Tertullian, On Modesty Chapter III – An Objection Anticipated

Continuing our discussion on Tertullian’s work, On Modesty, we come to the third chapter, which he seems to answer an objection that he anticipates arising. I find it refreshing to tax my mind in such a way as to read Tertullian. I would find common ground with him, much to the chagrin of others, but he is harsh when harshness is needed, noting that he is not alone the authority on forgiveness. We also would seem to find that his opponents predate certain Roman attitudes on the forgiveness of sin by one in authority.

But before doing this, I will make short work with an answer which meets us from the opposite side, in reference to that species of repentance which we are just defining as being without pardon.  “Why, if,” say they, “there is a repentance which lacks pardon, it immediately follows that such repentance must withal be wholly unpractised by you.  For nothing is to be done in vain.  Now repentance will be practised in vain, if it is without pardon.  But all repentance is to be practised.  Therefore let us allow that ‘all’ obtains pardon, that it may not be practised in vain; because it will not need to be practised, if it be practised in vain.  Now, in vain it is practised, if it shall lack pardon.”  Justly, then, do they allege (this argument) against us; since they have usurpingly kept in their own power the fruit of this as of other repentance—that is, pardon; for, so far as they are concerned, at whose hands repentance obtains man’s peace, it is in vain.  As regards us, however, who remember that the Lord alone concedes the pardon of sins, and of course of mortal ones, it will not be practised in vain.  For the repentance being referred back to the Lord, and thenceforward lying prostrate before Him, will by this very fact the rather avail to win pardon, that it gains it by entreaty from God alone, that it believes not that man’s peace is adequate to its guilt, that as far as regards the Church it prefers the blush of shame to the privilege of communion.  For before her doors it stands, and by the example of its own stigma admonishes all others, and calls at the same time to its own aid the brethren’s tears, and returns with an even richer merchandise—their compassion, namely—than their communion.  And if it reaps not the harvest of peace here, yet it sows the seed of it with the Lord; nor does it lose, but prepares, its fruit.  It will not fail of emolument if it do not fail in duty.  Thus, neither is such repentance vain, nor such discipline harsh.  Both honour God.  The former, by laying no flattering unction to itself, will more readily win success; the latter, by assuming nothing to itself, will more fully aid.


Our author is confident of his literary prowess, in that he knows not only the objections to him, but the answers that he would give. It might be that Tertullian, before the writing of this work, would teach these words, so he knew the objections.

We think of Esau, whom sought his pardon through repentance, but was granted neither.

Simply, no need for repentance if you know it will accomplish nothing.

In plain English, Tertullian’s opponents argue that since repentance is commanded – and nothing is to be done in vain – then repentance must always attain pardon.

Tertullian would seem to paint his opponents as those that predate Roman attitudes concerning who can forgive sin.

The author notes that a man’s peace does not necessarily mean that the man gained pardon.

It is not peace that must be attained, but pardon – the fruits are not communion, real forgiveness, not in the sight of Man, but in the sight of God.

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