The forgiveness of sins, on the one hand, is presented as an objective reality for Christians. Jesus Christ, the God-man, accomplished redemption through his life, death, and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit applies that to those who trust in him. Yet life is messy. And the history of the doctrine of forgiveness underscores that the subjective element has rendered it difficult for the church to articulate this doctrine in such a way that covers the varied experience of individuals. Said another way, sinners plagued by guilt for their wrongdoing often cannot escape the doubts they have about whether or not they are truly forgiven. This question, then, is by no means merely metaphysical. Rather, it bears directly on the daily lives of individuals, and it arguably touches the life of every human being who has the capacity to feel shame.

In considering the question of the forgiveness of sins, I picked up an old book by Cambridge theologian William Telfer, The Forgiveness of Sins: An Essay in the History of Christian Doctrine and Practice (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960). While the book has its shortcomings,[1] it nonetheless presents a valuable discussion of how Christians have understood the doctrine of forgiveness and practiced it throughout history.

In his book, Telfer highlights the way that Christians have “changed” how they express their understanding of divine forgiveness. His “main task,” as he puts it, is “to tell, in brief outline, what Christian men down the centuries have thought and taught about God’s forgiveness of human sin, and how men can be assured that they are forgiven” (13). Insofar as Telfer does this, he effectively reminds us that as people engage the Bible, they are also engaging with traditions and filtering all that through their own experience. While Christians have consistently affirmed Christ’s work as the ultimate basis, how and whether people might access the benefits of it have been fiercely contested.

From this short study of the history of the forgiveness of sins, three important themes emerge.

Postbaptismal Sin

First, perhaps the most significant issue has been the question of postbaptismal sin. This may strike the modern evangelical as somewhat of a moot question. Of course the Christian can be forgiven after baptism! But the early church was flummoxed by this question. And their debates largely set the stage for the medieval developments that gave us the sacrament of penance.

According to Telfer, the primitive church lived in a “crisis” mode because they eagerly expected Christ’s return, and this mode imposed strict ethical demands (20). However, while the primitive ethic promoted a life of sinlessness, there was a strong sense in the first century that the Christian life is “a penitent life” (31). By the opening of the second century, though, a rigorism gained ascendancy that demanded a life of postbaptismal purity. This was so much the case that the “main purpose” of the writer in The Shepherd of Hermas was “to neutralize the rigorism,” an aim in which the shepherd “succeeded remarkably” (38). By the end of the second century, the church was allowing one—but only one—opportunity for postbaptismal forgiveness (42, 52).

The influence of Eastern thinkers such as Clement and Origen led to the death knell of the rigorist cause in Greek Christianity (60), but in the West, the debate continued to rage for centuries. By the fourth century, Pacian, bishop of Barcelona, acknowledged how prevalent postbaptismal sin was in the church, yet he asked the penetrating question, “Can it be . . . that the serpent has so lasting a poison, and Christ no remedy?” (76). This argument concerning the power of Christ over Satan was an important recognition, but how to put it into practice? For Pacian, this teaching was accompanied by promoting the practice of penance.

Several centuries later, no less than Thomas Aquinas took a very different view from the rigorism of the early church, rejecting as heresy the notion that some penance is unrepeatable (105). Later, John Calvin would also argue that the state of the elect is, in Telfer’s terms, “a state of continual penitence” (139). Likewise, Thomas Hooker “passes by altogether” this question of repeated postbaptismal repentance (139). Ultimately, postbaptismal forgiveness revolves around how one defines baptism. Telfer suggests that “the boon of baptism is not so much remission of sins to date, as entry, through faith in Christ, upon the forgiven life” (142).

Penance and Authority

The development of penance itself began in the early church when people sought postbaptismal forgiveness. The practice of exomologesis was the means by which fallen believers might attain right standing in the church again. Exomologesis was essentially “an act of self-humiliation by the penitent” (48), and it was connected with the notion of second repentance, the one opportunity to obtain forgiveness of sins after baptism.

Penance was a practice that Origen assumed was known to believers (57). But its early forms were relatively unfixed. Christians need not confess to a priest; they could confess to any spiritual brother, in a form of private confession. Or they might be required to beg their fellow Christians for forgiveness as the church gathered in the sanctuary. Telfer describes the early approach to penance as follows:

All our pictures of early Christian life would assure us that, as occasion arose, Christians would unburden their consciences to their clergy or their brethren, without compulsion, and receive spiritual comfort and guidance. But there is no positive ground for thinking that, in these early centuries, bishops ever laid penances upon Christians privately. (73)

Gradually, however, the church took control of this practice, demanding that only a Catholic bishop could grant satisfaction for sins (70, 73). It should be noted that satisfaction was originally intended to aid in the sinner’s sanctification; it was “making token, not full, amends” (70), and it helped the sinner with his or her subjective guilt. With time, however, this point would often be lost on the laity, and the practice would cause serious tensions within the church over the nature of what sinners actually contribute to forgiveness.

As penance became more entrenched in the church, it had the unintended effect, in some cases, of increasing sin. By this I mean that without the fear of losing all recourse to forgiveness, professing believers loosened their morals (81). In many ways, this thinking was caught up with the belief that one could make satisfaction for sins by performing penances.

It wasn’t until the twelfth century that penance was viewed as one of the sacraments of the church. Peter Lombard had the important role of placing it in a list of seven sacraments, a list that would later be adopted by the church. For Lombard, “the aim of penance is to cut at the root of the sin” (102); its most important function was thus to shore up the morals of the sinner.

Telfer rightly casts the sacrament of penance in the background of early church rigorism and the debates over a second repentance and postbaptismal sins. In the face of considerable fear, penance provided a means of hope, not only objectively but also subjectively, assuaging the sinner’s feelings of guilt. The centuries-long development of penance grew in large part from serious pastoral care needs. Yet it also presented the church with an opportunity to wield control over the people, and bishops also used it to vie for power. That power grab would reach its zenith in the Council of Trent, which, in characteristic Counter-Reformation form, sought to “[magnify] the supernatural powers of the Church” (124).

Ultimately, the reformers rejected the notion of penance because they believed that it required more of humans than they could perform. Calvin rejected it, Telfer notes, “not only for the absurdity of supposing that man, the sinner, can offer satisfactio for his sins, but because it so hedged the assurance of forgiveness with conditions so as to leave the scrupulous penitent always in doubt” (130). The various ways that penance developed thus failed in the end to sufficiently meet the pastoral needs of sinners wrestling with guilt. And so the reformers emphasized the objective basis of redemption in Christ alone, obtained by faith alone, even as they wrestled with the complexity of human sinfulness (such as in Calvin’s Consistory).

Categorizing Sins

The early-church notion that postbaptismal sins might not be forgiven raised the question of whether that applied to all sins or only grave sins. And so, the question of what constituted a grave sin plagued the church from early on. This matter, when tethered to a once-only opportunity for postbaptismal forgiveness, certainly made defining grave sins of utmost importance. But producing a definitive, recognized list proved elusive for the church.

Early on, many called for the belief that only grave postbaptismal sins would not be forgiven. And the church eventually embraced this notion, recognizing two types of sins—mortal and venial. As development continued, Peter Lombard interpreted the patristic teaching of the one-time second repentance as being for only certain grave sins, while he held that for other sins people could repeatedly pursue forgiveness (101).

While mortal and venial sins are still affirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, Protestants have typically rejected this distinction. And as Telfer observes, all attempts to define the difference between mortal and venial sins fail to achieve their end: “All these phrases are impressionist in character, and not definitive” (139).

Some Analysis

Much more can be said about this topic than a(n already lengthy) blog post allows. I believe it is helpful to note, though, that the doctrine and practice of the forgiveness of sins is wrapped up with several issues. First and most important, it is a deeply pastoral matter. People sin, and even Christians sin. When they do, how do they square that failing with the biblical and ecclesiastical expectations on their behavior? Can they enter back into fellowship with the church, and if so, how?

This pastoral matter not only concerns laypeople but also affects clergy, who have a responsibility to uphold the purity of the church even as they invite sinners to repent and to enter the fellowship of God’s people. While the early church saw value in threatening the baptized with no or limited forgiveness after baptism, this raised the stakes seemingly too high for the average Christian, and it had the undesired effect of many postponing baptism until later in life or on their deathbed. At the same time, the sacrament of penance seemed to loosen the standard for morality to such a degree that, in the eyes of many, it cheapened grace. In time, the reformers sought to address this issue through the practice of church discipline.

These two sides of the coin—sinners’ subjective guilt and the clergy’s pastoral responsibility—lay at the base of much disagreement over the doctrine and practice of the forgiveness of sins. And one might add that the abuse of forgiveness by both parties—sinners in taking advantage of forgiveness to excuse their sins and clergy in taking advantage of their office to amass power—further muddied the waters and contributed to the breakdown in the practice of forgiveness over the centuries.

Reformed Catholicity?

How do we draw such a discussion to a close? Despite such brief space, it seems that we can at least recognize that these various themes in church history illuminate where we are now and in fact still affect us today. It is particularly striking to me that different articulations of this doctrine affected how subsequent pastors and theologians approached it. Development in doctrine seems unavoidable.

Can these streams be harmonized? I’m not fully convinced that we can without flattening their differences. But Telfer thought we could. He says this:

In following th[is] story through its successive stages, we learn to appreciate the gravity that sinning must have in the eyes of a Christian. We learn how proper it is that we should submit ourselves to suffer because of our sinning. We learn, further, how to use the repenting of less voluntary sins to the renewal of faith, and to the quest of sanctification. There is no disharmony between such a discipline and the insights of the Reformers. (146)

In a time today when more people are talking about “reformed catholicity,” it is striking that  nearly six decades ago, Telfer ended his book by claiming, “We therefore do nothing amiss in seeking a doctrine of forgiveness that is at once Catholic and Reformed” (147).

Whether or not these streams can be unified, the developments certainly help expose the core issues connected with formulating a doctrine of forgiveness of sins and practicing it. Perhaps the words of Jesus offer a fitting close to this concise discussion: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12 KJV).


[1] In my view, he overplays the development of the doctrine within the New Testament, makes dubious claims about the doctrine of original sin (88), and could treat Augustine, Luther, and Calvin in a more equitable light.

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