Articles ECF Article The Early Church


The early church knew the importance and absolute necessity of true penance. What did that look like and how does it apply to Christians today?

This word may be a bit foreign to some, however penance is another word for repentance. Oftentimes when reading the Ante Nicene Fathers, we will come across words that are spelled differently but have the same meaning. Knowing their vocabulary greatly increases our understanding and how to search for certain topics. Penance is something that is seldomly seen in the church today, mostly due to a lack of understanding of how to truly repent. The way penance was walked out in the Early Church looks vastly different in the church today. For most people repentance is just saying “I’m sorry” and yet that is not even biblical. Now there is a difference between confession and repentance, however confession is still a major part of repentance and is in fact the first step. The book of James states, “Confess to one another therefore your faults (your slips, your false steps, your offenses, your sins) and pray [also] for one another, that you may be healed and restored [to a spiritual tone of mind and heart].” (James 5:16 AMP) 

We have examples of this in the church, as shown here below; Irenaeus gives an example of the wife of a Deacon, who fell away from the church being seduced by a false prophet and then came back.

A sad example of this occurred in the case of a certain Asiatic, one of our deacons, who had received him (Marcus) into his house. His wife, a woman of remarkable beauty, fell a victim both in mind and body to this magician, and, for a long time, traveled about with him. At last, when, with no small difficulty, the brethren had converted her, she spent her whole time in the exercise of public confession, weeping over and lamenting the defilement which she had received from this magician.” (1) 

As we see in this case, this process of penance was no small task. The wife of the Deacon confessed her faults before the body and wept bitterly over the sin she had committed. This was not an “ok, I’m sorry please forgive me” type of penance. This is why people who try to offer that as a penance never change. There is no transformation in that person, because they did not give a heartfelt repentance and did not truly mourn for the sin they committed. 

One of the misconceptions of penance is thinking that we need time to repent; more specifically, when we cause an offense towards someone or have sinned towards someone. Penance is to be done quickly, for the longer one takes to repent, the blemishes of that evil conscience may become more permanent. 

Then repentance effaces every sin, when there is no delay after the fall of the soul, and the disease is not suffered to go on through a long interval. For then evil will not have power to leave its mark in us, when it is drawn up at the moment of its being set down like a plant newly planted.” (2)

There is a serious danger of evil leaving its mark, leaving us blotches and not being able to be presented before the Lord without “spot wrinkle or blemish” (Ephesians 5:7). The way the church handled an offender was a process that produced such abundant fruit, as this process truly got to the root of the issue, and was not accepting of anything short of a true repentance. 

If anyone caused an offense in the church, this was the conduct of penance as described in the Constitution of the Apostles.

When thou seest the offender, with severity command him to be cast out; and as he is going out, let the deacons also treat him with severity, and then let them go and seek for him, and detain him out of the Church; and when they come in, let them entreat thee for him. For our Savior Himself entreated His Father for those who had sinned, as it is written in the Gospel: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luk_23:34) Then order the offender to come in; and if upon examination thou findest that he is penitent, and fit to be received at all into the Church when thou hast afflicted him his days of fasting, according to the degree of his offence — as two, three, five, or seven weeks — so set him at liberty, and speak such things to him as are fit to be said in way of reproof, instruction, and exhortation to a sinner for his reformation, that so he may continue privately in his humility, and pray to God to be merciful to him, saying: “If Thou, O Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who should stand? For with Thee there is propitiation.” (Psa_130:3) Of this sort of declaration is that which is said in the book of Genesis to Cain: “Thou hast sinned; be quiet;” (Gen_4:7, LXX) that is, do not go on in sin. For that a sinner ought to be ashamed for his own sin, that oracle of God delivered to Moses concerning Miriam is a sufficient proof, when he prayed that she might be forgiven. For says God to him: “If her father had spit in her face, should she not be ashamed? Let her be shut out of the camp seven days, and afterwards let her come in again.” (Num_12:14. — R.) We therefore ought to do so with offenders, when they profess their repentance, — namely, to separate them some determinate time, according to the proportion of their offence, and afterwards, like fathers to children, receive them again upon their repentance. (3)

Those who were found in sin, were afflicted with fasting’s of a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of seven weeks (49 days). They were to be examined to see if they truly were bearing fruit worthy of repentance. When they were spoken to they were rebuked, then given instruction, and finally given a word of exhortation. One of the issues I see in today’s church is that there is an excessive amount of exhortation. I find this more to be the issue, however there are also those who are excessively rebuking and never offer any words of exhortation. There must be a balance. There is a synergy with the priest in the church to help the sinner walk out their penance. 

One of the signs that a person has truly repented is when that sin is not carried out anymore, because it is no longer in them. Now one of the reasons some do not truly repent is because they believe they are too big to fail, or they are somehow still being used by God (like Balaam) that they do not recognize the blemish of their sin and because of their position they are too prideful to repent. They feel like they are not expendable. God is no respecter of persons; a sinner is a sinner no matter what their position is. We all must pay for what we do. Clement gives us insight on this true penance:

Either from ignorance or involuntary circumstances, after the seal and redemption, to fall into sins or transgressions so as to be quite carried away; such a man is entirely rejected by God. For to everyone who has turned to God in truth, and with his whole heart, the doors are open, and the thrice-glad Father receives His truly repentant son. And true repentance is to be no longer bound in the same sins for which He denounced death against Himself, but to eradicate them completely from the soul. For on their extirpation God takes up His abode again in thee. For it is said there is great and exceeding joy and festival in the heavens with the Father and the angels when one sinner turns and repents. (Luk_15:10) (4)

True penance is done whole-heartedly. Another reason why some don’t commit true penance, is because they do not fully understand how sin separates us from God. Satan will stop at nothing to ensure that the sinner does not repent even to the point of giving them exactly what they want, even operating in “spiritual gifts” to make them think that they are truly being used by God. Do not be deceived my beloved, we must discern the methods of Satan to not fall into his schemes. God has set for us instruction for true repentance, however being agents of free will it is our choice whether or not we want to walk this out. The choice is ours. Amen.

1.     Irenaeus-Against Heresies Book 1 Ch. XIII, ANF Vol. 1
2.     Methodius-Fragments Ch. I ANF Vol. 6
3.     Constitution of the Apostles Book 2 Part 1
4.     Clement-Rich Man Ch. XXXIX, ANF Vol. 2