Ambrose selected works 21210

Chapter XI.

21211 The possibility of repentance is a reason why baptism should not be deferred to old age, a practice which is against the will of God in holy Scripture. But it is of no use to practise penance whilst still serving lusts. These must be first subdued.

98). Good, then, is penitence, and if there were no place for it, every one would defer the grace of cleansing by baptism to old age. And a sufficient reason is that it is better, to have a robe to mend, than none to put on; but as that which has been repaired once is restored, so that which is frequently mended is destroyed.

99. And the Lord has given a sufficient warning to those who put off repentance, when He says: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”98 We know not at what hour the thief will come, we know not whether our soul may be required of us this next night. God cast Adam out of Paradise immediately after his fault; there was no delay. At once the fallen were severed from all their enjoyments that they might do penance; at once God clothed them with garments of skins, not of silk.99

100. And what reason is there for putting off is it that you may sin yet more? Then because God is good you are evil, and “despise the riches of His goodness and long-suffering.”100 But the goodness of the Lord ought rather to draw you to repentance. Wherefore holy David says to all: “Come, let us worship and fall down beford Him, and mourn before our Lord Who made us.”101 But for a sinner who has died without repentance, because nothing remains but to mourn grievously and to weep, you find him groaning and saying: “O my son Absalom I my son Absalom!”102 For him who is wholly dead mourning is without alleviation.

101. But of those who as exiles and banished from their ancestral homes, which the holy law of Moses had assigned them, will be entangled in the errors of the world, you hear him saying: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”103 He sets forth the wailings of those who have fallen, and shows that they who are living in this condition of passing time and changing circumstances ought to repent, after the example of those who, as a reward for sin, had been led into miserable captivity.

102. But nothing causes such exceeding grief as when any one, lying under the captivity of sin, calls to mind whence he has fallen, because he turned aside to carnal and earthly things, instead of directing his mind in the beautiful ways of the knowledge of God.

103. So you find Adam concealing himself, when he knew that God was present, and wishing to be hidden when called by God with that voice which wounded the soul of him who was hiding: “Adam, where art thou?”104 That is to say, Wherefore hidest thou thyself? Why art thou concealed? Why dost thou avoid Him, Whom thou once didst long to see? A guilty conscience is so burdensome that it punishes itself without a judge, and wishes for covering, and yet is bare before God.

104. And so no one in a state of sin ought to claim a right to or the use of the sacraments, for it is written: “Thou hast sinned, be still.”105 As David says in the Psalm lately quoted: “We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof;” and again: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”106 For if the flesh wars against the mind, and is not subject to the guidance of the Spirit, that is a strange land which is not subdued by the toil of the cultivator, and so cannot produce the fruits of charity, patience, and peace. It is better, then, to be still when you cannot practise the works of repentance, lest in the very acts of repentance there be that which afterward will need further repentance. For if it be once entered upon and not rightly carried out, it obtains not the result of a first repentance and takes away the use of a later one.107

105. When, then, the flesh resists, the soul must be intent upon God, and if results do not follow, let not faith fail. And if the enticements of the flesh come upon us, or the powers of the enemy attack us, let the soul keep in submission to God. For we are then specially oppressed when the flesh yields. And some there are who trouble heavily the wretched soul, seeking to deprive it of all protection. To which case the words apply: “Ruse it, ruse it, even to the foundations.”108

106. And David, pitying her,, says: “O wretched daughter of Babylon.”109 Wretched indeed, as being the daughter of Babylon, when she ceased to be the daughter of Jerusalem.110 And yet he calls for a healer for her, and says: “Blessed is he who shall take thy little ones and dash them against the rock.”111 That is to say, shall dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ, Who by His fear and His rebuke will break down all motions against reason, so as, if any one is seized by an adulterous love, to extinguish the fire, that he may by his zeal put away the love of a harlot, and deny himself that he may gain Christ.

107. We have then learned that we must do penance, and this at a time when the heat of luxury and sin is giving way; and that we, when under the dominion of sin, must show ourselves God fearing by refraining, rather than allowing ourselves in evil practices. For if it is said to Moses when he was desiring to draw nearer: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet,”112 how much more must we free the feet of our soul from the bonds of the body, and clear our steps from all connection with this world.

1 S.
Lc 13,7.
2 S. Lc 13,8-9.
3 Ph 3,8.
4 (Gn 18,27,
5 (Jb 2,8,
6 (Jb 42,10,
7 (Ps 113,7 [cxii.].
8 (1Co 4,12-13,
9 (. The use made by the Montanists and Novatians of this passage in support of their heresy seems to have been one of the reasons why the Epistle to the Hebrews was so late in being received as canonical. This is stated by one authority in so many words: “Epistola ad Hebroeos non legitur propter Navatianos.” Philastrius, de Hoer. 41).
10 (Rm 6,4,
11 (Ep 4,29,
12 (Ps 104,5 [ciii.] .
13 (Ep 4,5,
14 (Rm 6,3,
15 (Rm 6,5-6,
16 (Col 2,12,
17 (Col 2,14,
18 (Col 2,15,
19 (He 6,3,
20 2R 5,11).
21 S. Lc 15,13ff.
22 (Ep 2,19,
23 (He 11,1,
24 Penitentiam agere must here and elsewhere be translated thus, for it implies not mere repentance, but the undergoing outward discipline. The word penitentia means both repentance and penance.
25 (Ps 51,4 [l.] .
26 (Ex 12,11,
27 (1Co 5,7,
28 (1Co 11,26,
29 S. Mt 12,31-32).
30 S. Mt 12,24 ff.
31 (Ac 8,21 ff.
32 S. Mt 12,30.
33 S. Mt 7,17.
34 (Jl 2,32,
35 S. Jn 8,43.
36 S. Mt 27,5).
37 (Is 43,25 [LXX.]. St. Ambrose, taking the Septuagint reading, makes the contrast to be between man’s remembering and God’s forgetting. But the contrast in the Hebrew is different: God will do away sins of His pure mercy and challenges Israel to bring forward any merits which can plead for pardon. God shows that His mercy is even greater than His justice. St. Ambrose, as is shown more clearly in chap. vi., is merely using a verbal antithesis.
38 S. Mt 8,19-20.
39 (Jr 26,2-3,
40 (Ez 2,4-5,
41 Hom). Il. III. 408. St. Ambrose is hardly right in assuming that Homer used taca with the sense of “perchance,” though this is common in later Greek. In Homer it means quickly.
42 S. Mt 21,37.
43 S. Jn 8,19).
44 (Ps 32,1-2 [xxxi.].
45 (Jr 31,18,
46 (Jr 31,18,
47 (Si 47,23,
48 (Ex 31.
49 (Jr 31,19 [very loosely].
50 (Jr 31,20 [LXX.].
51 (Jr 31,25-26).
52 S. Lc 7,32.
53 (Ph 2,13-14,
54 (Lm 1,2 Lm 1,4,
55 (Lm 1,16,
56 (Lm 1,20,
57 (Lm 2,10-11,
58 (Jon 3,5,
59 S. Lc 23,28).
60 (Ez 2,9 [LXX.].
61 (Qo 7,4,
62 S. Lc 6,21.
63 (Mi 7,2 [LXX.].
64 (Pr 18,17,
65 S. Jn 11,34.
66 S. Jn 11,34.
67 S. Jn 11,43.
68 (Rm 10,10).
69 S. Jn 11,47.
70 S. Jn 12,10.
71 S. Jn 12,3.
72 (1Co 12,27,
73 (2Co 13,3,
74 (1Co 5,1,
75 (2Co 2,10,
76 (2Co 2,15,
77 S. Jn 12,4.
78 S. Lc 15,24.
79 S. Mt 9,11-12).
80 (Ct 1,2,
81 (Ps 6,6,
82 Obed. 12.
83 (Gn 38,26).
84 (Rm 7,23 ff.
85 S. Mt 7,4-5.
86 (Mi 7,8-10
87 (Mi 7,1).
88 (Ac 5,1-2,
89 S. Lc 21,3.
90 S. Mt 7,6.
91 A good deal of controversy has arisen about this passage, which certainly appears, prima facie, to contrast confession to God and to a man obviously priest or bishop. The Benedictine editors insist much upon the use of the singular number, homini, a man. But the word might conceivably be used in a general sense. There is no real doubt as to the practice of the Early Church. See note at the end of this treatise).
92 (Ps 102,9 [ci.] .
93 (Ps 119,136 [cxviii.] .
94 (Ap 5,4,
95 (Ap 17,4,
96 S. Mt 16,24.
97 (Col 2,21, have here an instance of a very extreme kind, of the way in which St. Ambrose and other writers occasionally quote the words of holy Scripture without reference to their context or real meaning. The words suit the argument of St. Ambrose and he uses them. But they mean almost the very opposite in the original. They are part of the argument which St. Paul is opposing, not his argument.
98 S. Mt 4,17.
99 (Gn 3,21 Gn 3,24).
100 (Rm 2,4,
101 (Ps 95,6 [xciv.].
102 (2S 18,33.
103 (Ps 137,1 [cxxxvi.].
104 (Gn 3,9,
105 (Gn 4,7 [LXX.]. These words occur in the Septuagint only, and would seem to be taken here by St. Ambrose as a warning from God to Cain, not to sacrifice whilst in sin, and so be applied to those sinners whom he enjoins not to communicate before they repent.
106 (Ps 137,2 Ps 137,4 [cxxxvi.].
107 I do not feel sure of the meaning of this passage, but it appears to be as above, that a person going through the outward exercises of penance without inward repentance, gains no benefit, and as sinners were not admitted to a second course of penance, does away with his chance for the future). [Ed.]
108 (Ps 137,7 [cxxxvi.].
109 (Ps 137,8 [cxxxvi.] [LXX.].
110 This passage is another instance of the way in which St. Ambrose, like many other early writers, lost sight of the original meaning of the text in drawing allegorical lessons from it. The “daughter of Babylon,” i.e. the people, had never been a “daughter of God,” nor was the dashing of the children against the rock ever intended to bear the beautiful interpretation given to it by our author.
111 (Ps 137,9 [cxxxvi.].
112 (Ex 3,5).

Note on the Penitential Discipline of the Early Church.

It was always believed in the Church that the power of binding and loosing had been entrusted by our Lord to His apostles, and by them handed on to their successors in the ministry. The earlier practice would seem to have been short and simple: exclusion from Communion, some outward discipline, not always continued for a long period, and reconciliation on true repentance, these matters being decided by the bishop at his discretion. Gradually the practice became more systematized, various periods of discipline were prescribed for various sins, and the time for this discipline was lengthened.

There were three parts in the discipline of Penitence as a whole:

1. Confession, exomologhsi", a term used frequently of the whole course.

2. Penance, properly so called, i.e. the mortifications, fasting, etc., prescribed.

3. Reconciliation, performed solemnly by the bishop, often at Easter.

The confession was probably in private to the bishop, who determined whether any public confession should be made or not. But as only great sins—at first, idolatry, adultery, and murder (peccata mortalia)—were punished by outward penance, it was clear that the sin must have been very grievous.

The Montanists taught that the Church had not power to forgive great sins, and this led to clearing the doctrine, and from the middle of the third century, even those who had lapsed into idolatry were admitted to penance.

Hermas already says: toi" douloi" touqeou metanoia esti mia Mand. 4,1. And this rule seems to have been maintained as regards the formal penance and reconciliation, not as implying doubt of possible forgiveness, but as a matter of discipline, and this rule deprived those who fell a second time from communion at least till their deathbed.

For this public penance the Greek words are metanoia and exomologhsi"; the Latin, penitentia and frequently exomologesis. As the word penitentia includes not merely sorrow for sin and change of heart, but also penance, or the penalty inflicted by authority, and is used in such phrases as penitentiam agere or facere, it has been necessary in the translation of the De Penitentia to vary the English terms, and to use sometimes repentance, sometimes penance.

For further information on this subject, the reader is referred specially to the Articles, Buss-Disciplin, in the Freiburg Kirchen-Lexikon, by Wetzer and Welte; and to those on Exomologesis, Penitence, and Reconciliation, in the Dict. of Christian Antiquities, where other authorities and references will be found).


[i]Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series: Volume X, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc). 1997.

Ambrose selected works 21210