Introduction to Sacramentology: The Office of the Keys – a Scriptural and Patristic Apology

Note: For all Biblical quotations, the NKJV is used, unless I am citing the Greek Old Testament (LXX), for which the NETS is used. The italics in Biblical quotations are from the translators to note words added for clarity that are not present in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

The practice of confession and absolution is absent, if not rejected outright, in much of the protestant tradition. Coming out of Roman Catholicism in the 1500s, this is understandable in some respects. Reformers spoke against the medieval practice of confession many times, criticizing it for its absuses: the requirement of the enumeration of all sins, hefty penance (good works) after the absolution, and binding all sins that go unconfessed prior to death. While the church in Rome has seemingly changed doctrine with regard to enumeration of all sins and has lightened penance requirements, the binding of all sins that go unconfessed prior to death has remained. In two branches of the reformation, confession and absolution were retained— Anglicanism and Lutheranism. The Anglican doctrine of this practice will not be discussed in this post.

Lutheranism has continued this practice on the ground of both scripture and tradition, going as far as declaring is one of the six chief parts of the Christian faith in the Small Catechism alongside the Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. It is also given its own article in the Augsburg Confession and Apology and the Smalcald Articles and some editions of the Large Catechism.

The term “Office of the Keys” refers to Matthew 16:19 in which Christ tells Peter that He will give Peter the Keys of Heaven to bind and loose sins. The keys are a twofold responsibility: Loose the sins of the repentant and bind the sins of the unrepentant. This is where the practice of confession-absolution and the ban and excommunication are founded for the church in the New Testament. The protestant tradition has historically maintained the ban and excommunication, though many church bodies today practice seemingly antinomian practice in that they do not withhold communion from the unrepentant and allow clergy in great sin to continue preaching despite their failure to uphold ordination vows and the scriptural requirements for clergy.

A defense of the Lutheran position of the Office of the Keys entails an apology for the practice of confession to a pastor, the absolution bestowing Christ’s forgiveness to the confessor, and the practice of church discipline.

From the Lutheran Confessions:

The keys are an office and power given by Christ to the Church for binding and loosing sin, not only the gross and well-known sins, but also the subtle, hidden, which are known only to God, as it is written in Ps. 19:13: Who can understand his errors? And in Rom. 7:25 St. Paul himself complains that with the flesh he serves the law of sin. For it is not in our power, but belongs to God alone, to judge which, how great, and how many the sins are, as it is written in Ps. 143:2: Enter not into judgment with Thy servant; for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified. And Paul says, 1 Cor. 4:4: For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified.

Since Absolution or the Power of the Keys is also an aid and consolation against sin and a bad conscience, ordained by Christ [Himself] in the Gospel, Confession or Absolution ought by no means to be abolished in the Church, especially on account of [tender and] timid consciences and on account of the untrained [and capricious] young people, in order that they may be examined, and instructed in the Christian doctrine. But the enumeration of sins ought to be free to every one, as to what he wishes to enumerate or not to enumerate. For as long as we are in the flesh, we shall not lie when we say: “I am a poor man [I acknowledge that I am a miserable sinner], full of sin.” Rom. 7:23: I see another law in my members, etc. For since private absolution originates in the Office of the Keys, it should not be despised [neglected], but greatly and highly esteemed [of the greatest worth], as [also] all other offices of the Christian Church.

The greater excommunication, as the Pope calls it, we regard only as a civil penalty, and it does not concern us ministers of the Church. But the lesser, that is, the true Christian excommunication, consists in this, that manifest and obstinate sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the Church until they amend their lives and avoid sin. And ministers ought not to mingle secular punishments with this ecclesiastical punishment, or excommunication.

If we call Sacraments rites which have the command of God, and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to decide what are properly Sacraments. For rites instituted by men will not in this way be Sacraments properly so called. For it does not belong to human authority to promise grace. Therefore signs instituted without God’s command are not sure signs of grace, even though they perhaps instruct the rude [children or the uncultivated], or admonish as to something [as a painted cross]. Therefore Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution, which is the Sacrament of Repentance, are truly Sacraments. For these rites have God’s command and the promise of grace, which is peculiar to the New Testament. For when we are baptized, when we eat the Lord’s body, when we are absolved, our hearts must be firmly assured that God truly forgives us for Christ’s sake. And God, at the same time, by the Word and by the rite, moves hearts to believe and conceive faith, just as Paul says, Rom. 10:17: Faith cometh by hearing. But just as the Word enters the ear in order to strike our heart, so the rite itself strikes the eye, in order to move the heart. The effect of the Word and of the rite is the same, as it has been well said by Augustine that a Sacrament is a visible word, because the rite is received by the eyes, and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore the effect of both is the same.  

Smalcald Articles Part III Articles VII, VIII.1-2, IX; Apology XIII (VII) 3-5

The Old Testament Witness

The Office of the Keys is rooted in the Old Testament and is rightly understood in that context. While the role of priests and prophets did not directly transfer into the New Testament, much of the role was retained, particularly the pastors’ role as stewards of God’s mysteries (1 Cor. 4:1-2) (Greek “mysterion”) which is the word for “sacrament” or in the Latin Vulgate “sacramentum.” The Office of the Keys is paramount to this idea, as Chrysostom (349-407 AD) writes in his 1 Corinthians commentary, “‘Stewards,’ says he, indicating that we ought not to give these things unto all, but unto whom it is due, and to whom it is fitting we should minister.”

Confession in the Old Testament

Leviticus 5:1-6 reads, “If a person sins in hearing the utterance of an oath, and is a witness, whether he has seen or known of the matter— if he does not tell it…. Or if a person touches any unclean thing…. Or if a person swears, speaking thoughtlessly with his lips to do evil or to do good … then he shall be guilty in any of these matters. And it shall be, when he is guilty in any of these matters, that he shall confess that he has sinned in that thing; and he shall bring his trespass offering to the LORD for his sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin.”

Leviticus specifically commands that Israelites confess their sins to a priest and receive atonement in the burnt offering. While the absolution is not given as a command for the priest in this text, the atonement for uncleanness following confession to a priest, is clear. It’s important to remember that the Old Testament atonement in the temple is for uncleanness rather than moral guilt, but this is the parallel for all atonement from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

Numbers 5:6-7 reads, “Speak to the children of Israel: ‘When a man or woman commits any sin that men commit in unfaithfulness against the LORD, and that person is guilty, then he shall confess the sin which he has committed. He shall make restitution for his trespass in full, plus one-fifth of it, and give it to the one he has wronged.”

Numbers gives a similar command to that of Leviticus, but with restitution towards the one wronged rather than burnt offering. The text is, however, unclear with regard to whom confession is made. It is possible that confession is made from offender to offended rather than to the priest.

1 Samuel 15:24-26 reads, “Then Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the LORD.’ But Samuel said to Saul, ‘I will not return with you, for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.’”

Saul confessed his sin to the prophet Samuel, but Samuel saw through Saul’s false repentance and instead bound his sin rather than loosing it. The story that follows demonstrates that Samuel was correct in his judgement against Saul as Saul continued in evil unrepentantly.

2 Samuel 12:13 reads, “So 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.’”

After committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing Uriah, David confessed his sin to the prophet Nathan, and Nathan absolved him. This is the clearest Old Testament text regarding the practice of confession to the clergy and absolution in return.

Nehemiah 9:1-3 reads, “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads. Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God.”

This is an example from the Old Testament of corporate confession, which is included in the Lutheran liturgy. The congregation confesses their sins and receives the Word of God in return. A traditional confession in liturgy reads, “I confess to almighty God, before all the company of heaven, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed through my fault, through my own fault, through my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray almighty God, for the save of Jesus Christ His Son, to have mercy on me, forgive me my sins, and bring me to everlasting life.” The pastor responds, “Upon this, your confession, I, by virtue of my Office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God to all of you. In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” All then say, “Amen.”

Baruch 1:13-14 reads, “And pray concerning us to the Lord our God, for we have sinned against the Lord our God, and the anger of the Lord and his wrath have not turned away from us until this day.” Baruch 1:15-3:8 details the confession of Israel to the high priest Joachim. Baruch 4:21-24 then reads, “Take courage, O children; call out to God, and he will deliver you from domination, from the hand of enemies. For I have hoped in the Everlasting for your salvation, and joy has come to me from the Holy One because of the mercy that will soon come to you from your everlasting savior. For I dispatched out with mourning and weeping, but God will give you back to me with delight and merriment forever. For as the neighbors of Zion have seen your captivity now, so they will quickly see your salvation from God, which will come to you with the great glory and splendor of the Everlasting,” and in 5:9, “For God will lead Israel with merriment, by the light of his glory, together with the mercy and righteousness that is from him.”

Israel confessed their sins to the high priest and received the Word of god entailing salvation, mercy, eternal delight/merriment, and righteousness, which is to say, forgiveness from sin and bestowed righteousness, which is the definition of justification in the New Testament. This, along with the Numbers passage below, is perhaps the closest to the idea of corporate confession and absolution as seen in the Lutheran liturgy.

Absolution in the Old Testament

Leviticus 14:2, 6-7 reads, “This shall be the law of the leper for the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the priest…. As for the living bird, he shall take it, the cedar wood and the scarlet and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water. And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose in the open field.”

The concept of uncleanliness in the Old Testament does not transfer directly into the New Testament, but as sinners, we are spiritually unclean towards God (1 Cor. 7:14, Eph. 5:5). In the Old Testament, the priest would pronounce the unclean Israelite as clean.

Numbers 6:22-27 reads, “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, “This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel.” Say to them: “The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, ​And give you peace.” So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.’”

This text may be familiar to many as the benediction that is given at the end of services, even in many Protestant churches. While it is not a direct absolution for the confession of sins as in some other texts, it is clear that the priests are declaring God’s grace and peace unto the congregation, which is the purpose of an absolution.

Church Discipline in the Old Testament

The Hebrew word for uncleanness (tum’ah) occurs 37 times in the Old Testament, and the word for unclean (tame’) occurs 161 times in the Old Testament. The numerous things which make someone unclean are too numerous to list here, but include touching a dead animal or person, bearing children, male or female discharging, disease, touching anything that is unclean, and various other acts. Uncleanness required a period of separation from the camp for a varying amount of time depending on circumstances and a washing by the priest upon re-arrival. While this is not a direct parallel to New Testament church discipline, it is related in that various things make people unclean to come to God’s presence in the temple, and a washing is needed. Similarly, our sin makes us unclean, and a failure to repent and be washed (IE absolved) prohibits us from coming into God’s presence in communion (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

The Pentateuch documents the things which require that an individual be “cut off” from Israel (which is to be excommunicated). Israelites were to be cut off for being uncircumcised (Gen. 17:4), eating Leavened bread during Passover (Ex. 12:15,19), making chrism oil or incense for use outside of the temple (Ex. 30:33,38), breaking the sabbath (Ex. 31:14), eating peace offerings while unclean (Lev. 7:20-21), eating animal fat or blood from an offering (Lev. 7:25,27, 17:14), not making offering to God when slaughtering animals (Lev. 17:4,9), various sexually immoral acts (Lev. 18:29, 20:17-18), eating meat on two days after sacrificing it (Lev. 19:8), approaching holy things while unclean (Lev. 22:3, Num. 19:13), lack of conviction during the Feast of Atonement (Lev. 23:29), failing to keep Passover (Num. 9:13), and presumptuous acts (Num. 15:30-31).

Two examples of church discipline are seen in the Old Testament.

Numbers 12:14-15 reads, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘If her father had but spit in her face, would she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp seven days, and afterward she may be received again.‘ So Miriam was shut out of the camp seven days, and the people did not journey till Miriam was brought in again.”

Miriam is cut off for seven days after she and Aaron spoke against Moses to God.

Ezra 10:7-8 reads, “And they [Ezra and the priests] issued a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the descendants of the captivity, that they must gather at Jerusalem, and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the instructions of the leaders and elders, all his property would be confiscated, and he himself would be separated from the assembly of those from the captivity.”

Those who did not go to Jerusalem after the final release from captivity were separated from the congregation.

The New Testament Witness

Confession in the New Testament

Matthew 3:1, 5-6 (cf. Mark 1, Luke 3) reads, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea…. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.”

Those who came to John the Baptist confessed their sins before baptism. Though John was not a priest, he was certainly a prophet in that he prophesied the coming Messiah.

Luke 15:20-24 reads, “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the son confesses to the father and the father forgives the son in return. While this is certainly a parable about Christians and God, the parable uses people as its example for confession and forgiveness.

Acts 19:17-18 reads, “This [a failed exorcism by Jews] became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted up the value of them, and it totaled fifty thousand pieces of silver.”

Those who believed came and confessed their sins and recanted their practices. This example is seemingly a public confession as it is narrated immediately before the public book burning.

James 5:16 reads, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”

This is the most direct command in the New Testament for confession. While it says to confess to one another, not specifically to a pastor, the Lutheran confessions address this: “For wherever the Church is, there is the authority [command] to administer the Gospel. Therefore it is necessary for the Church to retain the authority to call, elect, and ordain ministers. And this authority is a gift which in reality is given to the Church, which no human power can wrest from the Church, as Paul also testifies to the Ephesians when he says, Eph 4, 8: He ascended, He gave gifts to men. And he enumerates among the gifts specially belonging to the Church pastors and teachers, and adds that such are given for the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. Hence, wherever there is a true church, the right to elect and ordain ministers necessarily exists. Just as in a case of necessity even a layman absolves, and becomes the minister and pastor of another; as Augustine narrates the story of two Christians in a ship, one of whom baptized the catechumen, who after Baptism then absolved the baptizer” (Of the Power and Primacy of the Pope, Of the Power and Jurisdiction of Bishops, 67), and also “We will now return to the Gospel, which not merely in one way gives us counsel and aid against sin; for God is superabundantly rich [and liberal] in His grace [and goodness]. First, through the spoken Word by which the forgiveness of sins is preached [He commands to be preached] in the whole world; which is the peculiar office of the Gospel. Secondly, through Baptism. Thirdly, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourthly, through the power of the keys, and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, Matt. 18:20: Where two or three are gathered together, etc.” (Smalcald Articles Part III, Article IV. Of the Gospel).

It is seen then that the Office of the Keys is not given to pastors alone, but to the church as a whole. Pastors are to be the stewards of the sacraments and God’s Word and are necessary for good order in the church, but in emergencies or in cases where one man sins against another, the keys are employed by laymen.

Absolution in the New Testament

Matthew 16:17-19 reads, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The keys are here promised to Peter as the representative of the church. They are given to the church in Matthew 18 and John 20.

Matthew 18:15-20 reads, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

John 20:21-23 reads, “So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Matthew 18 and John 20 are the key texts for defending the Office of the Keys. They are clear in that Christ is the one who forgives, but the apostles are given the keys from Christ to forgive in his stead, or “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ as it is often said. The church then has received the keys and great authority to “bind” and “loose” sins on earth and in heaven, which is to say, not only temporal, but also eternal forgiveness. Roman Catholic and Eastern Christianity may argue that because the apostles were given the keys that only pastors (particularly those in apostolic succession) may forgive sins, but this seemingly contradicts the ancient interpretation of Matthew 16, which holds that Peter received the promise of the keys as representative of the church and contradicts Matthew 18:20, which is clear that the keys are there where two or more are gathered in Christ’s name. This is not to say that any and all should use the keys at their own discretion as this would not be in good order or wisdom, but rather that all can, and in some cases (as stated in the section on confession in the New Testament) should absolve others.

2 Corinthians 2:10 reads, “Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ.”

The interpretation of the passage as absolution is supported by Cyprian (210-258 AD), Chrysostom (349-407 AD), and Theophylact (1050-1107+ AD). The Greek rendering is more clear than the NKJV; the forgiveness is given “en prosopon Xristou” which renders “in face/person of Christ,” (as KJV reads), (Vulgate reads “in persona Christi”) which is to say, it is in Christ’s stead, demonstrating the authority of the Office of the Keys.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19 reads, “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.”

The “ministry of reconciliation” must be taken as it plainly reads. Christ made the apostles ministers, and, in this ministry, they reconcile people to God, through Christ, who gave them this ministry in the keys.

Church Discipline in the New Testament

1 Corinthians 5:4-5 reads, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one [the sexually immoral] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

Paul tells the church in Corinth here to deliver the sexually immoral to Satan for destruction of the flesh, which is to drive them to repentance that they may be saved. This is a clear example of excommunication.

2 Corinthians 1:23-24 reads, “Moreover I call God as witness against my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth. Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy; for by faith you stand.”

Paul clarifies in his second letter to Corinth that he did not return there any longer so that more may be spared, suggesting that he was exercising church discipline in the church. The text is clear that Paul does not have authority over their faith in excommunicating but rather over church order, which is confirmed in Smalcald Articles VIII.1-2 as cited at the beginning. The pastor can make judgements on members and excommunicate them, but it must be clear that the excommunication itself does not give them a certain sentence to hell if they do not come back to confession before they die– that is a result of unbelief and lack of repentance. This theme of church discipline in good order and not over the eternal soul is repeated later in Titus.

1 Timothy 1:18-20 reads, “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

Paul gives an example to Timothy of two individuals who were delivered to Satan as he spoke in 1 Cor. 5:4-5 and demonstrates that handing them to Satan is to drive them to repentance.

2 Timothy 3:2-8 reads, “For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith.”

Paul tells Timothy that the church is not to accept the unrepentant sinners, IE excommunicate them, as they will bring their sins into the church to lead others astray.

Titus 3:9-11 reads, “But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.”

Paul again tells one of his disciples to exercise church discipline, this time for those who unnecessarily stir dissension in the church. He again is clear that these sinners condemn themselves, but the church, in good order, is to exercise discipline.

The Patristic Witness

Didache 4:14, 14:1 (49-70 AD) reads, “In church you shall confess your transgressions, and you shall not approach your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life…. On the Lord’s own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure.”

This is possibly an example of public confession in the early church. The two passages demonstrate that confession took place on Sundays in church. This would seem to imply that it is during the liturgy, though it is possible that it occurs prior to the liturgy in the church on Sunday.

This same wording is found the Epistle of Barnabas 19:12 (70-79 AD): “You shall confess your sins. You shall not come to prayer with an evil conscience.”

Ignatius Epistle of Philadelphia 8:1 (<108 AD) reads, “The Lord, however, forgives all who repent, if in repenting they return to the unity of God and the council of the bishop. I believe in the grace of Jesus Christ, who will free you from every restraint.”

Ignatius seemingly connects the forgiveness through repentance and returning to the unity of God also to the council of the bishop, which could imply confession to the bishop.

Irenaeus Adversus Haeresis 1.13.7 (174-189 AD) reads, “Some of them, [women deceived by heretics] indeed, make a public confession of their sins; but others of them are ashamed to do this, and in a tacit kind of way, despairing of [attaining to] the life of God, have, some of them, apostatized altogether.”

Public confession is seen again here, this case may refer to the ceremony of restoration of the lapsed, which was a practice for bringing the formerly apostate church members back into Christianity. Werner Elert’s Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries discusses this topic thoroughly if further reading is desired.

Tertullian On repentance (<206 AD) Chapter 10 reads, “What a son asks is ever easily obtained. Grand indeed is the reward of modesty, which the concealment of our fault promises us! To wit, if we do hide somewhat from the knowledge of man, shall we equally conceal it from God? Are the judgment of men and the knowledge of God so put upon a par? Is it better to be damned in secret than absolved in public? But you say, ‘It is a miserable thing thus to come to confession.’ Yes, for evil does bring to misery; but where repentance is to be made, the misery ceases, because it is turned into something salutary. Miserable it is to be cut, and cauterized, and racked with the pungency of some (medicinal) powder: still, the things which heal by unpleasant means do, by the benefit of the cure, excuse their own offensiveness, and make present injury bearable for the sake of the advantage to supervene.”

Here it is easily seen that Tertullian writes that it is good to go to confession and be absolved in public for the sake of comforting the soul. This is one possible support for the use of public absolution in the Lutheran liturgy, though Tertullian could be suggesting that this confession is “public” in that it is shared between the confessor and the clergyman.

Origen Homily 2 on Leviticus 4.5 (238-244 AD) reads, “And there is still a seventh remission of sins through penance, although admittedly it is difficult and toilsome, when the sinner washes ‘his couch in tears’ (Ps 6.7) and his ‘tears’ become his ‘bread day and night,’ (Ps 41.4) when he is not ashamed to make known his sin to the priest of the Lord and to seek a cure according to the one who says, ‘I said, “I will proclaim to the Lord my injustice against myself” and you forgave the impiety of my heart’ (Ps 31.5).”

Penance refers to the process of confession, absolution, and tasks afterward which are to accompany this to show repentance.

Cyprian Treatise 3 – The Lapsed 15-16, 28 (251 AD) reads, “Also, the apostle testifies, and says, ‘You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils; you cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of devils’ (1 Cor. 10:21). He threatens, moreover, the stubborn and Lord unworthily, is ‘guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 11:27). All these warnings being scorned and contemned — before their sin is expiated, before confession has been made of their crime, before their conscience has been purged by offering and by the hand of the priest, before the offense of an angry and threatening Lord has been appeased, violence is done to His body and blood; and they sin now against their Lord more with their hand and mouth than when they denied their Lord…. Moreover, how much are they both greater in faith and better in their fear, who, although bound by no crime of sacrifice to idols or of certificate, yet, since they have even thought of such things, with grief and simplicity confess this very thing to God’s priests, and make the conscientious avowal, put off from them the load of their minds, and seek out the salutary medicine even for slight and moderate wounds, knowing that it is written, God is not mocked (Gal. 6:7).”

Cyprian is clear in this case on the practice of private confession to a clergyman as a necessity before communion. The purging by offering is unclear in the text. This could be communion, though that would seemingly contradict his point, since the lapsed individual would have to commune once first in order to commune the second time rightly. It’s possible this refers to penance or a sacrifice of praise, incense, or worship. He writes further on this topic on numerous occasions (Epistles 9, 10 11, 39, 51, 61, 72, 74).

Aphrahat Demonstrations 8.8 (337 AD) reads, “Then Moses wished by his priestly power to absolve Reuben from his transgression and sin, in that he had lain with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; that when his brethren should rise, he might not be cut off from their number.”

Aphrahat connects the practice of absolution to the Old Testament priesthood.

Council of Antioch in Encaeniis Canon 2 (341 AD) reads, “All who enter the church of God and hear the Holy Scriptures, but do not communicate with the people in prayers, or who turn away, by reason of some disorder, from the holy partaking of the Eucharist, are to be cast out of the Church, until, after they shall have made confession, and having brought forth the fruits of penance, and made earnest entreaty, they shall have obtained forgiveness; and it is unlawful to communicate with excommunicated persons, or to assemble in private houses and pray with those who do not pray in the Church; or to receive in one Church those who do not assemble with another Church. And, if any one of the bishops, presbyters, or deacons, or any one in the Canon shall be found communicating with excommunicated persons, let him also be excommunicated, as one who brings confusion on the order of the Church.”

Athanasius Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 19 (<373 AD) writes, “Just as a man is enlightened by the Holy Spirit when he is baptized by a priest, so he who confesses his sins with a repentant heart obtains their remission from the priest.”

Basil the Great Rules Briefly Treated 288 (374 AD) reads, “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 they confessed to the Apostles, by whom also all were baptized (Acts 19:18).”

Council of Laodicaea Canon 2 (390 AD) reads, “They who have sinned in various particulars, if they have persevered in the prayer of confession and penance, and are wholly converted from their faults, shall be received again to communion, through the mercy and goodness of God, after a time of penance appointed to them, in proportion to the nature of their offense. “

Ambrose Concerning Repentance I.7-8 (388 AD) reads, “The Church holds fast its obedience on either side, by both retaining and remitting sin; heresy is on the one side cruel, and on the other disobedient; wishes to bind what it will not loosen, and will not loosen what it has bound, whereby it condemns itself by its own sentence. For the Lord willed that the power of binding and of loosing should be alike, and sanctioned each by a similar condition. So he who has not the power to loose has not the power to bind. For as, according to the Lord’s word, he who has the power to bind has also the power to loose, their teaching destroys itself, inasmuch as they who deny that they have the power of loosing ought also to deny that of binding. For how can the one be allowed and the other disallowed? It is plain and evident that either each is allowed or each is disallowed in the case of those to whom each has been given. Each is allowed to the Church, neither to heresy, for this power has been entrusted to priests alone. Rightly, therefore, does the Church claim it, which has true priests; heresy, which has not the priests of God, cannot claim it. And by not claiming this power heresy pronounces its own sentence, that not possessing priests it cannot claim priestly power. And so in their shameless obstinacy a shamefaced acknowledgment meets our view. Consider, too, the point that he who has received the Holy Ghost has also received the power of forgiving and of retaining sin. For thus it is written: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit: whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven unto them, and whosoever sins you retain, they are retained’ (John 20:22-23). So, then, he who has not received power to forgive sins has not received the Holy Spirit. The office of the priest is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and His right it is specially to forgive and to retain sins. How, then, can they claim His gift who distrust His power and His right?”

Jerome Commentary on Matthew 3:16-19 (398 AD) reads, “Just as in the Old Testament the priest makes the leper clean or unclean, so in the New Testament the bishop and presbyter binds or looses not those who are innocent or guilty, but by reason of their office, when they have heard various kinds of sins, they know who is to be bound and who loosed.”

Confession, absolution, and church discipline can be further found among numerous fathers, and the citations are too numerous to include all here. Some examples are John Chrysostom (347-407 AD), Augustine (354-430 AD), and Leo the Great (395-461 AD) each in numerous works, Socrates’ (379-450) Ecclesial History book 5, Sozomen’s (375-477 AD) Ecclesial History book 7, Theodore of Mopsuestia Catechetical Homilies 16, and various others. Ecclesiastical canons and local councils also tend to address the topic of church discipline thoroughly.


The practices of confession, absolution, and church discipline are abundant in the Old and New Testaments, not only in descriptive, but also prescriptive texts. The fathers continued in this tradition in all ages of the church. God uses His people to bestow forgiveness to the world not only in the preaching of the Gospel, Baptism, and Communion, but also the Absolution.

Further Readings

Ambrose Concerning Repentance

Tertullian One Repentance

Apology to the Ausgburg Confession Article XI: Of Confession

Luther’s Brief Admonition to Confession

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