A History of the Sacrament of Penance
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven, and whatever you
bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall
be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:20).
With these words the Church
was entrusted with the ministry of "binding and loosing" sins. In the
first several hundred years of the church's life, this ministry of
"binding and loosing" was realized within the Sacrament of Baptism.
We must remember that in these early centuries, the Baptism of adults was, and
still is, the normal "rule" of the Church. The baptism of children
was permitted only if the parents
and sponsors were committed members of the Church and willing to guarantee that
the child would be nurtured in the Christian faith.
The remission of sins that
was granted in baptism was not repeatable; it was a once in a lifetime experience
as the Apostle Paul bore witness in his letter to the Ephesians, ".....one Lord, one faith, one baptism..." (Eph. 5:4).
Even in Apostolic times this approach to Baptism created
a problem concerning what to do with people who had sinned gravely after
Baptism and then repented and wished to return to the communion of the Church.
When such a situation occurred in the Church of Corinth,
the Apostle Paul instructed:
"When you are assembled and my spirit is present, with the power of the
Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the
flesh, that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord Jesus" (I Cor.
This act of "handing
over to Satan" (also mentioned in I Timothy 1:20) was a formal declaration of the community that the
sinning party was no longer "in communion" with it. This was done not
as a punishment, but to encourage repentance. Apparently, in this case, it
worked. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle writes,
"For such a one this punishment buy the majority is enough; so you
should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by
excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him" (II Cor.
By the end of the first
century, the groundwork was laid for the Sacrament of Penance. From the sources
of the time we can construct the following picture of this Sacrament.
First, the Sacrament of
Penance or "Confession," as it was called in Greek, was intended for
those who sinned gravely after their Baptism. It was usually reserved for acts
of adultery, apostasy or murder (including abortion).
Second, the opportunity to
undergo this Sacrament was given only once
in a person's life.
Thirdly, the act of penance involved
a process; a person went to the bishop of his city and privately confessed his
sin. The bishop then notified his churches that the person was undergoing penance
and was forbidden to receive the Eucharist. The penitent was expected to dress
in coarse clothing and mark himself with ashes. He was expected to eat only the
plainest of food, even only bread and water. He was only permitted to be
present at the Scripture readings and sermon during the Liturgy; he had to
leave with the unbaptized after the sermon.
If the penitent was faithful
to these observances for a period of one to three years (sometimes as long as
twenty years, depending on the offence), he was "reconciled" to the
Church. This usually took place at the Holy Thursday Liturgy or at the Paschal
Vigil. The penitent was led by the bishop, along with the newly baptized, to
the celebration of the Holy Eucharist where he again received Holy Communion.
Again, it should be pointed
out that this was a once in life opportunity, a "plank after
shipwreck" as the writers of the day called it.
But what about those sins of
a lesser nature? It was held that these "everyday" sins were continually forgiven
through prayer, acts of charity, and the reception of the Holy Eucharist. The
Church writer Origen (about 245 A.D.) makes this observation:
In more serious offenses opportunity for penitence is given only one
time; but those common offenses which we frequently incur always admit of
penance and are redeemed continually.
In another passage he
Having heard of all the sacrifices for sin under the Law now listen to
all the ways of remission of sins in the Gospels: First, we are baptized for
the remission of sins. Secondly, there is the remission of sins in the
suffering of martyrdom. Thirdly there is the remission of sins given in return
for works of mercy (Luke 11:44). Fourthly, the forgiveness through our forgiveness
of others (Matt.6:14-15). Fifth, the forgiveness towed "when a man has
converted a sinner from the error of his ways" (James 5:20). Sixth, sins are remitted through an
abundance of love (Luke 7:47).
Besides, there is a seventh way of forgiveness, hard and painful though it is,
namely the remission of sins through penitence (i.e. the Sacrament of
Penance) when the sinner washes his bed
with tears, and tears are his bread day and night, and when he does not hold
back in shame from declaring his sin to the priest of the Lord and asking for
medicine...... (Homilies on
Does this mean that the
Orthodox Christian of the earliest centuries never went to Confession or only
went once in a lifetime? And what about the passage in the letter of James, "Confess your sins to one another....."
(5:17)? The transition
from the ancient Sacrament of Penance to our modern Sacrament of Confession
will be examined next.
As noted, the purpose of the
Sacrament of Penance in the early Church was to deal with members of the Church
who had committed serious sins, usually murder or abortion, apostasy (i.e.
abandoning the Christian Faith), or adultery. The "daily sins" that
we commit were held by the early Christians to be forgiven through prayer, charity
and the frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist, which then, as now, was given
"for the remission of sins."
Those who underwent the
discipline of Penance and then sinned again were "out of the Church."
Because of this, some writers have assumed that Christians did not go to
Confession more than once in their life, if at all, in the early Christian
Church. However, it would be more accurate to state that Christians did not
undergo the rigors of what the early Church formally called "Penance"
as described above. Christians did frequently
confess their sins to a spiritual Father. The same Origen quoted above also
tells his hearers:
"We have often spoken of a denunciation of our wickedness: that is
we have often made a confession of sin... Only be careful and circumspect in
regard to whom you would confess your sins. Test first the physician to whom
you would expose the illness. See whether he knows to seem weak with one who is
weak, to weep with one who weeps and whether he is acquainted with the art of consoling
and comforting. Finally when he has shown himself to be a physician both
learned and merciful, do whatever he tells you, and follow whatever advice he
may give. If after much deliberation he has understood the nature of your
illness and judges that to be cured it must be exposed to the assembly of the
whole church, follow the advice of that expert physician" (Homily on Psalm 37/2:6).
What Origen is advising is
to find a suitable spiritual father to confess one's sins to. If the spiritual
father deems it necessary, because of the gravity of one's sins, go to the
Bishop or the priest appointed by him to be enrolled publicly as a
"penitent." Thereupon, one must fulfill the time of penance that is
Although Origen is writing
this about 240 A.D. the practice of confessing one's sins to a spiritual father
goes back to the Apostolic times: "Confess
your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed" (St. James 5:16).
In the Acts of the Apostles we read of how those coming to believe in
Jesus in the city of Ephesus
"....kept coming, confessing their
sins and disclosing their practices" (Acts 19:18).
And in the First Letter of St.
John we read: "If we confess our
sins He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins..." (I John
The practice of frequent
confession to a "spiritual father" has existed in the Church from
Apostolic times, though not necessarily joined to the "once in a lifetime
formal Penance." It may have even existed in Judaism during the time of
our Lord and the Apostles.
In the fifth and sixth
centuries, the earlier discipline of "Penance" underwent a decline.
The early monastic movement adopted the distinctive coarse clothing of the
"penitent" as well as the plain food and austere lifestyle that they
were expected to follow until they were reconciled with the Church. At the same
time, the larger church congregations of the fifth and sixth centuries included
many people who had joined the Church for "social" reasons. The faith
of many was not as strong as that of the earlier Christians who were subject to
persecution from the state and even hostility from their pagan neighbors and
families for three centuries.
Eventually, the practice of
frequent confession to a spiritual father was combined with the prayer of
"reconciliation" that was prayed over the early penitent. From this
developed the Sacrament of Penance or "Confession" as we know it
- Fr. Lawrence Barriger