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to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. And all bare Him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And as at His entrance upon His public ministry, the Holy Ghost descended
upon Him at His baptism in the Jordan; so likewise He qualified them for their office by bestowing upon them the same blessed gift. When He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. He thus bestowed upon them the gift of the Holy Ghost in His ordinary influences and operations. For it was not till the day of Pentecost that they were endued with miraculous powers, or the gift of tongues.
And He further added, as a part of His commission to His Apostles, Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.
Thus they were authorised to preach forgiveness of sins through Christ to them that should believe in His name; and to declare the dreadful condition of those who should reject the gospel of Christ; to denounce the wrath of God against the impenitent and unbelieving. These words were not, however, designed to be an engine of priestcraft; for which the corrupt church of Rome has made use of them. They were not intended to confer an arbitrary power on any body of men to forgive, or to refuse forgiveness of sins to any individuals, according to the pleasure of the minister. Our church has thought fit to preserve this form of words in her service for the ordering of Priests or Presbyters. Some persons have expressed their dissatisfaction at this; conceiving that an authority is here pretended to be given which cannot be exercised. Providentially our excellent Reformers were under the necessity of defending themselves against the attacks of their Popish adversaries on the subject of ordination, as well as on other points. On this account the venerable Bishop Jewell was led to write “The Apology of the Church of England,” which was published by royal authority, and with the consent of the rest of the bishops, as the public confession of the catholic and Christian faith of the church of England; and was enjoined to be placed in all the parish churches of England, that it might be read by all persons who wished to know its contents. On the subject before us, it is declared in this Apology, “We say that Christ has given to His ministers the power of binding and loosing, of opening and shutting;” which is the same as that of remitting and retaining of sins. “And that the power of loosing,” or remitting “ consists in this, that the minister, by the preaching of the gospel, sets before dejected minds and true penitents, forgiveness through the merits of Christ, and doth assure them thereby of the certain remission of their sins, and the hope of eternal salvation.—And we say, the minister doth exercise the power of binding and shutting," or retaining, “when he shutteth the gate of the kingdom of heaven against unbelievers, and obstinate persons, and denounceth to them the vengeance of God and eternal punishment.—The key with which the ministers do shut or open the kingdom of heaven, we say with St. Chrysostom, is the knowledge of Scripture, and with Eusebius, is the word of God. We say the disciples of Christ received this power from Him, that they might go and preach the gospel, that so they might be a savour of life unto life to them that did believe, and that they might be also a savour of death unto death to those that did not believe; that the minds of the pious, who were affrighted with the sense of their former ill lives and errors, after they beheld the light of the gospel and believed in Christ, might be opened by the word of God, as doors are with a key; and that the wicked and stubborn; who would not believe and return into the way, might be left shut up and locked; and as St. Paul expresseth it, might wax worse and worse.
This we take to be the meaning of the keys, and that in this manner the consciences of men are either bound or loosed. Seeing then the key by which a passage is opened for us into the kingdom of heaven is the word of the gospel, and the interpretation of the scriptures; where there is no such word, there is no key.–And we deny that even the Pope himself, except he make it his business to bend and subdue the consciences of men to the word of God, can either open or shut, or hath at all the keys.” This, I conceive, is a sufficient explanation of the subject of the remission and retaining of sins. There is another meaning referred to in the same place, respecting the excommunication of scandalous offenders, and their restoration to the privileges of church-membership; on which there is no need to enlarge.
Having thus shown the true meaning, as I conceive, of the commission given to the Apostles by our blessed Saviour, in the Gospel for this day; and that it is the same as that with which the ministers of Christ have been entrusted in all ages of the Christian church ; let us now consider more particularly the short salutation which the Lord Jesus addressed to His disciples in the text : Peace be unto you. It is evident from the repetition of these words by our blessed Saviour, after He had given a proof to His disciples that He had been made a sacrifice for sin by showing them His hands and His side, and they had expressed their joy and gladness at seeing Him again alive among them; it is evident that something more was meant than a removal of their fears on beholding one whom
they had not expected to see again, something more than a correction of their misapprehension in supposing that they had seen a spirit. The kind salutation would doubtless remind them that this was His last legacy before His death; Peace, I leave with you, My peace I give unto you ; not as the world giveth, give I unto you : let not your
heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. And again, These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation ; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.85 How great a blessing is it to enjoy this peace, the peace of God which passeth all understanding! There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.86 Yet how do many persons flatter themselves, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of my heart, to add sin tosin.87 The peace which the Lord Jesus Christ gives to His believing people is the result of pardoning mercy. Peace flows into the conscience in consequence of forgiveness of sins being made known to it. This our blessed Saviour procured, having made peace through the blood of His cross,88 and at the time here spoken of He came to impart it to His disciples. When He had said, Peace be unto you; He showed unto them His hands and His side ; and then said to them again, Peace be unto you. His hands and His side had been pierced for sin.
85 Johnxiv.27.xvi.33. 86 Isa.xlviii. 22. 87 Deut.xxix. 19. 88 Col.i.20.