The Sacrament of Confession
A commitment to our own spiritual health means making a regular spiritual housecleaning. Indeed, going to the sacrament of Confession is a bit like spring cleaning—we clean up after ourselves all the time, but make a special effort a few times per year to deep clean our home, especially those areas that are regularly missed. The sacrament of Confession is very similar. In our daily prayers, we ask God to forgive our sins. However, in the sacrament of confession, we confess our sins to God in the presence of the priest, who has been empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive our sins and who is prepared to help us overcome them.
The sacrament of Confession is about more than simply being forgiven. It is also about being healed. Any 12-step program (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) will tell you that to be truly healed, one needs to “make a fearless moral inventory,” which is an examination of conscience, and then share this with another person. It is a difficult thing to do. By confessing our sins to another person, we destroy our pride and let God in, and this is the only way to truly begin the process of dealing with our sins and overcoming them.
Where, you might ask, did the priest get this power to forgive sins? It is not his personal possession. As he himself says in the very prayer of absolution, “I do not have power on earth to forgive sins, but God alone does.” But the priest does represent God’s Church, and Christ committed the stewardship of divine grace to that Church. That is, He gave His Church the authority to bind and loose, and after His Resurrection He said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whosoever’s sins you forgive, they have been forgiven them; whosoever’s you retain, they have been retained” (John 20:22). In this act, Christ committed the keys of stewardship to His Church, and gave the Church, in the person of the priest, authority to gain forgiveness from God for those who repent.
We Orthodox take for granted the assurance of forgiveness, but this was new in the ancient world. In that world, when one repented one could only hope that God would forgive. There was no assurance or guarantee. But Christ gives to His Church the firm assurance of forgiveness, so that we can really know now for certain that God forgives us. Eternal life thus is not a distant wistful hope, but a joyful present possession. As a part of Christ’s body, we can know that we have been forgiven and now have eternal life.
We see the stewardship of divine grace in action in the ministry of the apostle Paul. One member of the Corinthian community sinned rather badly (he was living as husband and wife with his stepmother), and on Paul’s insistence, the offender was expelled from the eucharistic communion of the church (1 Cor 5:1–5). Later, he was overwhelmed with regret and repented and amended his life. Paul therefore urged the Corinthian community to forgive him, and to welcome him back (2 Cor 2:6–8). Thus, the church’s authority to forgive sins was revealed through the restoration of the penitent after excommunication. In the early church, this responsibility to restore the penitent devolved on the pastoral leadership, and especially upon the congregation’s main pastor, the bishop. An early ordination prayer for the bishop mentions this responsibility, and asks God to give the new bishop the Holy Spirit for his ministry of “offering the gifts of Your holy Church” (i.e., presiding at the Eucharist), and “in the spirit of high-priesthood having the power to forgive sins according to Your command…to loose every bond according to the authority which You gave to the apostles"1 (i.e., restore the excommunicated to the fellowship of the church). In this prayer, we see the bishop’s responsibility to decide who is in the church and who is out. If a person had been expelled from the church for grave sin, it was the bishop who allowed him back in upon repentance and prayed for his forgiveness.
Later, however, this rite of forgiveness for the excommunicated became fused with another private spiritual exercise, one which became especially popular among monks. In this practice, the young monk would confess his sins to an older monk who was his spiritual father as the young one struggled to gain the victory over his sins. The penitent had never been excommunicated; he was only confessing his sins and receiving counsel for his spiritual benefit. The older monk would listen and give counsel and pray for the younger one’s forgiveness. It proved to be spiritually valuable, and not just for monks. Nowadays everyone in the church uses the sacrament of Confession like this.
Thus, this Sacrament has developed a great deal over the years and is used in a number of ways. The Church uses it to reconcile excommunicated persons when they repent (its original function), to reconcile Orthodox to the Church after they have lapsed and been away from the Church’s communion for a long time, to offer forgiveness to Orthodox communicants after they commit some major sin, and to Orthodox communicants as part of their regular spiritual house-cleaning. How many times throughout the year should we go to confession? Different churches have different guidelines, but ultimately each person should consult with his or her spiritual father for appropriate frequency.
In all its many uses, the Sacrament of Confession brings the penitent back to Christ, and to his boundless mercy. The penitent confesses his sins to God in the presence of the priest as witness. Christ receives the confession and brings forgiveness and healing, Both priest and penitent stand together before the cross, and in that sacramental moment, both are sinners who are debtors to the boundless love of God.
Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition, chapter 3. ↩