CH101 - The Second Century

The Persecuted Church, 90 - 202 A.D.

Key People:
Clement of Rome
Ignatius of Antioch
Justin Martyr
Irenaeus of Lyons
Clement of Alexandria

The Issue of Second Repentance
As was mentioned in the section on Roman persecution, there was an ebb and flow in the Roman persecution against Christians. It was not unusual for great numbers of believers to "lapse" during times of intense persecution. Some simply backed into the shadows for fear of being associated with the Christians. Others found it easy to go back to riotous living, the life of excessive drink and sexual indiscretions. Once the persecution lifted bishops would often find themselves faced with literally dozens, sometimes hundreds, of lapsed believers desiring to be readmitted to the fellowship of the saints. Lapsing during a time of persecution was a serious offense, especially when there were others who stood the test and were tortured and/or killed. Lapsed believers were not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist or to enter into the main church meeting, but had to sit in an outside room, or even outside the building or house. They could listen, but could not take part. Some never tried to come back, feeling that they were beyond forgiveness, others decided they did not want to come back.

In North Africa, according to Tertullian (On Purity 13), lapsed believers would dress in rags to show their penance, lay prostrate in the outer foyer where the elders would enter, and beg for prayer and forgiveness. Following 1 John 5:16,17 the elders were not to speak to or even pray for such "penitents," but were to let them continue in penance until the Lord somehow showed His mercy to them. Some of these lapsed believers would eventually give up, figuring they had lost their souls. Others would spend months, maybe years, in this condition, hoping that God would accept them when they died.

A point I now insist upon is this, that the penance which has been revealed to us by the grace of God, which is required of us and which brings us back to favor with the Lord, must never, once we have known and embraced it, be violated thereafter by a return to sin....Grant, Lord Christ, that Thy servants may...know nothing of repentance nor have any need of it [after baptism]. I am reluctant to make mention here of a second hope, one which is indeed the very last, for fear that in treating of a resource which yet remains in penitence, I may seem to indicate that there is still time left for sin. God grant that no one come to such a conclusion.   On Penitence 5-7 [emphasis added]

This "second hope" Tertullian refers to is the second repentance issue we mentioned earlier in the short discussion on The Shepherd of Hermas. Tertullian refers to The Shepherd in one of his later works, saying it is the only writing "which favours adulterers." (Modesty 10.12)

In this discussion it is quite important to remember the historical context - Roman persecution. Some believers are seeking forgiveness for what Tertullian calls mortal sins, apostasy, adultery, and fornication, and as we have seen, The Shepherd of Hermas indicates that many were willing to grant such forgiveness. Callistus, bishop of Rome, produced a decree (cir. 217-222) which authorized bishops to allow absolution for penitent adulterers. This idea greatly angered Tertullian. His response was to write On Purity in which he was critical of the idea that an adulterer could receive the same absolution that might be withheld from the one

whom savagery has overcome after he has struggled with torments in the agony of martyrdom. It would, in fact, be unworthy of God and of His mercy...that those who have fallen in the heat of lust should more easily reenter the Church than those who have fallen in the heat of battle.   On Purity 22

He paints the picture of a believer being tortured, with a glowing iron held close to his face, being told to deny Christ. He maintains that this believer should be given opportunity for forgiveness before the adulterer.

As with other major issues, the Church had to grapple not only with practical application of "truth" in the lives of believers, but also with obscure biblical texts. In the end, judgments had to be made and tradition was established, but getting to that place was not easy. In 251 AD, under Cyprian of Carthage, the "second repentance" issue took on the added significance of who could offer penance and forgiveness to the 'lapsed.' The authority of the bishop was again being questioned and Cyprian's document, On the Unity of the Catholic Church, established the rule of the church followed from that time forward - authority rested with the bishops.

Learn more details on the issue of Second Repentance.

Questions, Comments or Criticisms:
You can send an email to directly to me Al Baker, CH101.
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Second Century Church History
Second Century Church History
Roman Persecution of Christians
Early Church Martyrs - Roman Empire
Second Repentance - Hermas, Tertullian
Apostolic Fathers - Justin, Ignatius, Barnabas
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New Testament Canon - NT Canon
Apostolic Fathers and Heresies
Early Church Heresies
Second Century Christian Apologists
Irenaeus Tertullian Justin Martyr
Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria,
Questions 2nd Century Church History
How the NT was Formed
New Testament Canon, Canonized
Questions regarding Christian Issues
Early Church Heresies
First Century Persecution
1st Century Persecution of Christians
Gnosticism in the 1st Century Early Church
Early Church History of Galations
Early Christianity War and Conflict
Early Christianity Constantine and War
Important Issues in Early Christianity