Fr. B.M.Thomas (Research Associate – COS-MARP) – 22/10/18

And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. (Jn 14: 16,17).[1]

Holy Spirit has dwelt in and led the Holy Church since the time of Pentecost as promised by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (while He ascended to heaven in front of his disciples). The sacraments of Holy Church are the channels by which we receive the grace and blessing of the Holy Spirit. Sacraments are the visible expressions of the Holy Spirit in the Church, guiding us through the path of truth and providing us the gifts of blessings and divinity. All  Churches accepted the number of major sacraments to be seven, until the Reformation. Thereafter, some (like ‘Salvation Army’) rejected all, whereas some (like Lutheran’s) accepted just three (Baptism, Communion and Confession) and a few other denominations accept only two (Baptism and Communion).[2]

The scope of the present article is to have a study on the journey of the ‘Sacrament of Confession’ throughout the Christian era.


There is no ‘official list’ of the sacraments either in the West Syriac or in the East Syriac traditions[3]. The list of Dionysius the Areopagite (AD 500) has generally been accepted in the West Syriac Tradition. (Baptism, Eucharist, Consecration of Myron, Ordination, Funeral, and the Monastic Profession are the ‘sacraments’ or perfections on which Dionysius comments)[4]. In his treatise Mnarez Kudshe (‘Light of the Sanctuary’) Bar Hebreaeus (AD 1286) comments on five sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, Ordination, Consecration of Holy Myron and Funeral). For him, this list is not definite. Thus in another treatise named Zagle (‘Rays’), he speaks of six sacraments, adding ‘the Consecration of Churches’ to the previous list.

Among the East Syrians, we find details on the list of sacraments only by the later writers. Abdiso of Suba (AD 1318) in his treatise on the sacraments, The Marganita (‘The Book of the Pearl’) gives a list of ‘seven mysteries’ of the Church (Ordination, Baptism, Oil of Anointing, Eucharist, Remission of Sins, Malka or the Holy Leaven and the sin of the Cross)[5]. Patriarch Timothy (AD 1332), a contemporary of Abdiso gives a different list of ‘Seven Mysteries’. In his work ‘The Causes of the Seven Mysteries of the Church’ he comments on the Laying of Hands, Consecration of Altars, Baptism, Eucharist, Monastic tonsure, Funeral, and Marriage.[6] During the Thirteenth Century, the East Syrians received the idea of ‘The Seven Sacraments’ from the Dominicans who worked among them[7]. Thus no official list of Sacraments can be found among the Syrians (except among those who have ‘united’ with Rome -Uniates).

The Malankara Church traditionally accepts seven sacraments (Ordination, Holy Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, Anointing the Sick, Holy Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Confession) as the major ones[8], although there are more, like House Blessing (Veedu Koodaassa), Church Sanctification (Palli Koodassa), Tabilite Sanctification (Thablaithaa Koodassa) etc.[9]


Like all other sacraments, the sacrament of Holy Confession was instituted by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He authorized the apostles with the following words.

“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. Mt 18:18

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.” Jn 20:21-23

Holy Confession is the keeping of holiness by cleansing the shortcomings, pitfalls, dirt of mind which comes every now and then. As Christ said,

“He who is Bathed needs only to wash his feet, …. Jn 13:10

Similarly, one bathed through Holy Baptism needs the confession to wash off his dirt like that of the feet. Through confession, we renew the covenant of Baptism and take a firm decision not to commit sin any further.[10]


The origin of confession in Judaism is quite ancient. In the Hebrew Bible, confessions on behalf of the whole congregation can be found in Lev. 16:21[11], Aaron confessed over the scapegoat and then releasing it into the wilderness. Lev. 5:5-7[12] states that after confession, forgiveness of sins would be received only when a certain animal or bird[13] would be sacrificed at the altar, as a penitence.[14] Confession for Jews was a step in the process of purification during which the person admits of committing a sin before God. The transgressions done to God are confessed in front of God, whereas those done to a person are confessed publicly. Later on, there was a form of confession that was added to the personal prayer of the faithful as well. There are two structures in confession, the short form (Ashamnu) and the long form (Al Cheyt). These practices were the outcome of the ‘Synagogue Worship’.


The history of Confession dates to the New Testament times itself. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the acknowledgment of sin in public or private was considered mandatory to obtain the ‘divine forgiveness.’ At that time and still today, (to some extent), the various transgressions of the ten commandments were taken as the major sins. The New Testament writings, (the writings of apostolic father’s, Didache, and various letters of Church fathers) are proof for the same. The early Christians obtained forgiveness for their sins by practicing special prayers, good deeds, fasting, and almsgiving. It is very clear, (based upon the writings of the Early Church fathers), that the Church recognized the power of the apostolic succession to absolve a penitent from their sins. But the private confessions as we know it now, originated in the Eastern monastic tradition and became a universal practice by the seventh century. Prior to that, the confession was ecclesial and serious sins were admitted publicly, which resulted in very serious penance that could take years or even a lifetime to fulfill.

There were two types of confession in the Early Church:

PERSONAL: To one another

PUBLIC: To the Church.[15]

The early Christian practice of ecclesial confession is biblical, as Jesus encouraged his followers to confront the problems, corporately and walk in light together. Jesus envisaged three steps to correct a sinning brother, namely:

  1. Confront the sinner face to face (directly).
  2. If it fails, confront him with two witnesses,
  3. If both steps fail, then convey it to the Church. (Mt 18:15-17)

Thus, the Church, (which is a group of believers), is the right forum to hear the confession and enforce discipline. The apostles vigorously instructed to pursue such practice.

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. James 5:16.

In Early Church, the rite of Baptism marked one’s repentance and entry into the Church with full authority to participate in the Eucharistic life of the Church.[16] There was little concern with the private confession of the “everyday sins” of the members of the community. In the Didache, there is mention of public confession of sins in the context of Church’s Eucharistic worship. This was not the public confession of one’s individual sins before the congregation, nor was it the simple recitation of the Lord’s prayer before the holy communion.[17] The ‘confession of sins’ was mostly a community prayer followed by the kiss of peace to signify the reconciliation of the assembly to each other and to God.[18]

Public confession had many drawbacks.[19] For example, grave Post Baptismal sins like Faith denial (apostasy), murder and sexual immoralities (sins that were known to the entire community there were lengthy and severe processes of public penance).[20] As the Church grew with people of varying traits and interests, public confessions became obsolete for fear of repercussions. Moreover, when the penitent did publicly confess his/her sins, the decision to do it was always at the mercy of the private initiative of the person, a free act of Christian faith for spiritual motives.

As pronounced by the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325AD, our Church enforces private confession[21] before the priest, rather than public confession.[22] The council upheld the Church’s authority over all the sinners, permitting Eucharist even to be given to the dying who could not enter penance. Pacian (392) and Ambrose (397) upheld the Church as the authority of divine mercy.

CONFESSION FOR THE ‘LAPSI’ – 3rd and 4th Century AD

It was not only the sins that needed to be confessed. For the first 300 years of Christian history, the Church faced many persecutions of varying intensity[23]. One of the worst was in AD 250. Decius Trajan[24] was a pagan king and who issued a decree commanding all the citizens to sacrifice to the emperor and his Pagan God. Those complying would receive a ‘libelli’[25], a certificate attesting this fact[26]. The emperor didn’t want Christians to be converted into martyrs[27], so comparatively few were killed. His goal was to force them to recant their faith and return them to the pagan fold. Arrests, exile, confiscation of property, threats and even torture were employed to force Christians to abandon their faith.  Martyrs among the bishops and officers of the Church were frequent.

Many staunch Christians did not deter from their faith and refused the demands of Decius, and suffered all tortures. They were given an honorary title of ‘Confessor’ by the Church. However, many did sacrifice to Pagan Gods and the emperor. Some even bribed the authorities to attain fraudulent certificates stating they had sacrificed even though they did not engage in such acts. Those Christians who compiled to Decius’ orders were excommunicated from the Church as apostates and were called  ‘lapsi’ (who had lapsed from the faith). Decius ruled only for two years as he died early. After him, Gallienus (260-268) was the ruler, and under him, there was no persecution to the Church for about three decades. Many of the ‘lapsed Christians’ wanted to return to the Church.  This created a great controversy – whether to admit these Christians and what to impose as penance on them to prove their loyalty towards Christ and the Church. Cyprian of Carthage held the opinion that the ‘lapsed’ should be brought into ‘full communion’ and ‘fellowship’ only after a period of probation and penance. Many Church historians are of the view that it was out of this concern that the ‘penitential system’ developed in the Church.

In Didaskalia Apostolorum, penance (for sins such as apostasy) involved weeks of fasting, the eventual laying on of hands by the bishop, and then communion. In 270 AD, Gregory the Wonderworker described five grades of penance for sinners – mourners, hearer, faller, bystander and participant – with numbers of years prescribed for each stage depending on the severity of the sin. The latter stage being those who were finally restored to full Eucharistic communion.


Doing penance privately without any ecclesial office and liturgical support increased in the early medieval ages. The writings of some of the Church fathers[28] and the acts of ancient councils are the primary sources from this period. The letter of Emperor Leo AD 459 of Rome decrees to stop public confessions and institute private confessions.[29] Special rules were issued by regional and local Church councils on how to deal with the confessing apostates. No one who belonged to the order of penitents had the access to Eucharistic Communion. He could join the community only after confessing and fulfilling his penance and on the approval by the bishop who was the conjoining authority.

One of the canons[30] reads as “from among penitents only apostates had to leave the Sunday assembly together with the catechumens before the Eucharistic part commenced. Other penitents had to be present until the end but were denied Holy Communion”.


A new approach in the 7th century to confession and penance first became evident, when Bishops gathered in a council[31] and were convinced that it was useful for the salvation of the faithful when the diocesan bishop prescribed penance to a sinner (as many times as he/she would fall into sin). Determined penances were set for all offenses, small and great. They were in accordance with the penitential manuals and tariff codes that were developed during this period, both in the East and West.[32] Such kind of penance was called ‘tariff penance’.


Eventually, the tariffs were replaced by prayers. Also at this time, the parish priests began to hear ‘individual confessions’. Thus came into practice the private or auricular confession, followed in the Roman and Orthodox traditions.[33] Till the 10th century AD, the practice of hearing confessions was done at the beginning of the Lent and Holy Thursday was kept aside as the day for reconciliation of the penitents. Gradually the practice of reconciliation and absolving of sins (immediately) after the confession and before the fulfillment of the penance was introduced. By the end of the 11th century only the notorious criminals were reconciled on Holy Thursday, and that too after severe penance, to test their faith. Often, those guilty of serious sins put off penance until death approached. To put a check on this abuse, the rule that ‘every Christian who reached the age of discretion should confess once in a year’[34] was introduced in 1215[35]. Hence the Roman Church made the annual confession an official sacrament. By convention, it had become so, among the Syrian sections of Christianity[36].


During the Reformation era, an attempt was made to remove all references to private confessions and absolutions from the prayer books. The Church of England, however, resisted such attempts to an extent. In the 19th century, the Oxford movement encouraged the revival of private confessions, and it was accepted by some Anglicans as well. Protestants do not consider the confession as a sacrament. They consider the auricular confession as unbiblical and also consider ‘confession viewed as a sacrament’ as unbiblical. They stress the view that ‘God alone can forgive sins’ hence, there is no need to confess sins in front of a priest (who is a human).

During the counter-reformation era, the sacrament of confession was transformed from a social to a personal experience, that is, from a public community act to a private confession, (even though the practice prevailed long ago). Since then confessions have taken place in the privacy of a confessional. The Orthodox Church opts for a face to face confession where the priest is fully aware of the penitent. In the western tradition, the penitent may choose to confess in a specially constructed confessional, with an opaque grill separating the priest from the penitent, whose anonymity is thus preserved.[37]


When the world plunged into the modern and then into today’s ultra-modern era, confession has completely lost its ecclesial nature and has aberrantly grown into a mere legal sacramental obligation. There are very few in our parishes who come for confessions with utmost repentance and dedication. It is either a ‘once in a year practice’ for maintaining one’s membership in good standing at the Church’s general body, or it becomes a legalistic requirement necessary to make oneself ‘authoritatively worthy’ to take communion. Such approach and mentality of the faithful must be checked by themselves.


Every human is born (thus has a physical birth), the sacrament of baptism confers the spiritual birth, the sacrament of Confession is a pill and a remedy for the ills that are contracted in the soul after the ‘worldly’ involvements. Hence, it is the weapon by which a human proceeds to the ultimate goal of divinization or perfect humanization, i.e. deification.

[1] The Bible References in this article are taken from The Orthodox Study Bible.

[2] Very Rev. Thomas P Mundukuzhy, Our Church (New Delhi: Thomson Press, 2004), 230-231.

[3] On the Sacraments of the Syriac Churches from a Catholic perspective: Vries, Sackramententheologie bei den Nestorianism, OCA 125, Rome, 1940; ID., “Theologie des sacraments chez les Syriens monophysites”, L’Orient Syren VIII, (1963), 261-288.

[4] Dionysius the Areopagite, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, PG. III, 369-569. Eng. Tr. In Colm Luibheid(tr), Pseudo Dionysius. The Complete Works, New York, 1987;

[5] Abdisho of Nisibis and Armenia, Marganita, tr. Mar Eshai Shimun, Trichur.

[6] Paul Blaize Kadicheeni, tr. The Mystery of Baptism, the text, and translation of the Chapter ‘On Holy baptism’ from ‘The Cause of the Seven Mysteries of the Church of Timothy II Nestorian Patriarch, Bangalore, 1980.

[7] Fr. Dr. B.Varghese, “Holy Leaven”, Syriac Dialogue. Fifth International Consultation on Dialogue within the Syriac Tradition, Pro Oriente, Vienna, 2003, pp. 102-112.

[8] Dr. Youhanon Mar Severios Metropolitan, Shushroosha Samvishana Sahayi (Devalokam: MOC Publications, 2007), 105.

[9] Very Rev. Thomas P Mundukuzhy, Our Church (New Delhi: Thomson Press, 2004), 231.

[10] Geevarghese Mar Osthathios Metropolitan, et al., Malankara Orthodox Suriyani Sabha Oru Padhanam (Devalokam: MOC Publications, 2014), 116.

[11] Aaron shall place his hands on the head of the living kid, confess over it all the transgressions of the children of Israel, and all their lawlessness, and all their sins; and he shall put them on the head of the living kid, and send it away into the desert by the hand of a suitable man.

[12] then he shall confess his sin in that thing; and he shall bring for his trespass against the Lord, and for his guilt, a female from the sheep, a lamb, or a kid of the goats as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning the sin he committed, and it shall be remitted him.

‘But if he should be unable to afford a sheep, he shall bring for the sin he committed two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the Lord: one as a sin offering and the other as a whole burnt offering.

[13] Mostly Turtle Doves or Lamb, as per the gravity of the sin.

[14], retrieved on 12th October 2018.

[15] Very Rev. Thomas P Mundukuzhy, Our Church (New Delhi: Thomson Press, 2004), 270.

[16] James Dallen, The Reconciling Community: The Rite of Penance (NY: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1974),17.

[17] Prof. Paul Meyendorff, Penance in the Orthodox Church (NY: np, 1999), 2.

[18] James Dallen, The Reconciling Community: The Rite of Penance (NY: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1974),21.

[19] Very Rev. Thomas P …, 270.

[20] John H Erickson, The Challenges of Our Past (Crestwood, NY: SVS,1991), 25.

[21] Auricular confession, face to face.

[22] Very Rev. Thomas P …, 270.

[23] Although we know that the early Christians or the followers of ‘The Way’ were persecuted by the Romans and the Jewish authorities, there were organized persecutions under the Roman Emperors, until in AD 313’s Edict of Milan, where Christianity was proclaimed as the state religion. Emperors Nero (), Domitian (r. 89-96), Trajan (r. 109-111), Hadrian (r. 117-138), Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180), Septimus Severus (r. 193-211), Maximus the Thracian (r. 235-238), Decius (r. 249-251), Valerian (r. 253-260), Diocletian (r. 284-305). He was succeeded by Constantinus who was unenthusiastic towards the Christian persecutions, in 306 Constantine became the emperor, he restored Christians to equal legal authority and restored the confiscated properties of Christians during the persecutions. Constantine and   Licinius signed the Edict of Milan in AD 313.

[24] Emperor Decius also known as Decius Trajan was the Emperor of Rome from AD249 – AD 251.

[25] A ‘Libellus’ was any brief Roman Governmental Document written on individual pages. It has particular historical significance for ‘Libelli’ those were issued during the rule of Emperor Decius to certify any citizens performance of required pagan sacrifices in order to demonstrate loyalty to the Roman authorities.

[26] W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 319.

[27] Herbermann, Charles, ed. “Libellatici, Libelli” in Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company 1913).

[28] Many of the church fathers of the sixth century, like St.Gregory of Tour’s, sermons of Agustine of Hippo give a source of Confession.

[29] Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios Metropolitan, et. al., Malankara Sabha Vjnjana Kosham (Kottayam: OTS, 1993), 233.

[30] Canon 29 of Council of Epaone. (Cyrille Vogel, Le pécheur et la pénitence dans l’Église ancienne. (NP: np 1982), 36.)

[31] The 7th Century Council of Chalon-sur-Saône in 644/655. Many Councils were held here those are recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. The former French Roman Catholic Diocese of Chalon-sur-Saône existed until the French Revolution.

[32] Prof. O.M.Mathew Oruvattithara, Church and Sacraments in MORAN ETHO (Kottayam: SEERI, 2001), 122.

[33] Ibid.

[34] The Fourth Lateran Council of The Roman Catholic Church. Lateran Councils were any of the councils of the Roman Catholic Church that took place in the Lateran Palace in Rome.

[35], retrieved on 12th October 2018.

[36] Prof. O.M.Mathew Oruvattithara, Church and Sacraments in MORAN ETHO (Kottayam: SEERI, 2001), 122.

[37], retrieved on 12th October 2018.


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