Penance and Confession

A Biblical and Historical Analysis of the Roman Catholic Doctrine of Penance and Confession

By William Webster

The Council of Trent teaches that Christ instituted the priesthood for two primary functions: to forgive sins and to administer the sacrament of the eucharist. It declares that through confession of sin to a priest, by his absolution and performance of the prescribed penance, an individual can receive forgiveness of sins. The Roman Church teaches that sin requires that satisfaction be made to God and this is achieved through penance and good works, through the enduring of sufferings in purgatory and through indulgences which are authorized by the pope. Along with its teaching on the eucharist, the Roman Catholic teaching on confession and penance hits at the heart of the Reformation debate. It was the indulgence controversy which first fueled it. It began with a criticism of that particular practice and then to a criticism of the theology which was foundational to it and from there to a critique of the whole system of works and merit which had developed throughout the centuries. The controversy, as with the eucharist, centers around the whole issue of the meaning and nature of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that justification, rather than being a judicial declaration of God based on the imputed righteousness of Christ and received by faith, is, in fact, a process which is dependent upon infused grace which can be lost by committing serious sin. Should that happen, forgiveness must be sought and the state of justification regained. Forgiveness for sin is mediated through the Church and the sacrament of Confession and Penance. According to the Church of Rome penitential works are meritorious before God who accepts such works as a payment for the temporal punishment due to sin. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that men can make atonement for their own sins by making satisfaction for them through these works of penance and thereby merit God’s mercy and forgiveness and justification. The following are the teachings of the Council of Trent:

Canon IX. If anyone saith, that the sacramental absolution of the priest is not a judicial act, but a bare ministry of pronouncing and declaring sins to be forgiven to him who confesses; provided only he believe himself to be absolved, or (even though) the priest absolve not in earnest, but in joke; or saith, that the confession of the penitent is not required, in order that the priest may be able to absolve him: let him be anathema.

Canon XII. If any one saith, that God always remits the whole punishment together with the guilt, and that the satisfaction of penitents is no other than the faith whereby they apprehend that Christ has satisfied for them: let him be anathema.

Canon XIII. If any one saith, that the satisfaction for sins, as to their temporal punishment, is nowise made to God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, by the punishments inflicted by him, and patiently borne, or by those enjoined by the priest, nor even by those voluntarily undertaken, as by fastings, prayers, alms–deeds, or by other works also of piety; and that, therefore, the best penance is merely a new life: let him be anathema.

Canon XIV. If any man saith, that the satisfactions, by which penitents redeem their sins through Jesus Christ, are not a worship of God, but traditions of men, which obscure the doctrine of grace, and the true worship of God, and the benefit itself of the death of Christ: let him be anathema.

Note that Trent states that satisfaction is made to God through the works of penance and that through these works men redeem their sins. John Hardon affirms these teachings in these words:

Penance means repentance or satisfaction for sin. If we expect God’s forgiveness we must repent. Penance is necessary because we must expiate and make reparation for the punishment which is due our sins…Christ instituted this sacrament to give us a ready and assured means of obtaining remission for the sins committed after baptism…A person must be in a state of grace to merit divine mercy for his venial sins…Satisfaction must be made for sins already forgiven because normally some—and even considerable—temporal punishment is still due, although the guilt has been removed…We make satisfaction for our sins by every good act we perform in a state of grace but especially by prayer, penance and the practice of charity…All prayer merits satisfaction for sin…The patience acceptance of trials or humiliations sent by God is expiatory. Our works of satisfaction are meritorious if they are done while in a state of grace…Sacramental satisfaction is the penitential work imposed by a confessor in the confessional in order to make up for the injury done to God and atone for the temporal punishment due to sin already forgiven. The penitent is obliged to perform the penance imposed by the priest, and deliberate failure to perform a penance imposed for mortal sin is gravely sinful…Sins can also be exipiated through indulgences (John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden: Image, 1981, #1320, 1322, 1386, 1392, 1394).

And Ludwig Ott states:

By sacramental satisfaction is understood works of penance which are imposed on the penitent in atonement for the temporal punishment for sins (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma(Rockford: Tan, 1974), p. 434).

By the use of the words atonement, expiation, reparation, satisfaction, redeeming sin and merit the Roman Catholic teaching on penance hits right at the heart of the whole issue of the atonement of Jesus Christ. And what the Church is obviously saying by its teaching is that men must supplement the work of atonement done by the Lord Jesus on the Cross by their own works of atonement to satisfy the justice of God and to merit justification and the reward of heaven. But such teaching completely undermines the sufficiency of the atonement of Jesus Christ by adding human works as a supplement to his work. This is a serious departure from the gospel and the teaching of Scripture on the forgiveness of sins. The Church obviously teaches a works salvation which is strictly forbidden in Scripture.

There are a number of facts related to penance and confession which the Church of Rome says can be verified by the constant practice of the Church and the unanimous teaching of the Fathers. Those facts are private confession to a priest known as auricular confession, the repetitive nature of confession and penance for all known sin, the practice of private penance as a satisfaction for sin and finally the necessity for the absolution of a priest.

These teachings of the Roman Church can be traced back many centuries. However, it can also be demonstrated that they are clearly the innovations of a later age which have corrupted the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. They are contradictory to the Word of God. And, in addition, it can be demonstrated quite conclusively that much of the teaching related to confession and penance, including purgatory and indulgences are a matter of long historical development and were a source of conflicting opinion to as late a period as the 13th century. The historical facts reveal the following broad outlines regarding the development of the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins within the Roman Catholic Church which we will then examine in detail:

1) The early Church knew nothing of the doctrine of auricular confession, penance, purgatory or indulgences.

2) Confession in the early Church was a public matter that related to grave sin and could be done only once. There was no judicial absolution by a priest.

3) At the end of the second and beginning of the third century penances were introduced as a means of gaining forgiveness of sins and the distinction between mortal and venial sins became prominent.

4) Purgatory came into Christianity through paganizing and philisophical influences by way of Origen and Gregory the Great gave it dogmatic authority.

5) Private confession to a priest did not come into prominence until the 7th or 8th centuries and it completely displaced public confession.

6) The first recorded use of indulgences is dated from the 9th century.

7) There are conflicting opinions among theologians to as late as the 13th century on the exact nature of confession and penance and whether or not confession to a priest is necessary to receive forgiveness of sins.

The Historical Development of Confession and Penance

In the early Church repentance and faith were the two basic conditions of baptism. Initially, repentance carried the idea of a forsaking of sin and the world and self and the giving of oneself wholly to Christ to follow him. The idea of repentance as ‘penance’, that is, as consisting of human works by which one satisfied God’s justice for personal sin was unknown.

The writings of the Apostolic Fathers, for example, are full of exhortations to holy living and appeals to the readers to prove the validity of their faith by good works. These writings clearly teach that true saving faith is evidenced in good works and a holy life. But they do not teach that good works are in any way meritorious in salvation. On the contrary, they point to Christ himself as the source of salvation and emphasize repentance, faith, and baptism as the means of appropriating that salvation and of holy living as the natural result and evidence of true conversion. Clement of Rome, for example, clearly states that forgiveness and salvation are gifts of God given completely independent of human works. Clement makes these comments about justification by faith:

All of them therefore were all renowned and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous actions which they had wrought, but through his will; and therefore we who by his will have been called in Christ Jesus, are not made righteous by ourselves, or by our wisdom or understanding or piety or the deeds which we have wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which Almighty God has justified all men from the beginning of the world; to him be glory for ever and ever. Amen (J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, The Epistle of S. Clement to the Corinthians, 49, 32 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), pp. 34, 26).

Clement renunciates any thought of men being able to justify themselves before God and merit his grace on the basis of their own works. Justification, according to Clement, comes by faith in the person of Christ. He presents Christ as the one who has made a substitutionary atonement and his blood is the sole basis upon which men are justified and receive forgiveness, which is appropriated by repentance and faith. A large portion of his letter is very similar to the epistle of James in that he appeals to his readers to walk in holiness before God and in love for their fellow Christians.

Clement’s teaching is a fair summary of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers as a whole. There is no mention in the writings of Ignatius, The Didache, Clement or Polycarp, or the writings of Justin Martyr or Irenaeus of confession of sins to a priest or anyone other than God himself, of penance, purgatory or indulgences. The whole system of sacramental forgiveness devised by the Roman Church can find no affirmation in these early writings.

The Nature of Confession and Forgiveness

With the Church’s teaching that only the sins committed up to the time of baptism were forgiven in coming to Christ, there remains the problem of how sins were to be forgiven after baptism. The Church taught that confession of sin and repentance was necessary to receive forgiveness. But over time what we see is that the biblical idea of repentance is slowly displaced by the concept of penance. This began with the teaching that true repentance will manifest itself in fruit or outward works, and those works became identified as works of satisfaction such as fasting, weeping and praying. At first, the fundamental meaning of repentance as a heart forsaking of sin was preserved in the teaching of the major Fathers, but over time, the true meaning of repentance is lost to the externalizing works of penance, and penance and repentance, for all practical purposes become interchangeable terms.

The first Father to give a detailed description of the process of confession and penance as it developed in the post–apostolic age was Tertullian. The technical term by which this process was identified was exomologesis, a general term which embraced both the confession of sin to God as well as the works of penance. The really important aspect of this practice was not the confession so much as the acts of penance. Eventually the word confession or exomologesis became almost exclusively identified with penance. And it is clear from the writings of Tertullian that confession was a well established practice in the Church of his day.

Between the second and beginning of the third century, therefore, there is the development of a full blown penitential discipline known as confession or exomologesis. Thus, it is clear that confession of sin was practiced in the early Church. But the question is, What was its exact nature? Did it conform to what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about what it calls the sacrament of confession and penance? As one examines the historical documents of the writings of the Fathers it becomes very clear that the practice of the early Church was radically different from the practice and teaching of the Roman Church today as expressed authoritatively by the Council of Trent.

In the early Church confession or exomologesis had a very specific meaning which made it distinctively different from the practice of the Church of Rome today. These differences are highlighted by the following points: Confession was done for only a certain type of sin, it was generally public, the works of penance were also strictly a public affair which could only be done once in a person’s lifetime, and there was no judicial absolution as is practiced by the Roman Church today.

Karl Keating makes these comments on the practice of confession and penance in the early Church:

Christian writers such as Origen, Cyprian and Aphraates are quite clear in saying confession is to be made to a priest. In fact in their writings the whole process of penance is termed exomologesis which simply means confession. The confession was seen as the main part of the sacrament (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), pp. 184-185).

This is a very misleading statement. Keating would have us believe these fathers are endorsing the present Roman Catholic system. But this is not the case. What Keating fails to tell us are the facts mentioned above: Exomologesis was done once in a lifetime; it could not be repeated; it was done for very grave sin only; it was public and not private in nature; the priest did not grant absolution; and the main part of the practice was not confession but public penance. The Roman Catholic practice today is very different from the practice of the early church.

Let us examine each of these points historically.

The early Church dealt severely with sin among its members, but this had to do with sins it considered to be very grave such as adultery, fornication, murder, heresy and denying Christ in persecution. Such sins would be dealt with by excommunication. Thus sins were classified according to their gravity, but it was Tertullian in the latter half of the second century who was the first to introduce the distinction of mortal and venial sins. The Church then adopted his teaching and it became standard in the Church.

For those individuals who had committed mortal sin it became necessary, in order to be forgiven and restored to the Church, that they generally publically confess their sins and submit themselves to an extensive penitential discipline of personal humiliation which could only be done one time in one’s lifetime. This discipline meant that they would be excluded from communion and would undergo weeping, fasting and other disciplines requiring protracted ascetic and religious exercises for long periods of time.

There would most likely have been some kind of private consultation with the bishop or presbyter in which the individual would admit his sin and the nature of the public penance would be assigned. But the primary idea behind the actual confession of sin was that it was a personal acknowledgment of the sin in prayer to God himself, This is the teaching of Cyprian and he states specifically that that priests did not grant remission of sins but were responsible for consulting with offenders of grave sin and assign the proper penance:

That for brethren who have lapsed, and after saving Baptism have been wounded by the devil, a remedy may by penance be sought: not as if they obtained remission of sins from us, but that through us they may be brought to a knowledge of their offences, and be compelled to give fuller satisfaction to the Lord (A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1844), The Epistles of S. Cyprian 75.4).

By the time of the Council of Nicea this penetential discipline had been systematized into categories of penitents (Canon 11) in which the degree of exclusion from the worship services and the exact nature of the penance was regulated by the class of penitent one was designated:

Concerning those who have fallen without compulsion, without the spoiling of their property, without danger or the like, as happened during the tyranny of Licinius, the Synod declares that, though they have deserved no clemency, they shall be dealt with mercifully. As many as were communicants, if they heartily repent, shall pass three years among the hearers; for seven years they shall be prostrators; and for two years they shall communicate with the people in prayers, but without oblation (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post–Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), Second Series, Volume 14, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, I Nice, Canon 11, p. 24).

Writing in the middle of the fourth century Basil the Great, the bishop of Caesarea, describes in great detail the different classes of penitents and the type and length of penance one must undergo for committing any form of sexual sin, murder or apostasy. The following is but one example of many that are given in his writings:

LVI. The intentional homicide, who has afterwards repented, will be excommunicated from the sacrament for twenty years. The twenty years will be appointed for him as follows: for four he ought to weep, standing outside the door of the house of prayer, beseeching the faithful as they enter in to offer prayer in his behalf, and confessing his own sin. After four years he will be admitted among the hearers, and during five years will go out with them. During seven years he will go out with the kneelers, praying. During four years he will only stand with the faithful, and will not take part in the oblation. On the completion of this period he will be admitted to the sacrament.

LVII. The unintentional homicide will be excluded for ten years from the sacrament. The ten years will be arranged as follows: For two years he will weep; for three years he will continue among the hearers; for four he will be a kneeler; and for one he will only stand. Then he will be admitted to the holy rites.

LVIII. The adulterer will be excluded from the sacrament for fifteen years. During four he will be a weeper, and during five a hearer, during four a kneeler, and for two a stander without communion (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post–Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), Second Series, Volume 8, Basil: Letters and Select Works, Letter 217, Canons 56, 57, 58, p. 256).

Basil states that the confession of sin is public and the different stages of the exomologesis are described as weepers, hearers, kneelers and standers, which are also public in nature. All of Basil’s canons which deal with confession and penance have to do in some form with the grave or mortal sins and Augustine, writing in the fifth century, reveals that the practice of the Church was the same in his day. The public practice of what the Church called confession or exomologesis was only done for sins which were categorized as mortal, those being sexual sins (adultery, fornication, perversion), murder and apostasy. And it could only be done once. If an individual, after penance, committed the same grave sins again, there was no forgiveness available through the Church though Augustine teaches that if he truly repented before God and proved it by private penance and good works that he could appeal to the mercy of God. The lighter sins which Christians commit are not subject to this confession but are dealt with on a personal basis through personal prayer, good works and private penance. These sins were never confessed privately to a priest and absolved by him, but were confessed directly to God. The following are Augustine’s comments on the nature of the forgiveness of sins:

When ye have been baptized, hold fast a good life in the commandments of God, that ye may guard your Baptism even unto the end. I do not tell you that ye will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of fight sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What hath the Prayer? ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.’ Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which ye must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom ye have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. In three ways then are sins remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume III, St. Augustin, On The Creed 15, 16).

But they who think that all other sins are easily atoned for by alms, yet have no doubt of three being deadly, and such as require to be punished by excommunications, until they have been healed by a greater humility of penance, namely, unchastity, idolatry, murder (Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (London: Oxford, 1847), St. Augustine, Of Faith and Works 34).

Vice, however, sometimes makes such inroads among men that, even after they have done penance and have been readmitted to the Sacrament of the altar, they commit the same or more grevious sins, yet God makes His sun to rise even on such men and gives His gifts of life and health as lavishly as He did before their fall. And, although the same opportunity of penance is not again granted them in the Church, God does not forget to exercise His patience toward them (The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: Catholic University, 1953), Saint Augustine, Letters, Volume III, Letter 153, p. 284-285).

That there was only one repentance available through the Church for grave sins is also affirmed by the writings of The Shepherd of Hermas, Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose and Pacian and by numerous canons of different councils of the Church. These writings cover the time frame of the immediate post–apostolic age up through the sixth century demonstrating that the practice of the Church for many centuries was very different from that which is decreed by the Council of Trent (A documentation from the writings of these fathers is listed in an Appendix at the end of this article).

In their book which traces the development of penance in the early Church and documents the penitential discipline which developed in later centuries, John McNeill and Helena Gamer make these comments about the nature of confession and penance in rhe early centuries:

Christianity from the first applied austere standards of behavior, and in the course of its advance in the Graeco–Roman world developed a discipline for the correction of Christians who violated the code. In the first stage this took the form of public confession, made before the assembled congregation. In graver offenses and in cases of impenitence or of public scandal, this discipline was accompanied by a period of exclusion from the fellowship…The word exomologesis is used to include both confession and penance which are parts of the same process of public humiliation. There is no suggestion that any other kind of penance is in existence…It is not to be supposed, however, that frequent penance for the grave sins, the customary practice of later centuries, was yet permitted… advocates of public penance in the Middle Ages often cited the patristic literature as evidence that the act of penance may not be repeated (John McNeill and Helena Gamer, Medieval Hand-Books of Penance (New York: Octagon, 1965), pp. 4, 8, 14).

The Roman Catholic historian, Charles Hefele, in commenting on the practice of the Novatians to permanently exclude from the Church all who lapsed in a time of persecution, affirms the above conclusions of the practice of confession and penance in the early Church:

The Cathari who are here under discussion are no other than the Novatians…who from a spirit of severity wished to exclude for ever from the Church those who had shown weakness during persecution…Their fundamental principle of the perpetual exclusion of the lapsi was in a manner the concrete form of the general principle, brought forward two generations before, that whoever after baptism once fell into mortal sin, should never be received back into the Church. The Catholic Church was herself in those times very much inclined to severity: she granted permission to perform penance only once; whoever fell a second time was for ever excluded (Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church (Edinburgh: Clark, 1895) Volume I, pp. 410-411).

J.N.D. Kelly in commenting on the historical development of confession and penance summarizes all that has been said and confirms the fact that for the first centuries there existed no sacrament of private confession and priestly absolution:

With the dawn of the third century the rough outlines of a recognized penitential discipline were beginning to take shape. In spite of the ingenious arguments of certain scholars, there are still no signs of a sacrament of private penance (i.e. confession to a priest, followed by absolution and the imposition of a penance) such as Catholic Christendom knows to-day. The system which seems to have existed in the Church at this time, and for centuries afterwards, was wholly public, involving confession, a period of penance and exclusion from communion, and formal absolution and restoration—the whole process being called exomologesis…Indeed, for the lesser sins which even good Christians daily commit and can scarcely avoid, no ecclesiastical censure seems to have been thought necessary; individuals were expected to deal with them themselves by prayer, almsgiving and mutual forgiveness. Public penance was for graver sins; it was, as far as we know, universal, and was an extremely solemn affair, capable of being undergone only once in a lifetime ( J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 216-217).

What the early Church called confession or public penance for grave sin was not initially something that could be done over and over again. And because of its very demanding and humiliating character many people put off the discipline until the end of their lives. However, over time there was a gradual change in this practice so that eventually no matter how often an individual might sin he could seek reconciliation through the presbyter. Just as Augustine complained of the tendency in his day for laxity of some in their attitude towards emphasizing the necessity for true repentance for catechumens, so we find a gradual tendency for a more and more lenient view towards sin and its forgiveness relative to the practice of confession and penance in the Church.

For all practical purposes the Church abandoned in practice the teaching of biblical repentance. Men could now receive forgiveness for the same sins as often as needed no matter how often they sin. There were reactions to this more relaxed attitude and practice as, for example, the third Council of Toledo (A.D. 589) which condemned outright (Canon 11) the practice of frequent confession and penance. This canon states:

In some churches of Spain, disorder in the ministry of penance has gained ground, so that people sin as they like, and again and again ask for reconciliation from the priest. This must no longer happen; but according to the old canons everyone who regrets his offence must be first excluded from communion, and must frequently present himself as a penitent for the laying on of hands when his time of penance is over, then, if it seems good to the bishop, he may again be received to communion; if, however, during his time of penance or afterwards, he falls back into his old sin, he shall be punished according to the stringency of the old canons (Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church (Edinburgh: Clark, 1895) Volume IV, pp. 419-420).

Hefele reiterates his statement, mentioned above, in explaining what the council of Toledo meant when it referred to a person being punished according to the stringency of the old canons who fell back into grave sin: ‘The ancient Church appointed only one single public penance, and, if anyone after penance again fell into a gross sin he remained for ever excommunicated’ (Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church (Edinburgh: Clark, 1895) Volume IV, p. 420).

Such a canon gives clear documentation of the fact that the practice of the Church was changing from what had been the teaching of the Fathers and the practice of the Church for many centuries.

With the introduction of the concept of penance as a vital element of true repentance, we find that gradually the biblical concept of repentance is perverted as it degenerates into a legalistic system of works by which an individual made reparation to God for his own sins. These initially were taught to be the evidences or fruits of true repentance but they eventually became efficacious in their own right.

And along with the teaching that acts of penance can gain forgiveness for post–baptismal sins is the teaching that good works accrue merit before God. This concept was first introduced by Tertullian. He taught that sin after baptism incurs guilt before God which demands satisfaction. He further taught that human works such as fasting, almsgiving etc., render satisfaction to God and merit forgiveness for sins. In addition he taught that good works accrue merit before God. These thoughts were further embellished by his disciple Cyprian and from these two Fathers we have the foundation to the whole system of penance and works which later developed into and is characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church.

The result of this teaching was that the concept of penance soon displaced the biblical meaning of repentance and the two became synonymous terms. That this is the doctrine which is still taught today is seen by these statements of The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism. Please note the reference to penance and repentance as synonyms terms and the teaching on works and merit:

Penance means repentance or satisfaction for sin…Penance is also necessary because we must expiate and make reparation for the punishment which is due for our sins. Satisfaction is remedial by meriting grace from God…We make satisfaction for our sins for every good act we perform in the state of grace, but especially by prayer, penance, and the practice of charity…All prayer merits satisfaction for sin…Our works of satisfaction are meritorious if they are done while in a state of grace and in a spirit of penance…We can make up for sin through the sorrows and trials of life, including the pain of death, or through the purifying penalties in the life beyond. Sin can also be expiated through indulgences (John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden: Image, 1981, #1320, 1322, 1386, 1392, 1394).

The biblical teaching of repentance is the complete antithesis of the Roman Catholic dogma of penance. Repentance means a heart forsaking of sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness by trusting in his finished work. Christ has made a full atonement for sin. He has borne the full wrath of God against sin. Men therefore are called upon to confess their sins directly to God and recognize and appropriate the forgiveness already secured in the death of Christ. Penance, on the other hand, is man’s effort to satisfy God for personal sin through one’s own works.

Thus we see by the beginning of the third century major teachings which undermine the finished work of Christ and by the addition of human works which must supplement his work. This is a clear perversion of the doctrine of grace for it introduces human works as a supplement to the work of Christ. Over time, Christianity became more and more externalized. Repentance became characterized by outward acts which supposedly made expiation for sin. And coupled with this was the rise of asceticism in which men sought to achieve merit before God by living a life consisting of monastic withdrawal from the world, voluntary poverty, celibacy, and harsh treatment of the body. These works supposedly brought an individual into a higher state of spirituality and enabled him to earn or merit the grace of God and thereby heaven through his good works.

Restoration to the Church

Once the period of public penance had been completed the penitent was reinstated into the full fellowship of the Church and allowed to partake once again of the sacraments. This took place through the laying on of hands in a public ceremony. But this restoration was simply the public declaration that the individual had completed the required penance and was officially reinstated. There was no sacramental absolution which became the practice of the Church many centuries later.That this was a public and declarative act is seen from the following statement from Cyprian:

For whereas in lesser sins sinners do penance for an appointed time, and according to the rules of discipline, come to confession, and by laying on of hands by the Bishop and Clergy, recover the right of communion (Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1844), The Epistles of S. Cyprilan 16.2).

Trent says that there are a number of elements which make up the sacrament of penance which are necessary for the sacrament to be valid. An important element is absolution by the priest and then the performance of the works of satisfaction. But an interesting historical point about the teaching of Trent on penance is that related to priestly absolution, for this practice was not found in the early Church. Absolution was not a judicial act but simply the bishop declaring that an individual had fulfilled his obligation to the Church and was restored to fellowship. McNeill and Gainer point out that the practice of penance was during the first centuries was not considered to be a sacrament and that it would be wrong to apply the teachings which evolved in the medieval Church on the Church of the early centuries:

To employ the word ‘absolution,’…in connection with the reconciliation of penitents at this period would be misleading if it involved a recognition of the medieval application of the term. Absolution was granted not at the beginning of penance but at its close, and it is not to be distinguished from reconciliation or readmission to communion. No formularies of absolution are preserved; and all information on the point indicates the use of a prayer, not of a declarative form (John McNeill and Helena Gamer, Medieval Hand-Books of Penance (New York: Octagon, 1965), pp. 16-17).

That auricular confession and judicial absolution granted by the priest to absolve men from their sins was not the practice of the Church from the very beginning as asserted by the Council of Trent can be seen in the fact that there was no general agreement in the Church about the nature and necessity of such an important issue to as late a period as the 13th century. It was a matter of debate among among Scholastic theologians, most of whom demonstrate that there were conflicting opinions even among the Church Fathers. Philip Schaff emphasizes these points:

At the close of the twelfth century a complete change was made in the doctrine of penance. The theory of the early Church, elaborated by Tertullian and other Church fathers, was that penance is efficient to remove sins committed after baptism, and that it consisted in certain penetential exercises such as prayer and alms. The first elements added by the medieval system were that confession to the priest and absolution by the priest are necessary conditions for pardon. Peter the Lombard did not make mediation of the priest a requirement, but declared that confession to God was sufficient. In his time, he says, there was no agreement on three aspects of penance: first, whether contrition for sin was not all that was necessary for its remission; second, whether confession to the priest was essential; and third, whether confession to a layman was insufficient. The opinions handed down from the Fathers, he asserts, were diverse, if not antagonistic.

Alexander of Hales marks a new era in the history of the doctrine. He was the first of the Schoolmen to answer clearly all these questions, and to him more than any other single theologian does the Catholic Church owe its doctrine of penance…Beginning with Alexander of Hales, the Schoolmen vindicate the positions that confession, to be efficacious, must be made to the priest, and that absolution by the priest is an essential condition of the sinner’s pardon. Bonaventura, after devoting much time to the question, ‘Whether it is sufficient to confess our sins to God,’ answered it in the negative. At greater length than Peter the Lombard had done, he quoted the Fathers to show that there was no unanimity among them on the question (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), Volume 5, pp.731-732, 735-737).

From these quotes it is very apparent that major changes eventually take place in the overall teaching and practice of penance. It obviously continued to be consistently practised and became inculcated in the Church to such a degree that, in the Middle Ages, it developed into a very regulated affair in which certain punishments were prescibed for specific sins. These were written down in penitential books which document for us the penetential practice of the Church beginning at about the seventh century. It is with these books that we find the documentation of a clear change in the practice of penance in the Church, which the council of Toledo protested against, but which eventually culminated in the practices sanctioned by the Council of Trent. They reveal a radical change from the practice of the early Church. McNeill and Gamer make these comments on the nature of that change:

The public procedure, in which the penitent in his humiliation implores the intercession of ‘all the brethren,’ was later to be replaced by a private and secret rite involving confession to and absolution by a priestly confessor and entailing acts of penance that were often mainly or wholly private. In this transformation of penance the penitential books were to play an important role.

When all the similarities between the penetentials and earlier writings on penance have been recognized, it is still evident that the emergence of the series marks a new departure. Not only do the penitentials indicate a new method of penitential discipline; they also constitute a means hitherto unemployed of guiding confessors in their task. From the inception of the use of these manuals arises a new era in the history of penance.

According to the penitentials penance is to be administered privately at every stage; confession is to be made in secret to a qualified person, who is regularly, of course, a priest…Penance was…now in general wholly private in the sense of being dissociated from the assembled church.

There was no public exomologesis and no corporate knowledge of the matter on the part of the congregation. Before the reactionary council of Toledo forbade the iteration of penance (589)…a number of penitential books had been written and put to use. They assert the principle, with scant courtesy to the Church fathers, that penance may take place whenever there are sins to be repented. The penance of the penitentials is available as often as it is sought. It is designed as the habitually repeated practice of all the faithful, not as the resort of penitents who had been exceptionally wicked (John McNeill and Helena Gamer, Medieval Hand-Books of Penance (New York: Octagon, 1965), pp. 23, 28-29).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the above historical facts related to the change that took place in the practice of penance:

During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation. To this “order of penitents” (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime. During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the “private” practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practiced down to our day’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church (Rome: Urbi et Orbi, 1994), #1447).

The Council of Trent makes the comment that from the very beginning the Church had practiced secret confession to a priest and it anathematizes anyone who denies this. But such an assertion is simply unsupportable by the historical evidence. Once again the Roman Church makes dogmatic assertions which, like so many of its teaching on Tradition, the papacy and Mary, can find no historical support.

It is quite obvious from these statements and the evidence that has been presented that confession and penance for many centuries in the Church was very different from the sacrament which the Council of Trent dogmatically asserts is binding on all believers and necessary for salvation. Its assertion that the form of the sacrament which it officially sanctioned had been the universal practice of the Church from the very beginning is totally false. It was not until the beginning of the eighth century that private confession began to displace the public form and it did not become a universal practice until the Middle Ages.

Such is the history of the development of the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance and confession in its teaching on forgiveness of sins. And closely aligned with this development is also the development of the Church’s teachings on indulgences and purgatory.

The Biblical Teaching Forgiveness and Repentance

The apostles taught that if men were to come into the experience of salvation they must repent and believe. The word repent or repentance is the Greek word metanoia and it fundamentally means a change of mind. In the biblical usage as it applies to the gospel it means a fundamental change of mind and heart towards God, Christ, sin and the world and such a change is evidenced in the fruit of a changed life which is characterized by a turning to Christ in personal commitment and a forsaking of the world and sin to be his follower. True repentance is always evidenced by a life that is lived unto the will of God, a Iife of holiness. Such a life, however, is not a life of perfection. And though the Scriptures exhort believers to a life of holiness, they also recognize that there will be a continuing need to deal with sin. And Scripture gives very clear instructions on the nature of receiving forgiveness of sins after one has become a Christian and is a member of the Church.

The Roman Catholic Church claims that Christ established the priesthood for the specific purpose of dealing with men’s sins through private confession and absolution and the assigning of penances to satisfy God’s justice. These claims are given biblical sanction by the following reasoning. We are told that Jesus had authority to forgive sins. This is clearly stated by him in Matthew 9:6. We are then told that he has vested his followers with this same authority in that he has given his disciples and those who follow them as priests the authority to bind and loose (Mt. 16:19, 18:18; Jn. 20:23) and he stated that as the Father had sent him into the world so he was sending them into the world (Jn. 17:18, 20:21). And so, the logic runs, since Jesus was sent by the Father to forgive sins, he has granted his followers this same authority through the powers of binding and loosing and of exercising a ministry of reconciliation through the sacrament of confession and penance (2 Cor. 5:18-20). The Church also appeals to James 5:16 and 1 John 1:9 which do indeed command Christians to confess their sins.

However, such logic is flawed for it rests on a false foundation and false interpretation of Scripture. First of all, Scripture teaches that Christ did not establish a New Testament priesthood but that the whole order of priesthood has been completely eliminated since Christ himself has assumed that position. The authoritative office in the New Testament is now that of an elder or pastor (presbuteros) who functions as an overseer (episkopos), and not that of a priest.

Secondly, the major passages that relate to binding and loosing, rather than teaching that Jesus was granting authority to the apostles as priests to hear confession and grant absolution have to do with a declarative authority to proclaim the gospel and to offer the free forgiveness of sins to men if they will come to him in repentance and faith. This is the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20) which has been given to the apostles and the followers of Christ. It is true that Jesus has authority to forgive sins and he exercised that prerogative as a personal right. But when he states that he is sending the apostles into the world as the Father sent him into the world we must make a clear distinction between what Christ can do as God and what he has authorised his followers to do in his name.

For example, Christ also came to make atonement for sin and was sent by the Father for that purpose. But we do not claim that the apostles likewise have been given authority to make an atonement for sin. Christ was also sent by the Father to proclaim the gospel and free forgiveness of sins on the conditions of repentance and faith (Lk.4:18; Mk. 1: 15). It is in this sense that the apostles are sent into the world as Christ was sent into the world. The authority granted the apostles is strictly related to the proclamation of the gospel. Only God can forgive sins and the apostles have the authority granted them to proclaim that on the basis of the work of Christ men can expect God to grant them forgiveness (Mt. 28:18-20).

And, thirdly, the Roman Catholic logic is flawed because the passages which call for personal confession have nothing to do with priestly confession and absolution. Men are called upon to confess their sins directly to God, through Christ alone as their priest, and to rest in the finished work of Christ as a payment for those sins. Men can go directly to God in confession of sin and receive forgiveness directly from him without going through a priest and without doing penances to make satisfaction for their sins. This is clearly stated in Hebrews 10:19-22:

Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

This should be obvious as well from an analysis of the priesthood of the Old Testament. There is not the slightest hint that these priests heard the people’s sins and judicially absolved them from their sins. Men confessed their sins directly to God on the basis of the atoning sacrifice which was slain in their place. God has never ordained that confession of sin be made to a priest and the performance of penance to receive forgiveness.

Part of true confession of sin is the important element of repentance which means a turning away from and a forsaking of sin. But this is a very different thing from the idea of penance as personal works by which a man earns forgiveness for sins by satisfying the wrath and justice of God. This is not taught in Scripture. Forgiveness is based solely on the work of the Lord Jesus Christ and his finished work in making a complete atonement for all sin. To teach that a man can earn forgiveness through the works of penance is to pervert the gospel of grace by teaching that man’s work must somehow supplement the work of Christ. Scripture does teach that men are to bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20; Mt. 3:8) but what the Word of God means is that the life must demonstrate true repentance by the fruits of holiness. This is not a call to penance as an attempt to earn God’s forgiveness.

We are also enjoined to confess our sins to one another (Js. 5:16; Mt. 5:23-24). This means that we are to confess to a brother or sister where we have sinned against them and be reconciled with them and also to open our hearts to fellow believers that they might pray for us and we for them.

The Scriptures teach us that Christians are to deal very seriously with sin for the Church is a holy body called out by God from the world to be a distinctly holy people. Sin is not to be tolerated and accepted, it is to be confessed and repented of. This is, of course, sanctioned very clearly in the New Testament. Jesus and Paul both teach that the Church leadership is to confront sin and deal with it in the lives of those who are guilty. For example, Jesus gives the following specific instructions for dealing with sin in the church:

And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Mt. 18:15-18).

The objective in confronting such an individual is to bring repentance and restoration in the person’s relationship with God. And Jesus says that the Church has the power to bind and loose. If the individual in question refuses to repent then Jesus says that person is to be excommunicated from the fellowship of the Church and be treated as an unbeliever. And the judgment that is rendered by the Church will be likewise rendered in heaven.

The Church here is simply passing a judgment upon an individual which has already been passed in heaven. Binding and loosing here is a public matter that is strictly disciplinary in nature and has nothing to do with private confession to a priest who supposedly has the judicial power to absolve men from sin or conversely, to withold such absolution and thereby to bind men in sin. Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 also states that Church members whose lives are characterized by certain sins are to be excommunicated from the fellowship of the Church. But when they have demonstrated true repentance by forsaking their sin they are to be restored to the Church. And he says absolutely nothing about restoration being conditioned on the performance of penance. The only condition is a genuine forsaking of sin which is the true meaning of repentance in Scripture. To teach that repentance means penance is a perversion of the biblical meaning of the word.

Thus, the biblical passages used by the Church of Rome as a foundation for its teaching on confession and penance do not support its claims. It has misinterpreted those Scriptures. We know this to be the case because the New Testament Church did not apply the Scriptures of binding and loosing to auricular confession and priestly absolution, but rather to the preaching of the gospel.


Quotations From Writings Of The Early Fathers From The Second To The Fifth Centuries Demonstrating That There Was Only One Repentance Available For Grave Sins And It Was This Which Was Known As Confession.

The Shepherd of Hermas

‘Sir,’ say 1, ‘if a man who has a wife that is faithful in the Lord detect in her adultery, doth the husband sin in living with her?”So long as he is ignorant,’ saith he, ‘he sinneth not; but if the husband know of her sin, and the wife repent not, but continue in her fornication, and her husband live with her, he makes himself responsible for her sin and an accomplice in her adultery.’ ‘What then, Sir,’ say I, ‘shall the husband do, if the wife continue in this case?”Let him divorce her,’ saith he, ‘and let the husband abide alone: but if after divorcing his wife he shall marry another, he likewise committeth adultery.”If then, Sir,’ say I, ‘after the wife is divorced, she repent and desire to return to her own husband, shall she not be received?’’Certainly,’saith he, ‘if the husband receiveth her not, he sinneth and bringeth great sin upon himself; nay, one who hath sinned and repented must be received, yet not often; for there is but one repentance for the servants of God (J.B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker), The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 4.1).

Clement of Alexandria

He, then, who has received the forgiveness of sins ought to sin no more. For, in addition to the first and only repentance from sins (this is from the previous sins in the first and heathen life – I mean that in ignorance), there is forth-with proposed to those who have been called, the repentance which cleanses the seat of the soul from transgressions, that faith may be established. And the Lord, knowing the heart, and foreknowing the future, foresaw both the fickleness of man and the craft and sublety of the devil from the first, from the beginning; how that, envying man for the forgiveness of sins, he would present to the servants of God certain causes of sins; skillfully working mischief, that they might fall together with himself.

Accordingly, being very merciful, He has vouchsafed, in the case of those who, though in faith, fall into any transgression, a second repentance; so that should anyone be tempted after his calling, overcome by force and fraud, he may receive I a repentance not to be repented of. ‘For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.’ But continual and successive repentings for sins differ nothing from the case of those who have not believed at all, except only in their consciousness that they do sin. And I know not which of the two is worst, whether the case of a man who sins knowingly, or of one who, after having repented of his sins, transgresses again. For in the process of proof sin appears on each side, – the sin which in its commission is condemned by the worker of iniquity, and that of the man who, forseeing what is about to be done, yet puts his hand to it as a wickedness. And he who perchance gratifies himself in anger and pleasure gratifies himself in he knows what; and he who repenting of that in which he gratified himself, by rushing again into pleasure, is near neighbour to him who has sinned wilfully at first. For one who does again that of which he has repented and condemning what he does, performs it willingly.

He, then, who from among the Gentiles and from that old life has betaken himself to faith, has obtained forgiveness of sins once. But he who has sinned after this, on his repentance, though he obtain pardon, ought to fear, as one no longer washed to the forgiveness of sins. For not only must the idols which he formerly held as gods, but the works also of his former life, be abandoned by him who has been ‘born again, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh,’ but in the Spirit; which consists in repenting by not giving way to the same fault. For frequent repentance and readiness to change easily from want of training, is the practice of sin again. The frequent asking of forgiveness, then, for those things in which we often transgress, is the semblance of repentance, not repentance itself. (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1956) Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 11, Chapter XIII.


In graver sins, the place of repentance is granted once only (Homily 15 in Leviticus 25) (As quoted in A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (London: Oxford, 1842), Volume One, Tertullian, p. 362).


So far, O Lord Christ, may it happen unto Thy servants to speak and to hear concerning the rule of repentance, as it behoveth not the hearers to sin: or let them henceforth know nothing of repentance, nothing need it. I am loath to subjoin any mention of the second (yea and the last) hope, lest, in treating of a benefit of repentance yet in reserve, I seem to shew that there is yet room for sinning. Far be it from any one so to understand me, as though, because a door is still open to repentance, it is therefore open to sin; and as though the abundance of Divine mercy gave a licence to human recklessness. Let no one therefore be the less, because God is the more, good; sinning as oft as he is forgiven. Otherwise he shall find an end of escaping, when he hath not found an end of sinning. We have escaped once: suffice it to have exposed ourselves thus far to dangers, though we think that we shall again escape. men for the most part, when delivered from shipwreck, renounce thenceforward both the ship and the sea, and by remembering the danger, honour the good gift of God, that is, their own preservation. I commend their fear, I love their modesty: they would not a second time be a burden on the Divine mercy: they are afraid of seeming to tread under foot that bwhich they have already obtained: they shun, with assuredly a righteous care, to make trial a second time of that which they have once learned to fear. The end therefore of their venturousness is the proof of their fear: but fear in man is honour unto God.

But yet that most stubborn Adversary never suffereth his malice to rest, but then rageth the most when he perceiveth that man is wholly set free; then kindleth the most, when he is being quenched. Grieve and wail he needs must, when forgiveness of sins hath been granted, because so many of the works of death in man are destroyed, and so many records of his former condemnation effaced. He grieveth, because he that was a sinner, but now a servant of Christ, shall judge him and his angels. Wherefore he watcheth, he attacketh, he besetteth him, if by any means he may strike his eyes by carnal lust, or ensnare his mind by worldly allurements, or overthrow his faith by fear of earthly power, or turn him aside from the sure way by perverse traditions. He is not wanting in offences, nor inn temptations.

Wherefore God seeing beforehand these his poisons, although the door of pardon be shut, and the bar of Baptism interposed, hath yet suffered some opening to remain. He hath placed in the porch a second repentance, which may open unto them that knock, but now for once only, because now for the second time, and never again, because at the last time in vain.

But the mind is is not to be forthwith cut down and overwhelmed with despair, if any one become a debtor for a second repentance. Let him indeed be loath to repent again: let him be loath to peril himself again, but to be again delivered. Let none be ashamed. If the sickness be renewed, the medicine must be renewed. Thou wilt show thyself thankful to the Lord, if thou refusest not that which the Lord offereth thee. Thou hast offended, but thou mayest yet be reconciled. Thou hast One to Whom thou mayest make satisfaction, and Him willing to be satisfied. If thou doubtest this, consider what the Spirit saith to the Churches. To the Ephesians He imputeth that they had left their first love: those of Thyatira He reproacheth with fornication and the eating of things sacrificed unto idols: the Sardicans He accuseth of works not perfect: those of Pergamos He reproveth as teachers of perverse doctrines: those of Laodicea He upbraideth as trusting in riches: and yet He admonisheth all these to repent, and that even with threatenings. But He would not threaten the impenitent, if He would not pardon the impenitent.

The more straightened then the work of this second and only remaining repentance, the more laborious its proof , so that it may not be only borne upon the conscience within, but may also be exhibited by some outward act. This act, which is better and more commonly expressed by a Greek word (exomologesis), is Confession, whereby we acknowledge our sin to the Lord, not because He knoweth it not, but inasmuch as by confession satisfaction is ordered, from confession repentance springeth, by repentance God is appeased (A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (London: Oxford, 1842), Tertullian, Of Repentance 7,8,9, pp. 361-364).


Deservedly are they blamed who think that they often do penance, for they are wanton against Christ. For if they went through their penance in truth, they would not think that it could be repeated again; for as there is but one baptism, so there is but one course of penance, so far as the outward practice goes for we must repent of our daily faults, but this latter has to do with lighter faults, the former with such as are graver (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), Volume X, Ambrose, Concerning Repentance, Book II.10).


When ye have been baptized, hold fast a good life in the commandments of God, that ye may guard your Baptism even unto the end. I do not tell you that ye will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of fight sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What hath the Prayer? ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.’ Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which ye must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom ye have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. In three ways then are sins remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance (Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Volume III, St. Augustin, On The Creed 15, 16).

But they who think that all other sins are easily atoned for by alms, yet have no doubt of three being deadly, and such as require to be punished by excommunications, until they have been healed by a greater humility of penance, namely, unchastity, idolatry, murder (Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (London: Oxford, 1847), St. Augustine, Of Faith and Works 34).

Vice, however, sometimes makes such inroads among men that, even after they have done penance and have been readmitted to the Sacrament of the altar, they commit the same or more grevious sins, yet God makes His sun to rise even on such men and gives His gifts of life and health as lavishly as He did before their fall. And, although the same opportunity of penance is not again granted them in the Church, God does not forget to exercise His patience toward them (The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: Catholic University, 1953), Saint Augustine,Letters, Volume III, Letter 153, p. 284-285).


After the Passion of the Lord, the Apostles having considered and treated of all things, delivered an Epistle to be sent to such of the Gentiles as had believed; of which letter the import was as follows: The Apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words; so below, It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. This is the whole conclusion of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit, despised in those many ordinances, hath left these injunctions to us on condition of hazard of our lives. Other sins are cured by the compensation of better works: but these three crimes we must dread, as the breath of some basilisk, as a cup of poison, as a deadly arrow: for they know how, not to corrupt only, but to cut off the soul. Wherefore niggardliness shall be redeemed by liberality, slander be compensated by satisfaction, moroseness by pleasantness, harshness by gentleness, levity by gravity, perverse ways by honesty; and so in all cases which are well amended by their contraries. But what shall the despiser of God do? What the blood-stained? What remedy shall there be for the fornicator? Shall either he be able to appease the Lord who hath abandoned Him? Or he to preserve his own blood, who hath shed another’s? Or he to restore the temple of God, who hath violated it by fornication? These, my brethren, are capital, these are mortal, crimes.

What then? Must we die? Many too have in mind fallen into these sins. Many are guilty of blood; many, sold unto idols; many, adulterers. I say moreover that not hands are involved in murder, but every design also which hath driven the soul of another to death; and that not only those who have burnt incense on profane altars, but altogether every lust that wandereth beyond the marriage couch and the lawful embrace, is bound by the sentence of death. Whosoever shall have done these things after believing, shall not see the face of God. But those who are guilty of so great crimes are in despair.

Are we then to perish?… Shall we die in our sins? And what wilt thou do, the priest? By what gains wilt thou repay so many losses to the Church? Receive the remedy, if ye begin to despair, if ye aclmowledge yourselves miserable, if ye fear. Whoso is too confident is unworthy (saith the Lord) will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My word…In one and two is the Church, and in the Church is Christ. And he therefore, who hides not his sins from the brethren, assisted by the tears of the Church, is absolved by Christ.

To weep, namely, in sight of the Church, to mourn our lost life in sordid garb, to fast, to pray. to fall prostrate; to refuse luxury, if one invite to the bath; to say, if one bid to a feast, ‘These things for the happy! I have sinned against the Lord, and am in danger of perishing eternally. What have I to do with feasting who have injured the Lord?’ and besides this, to hold the poor man by the hand, to entreat the prayers of the widows, to fall down before the Priests, to ask the entreaties of the interceding Church, to assay all sooner than perish…If ye draw back from confession, remember hell, which confession shall extinguish for you.

Remember, brethren, there is no confession in the grave; nor can penance be assigned, when the season for penitence is exhausted. Hasten whilst ye are alive, whilst ye are on the way with your adversary. Lo! we fear the fires of this world, and we shrink back from the iron claws of tortures. Compare with them the hands of ever-during torturers, and the forked flames which never die!

By the faith of the Church, by mine own anxiety, by the souls of all in common, I adjure you and entreat you, brethren, not to be ashamed in this work, not to be slack to seize, as soon as ye may, the proffered remedies of salvation; to bring your souls down by mourning, to clothe the body with sackcloth, to sprinkle it with ashes, to macerate yourselves by fasting, to wear yourselves with sorrow, to gain the aid of the prayers of many. in proportion as ye have not bee a sparing in your own chastisement will God spare you. For He is merciful and long-suffering, of great pity, and repenteth Him against the evil He bath inflicted. Behold! I promise, I engage, if ye return to your Father with true satisfaction, erring no more, adding nothing to former sins, saying also some humble and mournful words, as, Father we have sinned before Thee, and are no more worthy to be called Thy sons; straightway shall leave you both that filthy herd, and the unseemly food of husks. Straightway on your return shall the robe be put upon you, and the ring adorn you, and your Father’s embrace again receive you (A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: Parker, 1844), The Extant Works of St. Pacian, Bishop of Barcelona, Treatise of Exhortation Unto Penance 9, 11, 15, 20, 24).