The Church the World's Conscience

John 20:23.---'Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and hose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.'

It is no doubt the duty of the Church to minister to the troubled conscience, and that with Divine authority. But in every age there has been a large category of sins that have never troubled the conscience at all. They have ever been reckoned as virtues. What inquisitor was ever troubled in conscience by his cruelty, or by any part of his attitude to heresy? Did Fenelon ever confess his persecutions, or was Cromwell ever conscience-stricken by the massacre of Drogheda? We do not see the sins of the age to which we belong. Yet they are perhaps of all sins the most deadly. For they are the very atmosphere in which our souls move, and they constitute that spirit of the world, which is enmity against God. The sins which wound conscience most commonly are the sins of the flesh. Has anyone experienced the passions of anger or sex from our past by which our lower nature is roused fill us with shame as soon as the storm is over, and we seek to rehabilitate ourselves. It may be doubted whether the cheat or liar ever experiences the same kind of shame---at all events before detection.

The commission, however, of our Lord to His Church cannot possibly cover anything less than the whole field of human sin as it is measured by laws of casuistry, but sin as it is in relation to God. In fact, He leaves to His Church His own attitude to sin. 'As the Father hath sent me, so send I you. Whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.' It is manifest that, if these words had been the whole of our Lord's charge to His disciples, the task which He left them was impossible of fulfillment. For among the factors which make for sin no small part is played by ignorance. 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' In those early dissensions between Peter and Paul, or between Paul and Barnabas, who was to determine which of the two Apostles was in the wrong, and which was doing God's will? And yet upon the decision of right and wrong between the disputants turned the binding or loosing of whole codes of law upon the conscience of the Church in all lands for all time. The authority which Christ gave to His Church was indeed, in the first instance, judicial; but, like all other judicial authority, it became, of necessity, legislative. The power to forgive sins or retain them was in fact a power to make sins or unmake them.

Hence the necessity in the commission for the words 'Receive ye the Holy Ghost.' The Church could be Christ's vicegerent only if and so far as it was indwelt by the Holy Spirit; and so far as it was filled with the Holy Spirit it was Christ's vicegerent upon earth. It is from our Lord Himself and from His conduct that we must learn how this marvelous duty is to be filled. The Church was to be the conscience of the world. What else is the work of conscience but to forgive and to retain sins? It was to be a Divinely illuminated conscience, restricted not to one sphere of human activity, but bringing into judgment the whole human conduct throughout the whole world. To the whole Church it is given to create health-giving opinion as to right and wrong, to manifest before the whole world the life of healthy relation towards God. That was precisely the work which our Lord did by His life, as distinct from the great work of Atonement, which He fulfilled by His death. His life was the life of healthy relation towards His Divine Father. We speak of His teaching and we speak of His ministry. But when we think of all He might have taught us, or compare His teaching for minuteness with that of His Rabbinic contemporaries, of for logical completeness with the teaching of St. Paul, we see at once that He was not in the ordinary sense of the word a Teacher. We speak also of His ministry, the ministry of reconciliation. Yet only twice is it recorded that He used the words 'Thy sins be forgiven thee.' Even of His personal dealing with individual souls the mention is quite scanty; and yet how unspeakably precious such records must have been to the early Church. Why are they not more numerous? Let it be suggested that they were not the chief work of His early life. Then what was the greatest work of His life? Was it not this---to forgive and to retain sins by the witness of a Divine life lived among men; to put right and wrong on a new basis; to reveal sins where no sin had been suspected before; to reveal possibilities of holiness and of communion with God, such as the human heart had never conceived; to manifest the blackness of egotism in all its forms as the mother and fountain of all sins? 'I came not to do my own will, but the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.' 'I have glorified thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which thou hast given me to do.' This attitude towards sin, this positive attitude---not a string of negations like the old law, but the manifestation of the joy of obedience---was surely the characteristic feature of our Lord's life as distinguished from His death. Here may we not find the nobler and more exalting conception of the Apostolic commission?

To pass from generalities to the actual facts of life, is not every one of us daily forgiving and retaining sins? What else is the public opinion of our schools and universities and social circles but a very practical form of excommunication from or of admission to communion in the amenities of daily life? To that public opinion we each of us contribute our share. We ratify its sentences or we denounce them. We confirm its applause or we refuse to confirm it.

Confronted with ethical problems, ancient and modern, we are daily forgiving and retaining sins. Does God confirm our judgments? Those whose sins we forgive, are they forgiven? Those whose sins by us are retained, are they retained? The libertine in whose defense of vice we have, like cowards, acquiesced, does he receive acquittal from God? The social worker whose uncouthness is more intolerable than vice---is he an outcast before God? Does it ever occur to us that the Holy Spirit is our inheritance as a child of God, for this very purpose that our approvals and condemnations may be echoes of the mind of God? It is to be feared that there is no field of duty in which human laziness and unwillingness to be at the pain of thinking are so constantly manifested. It is so easy to borrow the judgments of others, so hard to acquire the mind of Christ. Yet what is there more worthy of achievement? What measure of earthly success or reward is comparable with the acquirement of true heavenly-mindedness? For true heavenly-mindedness is not the cultivation of dreamy sentimentality. It is learning to see things whole, and to see them true. It is learning to look at the world as God looks at it. In this school no human teacher can be our master. We must receive the Spirit which is of God if we are to know the things which are freely given us of God.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha