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The Early Church Fathers on Penance, also known as making satisfaction for ones sins.


  • Early Church Fathers
  • From the Scriptures



  1. St. Cyprian of Carthage, (A.D. 200-258)
    Lactantius, (A.D. 240-c.330)
    St. Pacian of Barcelona, (A.D. c.310-375)
    St. Basil the Great, (A.D. 328-379)
    St. Ambrose of Milan, (A.D. 340-396)
    St. Jerome, (A.D. 342-420)
    St. John Chrysostom, (A.D. 344 - 407)
St. Cyprian of Carthage, (A.D. 200-258), North African; bishop; biblical scholar, martyr.

"Whilst the way to pardon is open, let us deprecate God by complete satisfactions."

In the Anonymi Tractat. ad Novat. Galland. t. iii. p. 376,
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 120

"Reading, therefore, (these sentences of Scripture) and holding this, we are of opinion that no one is to be expelled from the fruit of satisfaction, and the hope of peace; since we know, according to the faith of the divine Scriptures, God Himself being the author and exhorter, that sinners are both brought back to do penitence, and that pardon and forgiveness are not denied the penitent. And, Oh! mockery of a deluded brotherhood! Oh, treacherous deception of wretched mourners! Oh, ineffectual and vain tradition of heretical institution! to exhort to the penitence of satisfaction, and to take away from satisfaction its medicinal quality: to say to our brethren, shed tears and groan day and night; work liberally and perseveringly to wash and purge away thy sin, but after all these thou shalt die "without" the Church; whatever things pertain to peace shalt thou do, but thou shalt not receive the peace which thou seekest."

Ep. lii. ad Antonianum, p. 158.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 118-119

"In often held council, we have, not merely by our common consent, but also with menaces, decreed, that the (lapsed) brethren should do penitence; that, to those not doing penitence, none should have the rashness to grant peace. But these men, sacrilegious against God, reckless with impious rage against the priests of God, forsaking the Church, and against the Church lifting parricidal weapons, strive that they may consummate their work with the malice of the devil to prevent the divine clemency from curing within the Church the wounded; by the deceitfulness of their falsehoods they vitiate the penitence of these wretched men, that satisfaction may not be made to an angry God. . . . Pains are taken that sins may not be redeemed by satisfaction and just lamentations, that wounds may not be washed clean by tears."

Ep. lv. ad Cornel, p. 181.
Similar expressions occur "passim" in St. Cyprian's Letters.3
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 119

"The harmful and poisoned persuasion of such men deals worse death than persecution. In this there still is left penitence which may make satisfaction; whilst they who take away penitence for sin, shut up the way of satisfaction. . . .As we have sinned greatly, let us weep greatly. To a deep wound let not a diligent and long course of medicine be wanting. Let not the penitence be less than the crime. Thinkest thou that the Lord can quickly be appeased, when thou hast with perfidious words denied Him? . . . Men must pray and entreat more earnestly, pass the day in grief, spend nights in vigils and tears, employ their whole time in sorrowing lamentations, lie stretched on the ground, prostrate themselves amongst ashes, sackcloth, and dust; after Christ's raiment lost, wish for no other clothing; after the devil's food, of choice must fast; apply themselves to just works, whereby sins are purged away; give abundant alms, whereby souls are freed from death. . . . God can show indulgence; He can turn aside His sentence. To the man who is penitent, who does good works, who entreats, He can graciously give pardon: He can impute whatever, for such, martyrs may pray and priests perform. Or if any one move Him yet further by His own satisfactions, if he appease His wrath, the displeasure of an angered God, by worthy supplication, He grants weapons again, wherewith the conquered may be armed; recruits and invigorates that strength, whereby faith refreshed may be quickened. The soldier will return to his warfare, will renew the fight, will challenge the enemy, by his sufferings only made stronger for the conflict. He who has thus made satisfaction to God, who by penitence for what he has done, by shame for his sin, has gained for himself an increase both of virtue and faith from the very suffering which his fall occasions, heard and helped by the Lord, will give gladness to the Church which he had lately grieved, and merit not only God s pardon now, but a crown also."

De Lapsis pp. 384-6.
Similar expressions are repeated in various parts of this Treatise.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 119-120

Lactantius, (A.D. 240-c.330), was an early Christian author, the goal of his writings was to present Christianity in a form that would be attractive to philosophical pagans.

"The malice of persecutors is also laid bare in this, that they think they have utterly overthrown God's religion, whom they have defiled a man; whereas there is room to make satisfaction to God, and there is no worshipper of God so wicked as not, when the opportunity offers, to return to appease God, yea, with greater devotedness."

Div. Inst. L. v. c. 13.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 121

St. Pacian of Barcelona, (A.D. c.310-375), bishop of Barcelona, Jerome praises his eloquence, learning, chastity, and holiness of life. He is also remembered from a phrase from one of his letters: "My name is Christian, my surname is Catholic.".

"Let me now address myself to those who, under the name of penitence, confessing well arid wisely their wounds, neither know what penitence is, nor what is the remedy to be applied to wounds. These are like persons who lay bare their sores and swellings, and acknowledge them to the physicians who attend them, but though instructed, neglect the prescribed application, and loath what is ordered to be taken. ... As a consequence the evil increases, and the patient is tormented with a most grievous gangrene. What shall I do now, the priest that am required to effect a cure? It is late for such a case. Still, if you can bear the knife and the caustic, I can yet cure. Here is the prophetic knife, "Be converted to the Lord your God, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning, and rend your hearts." (Joel. 2:12,13) Be not afraid, dearly beloved, of this cutting. David bore it; he lay in filthy ashes, and was disfigured by a robe of mean sackcloth.... I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the faith of the Church, by my solicitude for you ... let not shame over come you in this work; let it not be irksome to you to make your own the seasonable remedies of salvation; to humble your minds with sorrow; to put on sackcloth; to strew yourselves with ashes; to wear yourselves with fasting and with grief; and to obtain the help of others' prayers. In proportion as you have not been sparing in punishing yourselves, in that same measure will God spare you. . . . Here is my promise and pledge, that if you return to your Father by a true satisfaction, by going astray no more, by not adding to your former sins, by uttering also words of humility and of plaintiveness, "Father we have sinned before thee, we are not now worthy to be called thy sons, (Luke 15), at once the unclean herd will leave you, and the foul husks their food. He will at once clothe the returning sinner with his robe, honor him with a ring, and receive him again to a father's embrace. Lo! it is He who says, "I will not the death of a sinner,"

Paraen. ad Paenit. n. 9, 12, Galland. T. vii. pp. 272-3.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 122-123

St. Basil the Great, (A.D. 328-379), Cappadocian; bishop of Cæsarea in A.D. 369, theologian, monk. Studied in Palestine, Constantinople, and Athens. Many of the subsequent years of his life were spent in the deserts of Egypt and Libya. His character and works have gained for him the surname of "the great".

In the works of this father there are three letters to St. Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium, in which are given eighty-four canons touching various regulations of the Church, and especially the canonical penances affixed to various crimes; penances extending over many years, as fornication, punished with seven years, canon 59; adultery, with fifteen years of penance, canon 58; apostasy, with penance to the end of life, canon 73; and so, with various degrees of severity, of other crimes and offences.

In the last of those canons he says: "All these things do we write, that thereby the fruits of penitence may be examined into. For we do not, after all, judge of these things by time, but we attend to the mode of penitence. If there be who are with difficulty withdrawn from their own habits, and who choose rather to serve the pleasures of the flesh, than to serve God, and who engage not in that life which is according to the Gospel, there is no common ground between us and such. . . . But we ought, night and day, publicly and privately to utter our testimony to them, but not to suffer ourselves to be dragged along with them into their wickedness; our prayer above all things being to gain them, and to snatch them from the snares of the wicked one; but if we cannot do this, let us study at least to save our own souls from eternal condemnation."

Ep. Can. Tertia, Canon 84, T. iii. P. ii. pp. 478-9.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 121-122

St. Ambrose of Milan, (A.D. 340-396), German; reluctantly made bishop in the A.D. 374., Doctor of the Church. He closed a great and glorious career in A.D. 396. We have his life by Paulinus.

"For a grievous wound there needs a searching and protracted cure. A grievous crime requires a grievous satisfaction. For there is no doubt that the crime is less where one voluntarily confesses, and is penitent for, his sin; whereas, where one conceals his evils, is despite his will detected, and against his will is exposed publicly, there the crime is graver. That this has been thy case [he is addressing a fallen virgin] thou canst not deny."

T. ii. De Lapsu Virg. n. 37, p. 315.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 123

"He that does penitence ought to offer himself for punishment, that he may be punished by the Lord here, and not reserved to everlasting torments; not to wait for, but to meet, the divine indignation."

T. i. Enarr. in Ps. xxxvii. n. 13, p. 820.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 123

"Others too there are, who, if they abstain from the heavenly sacraments, account this penitence. Such are judges too severe upon themselves; they prescribe to themselves a punishment, but they decline the remedy; and their duty is to be grieved at their very punishment, seeing themselves robbed of the heavenly grace."

T. ii. De Paenit. L. ii. c. ix. n. 89, p. 435.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 123

"I have more easily found those who have preserved their innocence, than those who have done penitence in a befitting manner. Does any one think there is a penitence there, where there is ambitious seeking after dignity, free indulgence in wine, where even the marital rights are not abandoned? The world is to be renounced; sleep less indulged in than nature demands; disturb it with groans, interrupt it with sighs, set it aside for prayers; a man must so live as to die to the uses of this life; he must deny himself, and be entirely changed."

T. ii. L. ii. De Pwnit. c. x. n. 96, pp. 436-7. 1
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 123-124

"This seems to be expressed, if we first of all, by the sacrifice of purification, and by the mystery of baptism, wash away the defilements of our sins, and also redeem our sins (crimina redimamus) by good works, by the price of faith, and by works of mercy."

The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 124

St. Jerome, (A.D. 342-420), Dalmatian; born in Strido; priest, hermit, abbot, biblical scholar, translator and Doctor of the Church. In an age distinguished by men of the greatest eloquence and learning, St. Jerome, especially in all matters connected with the Sacred Scriptures, was then preeminent, and has probably never since been equalled.

"Gird yourselves and lament. (Joel 1:13) He that is a sinner, and whom his own conscience reproves, let him gird himself with sackcloth, and lament both his own sins, and those of the people, and enter into the Church, which he had left on account of his sins, and let him lie, or sleep in sackcloth, that he may, by austerity of life, compensate for the past pleasures whereby he had offended God."

T. vi. Comm. in c.i. Joel, col. 184.
See also Ep. xxvii. ad Eustoch.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 124

St. John Chrysostom, (A.D. 344 - 407), Syrian; archbishop, Doctor of the Church. Born at Antioch in 344; he was ordained priest in A.D. 383, and raised to the see of Constantinople in the year A.D. 398. His eloquence gained him the title of Chrysostom, or the mouth of gold. His expositions of Scripture, especially the Epistles of St. Paul, are very valuable. This illustrious prelate died on his road to exile, in A.D. 407.

"If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged." (1 Corinthians 11:31) In order then that we may not be punished then, that we may not undergo chastisement then, let each one enter into his own conscience, and having laid bare his life, and gone through with accuracy all his transgressions, let him condemn the soul that has done those things, punish those thoughts, afflict and harrow his mind, exact punishment of himself by the most exact penitence, by tears, by confession, by fasting and alms, by contiuency and love, in order that, having put aside our sins by every means in our power, we may depart thither with great confidence."

T. i. De Lazaro, Concio iv. n. 7, p. 933.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 124-125

"Bring forth fruits worthy of penitence. But how shall we bring them forth? If we do the opposite things; as, for instance, hast thou seized with violence the goods of others? henceforth give away even thine own. Hast thou been long a fornicator? abstain even from thy own wife on certain appointed days: exercise continence. Hast thou insulted and stricken the passers by? henceforth bless them that insult thee, and do good to them that strike thee. For it suffices not for our health to have drawn out the dart only; but we must also apply remedies to the wound. Hast thou been feasted and been drunken in times past? fast and drink water."

T. vii. Hom. x. in Matt. n. 6, pp. 169-70.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 125

"Let us not account it a grievous thing to be punished, but to sin. For even if He were not to punish us, we ought to exact punishment from ourselves, who have been so ungrateful towards our benefactor.... I make a declaration, strange, astonishing, and to many perhaps incredible; it will, to one that has enkindled His wrath that so loved him, be a greater consolation, if he have sense, and love the Lord, to be punished than not to be punished. . . . Let us then, when we sin against Him whom we ought not to offend, exact punishment from ourselves.... If any love Christ as He ought to be loved— he understands what I say,— how, even though He have pardoned him, He will not endure not to be punished; laboring indeed under the greatest punishment in that he has angered Him. And I know well that I may be saying things incredible to the many, but nevertheless it is as I have said. If, then, we love Christ as we ought, we shall punish ourselves when we have sinned."

T. x. Hom. xii. in Ep. ii. ad Cor. n.3,4, pp. 609-10.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 125



Though no creature can make condign penance, either for the guilt of sin, or for the pain eternal due to it this satisfaction being proper to Christ our Saviour, the penitent sinner may, as members of Christ, make in some measure satisfy, by prayer, fasting, alms-deeds, and other works of piety, for the temporal pain, which, in the order of the Divine justice, sometimes remains due, after the guilt of sin and the pain eternal have been remitted. Such penitential works though, are not satisfactory of they are not joined and applied to that satisfaction which Jesus made upon the cross in virtue of which alone all our good works find a grateful acceptance in the sight of God.


As the fathers teach baptism frees us from all sin, yet if the baptized fell into grievous sin, after baptism, they were subjected to a long course of penance in the early church, the nature and terms of which were settled by what are known as the penitential canons. Over time, those penitential satisfactions were indeed relaxed through indulgences. Nevertheless, they are only further proofs of the rigor of the primitive church in requiring a satisfaction or penance for sins absolved in Confession.



The Church's Scriptures that support the Penance portion of Confession are:

Dave fasts and does penance hoping the Lord will spare Bathsheba's child.

13 David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." And Nathan said to David, "The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die. 15 Then Nathan went to his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and it became sick.16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in and lay all night upon the ground. 17 And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. . . . 21 Then his servants said to him, "What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food." 22 He said, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said,
"Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?'"

2 Samuel 12:13-18, 21-22

Dave does Penance for his sin.

10 But David's heart smote him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, I pray thee, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly." 11 And when David arose in the morning, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad, David's seer, saying, 12 "Go and say to David, `Thus says the LORD, Three things I offer you; choose one of them, that I may do it to you." 13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, "Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me." 14 Then David said to Gad, "I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man." 15 So the LORD sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time; and there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men. 16 And when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD repented of the evil, and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, "It is enough; now stay your hand."

2 Samuel 24:10-16

Repent for the Kingdom.

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand."


Matthew 4:17

The Sign of Jonah

41 The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.


Matthew 12:41-42

Jesus tells us to bear the fruit of repentance.

8 Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.


Luke 3:8

Adam and Christ

12 Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned


Romans 5:12

Life in the Spirit

16 it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.


Romans 8:16-17

A Worker approved by God.

24 And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, 26 and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

2 Timothy 2:24-26

St. Paul takes joy in doing penance for his sins and the sins of the Church.

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known.

Colossians 1:24-25

See also:

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