One of the most prominent things found in the teachings of Jesus as seen in the New Testament is the forgiveness of sins. It seems that nearly every page or every other page has something about forgiveness. In fact, the very name of Jesus means “savior” given in the context of saving his people from their sins (Matthew’s gospel), and the first words we have from Mark’s gospels are about forgiveness. Jesus carries these teachings all throughout his ministry, and even at Pentecost in the book of Acts, Peter instructs the new believers to ask for forgiveness of sins and be baptized. Forgiveness is the key concept in Christianity, just as the main theme of the Christian Scriptures is that of forgiveness or reconciliation to God through forgiveness. Sin itself is essentially the disobedience toward God’s will, which separates us from God. According to John 20, individuals are tasked to forgive others, and the Church has used a number of ways to go about doing this.
The first major point is that to have complete forgiveness of sins, one must have a deep sorrow for their wrongdoings and must turn to God and praise Him. It is worth noting that in the Hebrew, Greek and Latin, when one is to confess sins, the phrase also actually means “to give praise to God.” The primary sacrament for forgiveness is well-known to be through baptism – the Nicene Creed reminds us of this as well. The Eucharist, as pointed out by Origen, Thomas Aquinas as well as others, is also for the forgiveness of sins. According to the apostle James, the anointing of the sick is also seen as a way to forgiveness. In modern times, however, when a Catholic thinks of the forgiveness of sins in terms of the sacraments, it is often penance or confession that comes to mind, which Vatican II renamed “reconciliation.”
Early on in the Christian church, baptism was the only sacrament of forgiveness. To be sure, one could confess their sins to God verbally and be forgiven as we still do today – yet in terms of the sacraments, the early church only used baptism. A problem arose in the early church, however: what if someone was to sin after they were baptized? For example, in antiquity, there were three deadly sins which the Christians believed would end your walk with Jesus: murder, adultery and apostasy. The first solution to this problem was simply to baptize the believer again, but this was quickly rejected as being insufficient. There was urgent need for another sacrament, but one did not come in the first century. When the non-canonical Shepherd of Hermas document declared during the second century that there was another form of forgiveness after baptism, Christians widely began to accept this. The authorities claimed that a visible sign of confession had to be made, though, which led to harsh forms of public penance – for example, kneeling in sackcloth as well as ashes every Sunday for years and asking for the faithful to pray for them. It was not until the time of the barbarian invasions to Europe that this practice of penance began to change.
When there were some who realized that the warriors could not be defeated, they decided to try and convert them. The bishop of Rome therefore called for missionaries, and hundreds of individuals answered the call – usually with their penitential book. The book was generally used in Celtic monasteries, and the monks would confess their sins to the local abbot at the time. This book had a list of sins and the penance required for each sin, and once the penance was read, the individual would be absolved of their sins in God’s name. Public penance began to disappear as the monks (particularly the Irish missionaries) spread this form of private confession among the barbarians. By AD 1000, public penance had essentially dissolved and given way to private confession in the church. After baptism, then, this private confession later became the way for the forgiveness of sins. One of the issues with this private confession, however, was that it then seemed to make social injustices permissible since the confession was focused on the self and not on the community.
Vatican II changed the emphasis on private confession, and sometimes a penance service would then come into play when there were not enough priests to fulfill confessional duties. However, by the 1960s most Catholics had stopped going to confession anyway, so the change was not entirely noticed. People abandoned this ancient practice. There have been a number of possible reasons put forth as to why this has happened, such as the opening rite and prayer at mass being seen as forgiving the sins of the community, ecumenical councils and dialogues with Protestants, Orthodox and Anglican Christians who did not use regular confession and a number of other factors. Although there are still those who go to confession, the Eucharist has essentially replaced penance or reconciliation as the primary way in which the forgiveness of sins is enacted, and this view is held by the majority of Catholics today. Protestants hold differing views on forgiveness, but both Protestants and Catholics tend to agree that the primary mode for the forgiveness of sins is by accepting Christ as Savior and confessing your sins directly to God.