As we move further into Tertullian – having chosen this work as a primer for me, as I feel that I would agree with him more here – we find him setting his vision of the sins – remissible and irremissible. Although that sounds strange, foreign and unsettling to many today, even the Apostle John spoke of it. I can imagine Tertullian, if he were here and now, as a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher, with threats of hell echoing with every opening of his mouth. Now, my friends, I do not desire to be like that, but his harshness is a breath of fresh air to the modern ‘effeminate’ preaching that is most often done today.
“But,” say they, “God is ‘good,’ and ‘most good,’ and ‘pitiful-hearted,’ and ‘a pitier,’ and ‘abundant in pitiful-heartedness,’ which He holds ‘dearer than all sacrifice,’ ‘not thinking the sinner’s death of so much worth as his repentance, ‘a Saviour of all men, most of all of believers.’ And so it will be becoming for ‘the sons of God’ too to be ‘pitiful-hearted’ and ‘peacemakers;’ ‘giving in their turn just as Christ withal hath given to us;’ ‘not judging, that we be not judged.’ For ‘to his own lord a man standeth or falleth; who art thou, to judge another’s servant?’ ‘Remit, and remission shall be made to thee.’” Such and so great futilities of theirs wherewith they flatter God and pander to themselves, effeminating rather than invigorating discipline, with how cogent and contrary (arguments) are we for our part able to rebut, – (arguments) which set before us warningly the “severity” of God, and provoke our own constancy? Because, albeit God is by nature good, still He is “just” too. For, from the nature of the case, just as He knows how to “heal,” so does He withal know how to “smite;” “making peace,” but withal “creating evils;” preferring repentance, but withal commanding Jeremiah not to pray for the aversion of ills on behalf of the sinful People, – “since, if they shall have fasted,” saith He, “I will not listen to their entreaty.” And again: “And pray not thou unto (me) on behalf of the People, and request not on their behalf in prayer and supplication, since I will not listen to (them) in the time wherein they shall have invoked me, in the time of their affliction.” And further, above, the same preferrer of mercy above sacrifice (says): “And pray not thou unto (me) on behalf of this People, and request not that they may obtain mercy, and approach not on their behalf unto me, since I will not listen to (them)” of course when they sue for mercy, when out of repentance they weep and fast, and when they offer their self-affliction to God. For God is “jealous,” and is One who is not contemptuously derided – derided, namely, by such as flatter His goodness – and who, albeit “patient,” yet threatens, through Isaiah, an end of (His) patience. “I have held my peace; shall I withal always hold my peace and endure? I have been quiet as (a woman) in birth-throes; I will arise, and will make (them) to grow arid.” For “a fire shall proceed before His face, and shall utterly burn His enemies;” striking down not the body only, but the souls too, into hell. Besides, the Lord Himself demonstrates the manner in which He threatens such as judge: “For with what judgment ye judge, judgment shall be given on you.” Thus He has not prohibited judging, but taught (how to do it). Whence the apostle withal judges, and that in a case of fornication, that “such a man must be surrendered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh;” chiding them likewise because “brethren” were not “judged at the bar of the saints:” for he goes on and says, “To what (purpose is it) for me to judge those who are without?” “But you remit, in order that remission may be granted you by God.” The sins which are (thus) cleansed are such as a man may have committed against his brother, not against God. We profess, in short, in our prayer, that we will grant remission to our debtors; but it is not becoming to distend further, on the ground of the authority of such Scriptures, the cable of contention with alternate pull into diverse directions; so that one (Scripture) may seem to draw tight, another to relax, the reins of discipline – in uncertainty, as it were, – and the latter to debase the remedial aid of repentance through lenity, the former to refuse it through austerity. Further: the authority of Scripture will stand within its own limits, without reciprocal opposition. The remedial aid of repentance is determined by its own conditions, without unlimited concession; and the causes of it themselves are anteriorly distinguished without confusion in the proposition. We agree that the causes of repentance are sins. These we divide into two issues: some will be remissible, some irremissible: in accordance wherewith it will be doubtful to no one that some deserve chastisement, some condemnation. Every sin is dischargeable either by pardon or else by penalty: by pardon as the result of chastisement, by penalty as the result of condemnation. Touching this difference, we have not only already premised certain antithetical passages of the Scriptures, on one hand retaining, on the other remitting, sins; but John, too, will teach us: “If any knoweth his brother to be sinning a sin not unto death, he shall request, and life shall be given to him;” because he is not “sinning unto death,” this will be remissible. “(There) is a sin unto death; not for this do I say that any is to request” – this will be irremissible. So, where there is the efficacious power of “making request,” there likewise is that of remission: where there is no (efficacious power) of “making request,” there equally is none of remission either. According to this difference of sins, the condition of repentance also is discriminated. There will be a condition which may possibly obtain pardon, – in the case, namely, of a remissible sin: there will be a condition which can by no means obtain it, – in the case, namely, of an irremissible sin. And it remains to examine specially, with regard to the position of adultery and fornication, to which class of sins they ought to be assigned.