Church Discipline would appear to be a byproduct of repentance. An emphasis on repentance[i]
naturally led to “a pre-initiation into baptism” program of instruction. It probably also led to an early system of church discipline. It also resulted in a distinction between major and minor sins and the creation of a system of penance. Finally the church, recognizing that public identification of major sinners could result in civil imposition of the death penalty, created a private system. Some of you may recognize that some of these programs explain the “whys” of recent events. It also explains the how and why penance became a sacrament in the 12th century and how the abuses led to the Reformation.
The church fathers and their successors believed that salvation began at one’s baptism. Being baptized does not mean that you will live a sin-free life. Since everyone continues to commit sins after baptism, the Church had to develop a plan for the atonement of post-baptismal sins.
The church fathers dealt with this problem by proposing repentance (i.e., penance) as the cure for post-baptismal sins. It was generally agreed that even "mortal" sins could be forgiven; however, there was some disagreement as to how many times a person could repent and be forgiven. Ambrose upheld the established church position that it had the power to remit post-baptismal sins of any magnitude. Hermas held that there could be only one opportunity for repentance after baptism. Ambrose taught that lesser sins could be repented of daily but not mortal ones. Ambrose held that there could be only one penance for mortal sins. The prevailing view of the early fathers was that one could repent and be forgiven on several occasions. By the fifth century, the Church, led by Jerome, Rusticus and Augustine, uniformly specified that a person might repent and be forgiven an unlimited number of times.
The apostolic fathers, Hermas, Clement of Rome and Polycarp, taught that in order to retain salvation from eternal judgment one had to feel sorry for and confess his post-baptismal sins to a priest and then do whatever acts of penance were prescribed by the priest. The Latin Fathers translated the NT Greek words, metanoeo
as poenitentiam agite
, "to do acts of penance" and "acts of penance," respectively. It was not until the Reformation that those translations were given a serious and widespread challenge.
Light offenders faced different forms of censure, such as temporary exclusion from Holy Communion or varying degrees of penance, private and sometimes liturgical prayer. In dealing with the major or mortal sins of idolatry, murder, adultery, and apostasy, Church leaders differed concerning the form of punishment. However, the Church, beginning with Basil, protected its members from public exposure, as the civil penalties were usually severe.
Thomas Aquinas asserted penance is a sacrament. The words of the priest, “I absolve you,” according to Aquinas, constituted the sacrament because the absolution works to cause grace in the sinner. For Aquinas, only the formula, “Ego te absolvo
” shows that the penitent has been absolved, not only symbolically but also in fact.
The apostolic fathers believed that salvation was based on repentance and not solely on the ground of the death of Jesus on the cross.