The Holy Mysteries (Sacraments): The Mystery (Sacrament) of Repentance/Confession (Part II)

Venerable Nikon "Metanoeite," the Preacher of Repentance

Venerable Nikon "Metanoeite," the Preacher of Repentance

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.

THE HOLY MYSTERIES (SACRAMENTS) THE MYSTERY OF REPENTANCE/CONFESSION (Part II)
[Source: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky]

The Institution of the Mystery (Sacrament)

The Lord instituted the Mystery of Repentance after His resurrection, when, having appeared to His Disciples who, except for Thomas, were gathered, 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 whosoever 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 (Sacrament). 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 18:17-18).

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

Saint John Chrysostom, having in mind the Divine institution of the authority of the pastors (ποιμένες) of the Church to loose and bind, says: "The priests decree below, God confirms 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/Confession, in their breadth and power, extend to all the lawless deeds of men, and there is no sin that could not be forgiven 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 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 (Sacrament) 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 Corinthians 10:8). This lays a great responsibility upon the one who performs the Mystery (Sacrament).

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 of death," for the forgiveness of which it is not commanded even to pray (I 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 powers 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).

"...Further, the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council speak of the possibility of forgiveness for deadly sins: "The sin unto death is when certain ones, after sinning, do not correct themselves...In such ones the Lord Jesus does not abide, unless they humble themselves and recover from their fall into sin. It is fitting for them once more to approach God and with contrite heart to ask for the remission of this sin and forgiveness, and not become vainglorious over an unrighteous deed. For "the Lord nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart" (Psalm 33:18).

The permission and even the direct demand to repeat the Mystery (Sacrament) of Repentance/Confession is clear from the words of the Gospel : "Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance" (St. Luke 15:7). In the Apocalypse (Revelation) of Saint John the Theologian we read: "Unto the angel of the Church of Ephesus write: ...I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (Revelation 2:1,5).

Epitimia (Penance)

By "epitimia" (Gk. επιτίμια) is to be understood an interdiction or punishment (2 Corinthians 2:6) which, according to Church Canons, the priest as a spiritual physician decrees for certain repenting Christians in order to treat their moral diseases. Such penances, for example, are: a special fast, above that which is set for everyone; prayers of repentance together with a definite number of prostrations; and others. The basic form of epitimia which existed in the practice of the ancient Church was excommunication from Communion of the Holy Mysteries for a greater or lesser period.

In the ancient Church there existed a rite of public repentance/confession for the "fallen," and in particular for those who had not held firm in the faith during the persecutions. According to this rite, the penitents were divided into four classes:

  1. The "weepers," who did not have the right to be present at the public Divine services and, stretching out their hands off the church porch, with weeping would beg those who entered the church to pray for them.
  2. b) The "hearers" to whom it was permitted to be in the Narthex (vestibule) of the church all the way to the end of the Liturgy of the Catechumens.
  3. c) The "prostrators," who entered the church itself but also did not participate in the Liturgy of the Faithful; after the Liturgy, on bended knees, they were vouchsafed the pastoral blessing.
  4. The class of those who "stood together" with the faithful for the whole Liturgy, but could not receive communion of the Holy Mysteries.

Penances are not given to everyone, but only to certain repenting Christians: to those who, wither from the seriousness or the quality of their sins, or because of the character of their repentance, have need of these spiritual treatments. Such an interdiction was laid by the Apostle Paul upon the Corinthian Christians who had committed incest, when in order to treat him he commanded that he be excommunicated from the Church and from contact with the faithful and that he be "deliver(ed) unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved" (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). And then, after his sincere contrition, he commanded him again to be received into Church communion (2 Corinthians 2:6-8).

Penances have the character of punishments, but not the strict sense and for the sake of "satisfaction of sins," as the Roman Catholic theologians teach. They are acts which are corrective, healing, pedagogical. Their purpose is to increase sorrow for the sins performed and to support the resolve of the will to be corrected. The Apostle says: "Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of; but the sorrow of the world worketh death" (2 Corinthians 7:10). That is, sorrow for the sake of God produces and unchanging repentance unto salvation.

The Holy Canons of the Holy Councils and the Holy Fathers affirm that penance in antiquity were considered spiritual healing; that the ancient pastors, placing them upon sinners, were not concerned merely to punish justly, one more and another less, in accordance with the crimes of each, for the proper satisfaction of God's justice for sins, but that they had in mind the good influence of these punishments upon the sinner. Therefore, if they saw a need for it they would lessen them, shorten the time of the interdiction, or even remove them completely. A Holy Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council says: "It behooves those who have received from God the power to loose and bind, to consider the quality of the sin and the readiness of the sinner for conversion (metanoia), and to apply medicine suitable for the disease, lest he is injudicious in each of these respects he should fail in regard to the healing of the sick man. For the disease of sin is not simple, but various and multiform, and it germinates many mischievous offshoots, from which much evil is diffused, and it proceeds further until it is checked by the power of the physician."

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Please note: I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to find a father confessor and to begin participating in the Mystery of Repentance/Confession as soon as possible. It is a matter of eternal life or eternal death. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ instituted this, and all the Sacraments, knowing that we will sin again and again, knowing that we are constantly tempted by the evil one, and that our faith is not strong enough to resist. 

For the practicing Orthodox Christian participating in the Sacrament of Repentance/Confession is the only true way of preparing spiritually to receive Holy Communion. The belief that if we fast from meat for three days and/or offer a prayer or two prepares us to receive Holy Communion is false. Fasting from foods and sinful acts, unceasing prayer, reconciliation with our enemies, abiding by the commandments of Christ and repenting of our sins, is the one, and only way, to prepare to receive Christ. The spiritual aim and goal of every Orthodox Christian is to live his Christian faith daily. To strive to attain a virtuous life, and grow in Christ, to the point that one confesses openly the words of the Holy Apostle Paul:"...It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me..." (Galatians 2:20). 

In the Mystery (Sacrament) of Repentance/Confession the spiritual afflictions of the Orthodox Christian believer are treated, impurities of soul are removed, and the believer, having received forgiveness of sins, again becomes innocent and sanctified, just as he came out of the waters of Baptism. Some call this Mystery "a second baptism."

It must become part of our preparation of receiving Holy Communion and not to be practiced once in a life-time or once a year. It should be a frequent practice with understanding, contrition, humility, and willingness to conform to the divine Teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Some say, "Why should I go to Confession? I have no special sins? Let those who have murdered, stolen, raped, or committed some other sin go to Confession." 

"I have no special sins..." But is really so? When a man stays in a closed room for a long time, he gets used to the bad air in it and does not feel how unpleasant it is. But if someone comes in from outside, he will not be able to stand the stench in the room and will run away.

Let those who say, "I have no special sins," answer whether they have Christ in their hearts. He likes to inhabit pure hearts. But are their hearts pure? Hardly! They imagine that they are pure, but imagination is not reality. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (I John 1:8). And where there is a lie, there Christ is not.

Then, what should we do?--let us confess. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just...to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). (Source: The Forgotten Medicine: The Mystery of Repentance)

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MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU

The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom

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

+Father George

Next: The Mystery (Sacrament) of Priesthood