Power of Confession
Following the teaching of Our Savior and His Apostles, we believe that the Sacrament of Repentance cleanses the soul of the repentant Christian and heals his spiritual ills so that after the absolution of his sins, he once more becomes innocent and sanctified, as he was after Baptism. Confession reinstates the living ties between the Christian and the Body of Christ, i.e. the Church. The power of this Sacrament comes from the blood of the Lamb of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who because of his infinite love and compassion toward us took upon Himself all our sins, nailed them to the cross and suffered what we had to suffer as transgressors of God's commandments. Freed from the burden of sins, the Christian once again rises to spiritual life and gains strength to strive for moral perfection.
To receive the most from the Sacrament of Repentance, a person must prepare for it with prayer, reading of Scripture and introspection. Fasting is an old and a helpful tool for repentance and spiritual renewal.
From the external aspect, the Sacrament of Repentance consists of two parts: a) the verbal confession of all sins done by the repentant, and b) the prayer of absolution administered by the pastor-confessor. The loud articulation of one's sins, i.e. confession, is an indispensable factor of true repentance because it forces the penitent to overcome pride, which is the source of most of our spiritual ills. Besides, the acknowledgment of one's faults and bad habits draws a person closer to overcoming them. This is a well known psychological fact. Many non-religious people go to psychiatrists and receive help just by openly discussing their inner difficulties. The Sacrament of Confession, beyond the psychological, has a sacramental aspect, because through it operates the healing power of the Grace of Jesus Christ.
Repentance, to be effective, should not be limited just to awareness of ones sinfulness or to a cold admission of unworthiness. It should be accompanied with a deep feeling of regret and a sincere desire to become a different person. It requires the decision to battle with one's evil inclinations and the will to correct one's way of life. The penitent opens his soul to God, the true and loving Physician, and asks for mercy and help in the battle with bad tendencies. Such heartfelt contrition is necessary so that the effectiveness of the Sacrament will extend not only to the removal of committed sins but also to bring the Divine remedy into the receptive soul and strengthen it against future temptations.
Upon finishing his confession the penitent kneels before the cross and the gospel, and the priest-confessor places the stole upon his head and prays for the absolution of sins. The priest requests the heavenly Father not to turn away from the repentant as He did not turn away from the prodigal son but to again make him a new creature and a worthy member of His Divine Kingdom. At this time the invisible Grace of God descends upon the Christian and renews within him the spirit of righteousness.
Jesus Christ spoke twice of the Sacrament of Repentance. The first time He said to the Apostle Peter that He will give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven so that whatever he will bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he will loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19). Some time later He gave the authority to forgive and to retain sins to all the apostles. This was done in conjunction with their task to resolve problems among the members of the Church: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the Church. But if he refuses even to hear the Church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:15-18). The Lord solemnly established the Sacrament of Confession soon after His Resurrection. He appeared to His disciples and said to them, "`Peace unto you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.' And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said: `Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained'" (John 20:21-23). The apostles transmitted this power to absolve and to retain sins to their disciples — bishops and priests — who were to continue their task of saving human souls.
St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the authority given to the pastors of the Church "to bind and loose," wrote, "What the priests determine on earth, God affirms on high in Heaven. Here the Master conciliates with the opinion of His servants." However, the priest-confessor does not absolve sins by his own power, and there is nothing mechanical in the prayers of absolution. The priest-confessor is only a witness of one's repentance and a mediator of Divine Grace. God appointed him to be an instrument of His mercy. Ultimately it is up to the repentant to make his soul receptive to the healing Grace.
By its wide magnitude and power, the invisible work of Grace in the Sacrament of Repentance covers all of man's lawlessness. There is no sin which is beyond forgiveness. What is crucial here is to have sincere regret for committed sins and to decide to become a better Christian. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:13). New Testament Scriptures are full of examples of God's mercy to sinners. Great was the Apostle Peter's sin of denial, but when he repented, Jesus forgave him and reinstated him as an Apostle. After the Pentecost, when the Apostle Peter started to preach the Gospel, he called to repentance even those Jews who crucified the Messiah (Acts 2:38), and later he called to repentance Simon, who was a sorcerer and at the end became a heretic (Acts 8:22). Saint Paul, before becoming an apostle, hated the Christian faith, persecuted the Church and took part in the death of the first martyr, the deacon Stephen. Later he was forgiven by God and received from Him abundant grace. Remembering God's infinite mercy, St. Paul once absolved a person guilty of incest, subjecting him first to temporary excommunication (2 Corinthians 2:7).
With all this one should remember that absolution of sins in the Sacrament of Confession is an act of mercy, not of thoughtless pity. It is given for the spiritual benefit of man "for edification and not for your destruction" (2 Corinthians 10:8). This fact places a great responsibility on the priests when they perform this Sacrament.
The Holy Scripture mentions instances or conditions in which sins are not forgiven. Specifically, it mentions that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this world nor the next (Matthew 12:31-32). In addition it speaks of especially devastating "mortal sins." "All wrongdoing is sin," explains the Apostle John, "but there is a sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that [person who commits such mortal sin" (1 John 5:16). The Apostle Paul teaches that "it is impossible for those who were once enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again through repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame" (Hebrews 6:4-6). All these warnings refer to people with a cynical attitude toward God; they either reject His mercy or they don't want to abandon their sinful habits.
In all cases the reason for unforgiveness comes not from any limitations of the Sacrament of Confession but from the unrepentance of the sinner. Indeed, in the case of speaking offensive words against the Holy Spirit, how can any sins be forgiven when His mercy is ridiculed and rejected? On the other hand we must believe that even the sin of blasphemy can be forgiven when it is followed by a true repentance. St. John Chrysostom says the following about this: "For even this guilt [blasphemy against the Holy Spirit] was forgiven to many repentant Jews. Many of them who blasphemed against the Holy Spirit [during Jesus Christ's preaching] later believed, became Christians and everything was forgiven to them" (Sermon on the Gospel of Matthew). The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787 A.D. in the city of Nicea, near Constantinople) said the following about mortal sins: "A mortal sin is the one which remains unrepented ... These [sinners] will have no share with the Lord, unless they humble themselves and turn away from their transgressions."
The Gospel teaches that all must be allowed to repent, "I say to you that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7). These words include Christians who have fallen into sin.
Some contemporary Christians mistakenly believe that their faith alone makes them holy and free of sin and that for this reason there is no necessity to repent of anything. Referring to these self-satisfied "righteous" ones, the Apostle James writes, "For we all stumble in many things" (James 3:2). The Apostle John teaches that even Christians, not only pagans, need to cleanse their conscience: "If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. If we confess our sins, He [Jesus Christ] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9-10).
The Holy Fathers of the Church explain that the absence of a penitent attitude occurs in people not because they are actually sinless but because of their spiritual hardening. Indeed, the brighter the light, the clearer one detects the dust and other defects on objects. Similarly, the closer man approaches God, the clearer he sees his shortcomings and the humbler he becomes. In the lives of saints we see that the more they succeeded in Christian virtues, the more unworthy they felt about themselves. Even saints who performed great miracles repented with grieving and tears of their insignificant faults and considered themselves unworthy.
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