The Mystery (Sacrament) of Repentance/Confession According to the Orthodox Church (Part I)

Prophet Ezekiel

Prophet Ezekiel

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by Saint Cosmas Aitolos

Perhaps the most misunderstood Mystery (Sacrament) of the Christian Church is Repentance/Confession. How did it originate? What role does a priest play? Is there a special procedure for confession? The Holy Scripture hold answers to these questions.

God's Logos/Word promises "if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). The faithful are to bring their sins to God in repentance and receive cleansing and forgiveness.

The early Christians would stand and confess their sins to God in the presence of the whole congregation. Jesus encouraged His followers to walk in the light together, to confront problems corporately, to "tell it to the church" (St. Matthew 18:17). Thus Saint James the Apostle writes, "Confess your trespasses to one another" (St. James 5:16). But as time went on and the Church grew in numbers, strangers came to visit and public confession became more difficult. Out of mercy, priests began to witness confessions of sin on behalf of the Church.

Jesus, giving His Holy Disciples the authority to forgive sins, said, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (St. John 20:23; cf., St. Matthew 16:19; 18:17-19). From the beginning, Christians understood that the grace of ordination endowed the shepherds of the flock with the discernment and compassion to speak the words of remission, on behalf of Christ, regarding the sins of those who confess and turn from sin. For God has promised the removing of sin from us "as far as the east from the west" (Psalm 103:12). Saint John Chrysostom says, "The Priests decree below, God confirms above, and the Master agrees with the opinion of His slaves".

"You did not choose Me," Jesus told the Twelve Apostles, "but I chose you and appointed (ordained) you" (St. John 15:16). To these same Disciples Jesus promised, "It is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit" (St. Mark 13:11). Whom God calls, He equips. Saint Paul the Holy Apostle writes to Saint Timothy, "Stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Timothy 1:6). It is the grace of the Holy Spirit which enables the priest to serve God and the people. Priests are only the visible instrument of God's mercy at the performance of the Mystery (Sacrament), which is performed invisibly through them by God Himself. It is God (the Holy Trinity) Who forgives our sins.

Thus the Church has encouraged her faithful: If you know you have committed a specific sin, do not hide it but confess it before coming to the Holy Eucharist. Saint Paul wrote, "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup " (1 Corinthians 11:28), and "If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged" (1 Corinthians 11:31).

King David learned a lesson regarding his sin is recorded for our benefit. For about a year, he had hidden his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband (2 Samuel 11:1-12:13). Then, confronted by Nathan the Prophet, David repented from his heart and confessed his sin in a psalm which is used for general confession to this day (Psalm 50[51]). The joy of salvation was restored to him.

People ask, "Can't I confess to God privately?" Certainly, though there is no clear biblical basis for it. Even general Confession occurs in the Church. In His mercy, God provides the Mystery (Sacrament) of Confession (more properly called the sacrament of Repentance) to give us deliverance from sin and from what psychologists call denial. It is easy to pray in isolation, yet never come clean. It is far more effective to confess aloud to God before a Priest, and benefit from his guidance and help.

It is essential to remember that the remission of sins in the Mystery (Sacrament) is an act of mercy. It is given for our spiritual profit, "for edification and not for destruction" (2 Corinthians 10:8).

Thus we come before the holy icon of Christ, to Whom we confess, and are guided by the Priest, our spiritual father, in a cleansing inventory of our lives. When we tell God all, naming our sins and failures, we hear those glorious words of freedom which announces Christ's promise of forgiveness of all our sins. We resolve to "go and sin no more" (Saint John 8:11).

[Reference: The Orthodox Study Bible, p. 571]


God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his sins and live. In the Holy Mystery (Sacrament) of Penance we have the means whereby we may obtain forgiveness of our sins, and be restored to the favor of God, our Heavenly Father.

In order that you may make a good confession it is necessary for you to prepare yourself carefully. Ask God to give you Grace to make a thorough examination of your conscience, courage to make a sincere and complete confession, and strength to amend your way of life in the days to come.

Begin your examination with the time of your last Confession, try to recall whether you omitted anything through carelessness or lapse of memory, or from fear of embarrassment. Examine yourself with the assistance of the form of self-examination according to the Ten Commandments of God which follows.

It is most necessary that you be truly sorry for the sins which you have committed, and that our firmly purpose amendment of your manner of living.

Next: Self-examination based on the Ten Commandments


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


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

+Father George