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The Gibraltar of The Papacy
D URING THE WINTER evenings of 1849, my mind and heart were all engrossed in the reading of the Word of God. I examined with care and prayer, to the limit of my ability, every Scripture passage pertaining to the distinctive doctrines of the Roman Church. My experience during those memorable months was a quest for the truth—it was a struggle for light and liberty—the light of revelation, and the liberty of a son of God. I would read the old Book after work hours until midnight. And then as I made my way to my home, I would find myself instinctively crying out on the street, "O that I knew the right path! O God, lead me to Thyself!" The patriarch Job never voiced that prayer with deeper emphasis than did I during that anxious search: “O that I knew where I might find Him! That I might come even to His seat!".
Time and again, my attention was directed to other books, but I always returned to the Bible as the true source of light and life. So I can say, as did Paul, THE GOSPEL I RECEIVED WAS NOT AFTER MAN, for I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, BUT BY THE REVELATION OF JESUS CHRIST, through his Word. A faithful report of the struggles of that winter would fill a volume. I can barely give an outline of them.
Having become thoroughly convinced that the Virgin Mary or the Saints had no power to hear or answer prayer, and that, therefore, all worship ascribed to them was vain, useless, unauthorized by the Word of God, unsanctioned by Jesus himself, and therefore meeting with his disapproval. I abandoned entirely all forms of worship pertaining to her or them.
At this same time, I was led to question the validity of auricular confession, or confession to the ear, of a priest. As I searched the Bible, I found no warrant for it. James 6:16 proves too much: "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed." That enjoins a MUTUAL CONFESSION. It has no reference whatever to confession to a priest.
Matthew 18:18 is adduced: "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." The words bind and loose are employed in the sense of obliging and dissolving, according to the customary phraseology of the Jews—when they would refer to anything that was lawful or unlawful to be done. The passage gave the Apostles authority to declare obligatory or dispensed with in the Jewish law; and thus, by the authority, of the Holy Spirit, of declaring what was to be retained or omitted in the Christian Church.
The text also in John 20:23 is brought forward for the purpose of establishing priestly absolution in the confessional: "Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained." The idea of auricular confession is not even hinted at in this passage. The thought is the Apostles received from the Lord the doctrine of reconciliation and condemnation. They who believed on the Son of God, according to their preaching, had their sins remitted, and they who would not believe were declared to be under condemnation. This is in accordance with Christ's commission: "He that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned." And the ministers of Christ in every age have this power of remitting and retaining sins.
That no such power as the Roman priests claim was ever invested in the Apostles of Christ, or in the first ministers of Christianity, by the above cited commission, we have this indubitable proof—that they never pretended to exercise such power, but always ascribed the forgiveness of sins to God alone.
The primitive Church of Christ never believed that such power, as is claimed by Roman Catholic priests, was ever given by Christ to His ministers. They looked to God alone for this, as they thought He alone was qualified to bestow it.
As auricular confession is now the Gibraltar of the Papacy, and as there is a trend in certain Protestant high church circles to the practice of priestly confession, a glance at its rise and history may prove suggestive. Auricular confession had its start under Pope Leo the Great in the 5th century. Previous to that time, it had been the custom for notorious sinners to make a public confession before the congregation; sometimes, they would tell the ministers of their sins, and they would make the confession for them. But, owing to the public scandal produced, it was thought best to abandon the public confession, and a silent, prudent presbyter was appointed to receive the confessions. Pope Leo discouraged the ancient practice of public confession, and advocated with great zeal private confession to the priest alone.
Though the evil effects of the change were soon apparent in the general increase of crime, yet this was counterbalanced by the vast addition of influence which it gave the clergy. The conscience of the people was thus delivered over into the hands of the priests. The most secret acts and thoughts of individual imperfections were consigned to the torture of private inquisition and scrutiny; and the first and corner-stone of the papal edifice was laid. However, there was no law requiring private confession until the 4th Council of Lateran, 1215. And until about this time, the form of absolution was "God absolves thee.” Afterward, it was changed to “I absolve thee.”
The more I read and thought and prayed on the subject, and especially reflected on my own experience in the confessional, the more clearly I became convinced that no priest on earth had power to forgive me my sins. I had been to confession time and again. I had gone through all the forms prescribed by the church and duly performed the penance enjoined, but never did I have any consciousness of sins forgiven; nor did I receive through the sacrament (?) of penance any spiritual power wherewith I might resist the world, the flesh, and the devil.
I learned from the reading of the words of Jesus and his Apostles that if I confessed my sins to God, and exercised a sincere repentance, He would forgive me. I was encouraged by such promises as these: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”