Confession: The Mystery of Repentance

The Last Judgment

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only true Savior,

CONFESSION: The Mystery of Repentance
by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky (source: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology)

Prayer for those who are under penance

O Master, Lord our God, the Only-begotten Son and Word of the Father, who through Your Passion have rent asunder every bond of our sins, and breathed into the faces of Your Apostles, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit; whoever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosoever sins you retain, they are retained"; You O Master, have granted, through Your holy Apostles, to those who minister in Your holy Church the power to forgive sins on earth, and to blind and loose every bond of unrighteousness. We beseech You now for our brother (sister) (Name) who stands before You. Pour out Your mercy on him (her), rending asunder the bond of his (her) sins, whether spoke in ignorance or by heedlessness, or has done so through lack of courage, for You know human weakness, and, O Good Master, as a lover of mankind, do You forgive him (her) all his (her) sins, voluntary or involuntary; for it is You Who looses those who are cast down, You, the Help of the despairing, the Resurrection of the fallen. O free this Your servant from the bond of sins. For your All-Holy Name is magnified, of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.


Thy Mystery (Sacrament) of Repentance is a grace-giving sacred rite in which, after the faithful offer repentance of their sins, the remission of sins is bestowed by the mercy of God through the intermediary of a priest of the Church, in accordance with the Savior's promise, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (St. John 20:22-23).

In the Mystery of Repentance the spiritual afflictions of a person are treated, impurities of soul are removed, and a Christian having received forgiveness of sins, again becomes innocent and sanctified, just as he came out of the waters of Baptism. Therefore, the Mystery of Repentance is called a "spiritual medicine." One's sins-which draw a man downward, which dull his mind, heart and conscience, which blind his spiritual gaze, which make powerless his Christian will-are annihilated, and one's living bond with the Church and with the Lord God is restored. Being relieved of the burden of sins, a person again comes to life spiritually and becomes able to strengthen himself and become perfect in the good Christian path.

The Mystery of Repentance consists of two basic actions: (1) the confession of his (her) sins before a priest of the Church by the person coming to the Mystery; and (2) the prayer of forgiving and remitting them, pronounced by the priest.

This Mystery is also called the Mystery of Confession (even though the confession of sins comprises only the first, preliminary part of it), and this indicates the importance of the sincere revelation of one' soul and the manifestation of one's sins.

Confession-that is, pronouncing aloud-is the expression of inward repentance, its result, its indicator. And what is repentance? Repentance is not only awareness of one's sinfulness or a simple acknowledgment of oneself as unworthy; it is not even contrition or regret (although all these aspects should enter into repentance). Rather, it is an act of one's will for correction, a desire and firm intention, a resolve, to battle against evil inclinations; and this condition of soul is united with a petition for God's help in the battle against one's evil inclinations. Such a heartfelt and sincere repentance is necesary so that the effect of this Mysterion might extend not only to the removal of sins, but so that there might also enter the opened soul a grace-giving healing which does not allow the soul again to become immersed in the filth of sin.

The very uttering aloud of one's spiritual afflictions and falls before a spiritual father-the confession of sins-has the significance that by means of it there are overcome (a) pride, the chief source of sins, and (b) the despondency of hopelessness in one's correction and salvation. The manifestation of the sin brings one already near to casting it away from oneself.

Those who approach the Mystery of Repentance (Metanoia) prepare themselves for it by an effort of prayer, fasting, and entering deeply within themselves, with the aim of uncovering and acknowledging their sinfulness.

The mercy of God goes out to meet the repenting Christian, testifying, through the lips of the spiritual father, that the Heavenly Father does not reject one who comes to Him, just as He did not reject the prodigal son and the repentant publican. This testimony consists in the words of the special prayer and the special words of remission which are pronounced by the priest.

The Lord instituted the Mystery of Repentance after His Resurrection, when, having appeared to His disciples who, except for Thomas, were gathered together, solemnly said to them: "Peace be unto you...And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them: 'Receive ye the Holy Spirit. Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained'" (St. John 20:21-23). Moreover, even before this, Christ the Savior twice uttered a promise about this Mystery. The first time He said to the Apostle Peter, when Peter, on behalf of all the Apostles, had confessed Him to be the Son of God: "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (St. Matthew 16:19). The second time He testified to all the Apostles: "If he neglects to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you: whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (St. Matthew 18:17-8).

Priests are only the visible instruments at the performance of the Mystery, which is performed invisibly through them by God Himself.

Saint John Chrysostom, having in mind the Divine institution of the authority of priests of the Church to loose and bind, says: "The priests decree below, God affirms above, and the Master agrees with the opinion of His slaves." The priest is here the instrument of God's mercy and remits sins not on his own authority, but in the name of the Holy Trinity.

The invisible effects of grace in the Mystery of Repentance, in their breadth and power, extend to all the lawless deeds of men, and there is no sin that could not be forgiven men if only they sincerely repent of it and confess it with lively faith in the Lord Jesus and hope in His mercy. "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (St. Matthew 9:13), said the Savior, and as great as was the sin of the Apostle Peter, He forgave him when he sincerely and in tears repented. It is known that the holy Apostle Peter called to repentance even the Jews who crucified the True Messiah (Acts 2:38), and later he called Simon the sorcerer, the ancestor of all heretics (Acts 8:22); the Apostle Paul gave remission to the incestuous man who repented, subjecting him first to a temporary excommunication (2 Corinthians 2:7).

On the other hand, it is essential to remember that the remission of sins in the Mystery is an act of mercy, but not an irrational pity. It is given for a man's spiritual profit, "for edification, and not for destruction" (2 Cor. 10:8). This lays a great responsibility upon the one who performs the Mystery.

Holy Scripture speaks of cases or conditions when sins are not forgiven. In the word of God there is mention of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which "shall not be forgiven unto men, neither in this world, neither in the world to come" (St. Matthew 12:31-32). Likewise, it speaks of the sin unto death, for the forgiveness of which it is not commanded even to pray (1 John 5:16). Finally, the Apostle Paul instructs that "it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God, and the power of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance, seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame" (Hebrews 6:4-6).


Proper Confession

Before confession one should attempt to recall all the sins which one has committed voluntarily or involuntarily. One must attentively reexamine one's life in order to recall not only those sins committed since the last confession, but also those which have not been confessed through forgetfulness. Then, with compunction and a contrite heart, approach the Cross and the Gospel and begin the confession of your sins.

1. Confess your sins honestly, remembering that you open them not to a man, but to God Himself. God knows your sins already and only wants your admission of them. You should not be embarrassed before your spiritual father: he is a person just as you are. He knows human shortcomings well, man's tendency towards sin. For this reason your spiritual father cannot be your terrible judge at confession. Is the reason that you are embarrassed before your spiritual father that you are afraid to lose his good opinion of you? On the contrary, your spiritual father will have all the more love for you when he sees your open, honest confession. Furthermore, if you are afraid to reveal your sins before just one person, your spiritual father, how will you overcome your embarrassment when you appear at God's Last Judgment? There, all your sins which you have not confessed will be opened before God Himself, the Angels and all the people.

2. Be specific when you confess, listing all your sins separately. Saint John Chrysostom says: "One must not only say: I have sinned, or I am sinful, but one must declare each type of sin." "The revelation of sins," says St. Basil the Great, "is subject to the same law as the Declaration of physical ills..." The sinner is spiritually ill, and the spiritual father is the physician or healer. It stands to reason that one must confess or tell about one's sins in the same way as one who is physically ill describes the symptoms of his illness to a physician from whom he expects to receive healing.

3. Do not mention anyone else during confession, i.e., do not complain about anyone-what sort of confession is this? It is not confession, but judgment and a new sin.

4. Do not attempt to justify yourself in any way during confession: blaming weakness, custom, etc. The more one justifies himself during confession, the less one is justified by God. The more one denounces, judges and accuses oneself, the more one is justified in the eyes of God.

5. When questioned by your spiritual father, do not say: "I can't remember, maybe I committed that sin." God commanded us to always remember our sins. In order not to justify ourselves with not remembering, we must confess our sins as often as possible. Those who, because of carelessness, confess and take Holy Communion infrequently, and because of this forget their sins, have no one to blame but themselves. Thus, it is imperative that we try to recall all our sins. When someone owes us something we are sure to remember this. Yet we forget our own debts before God! Does this not reveal an utter absence of concern for our soul on our part?

6. Unless asked by your spiritual father, do not list the sins you have not committed or things you have not done. Doing this, you liken yourself to the Pharisee of the Gospel. You do not confess your sins, but boast, thereby increasing your judgment.

7. We must confess with sorrow and a contrite heart the sins by which we have grieved our Lord God. It is not good that many tell of their sins matter-of-factly, without any remorse. They speak as though they are engaged in some casual conversation. What is worse, some even allow themselves to laugh during confession. These are all signs of unrepentedness. Confessing in this manner, we do not cleanse ourselves of our sins, but rather increase them.

8. Finally, confess your sins with faith in Jesus Christ, with hope in His mercy. Only with faith in Jesus Christ and hope in Him can we receive forgiveness of our sins. Without faith, we cannot receive remission. An example of this is Judas the traitor-who was remorseful of what he did, but did not have faith in Jesus, no hope in His mercy, and thus ended his own life.

This then, is how we must confess in order to receive remission of our sins from our Lord God. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9).

(to be continued)

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George