“Repent of this wickedness of yours and pray to the Lard"
Some New Testament Texts: Matthew 16:19; 18:15-20; Acts 8:12, 13, 18-24; Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26; James 5:16; 1 John 1:9; 5:16f.
XV.1DIDACHE: In the assembly confess your transgression, and do not come to your prayer with an evil conscience. (4-14)
2HERMAS, SHEPHERD: All the sins which they formerly committed shall be forgiven to all the saints who have sinned up to this day, if they repent with their whole heart and remove double-mindedness from their hearts. For the Master swore by his glory to his elect: when this day has been fixed, if there is still sin, they shall not have salvation. For repentance for the righteous has an end. The days of repentance have been fulfilled for all the saints, but there is repentance for the Gentiles until the last day. (Visions 2.2.4-5=6.4-5)
3After that great and holy calling [baptism], if any one who has been tempted by the devil should sin, he has one repentance. But if he sins and repents continually, it is unprofitable to such a man. Scarcely shall he live. (Mandates 4.3.6=31.6)
4Do you think that the sins of those who repent are forgiven immediately? Not at all. But it is necessary for the one who repents to torture his soul, to be very humble in all his deeds, and to be afflicted with various tribulations. (Similitudes 7.4=66.4)
5CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA: The one who has received forgiveness of sins ought to sin no more. For in addition to the first and only repentance of sins (this would be of those practised before in the first and heathen life–I mean sin done in ignorance) there is proposed for the moment for those who have been called a repentance that cleanses the soul from trespasses in order that faith may be established. Since the Lord knows the heart and foreknows what will happen, he foresaw from the beginning the fickleness of humanity and the craft and cunning of the devil. . . . Therefore, being full of mercy, he gave a second repentance to those who, although believers, fall into any trespass in order that if any one after his calling should be tempted by force or deceit he might still receive one repentance which is not to be repented of. . . . The person who has turned from the heathens and the former manner of life to the faith has attained the forgiveness of sins once. But the person who has afterward sinned and then repents, although having attained pardon, ought to be afraid since this one is no longer washed to the remission of sins. (Miscellanies 188.8.131.52-58.1)
6It ought to be known then that those who fall into sin after baptism are those who are subjected to discipline; for the deeds done before baptism are remitted, and those done after are purged. (Ibid. 4.24-154.3)
7If it should happen that on account of ignorance, weakness, or involuntary circumstances one should be ensnared in sins or transgressions after receiving the [baptismal] seal and redemption. . ., this one has not been absolutely condemned by God. For to every one who in truth turns to God wholeheartedly the doors are opened, and the thrice pleased father receives the son who truly repents. True repentance is to be no longer guilty of the same things but wholly to root out of the soul the sins for which one condemned oneself to death. . . .
Thief, do you wish to receive forgiveness? Steal no more. Adulterer, be inflamed no more. Fornicator, be pure in the future. Extortioner, repay with interest. False witness, practice truth,. . .
In order that you may take heart, having truly repented, that there remains for you a trustworthy hope of salvation, hear a story, not a story but an account concerning the apostle John which has been handed down and kept in memory. [There follows the record of a young man left by John with an elder of the church to raise, who was baptized but then became the leader of an outlaw band, and of John’s going out to meet him and reclaiming him for the church.] When John approached, the robber embraced the old man. As he was able he spoke in his defense with lamentations and baptized himself a second time with tears. . . . The apostle prayed, kneeled down, and kissed his right hand as having been purified by repentance. He brought him back to the church and made intercession for him with profuse prayers. He struggled with him in continual fastings. With many soothing words he subdued his mind, and he did not depart before he restored him to the church. (Who is the Rich Man that is Saved 39-42)
8IRENAEUS: When after much difficulty the brethren had converted her [a deacon’s wife who had been led astray by the magician Marcus], she spent her whole time in confession, mourning and weeping. (Against Heresies 1.13.5)
9Some make public confession, but those who are ashamed to do this and to some extent lose hope of the life of God either fall away entirely or halt between the two opinions. (Ibid. 1.13.7)
10EUSEBIUS: Natalius was persuaded by them to be called a bishop of this heresy [Adoptionism] with a salary, so that he received from them one hundred and fifty denarii a month. While he was with them, he was admonished by the Lord many times through visions, for the compassionate God and our Lord Jesus Christ did not wish a witness of his own sufferings [i.e. one who had confessed the faith before pagan rulers] to depart from the church and perish. . . . When at last he was scourged by the holy angels the whole night through and was tormented not a little, he arose early in the morning and put on sackcloth and sprinkled himself with ashes and with much haste and tears he fell down at the feet of Zephyrinus the bishop [of Rome]. Rolling at the feet of the clergy and the laity, he moved with his tears the compassionate church of the merciful Christ. Although he made many petitions and showed the wounds from the blows he had received, he was scarcely admitted to fellowship. (Church History 5.28.10-12)
11TERTULLIAN: This act [second repentance], which is most often expressed by the Greek term, is exomobgēsis, by which we confess our transgressions to the Lord. Not that he is ignorant of them, but inasmuch as by confession satisfaction is arranged, from confession repentance is born, by repentance God is appeased. Thus exomobgesis is a discipline for human abasement and humiliation, enjoining that behavior which brings mercy. It commands with regard to the very clothes and dress to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover the body with soiled clothing, to lay the soul low with lamentations, to exchange severe treatment for those sins which were committed; for the rest to allow only plain food and drink, not (to be sure) for the stomach’s sake but the soul’s. And for the most part it commands indeed to strengthen prayers with fastings, to heave sighs, to weep, to groan day and night to your Lord God, to fall prostrate before the elders, to kneel before God’s dear ones, to enjoin on all the brothers to be ambassadors on behalf of your supplications.
All these things exomologesis performs so that it may make repentance acceptable, so that it may honor God by the fear of danger, so that by itself pronouncing judgment on the sinner may act in place of God’s wrath and by temporal afflictions may (I do not say frustrate but) expunge eternal punishments. . . .
With one or two is the church, and the church is Christ. Therefore when you prostrate yourself at the brethren’s knees, you are handling Christ, you are entreating Christ. Likewise when they shed tears over you, Christ is suffering, Christ is supplicating the Father. (On Repentance 9, 10)
The early Christian community took seriously the problem of sin within its ranks. The ideal was that Christians should live above sin, once having been cleansed from their former manner of life. It soon became evident that all did not live up to the standard. Yet there was a strong feeling in the ancient church against forgiveness for post-baptismal sins.
The Didache required reconciliation of the members of the community with one another before participation in the breaking of bread (VIII.3). It is not clear whether the confession of sins enjoined in that passage is public or private, corporate or individual. Elsewhere the writer does call for a confession of sins “in church,” or “in the assembly” (XV.I).1 Again, it is not clear whether this was a corporate, liturgical prayer for forgiveness or a special confession by an individual who had fallen from the Christian standard of life.
The ultimate power of discipline in the church for wrongdoers was exclusion from communion.2 The rule which excluded the unbaptized from the eucharist (VIII.3) kept from the table those who had fallen away from the Christian fellowship (IX.3 implies not only the necessity of baptism but also continued living according to the teachings of Christ). The second-century sources occasionally speak of those excluded from fellowship, and so from communion,3 but do not give us details about how the ban was imposed. More is said about the procedure for readmission to the fellowship of the church, hence more attention will be given to this aspect of church discipline.
The Didache uses for “confess” the Greek word exomologeō (noun, exomologēsis). It is this word which is translated “confess” in the other selections. This word is from homologeō, the general word used for agreeing, confessing faults, professing faith or acknowledging a fact, and praising God. Exomologeō could have most of these meanings too, but it was the regular word for the confession of one’s sins. In fact, it became the technical word for the public act whereby one sought restoration to the fellowship of the church from which that one had departed or had been excluded. Hence, Tertullian, writing in Latin, refers to the public confession by the Greek word (XV.11). Exomologesis had become a technical word just as baptisma and several other Greek words from the earliest Christian vocabulary did. They were not translated into other languages but were simply taken over with the corresponding spelling. It cannot be determined how early this technical usage of exomologesis came about; its occurrence in such documents as the Didache shows the general custom that made this terminology technical. The word itself indicates the verbal acknowledgment of transgression and the public nature of this acknowledgment.
Confession calls attention to the personal appeal for reconciliation and so to the public act performed for the sake of restoration. The word repentance calls attention to the inward state of penitence and thus to the state of forgiveness. Several authors refer to the means of forgiveness for post-baptismal sin and of readmission to the Christian community as repentance (XV.2-5, 11). In Greek the word is metanoia; in Latin, poenitentia, from whence comes the word penance. Penance is now used to refer to the sacramental or ecclesiastical discipline for the forgiveness of post-baptismal sins, as distinguished from the evangelical “penitence" associated with conversion. The idea of penance came from the usage of the word in reference to the acts of repentance which the quotations in this chapter show were required as a demonstration of the change of heart. In Latin the phrase was “to do repentance.” The ancient significance of poenitentia was penitence, not penance. But the outward acts were expected to accompany it. The Biblical idea of repentance was a fundamental reorientation of one’s life. This gave to the concept such a decisive once-for-all connotation that the early church was much exercised over the problem whether it was possible for there to be more than one repentance. The same word was used with reference to post-baptismal sins as to the pre-baptismal sins. To make a distinction from conversion or baptismal repentance, the phrase “second repentance” was adopted for the discipline of restoration to church fellowship.
The concern for sin by Christians is evident in the post-apostolic writings. There are frequent appeals to repentance in the apostolic fathers.4 Second Clement may be regarded as a sermon on the theme of repentance. The entire Shepherd of Hermas may be regarded as concerned with the problem of forgiveness for post-baptismal sin. In this document the usage of repentance is at least approaching a technical sense.
The varied, and sometimes confused, statements in Hermas’ diffuse work have led to a variety of interpretations of his message. Part of the difficulty comes from uncertainty over the background against which he is writing. The work may be seen as the opening wedge of a “laxist” tendency in the Roman church by its proclamation of the possibility of a post-baptismal repentance against a “rigorist” view that there could be no forgiveness offered by the church to backsliders (III.3). Or, the work may be seen as upholding a basically rigorist attitude while proclaiming a special repentance available to some for a limited time. Perhaps it is best not to try to schematize the teaching of the Shepherd on the subject of repentance and to see the author as involved in the dialectic between the demand for sinlessness and the actuality of involvement in the world. For instance, Hermas appears one time to offer repentance to apostates and at another time to deny it.5 There is repentance for those who have denied the Lord in the past, but there is none for those who did so of set purpose or for those who are going to do so. In other words, repentance is always a present possibility but never a future promise.6
The Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament was apparently understood as teaching that there was no repentance for apostasy (6:4-8; 10:26-31). This seems to be the basis for the view expressed by “some teachers” (III.3) that there is no second repentance. The steady move by the Roman church away from this position perhaps accounts for its reservations about the canonical authority of Hebrews that persisted in the early centuries.
Hermas’ proclamation of one repentance after baptism (XV.3) was retained by the church and remained the prevailing sentiment for a long time (XV.5). A disciplinary penance seems indicated by Hermas (XV.4), but this is a self-imposed affliction of the soul rather than an ecclesiastically-imposed regimen. Yet we know the church leaders exercised discipline from what is said about exclusion of apostates. These acts of self-discipline, elaborated in the documents from the end of the century, formed the basis for designating the restoration to the church a repentance and for directing attention to outward acts as a proof of the inward disposition.
Clement of Alexandria knew the Shepherd and accorded it considerable authority. He substantially reproduces the Shepherd’s teaching on sin and repentance as concerns Christians (XV.5,6). He repeats the ideal of sinlessness for those who have once received forgiveness. There is a “second repentance” which is available once for those trapped by their own weakness or overcome by the devil’s wiles. The post-baptismal sins are not simply forgiven; they must be “purged” by the disciplinary exercise of public repentance.
This public exercise finds its most circumstantial description in Tertullian (XV.11), but the notices in Irenaeus (XV.8,9) and Eusebius’ account of the repentance of Natalius (XV.10) so closely accord with it that we may assume that we have here the normal practice of the church at large at the end of the second century.7 These three examples are all from the West (North Africa, Gaul, and Rome), but the use of a Greek word to name the practice plus the allusions in Clement of Alexandria (XV.7) argue that the same was done in the eastern Mediterranean region too.
The process through which the Christian who had fallen into sin went in order to secure forgiveness and readmission to the Christian fellowship included the following activities: (1) Confession of one’s sinfulness. It is not stated that the specific sin was confessed publicly. Later Origen and Cyprian say that this specific confession was made to the bishop or a confessor.8 It would have been at his discretion whether the exact nature of the trespass was made known. In the case of known transgressions or open identification with a rival religious body (as in the case of Natalius) the nature of what was confessed would be known without a specific statement. (2) Acts of confession and repentance. One dressed in mourning attire, wept, fasted, and humiliated oneself before the assembly of the faithful. (3) Request for the prayers of the church. The elders appear as taking the leading role in the discipline of offenders. But the suppliant appears before the whole church in assembly and humbly beseeches their intercessions. The penitent kneels or makes prostration before the church. (4) Prayer. The suppliant prays for God’s and the congregation’s forgiveness. The church was acting in its role as the body of Christ and in keeping with Gospel passages in determining whether to grant its mercy. (5) Restoration to fellowship. The laying on of hands by the clergy was the sign of the reconciliation and return to the peace of the church; then the person was readmitted to communion.9
What is stated in Biblical passages about confession, repentance, and prayer has been ritualized or formalized. The penitential discipline was public because it was the act of the whole community to exclude and to readmit. There would have been private confessions to the clergy and spiritual counsel given. It is very much debated how early the evidence permits us to conclude that there was privately imposed penance by the bishop. Our sources from the end of the second and beginning of the third century are clear only for a public discipline.
The procedure was not superficial; this was no easy forgiveness. Such an ordeal was not likely to be desired more than the once that most writers allowed. The reluctance of some to submit even once (XV.9) is matched by Tertullian’s own reluctance even to mention this “second plank” of salvation. In his treatise On Repentance he spends the first half of his writing on conversion repentance. His approach shows the parallel with baptism of this second forgiveness. He introduces the discussion of second repentance with hesitation for fear that its availability will encourage those who were not taking their Christian commitment as seriously as was desired.
Tertullian and Origen reflect a kind of classification of sins, although the boundaries are not precisely defined. Many of a rigorist mind thought the capital sins of idolatry, murder, and fornication (based on a particular interpretation of Acts 15:29) did not admit of forgiveness by the church in this life.10 Exomologesis or second repentance functioned in regard to public acts by which one’s faith was compromised such as attending gladiatorial contests and theatrical productions, participating in government offices, speaking ambiguously in regard to idolatry, or some fault in speech and conduct. Those persons who were less rigorous included all grave sins as subject to public discipline and forgiveness. The everyday sins of human nature, according to the classification, were forgiven by one’s prayers and acts of piety. Origen specified almsgiving, forgiving others, converting a sinner, and love as bringing a forgiveness of daily faults.11 The early church from their time on agreed that martyrdom (“baptism of blood”) erased all sins, even that of apostasy. In fact, a believer who had not yet received baptism but was martyred was assured entrance into heaven. It was better to confess and be killed than to deny Christ in order to secure time to complete one’s regular admission to the church.12
Tertullian was particularly attracted by a rigorist attitude toward morals and conduct. Hence, when the Montanist movement inaugurated a rigorist revival against the increasing accommodations with the world discernible in the great church, Tertullian identified with this movement. Tracts written during his Montanist days reject the possibility offered in On Repentance. The major sins, he argues, cannot be forgiven in this life; indeed the rigorous exclusion of those undergoing penitence helps them attain God’s forgiveness at the judgment. This legalizing of the high standards of primitive Christianity continued to have its appeal.
The church at Rome was much exercised over the attitude which should be taken toward Christians who lapsed from the faith. Two schisms occurred in the third century over the matter-one made by Hippolytus and another more serious and lasting one by Novatian. Both men represented the rigorist tendency that would deny reconciliation to those guilty of major sins. They did not deny the possibility of salvation to such sinners but placed them in the condition of penitents whose final destiny was in the hands of God. The church could not declare forgiveness to those guilty of serious sins by granting reconciliation; God alone could forgive sins. In both cases the majority followed the path marked out by Hermas and without lowering the Christian moral demands took a more forgiving attitude. The church was to be a hospital for sick souls, not a society of the pure. Or, as Callistus, the rival of Hippolytus, put it, the church is like Noah’s ark with both clean and unclean animals in it.13 Callistus, in taking a lenient attitude toward those guilty of sexual sins, was not the complete innovator Hippolytus tried to make him out to be.
In spite of the rigorist tendency to be hesitant about granting reconciliation to those guilty of at least some sins, there were voices for allowing the church to extend her forgiveness to any of her children. So Dionysius of Corinth counselled.14 And Clement of Alexandria’s story of “John and the Robber” (XV.7; beginning cited XIV.18) was circulated to show the apostle’s forgiveness to one of his converts who had become a leader of a robber band and so guilty of major crimes.
In the third century the penitential discipline was further systematized and organized, with varying periods of exclusion imposed for different sins and various stages imposed through which one must pass in returning to the full communion of the church.15 The bishops in the third century successfully asserted their authority as the organs of the church for granting forgiveness. Cyprian struggled to maintain episcopal control of discipline and restoration.
Unfortunately, it has proved difficult in Christian history to maintain the tension between the ethical ideals of the Sermon on the Mount and the forgiving spirit of the one who spoke the words.
Ferguson, Everett. “Early Church Penance.” Restoration Quarterly, Vol. 36 (1994), pp. 81-100.
Karpp, Heinrich. Die Busse: Quellen zur Entstehung des altkirchlichen Busswesens. Traditio Christiana I. Bern: Lang, 1969. [Original Greek and Latin texts with German translations; French translations published Neuchâtel: Delachaux et Niestle, 1970.]
Poschmann, Bernhard. Penance and the Anointing of the Sick. London: Burns and Oates, 1964.
Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations, Vol. 15: Penance in the Early Church. New York: Crossroad, 1982.
Telfer, W. The Forgiveness of Sins. London: SCM, 1959.
Watkins, O. D. A History of Penance. Vol. 1. The Whole Church to A.D. 450. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1920.
1 That phrase is missing from the parallel in Barnabas 19.12 and so is likely an addition to the original Two Ways source that is being employed by the compiler of the Didache.
2 Werner Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries (St. Louis: Concordia, 1966) develops the evidence that Christian fellowship was the basis for sharing in the eucharist, and those excluded from fellowship were excluded from communion.
3 Cerdon (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.4.3); and Marcion (Pseudo-Tertullian, Against All Heresies 6.2; cf. Epiphanius, Against Heresies 42.1, 4). Tertullian, Apology 44 and 46 refer to disfellowship for immorality.
4 Clement of Rome, Epistle to Corinthians 2; 7; 8; 57; Second Clement 8; 13; 16; 17.
5 Similitudes 9.26=103.1-8 and Visions 2.2=6.1-8 versus Similitudes 6.2=62.1-7 and 8.6=72.1-6.
6 Graydon F. Snyder, The Shepherd of Hermas, Vol. VI of The Apostolic Fathers, ed. R. M. Grant (New York: Nelson, 1968), pp. 36, 69-71. See Carolyn Osiek,The Shepherd of Hermas: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).
7 Celsus appears to allude to second-century Christian penitential practice in his words, “The lowly man humiliates himself shamelessly and improperly, prostrating himself face downward and grovelling upon his knees, clothing himself with wretched garments, and heaping dust on himself,” quoted by Origen, Against Celsus 6.15. Cf. Tertullian, On Modesty 13.
8 Origen, Homily 2 on Psalm 37; Cyprian, On the Lapsed 28. Tertullian, On Prayer 7 calls the general petition “Forgive us” in the Lord’s Prayer an exomologesis.
9 Cyprian Epistles 15 ; 16 ; 17 ; idem, On the Lapsed; Didascalia 7. All are third-century sources.
10 Tertullian as a Montanist enlarged this list–On Modesty 19-but the items listed are reduceable to the three mentioned.
11 Homily on Leviticus 2.
12 Tertullian, On Baptism 16.2; Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 2.19; Origen, Exhortation to Martyrdom 30.
13 Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 9.7.
14 Cited by Eusebius, Church History 4-23.6. Note the mercy extended by the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne to those who initially denied the faith—ibid. 5.1.45f. Forgiveness for post-baptismal sin is prominent in the Acts of Peter; cf. especially chap. 10-11 for repentance, confession, and prayer.
15 Gregory Thaumaturgus, Canonical Epistle 11 (a late third-century addition) lists the classes of penitents as follows: “Weeping takes place outside the gate of the place of prayer. The sinner who stands there must implore the faithful as they enter to pray for him. Hearing the word is within the gate in the fore-court. Here the one who has sinned ought to stand until the catechumens go out and then go out too. For after hearing the Scriptures and the teaching, it is said, let that one be put out and not be considered worthy to participate in prayer. Kneeling is within the entrance of the sanctuary in order that the one who was placed there may leave with the catechumens. Standing is so that one may be associated with the faithful and not leave with the catechumens. Completion of the restoration is the participation in the holy things.”