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|Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky|
Orthodox dogmatic theology
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The Mystery 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 pastor of the Church, in accordance with the Saviour’s promise.In the Mystery of Repentance the spiritual afflictions of a man 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 man again comes to life spiritually and becomes able to
strengthen himself and become perfected in the good Christian path.
The Mystery of Repentance consists of two basic actions: 1) the confession of his sins before
a pastor 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’s 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 acknowledgement 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 necessary so that the effect of this Mystery 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 prepare themselves for it by an effort of
prayer, fasting, and entering deeply within themselves, with the aim of uncovering and acknowledging
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 institution of the mystery.
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 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose
soever sins ye retain, they are retained'” (John 20:21-23). Moreover, even before this, Christ the
Saviour 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” (Matt.16:19). The second time He testified to all the Apostles: “If he neglect 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” (Matt. 18:17-18).
Priests are only the visible instruments at the performance of the Mystery, which is performed
invisibly through them by God Himself.
St. John Chrysostom, having in mind the Divine institution of the authority of the pastors 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, 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” (Matt. 9:13), said the
Saviour, 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 Cor. 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
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” (Matt. 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 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” (Heb. 6:4-6).
In all these cases, the reason why the forgiveness of sins is not possible is to be found in the
sinners themselves, and not in the will of God; more precisely, it lies in the lack of repentance of
the sinners. How can a sin be forgiven by the grace of the Holy Spirit, when blasphemy is spewed
forth against this very grace? But one must believe that, even in these sins, the sinners, if they
offer sincere repentance and weep over their sins, will be forgiven. “For,” says St. John Chrysostom
about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, “even this guilt will be remitted to those
who repent. Many of those who have spewed forth blasphemies against the Spirit have subsequently
come to believe, and everything was remitted to them” (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew).
Further, the 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 contriteheart to ask for the remission of this sin and forgiveness, and not to become vainglorious over an
unrighteous deed. For 'the Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart'” (Ps. 3 3:18).
The permission and even the direct demand to repeat the Mystery of Repentance 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” (Luke 15:7). In the Apocalypse of
St. 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” (Apoc.
By “epitimia” is to be understood an interdiction or punishment (2 Cor. 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 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: a) 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. b) The “hearers” to whom it
was permitted to be in the narthex of the church all the way to the end of the liturgy of the Catechumens.
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. d) The class of those who “stood together” with the faithful for the whole Liturgy, but
could not receive communion of the Holy Mysteries (According to Canon 11 of the First Ecumenical
Council (and its commentaries). See the Eerdmans Seven Ecumenical Councils. pp. 24-27.).
Penances are given not to everyone, but only to certain repenting Christians: to those who,
either 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 Christian 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
Cor. 5:1-5). And then, after his sincere contrition, he commanded him again to be received into
Church communion (2 Cor. 2:6-8).
Penances have the character of punishments, but not in the strict sense and not for the sake
of “satisfaction for sins,” as the Roman 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 Cor. 7:10). That is,
sorrow for the sake of God produces an unchanging repentance unto salvation.
The canons of the holy Councils and the Holy Fathers affirm that penances in antiquity were
considered a means of 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 goodinfluence 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 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,
and to apply medicine suitable for the disease, lest if 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” (Canon 102 of the
Quinisext Council (considered as part of the Sixth Ecumenical Council); Eerdmans Seven Ecumenical Councils, p.
The Roman Catholic view.
From this is apparent the unacceptability of the Roman Catholic view of penances, which
proceeds from legal concepts according to which: a) every sin or sum of sins must have an ecclesiastical
punishment (apart from the fact that often misfortunes, for example, illnesses, are a
natural recompense for sin, so that often the sinner himself can see in his fate a Divine punishment
for sins); b) this punishment can be removed by an “indulgence,” which can be given even
in advance, for example, on the occasion of jubilee celebrations (For example, the “holy year proclaimed
by Pope Paul VI in 1975); c) the Church, that is, its head, the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), in
giving indulgences, applies to persons who are subject to penance the “merits of the saints,” taking
them from the so-called” treasury of supererogatory works (Roman Catholic theologians divide
good works into two aspects: merit (which is personal and non-transferable), and satisfaction (expiation); the latter
aspect can be transferred to others who are lacking in “satisfaction.” The “satisfaction” of all saints (and first of all,
of Christ Himself make up a “treasury' which the Pope distributes to the faithful by means of” indulgences,” formally
defined as “a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.” “Supererogatory
works,” or “works of supererogation,” are the “excess” satisfactions of saints, not required for their salvation,
which enter into the above-mentioned “treasury” (See the Catholic Encyclopedia 1913 ed., article “Indulgences.”)
All these ideas were developed in 13th-century scholasticism and are totally foreign to Orthodox thinking.).
If among certain Western teachers of the ancient Church, penances were called “satisfactions,”
they were called this only in the moral sense, as a means for deepening the awareness of
sinfulness in the sinner, this being “satisfactory” for the aim of edification, but not as a legal justification.
One must distinguish from the Mystery of Confession the moral guidance of a spiritual father,
something widespread in antiquity and now in use especially among monastics. Often this is
fulfilled by persons who are not consecrated, that is, who do not have the priestly rank, when
upon them lies the duty of guiding their spiritual children. The confession of one’s thoughts and
acts before a spiritual guide has an immense psychological significance in the sense of moral upbringing,
for the correction of evil inclinations and habits, the overcoming of doubts and waverings,
and so forth. But such spiritual guidance does not have the significance of a Mystery of a
grace-giving sacred action.