Sacrament of Penance - A History


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, " 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. 5:4-5).

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. 2:6-8)

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 states:

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 Leviticus 2:4).

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 prescribed.

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 1:9).

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 today.   

Fr. Lawrence Barriger

American Carpatho-Russian Diocese of the USA - Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

© Ukrainian Orthodox Church in America, Inc. 2013