Sunday, by virtue of our office, proclaim from the pulpit the grace of God, and the forgiveness of sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, “ to all those who heartily repent of their sins, who believe sincerely in Jesus Christ, and have earnestly determined to lead a new and better life, by the aid of the Holy Spirit.” Thus, Bishop Firmilianus of Cesarea in Cappadocia, writes, after the middle of the third century: “ The bishops and presbyters meet every year among us, for the purpose of consulting together concerning matters of general interest, and to consider of the spiritual healing of our fallen brethren, through penitence, not as though they received from us the for
giveness of sins, but that by us they may be led to a consciousness of their sins, and compelled to make a more perfect satisfaction to the Lord," and Cyprian of Carthage says: “We do not anticipate the Lord's judg ment, so that he, if he find that the sinner has been truly and sincerely penitent, will confirm and ratify our decision. But if a man has deceived us with a hypocritical repentance, then let God, who is not mocked, and who looks into the heart of man, decide on that of which we are not competent to judge, and let the Lord improve the sentence of his servants."
But however much stress the pastors of the church of that time laid on the purpose of church penance, on the import of the external practices, and the true nature of Christian penitence, that they might not be in danger of interchanging the internal and external to the peril of their souls, yet men from time to time forgot their exhortations and warnings, and, in progress of time, the most lamentable abuses in regard to ecclesiastical discipline and penance crept into the church. These errors are what we now wish to direct
attention to; but as it is impossible that we should conclude our subject to-day, we will leave off here, and resume the thread of our discourse, if the Lord will, on the next occasion. May the Lord bless in our hearts what has been preached to us this day, and may He especially bring us all to the lively consciousness, that he has called us unto fellowship with his church, and by baptism consecrated us for a participation in his heavenly kingdom, “ that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish.” Remembering this dignity to which He has willed to exalt us, let us always implore Him to pour out his Spirit abundantly upon us, that we may walk worthily of the gospel that has been preached to us, in order by it to be daily more trained for that heavenly church, into which we one day hope to enter. And in this may He aid us of his abundant
ON THE NATURE OF PENANCE IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN
We come to thee in sorrow, and heavy laden, O Lord, our God! We confess to thee our sins with hearty repentance, and pray thee to forgive them, for Jesus Christ's sake, and receive us again into the fellowship of thy grace! Cast us not away from thy presence, and deal not with us after our iniquities ! It is our earnest determination to serve thee henceforward more faithfully, O bless us, and lend us the aid of thy Holy Spirit, that we may never swerve from thee! Turn us again, and we shall be turned, O Lord, for thou art our God! Amen.
In concluding the considerations, which we on the last occasion commenced, regarding the nature of penance in the primitive Christian church, we shall finish all that we have to offer you concerning the ecclesiastical life of Christians during the three first centuries, and shall then proceed to turn our attention to their lives as citizens and members of a family. But as to what regards the nature of penance, we have lately reminded you of the church discipline which was practised in the first Christian churches, and in relation to this circumstance, have proposed to answer four questions, of which, owing to the shortness of the time, we were enabled to consider only two at any length. We especially and particularly investigated what was to be obtained from the gospel itself, and the example of the primitive church for or against the necessity and expediency of church discipline ; and we must have been all