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The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


When the Evangelist Matthew is describing the ministry of John the Baptist, he states that there |went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan; and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.| [491:1] The ministry of Paul at Ephesus produced similar results; for it is said that |fear fell| on all the Jews and Greeks dwelling in that great capital, |and many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds,| [491:2]

The confession here mentioned obviously flowed spontaneously from deep religious convictions. It was not a private admission of guilt made to an ecclesiastical functionary; but a public acknowledgment of acts which weighed heavily on the consciences of individuals, and which they felt constrained to recapitulate and to condemn. Men awakened to a sense of their sins deemed it due to themselves and to society, to state how sincerely they deplored their past career; and, no doubt, their words often produced a profound impression on the multitudes to whom they were addressed. These confessions of sin were connected with a confession of faith in Christ, and were generally associated with the ordinance of baptism. They were not required from all, but were only tendered in cases where there had been notorious and flagrant criminality; and they must have been of a very partial character, only embracing such transgressions as the party had some urgent reason for specializing.

In the time of the apostles those who embraced the gospel were immediately baptized. Thus, the three thousand persons who were converted on the day of Pentecost, were forthwith received into the bosom of the Church; and the Philippian jailor, |the same hour of the night| [493:1] when he hearkened to |the word of the Lord,| |was baptized, he and all his, straightway.| But, soon, afterwards, the Christian teachers began to proceed with greater formality; and, about the middle of the second century, candidates were not admitted to the ordinance until they had passed through a certain course of probation. |As many,| says Justin Martyr, |as are persuaded and believe that the things which we teach and declare are true, and promise that they are determined to live accordingly, are taught to pray, and to beseech God with fasting to grant them remission of their past sins, while we also pray and fast with them. We then lead them to a place where there is water, and there they are regenerated in the same manner as we also were; for they are then washed in that water in the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.| [493:2]

These confessions and penitential exercises were repeated and enlarged when persons who had lapsed into gross sin, and who had, in consequence, forfeited their position as members of the Church, sought readmission to ecclesiastical fellowship. It would be difficult, on scriptural grounds, to vindicate the system of discipline enforced on such occasions; and yet it is evident that it was established, at least in some quarters, as early as the beginning of the third century. Tertullian gives a very striking account of the course pursued by those called penitents about that period. |Confession of sins,| says he, |lightens their burden, as much as the dissembling of them increases it; for confession savours of making amends, dissembling, of stubbornness. ..... Wherefore confession is the discipline of a man's prostrating and humbling himself, enjoining such a conversation as invites mercy. It restrains a man even as to the matter of dress and food, requiring him to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to hide his body in filthy garments, to afflict his soul with sorrow, to exchange for severe treatment the sins in which he indulged; for the rest to use simple things for meat and drink, that is, for the sake of the soul, and not to please the appetite: for the most part also to quicken prayer by fasts, to groan, to weep, and to moan day and night before the Lord his God; to throw himself on the ground before the presbyters, and to fall on his knees before the beloved of God; to enjoin all the brethren to bear the message of his prayer for mercy -- all these things does confession that it may commend repentance.| [493:1]

When a man is overwhelmed with grief, the state of his mind will often be revealed by the loss of his appetite. He will think little of his dress and personal accommodation; and though he may give no utterance to his feelings, his general appearance will betray to the eye of an observer the depths of his affliction. The mourner not unfrequently takes a melancholy satisfaction in surrounding himself with the symbols of sorrow; and we read, accordingly, in Scripture how, in ancient times and in Eastern countries, he clothed himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes. [493:2] There is a wonderful sympathy between the body and the mind; and as grief affects the appetite, so occasional abstinence from food may foster a serious and contrite spirit. Hence fasting has been so commonly associated with penitential exercises.

Fasting is not to be regarded as one of the ordinary duties of a disciple of Christ,[494:1] but rather as a kind of discipline in which he may feel called on to engage under special circumstances.[494:2] When oppressed with a consciousness of guilt, or when anxious for divine direction on a critical occasion, or when trembling under the apprehension of impending judgments, he may thus seek to |afflict his soul,| that he may draw near with deeper humility and reverence into the presence of the Divine Majesty. But, in such a case, every one should act according to the dictates of his own enlightened convictions. As the duty is extraordinary, the self-denial to be practised must be regulated by various contingencies; and no one can well prescribe to another its amount or duration.

According to the Mosaic law, only one day in the year -- the great day of atonement -- was required to be kept as a national fast.[494:3] There is now no divine warrant for so observing any corresponding day, and for upwards of a hundred years after the death of our Lord, there is no evidence that any fixed portion of time was thus appropriated under the sanction of ecclesiastical authority. But towards the close of the second century the termination of the Paschal week was often so employed -- the interval, between the hour on Friday when our Lord expired and the morning of the first day of the week, being spent in total abstinence.[494:4] About the same time some partially abstained from food on what were called stationary days, or the Wednesday and Friday of each week.[494:5] At this period some began also to observe Xerophagiae, or days on which they used neither flesh nor wine. [495:1] Not a few saw the danger of this ascetic tendency; but, whilst it betokened zeal, it had also |a show of wisdom,| [495:2] and it silently made great progress. Towards the close of the third century the whole Church was already pervaded by its influence.

Fasting has been well described as |the outward shell| of penitential sorrow, and is not to be confounded with its spiritual elements. It is its accidental accompaniment, and not one of its true and essential features. A man may |bow down his head as a bulrush,| or fast, or clothe himself in sackcloth, when he is an utter stranger to that |repentance to salvation not to be repented of.| The hypocrite may put on the outward badges of mourning merely with a view to regain a position in the Church, whilst the sincere penitent may |anoint his head and wash his face,| and reveal to the eye of the casual spectator no tokens of contrition. As repentance is a spiritual exercise, it can only be recognised by spiritual signs; and the rulers of the ancient Church committed a capital error when they proposed to test it by certain dietary indications. Their penitential discipline was directly opposed to the genuine spirit of the gospel; and it was the fountain from whence proceeded many of the superstitions which, like a river of death, soon overspread Christendom. Whilst repentance was reduced to a mechanical round of bodily exercises, the doctrine of a free salvation was practically repudiated.

In connexion with the appearance of a system of penitential discipline, involving in some cases a penance of several years' continuance, [495:3] the distinction of venial and mortal sins now began to be recognised. Venial sins were transgressions which any sincere believer might commit, whilst mortal sins were such as were considered incompatible with the genuine profession of Christianity. Penance was prescribed only to those who had been guilty of mortal sins. Its severity and duration varied with the character of the offence, and was soon regulated according to an exact scale arranged by the rulers of the Church in their ecclesiastical conventions.

About the middle of the third century a new arrangement was introduced, with a view to promote the more exact administration of penitential discipline. During the Decian persecution which occurred at this time, many were induced by fear to abandon the profession of the gospel; and, on the return of better days, those who sought restoration to Christian privileges were so numerous that, in the larger churches, it was deemed expedient to require the lapsed, in the first instance, to address themselves to one of the presbyters appointed for their special examination. The business of this functionary, who was known by the designation of the Penitentiary [496:1] was to hear the confessions of the penitents, to ascertain the extent and circumstances of their apostasy, and to announce the penance required from each by the existing ecclesiastical regulations. The disclosures made to the Penitentiary did not supersede the necessity of public confession; it was simply the duty of this minister to give to the lapsed such instructions as his professional experience enabled him to supply, including directions as to the fasts they should observe, and the sins they should openly acknowledge. Under the guidance of the Penitentiaries the system of discipline for transgressors seems to have been still farther matured; and at length, in the beginning of the fourth century, the penitents were divided into various classes, according to their supposed degrees of unworthiness. The members of each class were obliged to occupy a particular position in the place of worship when the congregation assembled for religious exercises. [497:1]

It must be obvious from these statements that the institution known as Auricular Confession had, as yet, no existence. In the early Church the disciples, under ordinary circumstances, were neither required nor expected, at stated seasons, to enter into secret conference with any ecclesiastical searcher of consciences. When a professing Christian committed a heinous transgression by which religion was scandalized, he was obliged, before being re-admitted to communion, to express his sorrow in the face of the congregation; and the revelations made to the Penitentiary did not relieve him from this act of humiliation. It must also be apparent that the whole system of penance is an unauthorized addition to the ordinances of primitive Christianity. Of such a system we do not find even a trace in the New Testament; and under its blighting influence, the religion of the Church gradually became little better than a species of refined heathenism.

The spiritual darkness now settling down upon the Christian commonwealth might be traced in the growing obscurity of the ecclesiastical nomenclature. The power and the form of godliness began to be confounded, and the same term was employed to denote penance and repentance. [497:2] Bodily mortification was mistaken for holiness, and celibacy for sanctity. [497:3] Other errors of an equally grave character became current, for the penitent was described as making satisfaction for his sins by his fasts and his outward acts of self abasement, [497:4] and thus the all-sufficiency of the great atonement was openly ignored. Thus, too, the doctrine of a free salvation to transgressors could no longer be proclaimed, for pardon was clogged with conditions as burdensome to the sinner, as they were alien to the spirit of the New Testament. The doctrine that |a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,| [498:1] reveals the folly of the ancient penitential discipline. Our Father in heaven demands no useless tribute of mortification from His children; He merely requires us to |bring forth fruits meet for repentance.| [498:2] |Is not this the fast that I have chosen?| saith the Lord, |to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee: the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.| [498:3]

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