ORTHODOXY IS LOVE
The Sacrament of Confession in the
Eastern Orthodox Church
As it says in John 20:23, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the signs of any, they are retained.” This is the power of the presbyter or bishop to remit sins on behalf of God. He mediates for us to God, but only God forgives us our sins. This sacrament is an often misunderstood practice in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Many Protestants and Evangelicals protest that you can only have “God forgive your sins.” But there is a very good reason why we confess our sins to others apart from God: it’s called accountability. One feels more ashamed to commit a sin again, if another knows about it. If one confesses only to God, but no one else, then you can not be helped in fighting your sins properly. You will continue making the same errors, and will have no shame, since it is just your secret you keep to yourself. This means that you are more likely to commit this sin again! God would onto want that. He wants us to be as holy as possible.
This holy sacrament is even prefigured in the Old Dispensation. In Leviticus 5:4-6, it says “… that unrighteous soul, which determineth with his lips to do evil, or to do good, according to whatsoever a man may determine with an oath, and it shall have escaped his notice (or her) , and he shall know, and he sin in some one of these things, then he shall show his sin in the things wherein he hath sinned by that sin. And he shall bring for his transgressions against the Lord, for his sin, an ewe lamb of the sheep, or a kid of the goats, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for him for his sin, which he hath sinned, and his sin shall be forgiven him.” Though we no longer make sin offerings of ewe lambs, we offer our lives and our hearts instead. We do this at the sacrament of confession, just as it was done in the sacrifices of Ancient Israel. The priest today also makes atonement for our sins before God, as well.
Indeed, one can see confession is important, since “whosoever covereth his own ungodliness shall not prosper: but he that blame to himself shall be loved.” (Proverb 28:13) All shall “prosper” from this holy sacrament, since it cleanses one’s conscience and way of life.
Saint Maximos the Confessor says that “Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God.” (Philokalia. Saint Maximo’s the Confessor was born in Constantinople 580 A.D, and died in Tsageri, Georgia, on 13th of August 662 A.D, while he was in exile.) We all know we have been delivered by God when we are forgiven our sins, and we are eased of our burdens and defilement before God. It illuminates the soul, and leads towards the process of our deification.
All can see that human intercession is needed with several verses written in the Bible, “… he shall confess his sin which he hath done, and recompense in full for his trespass…” (Numbers 5:7) There is another instance like this in Nehemiah 9:2-3, “And the sons of Israel separated themselves from every stranger, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers… and they confessed their sins unto the Lord, and worshipped The Lord their God.” From this we can see confessing their sins to each other made them more of a unified community, and they helped each other overcome their temptations. Indeed, we must “… make declaration in the house of the Lord…” (Baruch 1:14) If we confess our sins, one to another, we are admitting our faults, and humbling ourselves, giving God all the glory. We also go away in peace, realizing we are all sinners, and that no one is better than another. In Acts 19:18, it says, “Some believers, too, came forward to admit in detail how they had used spells…” This was a putting away of their former wickedness in Christ our Savior. In 1 John 1:9, it says that if we “… aknowledge our sins, He is trustworthy and upright, so that He will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all evil.”
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, we make confession in the main part of the Church, in front of an Analogion, where a Gospel book and a cross are placed. This is usually near the Iconostasis. The penitent will venerate the Book and Cross, and then kneel before it, while holding his or her right hand in the sign of the cross, and touches the foot of the Cross while making his or her confession. We have to place our thumb and first two fingers of our right hand on the feet of Christ as he is depicted on the Cross. This confession is made before an icon of Christ. The Confessor will warn you not to hold any of your secrets back, and read the Gospel to you. Once you are finished, the priest or bishop will drape his Epitrachelion (stole) on your head, and then read the prescribed prayer of Absolution, asking God to forgive us our sins.
One does not have to be a priest to hear confessions, but only a priest can give absolution. A staret can be one’s spiritual guide, too, which is an old holy man from a Monastery. The one you confess to is your “spiritual father” or “spiritual mother.” An Orthodox Christian tends to confess to one person only, to create a bond with each other. Some people, just confess to their spiritual guide, but ask the priest too read the prayer of Absolution, before receiving Holy Communion.
we must confess our sins at least 4 times a year:
But it is preferable if we do it more often [every 2 weeks or every month]. Indeed, all should have this sacrament performed before they receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. In the Holy Monasteries, Confession is done every day!
For the clergy, confession is made in the sanctuary, at the Holy Table or Altar. The one difference between lay confession is that, when a priest hears a bishop’s confession, he kneels. This is a sign of humility and reverence before a holy man in authority.
We also perform Mutual Forgiveness, much like it was done in Ancient Israel. The priest does prostrations before e laity three times, and ask their forgiveness for all sins done in deed, thought, word and act. Those that are participating in the Liturgy ask God to forgive the priest’s sins, and then ask that God can do the same for them. On the Vespers of Great Lent, this Liturgy is performed on the Sunday of Forgiveness, which starts the Lenten season.
We must not be ashamed of ourselves in front of others. We all have sinned. Indeed, it says in Wisdom of Sirach 4:26, “Be not ashamed to confess thy sins, and force not the course of the river.” Without a doubt, our tongues must be like rivers when we confess our sins to others, for the edification of one’s self. We must be like the humble tax collector, and not like the arrogant and hypocritical, self-righteous Pharisee, who lifted his head to Heaven, and thanked the Lord for not making him like the tax collector, where as the tax collector did not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, and asked God to forgive him, a sinner! He even hit his chest, which is a sign of humility, and sadness for one’s sins.
One can see in the Orthodox Church that we were given Apostolic authority to forgive and remit sins. In Matthew 18:18, it says, “In truth I tell you, whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven; whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.” Apostolic authority does not stop at the Apostles, but is hand down to all of the Order of Melchizedek, the Royal Priesthood. The Apostles were, after all, the men who instituted the Church, and were bishops themselves. They chose 7 deacons to go out, as well. A bishop is episkopos in Greek. This means Overseer. A deacon is diakonos in Greek. It means “servant,” “waiting-man,” “minister” and “messenger.” St Stephen was one of the these deacons of the Church. Indeed, one can see that Confession is biblical from, “It is all God’s work; He reconciled us to Himself through Christ and He gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18) This is from God Himself, and we are being reconciled to God through His holy clergy.
In James 5:15-16, it says, “The prayer of faith will save the sick person and the Lord will raise him up again; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. So confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another to be cured; the heartfelt prayer of someone upright works very powerfully.” Indeed, we are all sick from sin, and need to be forgiven and cured. This sacrament is indeed powerful, and is from the apostles themselves.
But we must remember that “… there is only one God, and there is only one mediator between God and humanity, Himself a human being, (in His created human nature and will) Christ Jesus…” (1 Timothy 2:5) This just means that we are forgiven by God ultimately, but humans do intervene to make that possible. God makes their authority possible, after all.
Also, another thing that many Protestants and Evangelicals do not understand about sin is the differentiation between venial and mortal sins. Many of these denominations do not believe in a distinction at all! They argue that all sins are the same, and everyone is equally guilty. But this doctrine has no true biblical precedence. In Luke 12:47-48, it says, “The servant who knows what his master wants, but has got nothing ready and done nothing in accord with those wishes, will be given a great many strokes of the lash. The one who did not know, but has acted in such a way that he deserves a beating, will be given fewer strokes. When someone is given a great deal, a great deal will be demanded of that person; when someone is entrusted with a great deal, of that person even more will be expected.” This means that those who realized that they have sinned, are more guilty, since they “see.” They do wrong, and realize this, but continue doing it. This would, of course, be logically more censured by God. But those who do not realize they have sinned, are guilty, but not as guilty as those who know the consequences of their actions. Their punishment is lighter.
Venial sins are sins that do not go directly against God with knowledge, but are done with some lack of consent, though not fully. They still have accountability.It does not destroy one’s relationship with God, though, but, with time, if one is not careful about avoiding genial sin, they shall end up committing mortal sin.Mortal sin is when one turns on purpose against God, even though they know what they do is wrong, and begin sinning. This sort of sin is hard to repent from, and leads to arrogance and self-love. There is even this distinction in 1 John 5:16-17, “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that is not a deadly sin, he has only to pray, and God will give life to his brother — provided that it is not a deadly sin. There is a sin that leads to death and I am not saying you must pray about that. Every kind of wickedness is sin, but not all sin leads to death.” This proves there is sin which leads to Hell, and sins which can easily be repented of. Mortal sin is forgivable, but people who commit mortal sin are usually to arrogant to admit their faults, ask forgiveness, and be healed.
Jesus Christ even said that, “… anyone who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but the person who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:19) This shows that we are rewarded differently, according to our varying levels of righteousness, and that sinners will be condemned and punished according to their varying levels of wickedness. Redemption, salvation and deification are living, moving things that we attain and obtain over time. It is not a static process. We will never stop growing in the Lord, even after death.
Many Orthodox saints have talked about the Sacrament of Confession.
St John of Kronstadt said: “Let no one think that sin is unimportant – no, sin is a terrible evil, that destroys the soul, both now and in the future life. The sinner in the future life will be bound hand and foot (meaning the soul) and cast into outer darkness… To this must be added the terrible torment arising from the very sins themselves, from the consciousness of our own foolishness during the Earthly life, and from the image of the angry Creator. Even in this present life sin binds and destroys the soul. What God-fearing man does not know what sorrow and oppression strike his soul, what torturing, burning fire rages in his breast when he has sinned. But besides binding and destroying the soul as it does temporarily, sin also destroys it eternally if we do not repent here of our sins… from our whole heart… If it happens to any God-fearing person to go to sleep without having repented of the whole sin, or the sins, he has committed during the day, and which have tormented his soul, these torments will accompany him the whole night, until he has heartily repented of his sin, and washed his heart with tears… The torments of sin will wake him up from sweet sleep, because his soul will be oppressed, bound a prisoner of sin. Now, suppose that the man who has gone to sleep in any sin and is tormented by it, is overtaken during the night by death: is it not clear that his soul will go into the other life in torment, and that as after death there is no place for repentance, he will be tormented there according to the measure of his sins.” (19th Century, in Russia, by the holy Staret John, in his ‘My Life in Christ.’
Our sins are a foreshadowing of the type of tortures in Hell we will receive if we do not receive Confession, and repent of our former sins and way of life. Death comes in so many ways, and we can die at anytime. We must prepare for this. Indeed, in Hell, one is burned by one’s own sin and the love of God, which we can not stand in sin. We bring it upon ourselves. But our virtues are a foreshadowing of what sort of joy and bliss one will have in Heaven, since Heaven is of the Righteous, where one perceives and sees God’s Heavenly Nature in a more clear way than one would on Earth.
Saint Basil the Great said in Rules Briefly Treated, number 288, “It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mystery is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints…” God’s saints hear our confessions in church! This is sure proof, that even a holy saint, a Father of the the Church, attests to the fact that Confession is biblical, and has precedence!
Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, in On the Priesthood, Book 3, 5, (386 A.D) says, “…For they who inhabit the Earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels… they who rule on Earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the Heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of His servants.” (NPNF1, volume 9, page 47.) God has given us great authority to do this, and He has greatly blessed us with this sacrament, even though we are all sinners in His eyes. It is a symbol of His Divine Trust in us, as well as His mercifulness and great love for us.
We must remember our sins. In Romans 3:23-26, it says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is non Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood… that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” This means that only God is truly perfect. Even the angels who have not rebelled against God, who have not sinned, and are perfect, are considered almost imperfect in comparison to His great glory. And we must not forget that Satan used to be Lucifer Star, a holy and beautiful Archangel, who was one of the heads of the Angels, Dominions, Principalities and Powers, but forfeited his place through pride and arrogance, and tempting Adam and Eve to sin by eating from the Tree of Good and Evil. And he had no real reason to sin, since God gave him everything and more! This is why demons, or fallen angels, sin only with spiritual sins, but not the carnal sins, since they are spirits. Only humans sin by carnal sins, as well as spiritual. If the demons, who are spirits, fell, with the temptation of spiritual sins only, how much more us, who are both spiritual and carnal, and have material bodies?
Not that anything material is evil, but that the misuse of things created by God are evil. We Orthodox must not repeat the errors of the Gnostics and the Manichees. For example, sex is good, if used to procreate children, within wedlock between a man and woman. But adultery, pornography, masturbation, homosexualita drape, and other sins, are the misuse of this very good thing. The same goes for the misuse of food, anger, love, etc. The passions are good, but must not be perverted.
So let us Orthodox Christians pray that God will purify us, and make us more like Him, and let us go to Confession as often as possible.