First, there was this man, in whom none could find any wrong, who came forgiving sins. (But only God can forgive sins!) Those who followed him around heard him casting his life and even his own death in terms of the history and hopes of the Jewish people, even taking on all the significance of the Suffering Servant, "crushed for our iniquities." He taught them to forgive as they were forgiven, and even said if they forgave anyone's sins, they were forgiven.
When this man, Jesus, died, all seemed for not. But then they saw him raised, and a new community was born. His subsequent ascension to heaven and gift of the Spirit meant two things. One was that it made that new community pretty vital to the passing on of all that that he had done. The other was that when it came to the freed life of the forgiven this new community was left somewhere between already and not yet.
Questions, of course, were raised: If one's forgiven state did not proceed forward into a freed life, had the forgiveness been effective? How could one be sure? Who could say? Certain practices and habits became ingrained into the community as they proceeded to work this out.
From early on, bishops and presbyters were given authority by the community to discern and deem forgiven. Confession was made publicly, but was directed to the leaders for declaration of God's forgiveness on Christ's behalf. There could be little fudging a system like that, right? Obviously the system didn't forgive, but was meant to facilitate vitality and center the community's life around Jesus' forgiveness.
Over time and in some places more than others, however, this public confession eroded in its effectiveness in that regard. Presbyters differed in the confidence they evoked from the people and people differed in the confidence they evoked in the presbyters and each other. Different ideas arose about what needed to be done about the frequent disconnect between forgiven-ness and the life that was supposed to flow from it.
The Montanists had a solution. They came up with ethically rigorous restrictions on who could and could not be deemed forgiven. Ultimately you had to evidence it before anyone would say you had it. Tertullian started off opposing this and emphasizing the empowerment of the leaders to proclaim Christ's forgiveness as freely given. But as people and presbyters alike turned this more and more into a license to careless living, Tertullian took more and more interest in the Montanist's regulatory impositions.
"Forgiven? Swell! But people still need rules." Concrete actions of penitence were important if one wanted to see Christ's forgiveness play out in a freed life. After all, Jesus did seem to invest the community with a lot of the responsibility in this regard.
Things evolved from there. Callistus, bishop of Rome, was basically granting forgiveness as an open freedom to indulge in wicked behaviour, and boy did Hippolytus ever have words for him.
Then the Christians were being ruthlessly persecuted, and there arose the problem of those who had recanted to avoid death and then regretted it and wanted to be forgiven. Some would have none of it, but Cyprian saw in Jesus' grace and teaching both an impetus to leniency and greater resolve. He played a key part in the development in a process (more reasonable than the Montanists but still pretty strict) of helping people apply the "medicine of atonement" to their lives.
Cyprian differentiated between smaller and greater sins, and since public oral confessions were getting "cheap", came up with different ways one could not only show one's true penitence but also form proper habits that promoted not needing forgiveness in that area again.
Thus, penance was born. Where baptism addressed the need to have a once-for-all act of reception of forgiveness, penance addressed that ongoing need to experience and embrace forgiveness again and again in every day life. Baptism was the gateway to new life and penance would help it along. Later on Gregory the Great quite cleverly called the one baptism of water, and the other the "baptism of tears".
This is the pattern that held sway in medieval times. Various events such as yearly Lent and regular Eucharist helped the community to address their ongoing sin, embrace forgiveness, and proceed in ever-new life together. Various structures such as penance and confession helped them personalize these and find accountability.
These "tools for embracing forgiveness", as I'll call them, evolved in various directions. On one hand, 7th century Irish missionaries emphasized individual application and devotion and outlined a privatized penitential procedure that came to have a certain popularity among the devout. On the other hand, institutional adaptations to the penitential system came along as well. The church was supposed to help people, after all.
So, handbooks for those who received confessions detailed methods for drawing authenticity out of people. Purgatory was conceived of as a stand-in answer for the question of what God might do with those who died without having the chance to have made a last confession. And in a development that would have pretty massive repercussions down the road, a system of indulgences was established.
This started off innocent enough. Facing the fact that few sins were actually private but actually had consequences for community and family life, a system was set up by which people could face payment for various sins that coincided roughly with the effects of their sin. Too often one's sins weaseled into habits and had a felt but largely hidden effect on those around. But having to pay an indulgence would make the ramifications of sin that much more real and obvious. These payments would be an incentive and reminder to not only receive forgiveness, but avoid the need for it in the future. Think of it as a massive community swear-jar.
Thus, church management of indulgences worked alongside penance as measures of exhortation, applying forgiven-ness to the living of the community. By the 13th century, however, indulgences, too, had taken on a life of their own. They were a chief source of church income and well, you know what they say about money and the root of evil.
In the 15th century, along came Martin Luther. We'll start with him in part two . . . .