|Are all of our
sins—past, present, and future—forgiven once and for all when we become
Christians? Not according to the Bible or the early Church Fathers.
Scripture nowhere states that our future sins are forgiven; instead, it
teaches us to pray, "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven
our debtors" (Matt. 6:12).
The means by which God forgives sins after baptism is confession: "If we
confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and
cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Minor or venial sins
can be confessed directly to God, but for grave or mortal sins, which
crush the spiritual life out of the soul, God has instituted a different
means for obtaining forgiveness—the sacrament known popularly as
confession, penance, or reconciliation.
This sacrament is rooted in the mission God gave to Christ in his
capacity as the Son of man on earth to go and forgive sins (cf. Matt.
9:6). Thus, the crowds who witnessed this new power "glorified God, who
had given such authority to men" (Matt. 9:8; note the plural "men").
After his resurrection, Jesus passed on his mission to forgive sins to
his ministers, telling them, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send
you. . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they
are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John
Since it is not possible to confess all of our many daily faults, we
know that sacramental reconciliation is required only for grave or
mortal sins—but it is required, or Christ would not have commanded it.
Over time, the forms in which the sacrament has been administered have
changed. In the early Church, publicly known sins (such as apostasy)
were often confessed openly in church, though private confession to a
priest was always an option for privately committed sins. Still,
confession was not just something done in silence to God alone, but
something done "in church," as the Didache (A.D. 70) indicates.
Penances also tended to be performed before rather than after
absolution, and they were much more strict than those of today (ten
years’ penance for abortion, for example, was common in the early
But the basics of the sacrament have always been there, as the following
quotations reveal. Of special significance is their recognition that
confession and absolution must be received by a sinner before receiving
Holy Communion, for "[w]hoever . . . eats the bread or drinks the cup of
the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and
blood of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:27).
"Confess your sins in church, and
do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of
life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give
thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may
be pure" (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]).
The Letter of Barnabas
"You shall judge righteously. You
shall not make a schism, but you shall pacify those that contend by
bringing them together. You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to
prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light" (Letter of
Barnabas 19 [A.D. 74]).
Ignatius of Antioch
"For as many as are of God and of
Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the
exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too,
shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ" (Letter
to the Philadelphians 3 [A.D. 110]).
"For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them
that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to
the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop" (ibid., 8).
disciples of Marcus] have deluded many women. . . . Their consciences
have been branded as with a hot iron. Some of these women make a public
confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if
withdrawing from themselves the hope of the life of God, they either
apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses" (Against
Heresies 1:22 [A.D. 189]).
"[Regarding confession, some]
flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it
off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of
salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts
of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus
they perish along with their own bashfulness" (Repentance 10:1
"[The bishop conducting the
ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord
Jesus Christ. . . . Pour forth now that power which comes from you, from
your royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and
which he bestowed upon his holy apostles . . . and grant this your
servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed
your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest,
ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and
to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the
high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with
your command" (Apostolic Tradition 3 [A.D. 215]).
"[A final method of forgiveness],
albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance,
when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest
of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say,
‘I said, "To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity"’" (Homilies
on Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248]).
Cyprian of Carthage
"The apostle [Paul] likewise
bears witness and says: ‘ . . . Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup
of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’
[1 Cor. 11:27]. But [the impenitent] spurn and despise all these
warnings; before their sins are expiated, before they have made a
confession of their crime, before their conscience has been purged in
the ceremony and at the hand of the priest . . . they do violence to
[the Lord’s] body and blood, and with their hands and mouth they sin
against the Lord more than when they denied him" (The Lapsed
15:1–3 (A.D. 251]).
"Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess
their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in
sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you,
brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still
in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the
satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing
before the Lord" (ibid., 28).
"[S]inners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of
discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of
the bishop and clergy receive the right of Communion. [But now some]
with their time [of penance] still unfulfilled . . . they are admitted
to Communion, and their name is presented; and while the penitence is
not yet performed, confession is not yet made, the hands of the bishop
and clergy are not yet laid upon them, the Eucharist is given to them;
although it is written, ‘Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup
of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the
Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]" (Letters 9:2 [A.D. 253]).
"And do not think, dearest brother, that either the courage of the
brethren will be lessened, or that martyrdoms will fail for this cause,
that penance is relaxed to the lapsed, and that the hope of peace [i.e.,
absolution] is offered to the penitent. . . . For to adulterers even a
time of repentance is granted by us, and peace is given" (ibid.,
"But I wonder that some are so obstinate as to think that repentance is
not to be granted to the lapsed, or to suppose that pardon is to be
denied to the penitent, when it is written, ‘Remember whence thou art
fallen, and repent, and do the first works’ [Rev. 2:5], which certainly
is said to him who evidently has fallen, and whom the Lord exhorts to
rise up again by his deeds [of penance], because it is written, ‘Alms
deliver from death’ [Tob. 12:9]" (ibid., 51:22).
Aphraahat the Persian Sage
"You [priests], then, who are
disciples of our illustrious physician [Christ], you ought not deny a
curative to those in need of healing. And if anyone uncovers his wound
before you, give him the remedy of repentance. And he that is ashamed to
make known his weakness, encourage him so that he will not hide it from
you. And when he has revealed it to you, do not make it public, lest
because of it the innocent might be reckoned as guilty by our enemies
and by those who hate us" (Treatises 7:3 [A.D. 340]).
Basil the Great
"It is necessary to confess our
sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted.
Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints.
It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the
Baptist [Matt. 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles"
(Rules Briefly Treated 288 [A.D. 374]).
"Priests have received a power
which God has given neither to angels nor to archangels. It was said to
them: ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and
whatsoever you shall loose, shall be loosed.’ Temporal rulers have
indeed the power of binding; but they can only bind the body. Priests,
in contrast, can bind with a bond which pertains to the soul itself and
transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of
heaven? ‘Whose sins you shall forgive,’ he says, ‘they are forgiven
them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.’ What greater
power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son.
And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Matt.
10:40; John 20:21–23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were
already gathered up to heaven" (The Priesthood 3:5 [A.D. 387]).
Ambrose of Milan
"For those to whom [the right of
binding and loosing] has been given, it is plain that either both are
allowed, or it is clear that neither is allowed. Both are allowed to the
Church, neither is allowed to heresy. For this right has been granted to
priests only" (Penance 1:1 [A.D. 388]).
"If the serpent, the devil, bites
someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if
the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and
does not want to confess his wound . . . then his brother and his
master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot
very well assist him" (Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11 [A.D.
"When you shall have been
baptized, keep to a good life in the commandments of God so that you may
preserve your baptism to the very end. I do not tell you that you will
live here without sin, but they are venial sins which this life is never
without. Baptism was instituted for all sins. For light sins, without
which we cannot live, prayer was instituted. . . . But do not commit
those sins on account of which you would have to be separated from the
body of Christ. Perish the thought! For those whom you see doing penance
have committed crimes, either adultery or some other enormities. That is
why they are doing penance. If their sins were light, daily prayer would
suffice to blot them out. . . . In the Church, therefore, there are
three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptisms, in prayer, and in
the greater humility of penance" (Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed
7:15, 8:16 [A.D. 395]).
I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004
“Confession” (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2004)