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Esoteric Christianity

By Annie Besant

The Forgiveness Of Sins

"I BELIEVE in ... the forgiveness of sins". " I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins". The words fall facilely from the lips of worshippers in every Christian church throughout the world, as they repeat the familiar creeds called those of the Apostles and the Nicene. Among the sayings of Jesus the words frequently recur: "Thy sins are forgiven thee", and it is noteworthy that this phrase constantly accompanies the exercise of His healing powers, the release from physical and moral disease being thus marked as simultaneous. In fact, on one occasion He pointed to the healing of a palsy-stricken man as a sign that he had a right to declare to a man that his sins were forgiven. [ S. Luke, v, 18.26.] [Page 260] So also of one woman it was said: "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much".[S. Luke, vii, 47]' In the famous Gnostic treatise, the Pistis Sophia, the very purpose of the Mysteries is said to be the remission of sins. " Should they have been sinners, should they have been in all the sins and all the iniquities of the world, of which I have spoken unto you, nevertheless if they turn themselves and repent, and have made the renunciation which I have just described unto you, give ye unto them the mysteries of the kingdom of light; hide them not from them at all. It is because of sin that I have brought these mysteries into the world, for the remission of all the sins which they have committed from the beginning. Wherefore have I said unto you aforetime, 'I came not to call the righteous, 'Now, therefore, I have brought the mysteries, that the sins of all men may be remitted, and they be brought into the kingdom of light. For these mysteries are the boon of the first mystery of the destruction of the sins and iniquities of all sinners'. [G. R. S. Mead, translated. Loc. cit., bk. ii, §§ 260, 261.] 

In these Mysteries, the remission of sin is by baptism, as in the acknowledgment in the Nicene [Page 261] Creed. Jesus says: "Hearken, again, that I may tell you the word in truth, of what type is the mystery of baptism which remitteth sins.. . . When a man receiveth the mysteries of the baptisms, those mysteries become a mighty fire, exceedingly fierce, wise, which burneth up all sins; they enter into the soul occultly, and devour all the sins which the spiritual counterfeit hath implanted in it". And after describing further the process of purification, Jesus adds: "This is the way in which the mysteries of the baptisms remit sins and every iniquity". [G. R. S. Mead, translated. Loc. Cit., bk ii, §§ 299, 300 ]

In one form or another the "forgiveness of sins" appears in most, if not in all, religions; and wherever this consensus of opinion is found, we may safely conclude, according to the principle already laid down, that some fact in nature underlies it. Moreover, there is a response in human nature to this idea that sins are forgiven; we notice that people suffer under a consciousness of wrong-doing, and that when they shake themselves clear of their past, and free themselves from the shackling fetters of remorse, they go forward with glad heart and sunlit eyes, though erstwhile enclouded by darkness. They feel as though a burden were lifted off them, a clog removed. The [Page 262] sense of sin" has disappeared, and with it the gnawing pain. They know the spring-time of the soul, the word of power which makes all things new. A song of gratitude wells up as the natural outburst of the heart, the time for the singing of birds is come, there is "joy among the Angels". This not uncommon experience is one that becomes puzzling, when the person experiencing it, or seeing it in another, begins to ask himself what has really taken place, what has brought about the change in consciousness, the effects of which are so manifest. 

Modern thinkers, who have thoroughly assimilated the idea of changeless laws underlying all phenomena, and who have studied the workings of these laws, are at first apt to reject any and every theory of the forgiveness of sins as being inconsistent with that fundamental truth, just as the scientist, penetrated with the idea of the inviolability of law, repels all thought which is inconsistent with it. And both are right in founding themselves on the unfaltering working of law, for law is but the expression of the divine Nature, in which there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Any view of the forgiveness of sins that we may adopt must not clash with this fundamental idea, as necessary to ethical [Page 263] as to physical science. "The bottom would fall out of everything" if we could not rest securely in the everlasting arms of the Good Law.

But in pursuing our investigations, we are struck with the fact that the very Teachers who are most insistent on the changeless working of law are also those who emphatically proclaim the forgiveness of sins. At one time Jesus is saying: "That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment", [S. Matt, xii, 36. ] and at another: "Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee".[Ibid., ix, 2] So in the Bhagavad-Gltâ, we read constantly of the bonds of action, that "the world is bound by action".[Loc. cit., iii, 9. ] and that a man "recovereth the characteristics of his former body", [Ibid, vi, 43] and yet it is said that "even if the most sinful worship me, with undivided heart, he, too, must be accounted righteous". [Ibid., ix, 30. ] It would seem, then, that whatever may have been intended in the world's Scriptures by the phrase, "the forgiveness of sins", it was not thought, by Those who best know the law, to clash with the inviolable sequence of cause and effect. [Page 264]

If we examine even the crudest idea of the forgiveness of sins prevalent in our own day, we find that the believer in it does not mean that the forgiven sinner is to escape from the consequences of his sin in this world; the drunkard, whose sins are forgiven on his repentance, is still seen to suffer from shaken nerves, impaired digestion, and the lack of confidence shown towards him by his fellow-men. The statements made as to forgiveness, when they are examined, are ultimately found to refer to the relations between the repentant sinner and God, and to the post-mortem penalties attached to unforgiven sin in the creed of the speaker, and not to any escape from the mundane consequences of sin. The loss of belief in reincarnation, and of a sane view as to the continuity of life, whether it were spent in this or in the next two worlds [See ante, Chap. VIII. ] brought with it various incongruities and indefensible assertions, among them the blasphemous and terrible idea of the eternal torture of the human soul for sins committed during the brief span of one life spent on earth. In order to escape from this nightmare, theologians posited a forgiveness which should release the sinner from this dread imprisonment in an eternal hell. It did not, and [Page 265] was never supposed to, set him free in this world from the natural consequences of his ill-doings, nor — except in modern Protestant communities — was it held to deliver him from prolonged purgatorial sufferings, the direct results of sin, after the death of the physical body. The law had its course, both in this world and in purgatory, and in each world sorrow followed on the heels of sin, even as the wheels follow the ox. It was but eternal torture — which existed only in the clouded imagination of the believer — that was escaped by the forgiveness of sins; and we may perhaps go so far as to suggest that the dogmatist, having postulated an eternal hell as the monstrous result of transient errors, felt compelled to provide a way of escape from an incredible and unjust fate, and therefore further postulated an incredible and unjust forgiveness. Schemes that are elaborated by human speculation, without regard to the facts of life, are apt to land the speculator in thought-morasses, whence he can only extricate himself by blundering through the mire in an opposite direction. A superfluous eternal hell was balanced by a superfluous forgiveness, and thus the uneven scales of justice were again rendered level. Leaving these aberrations of the unenlightened, [Page 266] let us return into the realm of fact and right reason.

When a man has committed an evil action he has attached himself to a sorrow, for sorrow is ever the plant that springs from the seed of sin. It may be said, even more accurately, that sin and sorrow are but the two sides of one act, not two separate events. As every object has two sides, one of which is behind, out of sight, when the other is in front, in sight, so every act has two sides, which cannot both be seen at once in the physical world. In other worlds, good and happiness, evil and sorrow, are seen as the two sides of the same thing. This is what is called karma — a convenient and now widely-used term, originally Samskrit, expressing this connection or identity, literally meaning "action" — and the suffering is therefore called the karmic result of the wrong. The result, the "other side", may not follow immediately, may not even accrue during the present incarnation, but sooner or later it will appear and clasp the sinner with its arms of pain. Now a result in the physical world, an effect experienced through our physical consciousness, is the final outcome of a cause set going in the past; it is the ripened fruit; in it a particular force becomes manifest and [Page 267] exhausts itself. That force has been working outwards, and its effects are already over in the mind ere it appears in the body. Its bodily manifestation, its appearance, in the physical world, is the sign of the completion of its course.[This is the cause of the sweetness and patience often noticed in the sick who are of very pure nature. They have learned the lesson of suffering, and they do not make fresh evil karma by impatience under the result of past bad karma, then exhausting itself. ] If at such a moment the sinner, having exhausted the karma of his sin, comes into contact with a Sage who can see the past and the present, the invisible and the visible, such a Sage may discern the ending of the particular karma, and, the sentence being completed, may declare the captive free. Such an instance seems to be given in the story of the man sick of the palsy, already alluded to, a case typical of many. A physical ailment is the last expression of a past ill-doing; the mental and moral outworking is completed, and the sufferer is brought — by the agency of some Angel, as an administrator of the law — into the presence of One able to relieve physical disease by the exertion of a higher energy. First, the Initiate declares that the man's sins are forgiven, and then justifies his insight by the authoritative word, "Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house". Had no [Page 268] such enlightened One been there, the disease would have passed away under the restoring touch of nature, under a force applied by the invisible angelic Intelligences, who carry out in this world the workings of karmic law; when a greater One is acting, this force is of more swiftly compelling power, and the physical vibrations are at once attuned to the harmony that is health. All such forgiveness of sins may be termed declaratory; the karma is exhausted, and a "knower of karma" declares the fact. The assurance brings a relief to the mind, that is akin to the relief experienced by a prisoner when the order for his release is given, that order being as much a part of the law as the original sentence; but the relief of the man who thus learns of the exhaustion of an evil karma is keener, because he cannot himself tell the term of its action. 

It is noticeable that these declarations of forgiveness are constantly coupled with the statement that the sufferer showed "faith", and that without this nothing could be done; i.e., the real agent in the ending of this karma is the sinner himself. In the case of the "woman that was a sinner", the two declarations are coupled: "Thy sins are forgiven . . . Thy faith hath saved [Page 269] thee; go in peace". [S. Luke, vii, 48, 50. ] This "faith" is the up-welling in man of his own divine essence, seeking the divine ocean of like essence, and when this breaks through the lower nature that holds it in — as the water-spring breaks through the encumbering earth-clods — the power thus liberated works on the whole nature, bringing it into harmony with itself. The man only becomes conscious of this as the karmic crust of evil is broken up by its force, and that glad consciousness of a power within himself, hitherto unknown, asserting itself as soon as the evil karma is exhausted, is a large factor in the joy, relief, and new strength that follow on the feeling that sin is "forgiven", that its results are past. 

And this brings us to the heart of the subject — the changes that go on in a man's inner nature, unrecognised by that part of his consciousness which works within the limits of his brain, until they suddenly assert themselves within those limits, coming apparently from nowhere, bursting forth "from the blue", pouring from an unknown source. What wonder that a man, bewildered by their downrush — knowing nothing of the mysteries of his own nature, nothing of "the inner God" that is verily himself — imagines that [Page 270] to be from without which is really from within, and, unconscious of his own Divinity, thinks only of Divinities in the world external to himself. And this misconception is the more easy, because the final touch, the vibration that breaks the imprisoning shell, is often the answer from the Divinity within another man, or within some superhuman being, responding to the insistent cry from the imprisoned Divinity within himself; he oft-times recognises the brotherly aid, while not recognising that he himself, the cry from his inner nature, called it forth. As an explanation from a wiser than ourselves may make an intellectual difficulty clear to our mind, though it is our own mind that, thus aided, grasps the solution; as an encouraging word from one purer than ourselves may nerve us to a moral effort that we should have thought beyond our power, though it is our own strength that makes it; so may a loftier Spirit than our own, one more conscious of its Divinity, aid us to put forth our own divine energy, though it is that very putting forth that lifts us to a higher plane. We are all bound by ties of brotherly help to those above us as to those below us, and why should we, who so constantly find ourselves able to help in their development souls less advanced than ourselves, [Page 271] hesitate to admit that we can receive similar help from Those far above us, and that our progress may be rendered much swifter by Their aid ? 

Now among the changes that go on in a man's inner nature, unknown to his lower consciousness, are those that have to do with the putting forth of his will. The Ego, glancing backward over his past, balancing up its results, suffering under its mistakes, determines on a change of attitude, on a change of activity. While his lower vehicle is still under his former impulses, plunging along lines of action that bring it into sharp collisions with the law, the Ego determines on an opposite course of conduct. Hitherto he has turned his face longingly to the animal, the pleasures of the lower world have held him fast enchained. Now he turns his face to the true goal of evolution, and determines to work for loftier joys. He sees that the whole world is evolving, and that if he sets himself against that mighty current it dashes him aside, bruising him sorely in the process; he sees that if he sets himself with it, it will bear him onwards on its bosom and land him in the desired haven.

He then resolves to change his life, he turns determinedly on his steps, he faces the other way [Page 272] The first result of the effort to turn his lower nature into the changed course, is much distress and disturbance. The habits formed under the impacts of the old views resist stubbornly the impulses flowing from the new, and a bitter conflict arises. Gradually the consciousness working in the brain accepts the decision made on higher planes, and then "becomes conscious of sin" by this very recognition of the law. The sense of error deepens, remorse preys on the mind; spasmodic efforts are made towards improvement, and, frustrated by old habits, repeatedly fail, till the man, overwhelmed by grief for the past, despair of the present, is plunged into hopeless gloom. At last, the ever-increasing suffering wrings from the Ego a cry for help, answered from the inner depths of his own nature, from the God within as well as around him, the Life of his life. He turns from the lower nature that is thwarting him to the higher which is his innermost being, from the separated self that tortures him to the One Self that is the Heart of all. 

But this change of front means that he turns his face from the darkness, that he turns his face to the light. The light was always there, but his back was towards it; now he sees the sun, and its radiance cheers his eyes, and [Page 273] overfloods his being with delight. His heart was closed; it is now flung open, and the ocean of life flows in, in full tide, suffusing him with joy. Wave after wave of new life uplifts him, and the gladness of the dawn surrounds him. He sees his past as past, because his will is set to follow a higher path, and he recks little of the suffering that the past may bequeath to him, since he knows he will not hand on such bitter legacy from his present. This sense of peace, of joy, of freedom, is the feeling spoken of as the result of the forgiveness of sins. The obstacles set up by the lower nature between the God within and the God without are swept away, and that nature scarce recognises that the change is in itself and not in the Oversoul. As a child, having thrust away the mother's guiding hand and hidden its face against the wall, may fancy itself alone and forgotten, until, turning with a cry, it finds around it the protecting mother-arms that were never but a handsbreadth away, so does man in his wilfulness push away the shielding arms of the divine Mother of the worlds, only to find, when he turns back his face, that he has never been outside their protecting shelter, and that wherever he may wander that guarding love is round him still. [Page 274]

The key to this change in the man, that brings about "forgiveness,"is given in the verse of the BhagavadGitâ already partly quoted: "Even if the most sinful worship me, with undivided heart he too must be accounted righteous, for he hath rightly resolved" On that right resolution follows the inevitable result: "Speedily he becometh dutiful and goeth to peace".[Loc. cit., ix, 31]' The essence of sin lees in setting the will of the part against the will of the whole, the human against the Divine. When this is changed, when the Ego puts his separate will into union with the will that works for evolution, then, in the world where to will is to do, in the world where effects are seen as present in causes, the man is accounted righteous"; the effects on the lower planes must inevitably follow; "speedily he becometh dutiful" in action, having already become dutiful in will. Here we judge by actions, the dead leaves of the past; there they judge by wills, the germinating seeds of the future. Hence the Christ ever says to men in the lower world: "Judge not". [S. Matt., vii, 1]

Even after the new direction has been definitely followed, and has become the normal habit [Page 275] of the life, there come times of failure, alluded to in the Pistis Sophia, when Jesus is asked whether a man may be again admitted to the Mysteries, after he has fallen away, if he again repents. The answer of Jesus is in the affirmative, but he states that a time comes when re-admission is beyond the power of any save of the highest Mystery, who pardons ever. "Amen, amen, I say unto you, whosoever shall receive the mysteries of the first mystery, and then shall turn back and transgress twelve times [even], and then should again repent twelve times, offering prayer in the mystery of the first mystery, he shall be forgiven. But if he should transgress after twelve times, should he turn back and transgress, it shall not be remitted unto him for ever, so that he may turn again unto his mystery, whatever it be. For him there is no means of repentance unless he have received the mysteries of that ineffable, which hath compassion at all times and remitteth sins for ever and ever.[Loc, cit.,bk. ii, § 305. ] These restorations after failure, in which "sin is remitted", meet us in human life, especially in the higher phases of evolution. A man is offered an opportunity, which taken, would open up to him new possibilities of growth. He fails to grasp it, and falls away [Page 276] from the position he had gained that made the further opportunity possible. For him, for the time, further progress is blocked; he must turn all his efforts wearily to retread the ground he had already trodden, and to regain and make sure his footing on the place from which he had slipped. Only when this is accomplished will he hear the gentle Voice that tells him that the past is out-worn, the weakness turned to strength, and that the gateway is again open for his passage. Here again the "forgiveness" is but the declaration by a proper authority of the true state of affairs, the opening of the gate to the competent, its closure to the incompetent. Where there had been failure, with its accompanying suffering, this declaration would be felt as a "baptism for the remission of sins", readmitting the aspirant to a privilege lost by his own act; this would certainly give rise to feelings of joy and peace, to a relief from the burden of sorrow, to a feeling that the clog of the past had at last fallen from the feet.

Remains one truth that should never be forgotten: that we are living in an ocean of light, of love, of bliss, that surrounds us at all times, the Life of God. As the sun floods the earth with his radiance so does that Life enlighten all, only that [Page 277] Sun of the world never sets to any part of it. We shut this light out of our consciousness by our selfishness, our heartlessness, our impurity, our intolerance, but it shines on us ever the same, bathing us on every side, pressing against our self-built walls with gentle, strong persistence. When the soul throws down these excluding walls, the light flows in, and the soul finds itself flooded with sunshine, breathing the blissful air of heaven. "For the Son of man is in heaven", though he know it not, and its breezes fan his brow if he bares it to their breaths. God ever respects man's individuality, and will not enter his consciousness until that consciousness opens to give welcome; "Behold I stand at the door and knock"[Rev., iii, 20. ] is the attitude of every spiritual Intelligence towards the evolving human soul; not in lack of sympathy is rooted that waiting for the open door, but in deepest wisdom.

Man is not to be compelled; he is to be free. He is not a slave, but a God in the making, and the growth cannot be forced, but must be willed from within. Only when the will consents, as Giordano Bruno teaches, will God influence man, though He be "everywhere present, and ready to come to the aid of whosoever turns to Him through [Page 278] the act of the intelligence, and who unreservedly presents himself with the affection of the will".[G. Bruno, trans, by L. Williams, The heroic enthusiasts,vol. i, p. 133. ] The divine potency which is all in all does not proffer or withhold, except through assimilation or rejection by oneself."[Ibid., vol. ii, pp. 27, 28. ]" It is taken in quickly, as the solar light, without hesitation, and makes itself present to whoever turns himself to it and opens himself to it... the windows are opened, but the sun enters in a moment, so does it happen similarly in this case".[Ibid,., pp. 102, 103 ] 

The sense of "forgiveness", then, is the feeling which fills the heart with joy when the will is tuned to harmony with the Divine, when, the soul having opened its windows, the sunshine of love and light and bliss pours in, when the part feels its oneness with the whole, and the One Life thrills each vein. This is the noble truth that gives vitality to even the crudest presentation of the "forgiveness of sins" and that makes it often, despite its intellectual incompleteness, an inspirer to pure and spiritual living. And this is the truth, as seen in the Lesser Mysteries. [Page 279] 



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