Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Lactantius: Chap. XXIV.—Of repentance, of pardon, and the commands of God
Chap. XXIV.—Of Repentance, of Pardon, and the Commands of God.
Nor, however, let any one be disheartened, or despair concerning himself, if, overcome by passion, or impelled by desire, or deceived by error, or compelled by force, he has turned aside to the way of unrighteousness. For it is possible for him to be brought back, and to be set free, if he repents of his actions, and, turning to better things, makes satisfaction to God. Cicero, indeed, thought that this was impossible, whose words in the third book of the Academics 1255 are: “But if, as in the case of those who have gone astray on a journey, it were permitted those who have followed a devious course to correct their error by repentance, it would be more easy to amend rashness.” It is altogether permitted them. For if we think that our children are p. 191 corrected when we perceive that they repent of their faults, and though we have disinherited and cast them off, we again receive, cherish, and embrace them, why should we despair that the mercy of God our Father may again be appeased by repentance? Therefore He who is at once the Lord and most indulgent Parent promises that He will remit the sins of the penitent, and that He will blot out all the iniquities of him who shall begin afresh to practice righteousness. For as the uprightness of his past life is of no avail to him who lives badly, because the subsequent wickedness has destroyed his works of righteousness, so former sins do not stand in the way of him who has amended his life, because the subsequent righteousness has effaced the stain of his former life. For he who repents of that which he has done, understands his former error; and on this account the Greeks better and more significantly speak of metanoia, 1256 which we may speak of in Latin as a return to a right understanding. 1257 For he returns to a right understanding, and recovers his mind as it were from madness, who is grieved for his error; and he reproves himself of madness, and confirms his mind to a better course of life: then he especially guards against this very thing, that he may not again be led into the same snares. In short, even the dumb animals, when they are ensnared by fraud, if by any means they have extricated themselves so as to escape, become more cautious for the future, and always avoid all those things in which they have perceived wiles and snares. Thus repentance makes a man cautious and diligent to avoid the faults into which he has once fallen through deceit.
For no one can be so prudent and so circumspect as not at some time to slip; and therefore God, knowing our weakness, of His compassion 1258 has opened a harbour of refuge for man, that the medicine of repentance might aid this necessity to which our frailty is liable. 1259 Therefore, if any one has erred, let him retrace his step, and as soon as possible recover and reform himself.“But upward to retrace the way,
And pass into the light of day,
Then comes the stress of labour.” 1260
For when men have tasted sweet pleasures to their destruction, 1261 they can scarcely be separated from them: they would more easily follow right things if they had not tasted their attractions. But if they tear themselves away from this pernicious slavery, all their error will be forgiven them, if they shall have corrected their error by a better life. And let not any one imagine that he is a gainer if he shall have no witness of his fault: for all things are known to Him in whose sight we live; and if we are able to conceal anything from all men, we cannot conceal it from God, to whom nothing can be hidden, nothing secret. Seneca closed his exhortations with an admirable sentiment: “There is,” he says, “some great deity, and greater than can be imagined; and for him we endeavour to live. Let us approve ourselves to him. For it is of no avail that conscience is confirmed; we lie open to the sight of God.” What can be spoken with greater truth by him who knew God, than has been said by a man who is ignorant of true religion? For he both expressed the majesty of God, by saying that it is too great for the reflecting powers of the human mind to receive; and he touched upon the very fountain of truth, by perceiving that the life of men is not superfluous, 1262 as the Epicureans will have it, but that they make it their endeavour to live to God, if indeed they live with justice and piety. He might have been a true worshipper of God, if any one had pointed out to him God; 1263 and he might assuredly have despised Zeno, and his teacher Sotion, if he had obtained a true guide of wisdom. Let us approve ourselves to him, he says. A speech truly heavenly, had it not been preceded by a confession of ignorance. It is of no avail that conscience is confined; we lie open to the sight of God. There is then no room for falsehood, none for dissimulation; for the eyes of men are removed by walls, but the divine power of God cannot be removed by the inward parts from looking through and knowing the entire man. The same writer says, in the first book of the same work: “What are you doing? what are you contriving? what are you hiding? Your guardian follows you; one is withdrawn from you by foreign travel, another by death, another by infirm health; this one adheres to you, and you can never be without him. Why do you choose a secret place, and remove the witness? Suppose that you have succeeded in escaping the notice of all, foolish man! What does it profit you not to have a witness, 1264 if you have the witness of your own conscience?
And Tully speaks in a manner no less remarkable concerning conscience and God: “Let him p. 192 remember,” he says, “that he has God as a witness, that is, as I judge, his own mind, than which God has given nothing more divine to man.” 1265 Likewise, in speaking of the just and good man, he says: “Therefore such a man will not dare not merely to do, but even to think, anything which he would not dare to proclaim.” Therefore let us cleanse our conscience, which is open to the eyes of God; and, as the same writer says, “let us always so live as to remember that we shall have to give an account;” 1266 and let us reckon that we are looked upon at every moment, not, as he said, in some theatre of the world by men, but from above by Him who is about to be both the judge and also the witness, to whom, when He demands an account of our life, it will not be permitted any one to deny his actions. Therefore it is better either to flee from conscience, or ourselves to open our mind of our own accord, and tearing open our wounds to pour forth destruction; which wounds no one else can heal but He alone who made the lame to walk, restored sight to the blind, cleansed the polluted limbs, and raised the dead. He will quench the ardour of desires, He will root out lusts, He will remove envy, He will mitigate anger. He will give true and lasting health. This remedy should be sought by all, inasmuch as the soul is harassed by greater danger than the body, and a cure should be applied as soon as possible to secret diseases. For if any one has his eyesight clear, all his limbs perfect, and his entire body in the most vigorous health, nevertheless I should not call him sound if he is carried away by anger, swollen and puffed up with pride, the slave of lust, and burning with desires; but I should rather call him sound who does not raise his eyes to the prosperity of another, who does not admire riches, who looks upon anothers wife with chaste eye, who covets nothing at all, does not desire that which is anothers, envies no one, disdains no one; who is lowly, merciful, bountiful, mild, courteous: peace perpetually dwells in his mind.
That man is sound, he is just, he is perfect. Whoever, therefore, has obeyed all these heavenly precepts, he is a worshipper of the true God, whose sacrifices are gentleness of spirit, and an innocent life, and good actions. And he who exhibits all these qualities offers a sacrifice as often as he performs any good and pious action. For God does not desire the sacrifice of a dumb animal, nor of death and blood, but of man and life. And to this sacrifice there is neither need of sacred boughs, nor of purifications, 1267 nor of sods of turf, which things are plainly most vain, but of those things which are put forth from the innermost breast. Therefore, upon the altar of God, which is truly very great, 1268 and which is placed in the heart of man, and cannot be defiled with blood, there is placed righteousness, patience, faith, innocence, chastity, and abstinence. This is the truest ceremony, this is that law of God, as it is called by Cicero, illustrious and divine, which always commands things which are right and honourable, and forbids things which are wrong and disgraceful; and he who obeys this most holy and certain law cannot fail to live justly and lawfully. And I have laid down a few chief points of this law, since I promised that I would speak only of those things which completed the character 1269 of virtue and righteousness. If any one shall wish to comprise all the other parts, let him seek them from the fountain itself, from which that stream flowed to us.
[From a lost book.]191:1256
μετάνοια. The word properly denotes a change of mind, resulting in a change of conduct.191:1257
Resipiscentiam. [Note the admitted superiority of the Greek.]191:1258
Pro pietate suâ. Augustine (De Civitate Dei, x. 1) explains the use of this expression as applied to God.191:1259
[Concerning the “planks after shipwreck,” see Tertullian, pp. 659 and 666, vol. iii., this series.]191:1260
Virg., Æneid, vi. 128.191:1261
Supervacuam, i.e., useless, without an object. [P. 171. n. 2.]191:1263
[May I be pardoned for asking my reader to refer to refer to The Task of the poet Cowper (book ii.): “All truth is from the sempiternal source,” etc. The concluding lines illustrate the kindly judgment of our author:—
“How oft, when Paul has served us with a text,
Has Epictetus, Plato, Tully, preached!
Men that, if now alive, would sit content
And humble learners of a Saviours worth,
Preach it who might. Such was their love of truth,
Their thirst of knowledge, and their candour too.”
But turn to our authors last sentence in cap. 17, p. 183, supra.]191:1264
De Offic., iii. 10.192:1266
Ibid., iii. 19.192:1267
Februis, a word used in the Sabine language for purgations. Others read “fibris,” entrails, offered in sacrifice.192:1268
There is an allusion to the altar of Hercules, called “ara maxima.” [Christian philosophy is heard at last among Latins.]192:1269
Quæ summum fastigium imponerent. The phrase properly means to complete a building by raising the pediment or gable. Hence its figurative use. [See cap. 2, p. 164.]
Next: Chap. XXV.—Of sacrifice, and of an offering worthy of God, and of the form of praising God
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