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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. Hermas, (A.D. c.40-100)
    Tertullian, (A.D. 160-218)
    Origen of Alexandria, (A.D. 184-253)
St. Hermas, (A.D. c.40-100), author of the book called "The Shepherd" (A.D. c.90-c.150): a work which had great authority in ancient times, considered a valuable book by many Christians.

"But, sir, behold, they also now do penitence with all their hearts." "I know," says he, "that they do penitence with all their hearts. But dost thou therefore think that their offences, who do penitence, are immediately blotted out? No, they are not presently; but it is necessary that he who does penitence afflict his soul, and show himself humble in spirit in all his affairs, and undergo many and divers vexations; and when he shall have suffered all things which were appointed for him, then, perhaps. He that made him, and formed all things, will be moved with compassion towards him and afford him some remedy: and that so, if he shall perceive his heart, who does penitence, pure from every evil work."

L. iii. Simil. vii. n. i. Coteler. PP. Ap. t. i.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 116-117

Tertullian, (A.D. 160-218), North African; ecclesiastical writer, Christian apologist and lawyer, son of a centurion and contemporary of St. Irenæus, a native and citizen of Carthage. The zeal and ability with which he defended the Christian cause, and vindicated its faith and discipline, have immortalized his name, though it has suffered by his adoption, around the year A.D. 200, of some of the Montanist's errors, whose cause he is thought to have supported until his death. His works are numerous, and are written with great ability and erudition, but in an harsh style.

"On the fast and stations, no prayer must be observed without kneeling, and the other modes of humiliation. For we are not only praying, but deprecating, and making satisfaction unto God our Lord."

De Oratione. From Muratori's l. iii. Anecdot.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 117

"It is the duty of those who are about to enter upon baptism, to pray with frequent prayers, fasts, bowings of the knee, and long watchings, and with the confession of all their past sins, so as to show forth even the baptism of John: "They were baptized, says he, confessing their sins." We may congratulate ourselves, if we do not publicly confess our iniquities, or our defilements. For, by the afflicting of the flesh and of the spirit, we at the same time, both satisfy for things past, and build up beforehand a barrier against temptations to come."

De Baptismo, n. 20, p. 232. See also De Jejuniis, n. 3, p. 546.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 117

"What then is the working of patience in the body? In the first place, the afflicting of the flesh, an offering propitiating the Lord by the sacrifice of humiliation, when it offers up to the Lord filthy garments with scantiness of food, being content with simple victuals, and a pure draught of water; when with this it joins fasting, when it grows familiar with ashes and sackcloth. This patience of the body commends our prayers, strengthens our entreaties for mercy; this opens the ears of Christ our God, scatters abroad His severity, draws forth His mercy. So, that king of Babylon, when, having offended God, he lived deprived of the form of a man, in filthiness and dirt, for seven years, as soon as he had offered as a sacrifice the patience of his body, he both recovered the kingdom, and, which is more to be desired for a man, made satisfaction to God."

"Who, when he has inquired, does not join us? When he has joined us does not desire to suffer, that he may purchase (redimat) the whole grace of God; that he may gain from Him perfect forgiveness at the price (compensatione) of his own blood? For all crimes are pardoned to this work."

De Patientia, n. 13, p. 147.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Pages 117-118

Origen of Alexandria, (A.D. 184-253), Alexandrian; born in Egypt, philosopher, theologian, writer.

"The Lord is merciful and long suffering, and "wills not the death of a sinner, but that he be converted and live" (Ezekiel 33) By being penitent, by weeping, by making satisfaction, let him blot out what he has been guilty of."

T. ii. Hom. vi. in Exod. n. 9, p. 150.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 118

"Wherefore if any one be conscious to himself that he has within him a mortal sin, and that he has not cast it off from himself, through a penitence of the fullest satisfaction, let him not hope that Christ will enter into his soul."

T. ii. Hom. xii. in Levit. n. 3, p. 251.
The Faith of Catholics, Volume 3, Page 118



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

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