This is the sacrament by which an Orthodox Christian is forgiven of sin, and is formally restored to fellowship within the Church. It is also known as the “sacrament of repentance”. Repentance is a “second baptism”. Repentance involves an understanding of God’s standard of holiness, a conscious recognition of how one has fallen short of that standard, a godly sorrow in response to one’s sin, a truthful confession of one’s sin, and subsequent action demonstrating one’s moral change of direction. This sacrament can (and should) be appropriated multiple times throughout one’s life.
Acknowledging God’s Holy Standard
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is for me to love God with all of my heart, mind, soul, and strength. And the second greatest commandment is for me to love my neighbor as much as I love myself. The question is not whether I have ever broken these two commandments . . . the real question is whether I have ever kept them. Indeed, the first step to true repentance is an honest recognition and acknowledgment of God’s perfect standard of righteousness. After all, if I do not know the standard, then how can I know whether I fall short of it? How can I repent of something unless I first realize that I am doing something wrong?
The recognition and acknowledgment of God’s holy standard is a foundational necessity for repentance, and this fact is poignantly made in the book of Judges. This book spans several centuries, and covers numerous cases where Israelites raped and murdered one another, while committing flagrant forms of idolatry. Significantly, the book simultaneously repeats the refrain that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). We would be appalled just to read that Israelites were willingly committing acts of wickedness. But how much more shocking it is to hear that they committed these acts without even comprehending the gravity of their evil! It is ghastly to imagine that men can rape and murder in spite of their consciences. But it is even more mind-boggling to think that men can rape and murder in agreement with their consciences. Men’s consciences may become so seared that they don’t even feel guilt when committing such acts. People in such a state may express sorrow for getting caught, but they are not yet in a position to exercise true repentance. Before godly sorrow and meaningful confession can take place, the conscience itself must first be pricked.
Recognition That We Have Fallen Short
One example of “conscience-pricking” can be seen in the case of King David and the prophet Nathan. In the months following his infamous adultery and murder, David exercised no obvious fruits of repentance. While he did go to lengths to conceal his sin, it was manifestly a series of ploys intended to keep him from getting caught. Even though David thereby exhibited an understanding that his actions might lead to political repercussions, he still showed no evidence that he felt genuine conscience-pangs during this time.
But all of this changed when God sent Nathan to confront the King. Nathan told his now-famous story about the greedy man who stole and killed his neighbor’s beloved sheep. When David ordered the death-sentence for this man, Nathan responded directly: “You are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7). David was immediately cut to the heart, and he responded with true repentance. He even penned the Psalm which has become the very blueprint for Christian repentance (Ps. 50).
Another example of “conscience-pricking” can be seen in the book of Acts, at Pentecost. Prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit, and prior to St. Peter’s sermon, a large number of Israelites felt no guilt regarding their participation in the murder of Jesus. Just weeks prior, they had murdered the very Son of God. Yet they felt no shame. But then, they were confronted face-to-face with their sin. Peter spoke to them directly: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made the same Jesus, who ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). In response to this, “they were pricked in their heart” (Acts 2:37). Their consciences had finally been pricked. They finally recognized their sin. They finally recognized God’s holy standard, and they realized that they had acted in rebellion against Him. Upon this revelation, St. Peter said that the very next logical step was repentance and baptism: “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:38) Thus we can clearly see that the deep moving of one’s conscience is a necessary prerequisite for genuine repentance. Without a personal recognition that we fall short of God’s holy standard, we may regret getting caught, but we cannot truly repent.
The next step is the sacrament of Repentance itself, via auricular confession. This is where the penitent person orally confesses his sins before an icon of Christ, in the presence of an Orthodox priest. Then, as a mouthpiece for Christ, the priest declares the person’s sins forgiven, and offers him helpful counsel for avoiding similar temptation in the future.
The practice of auricular confession is firmly rooted in the history of God’s dealings with his people. The Scriptures refer to various forms of auricular confession throughout both the Old and New Testaments. From the very beginning, God has required his people to confess their faults.
After the very first human sin, God approached Adam and Eve not with accusations, but rather with questions which invited confession. God asked Adam, “Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” (Gen. 3:11), and he asked Eve, “What is this that thou hast done?” (Gen. 3:13). In both cases, God was inviting them to own-up to their sins, and to confess orally. Instead of trying to escape blame, what if Adam and Eve had repented in sorrow and tears, as King David did in Psalm 50? How might the course of human history have gone differently? We may never know. God gave them the chance to exhibit heartfelt repentance, but at least upon the initial confrontation, they do not seem to have availed themselves of the opportunity.
Auricular confession was an integral part of the Levitical sacrificial system. Before an Israelite could offer a trespass offering, he first was required to orally confess his sin (Leviticus 5:5-6, Numbers 5:7-8). And on the annual Day of Atonement, the High Priest would lay hands on the head of the scapegoat, confessing the sins of the entire nation of Israel, prior to exiling the scapegoat to die in the wilderness (Lev. 16:21).
In reference to his sin with Bathsheba, King David explicitly noted the direct connection between confession and forgiveness. He said, “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 31:5).
King Solomon prayed for future generations of God’s people, that they would confess their sins, and that God would respond with forgiveness (1 Kings 8:33-36, 2 Chronicles 6:24-27). When Israel sinned against the Lord by taking foreign wives (directly disobeying God’s command in Deuteronomy 7:3), Ezra instructed all the people to confess their sins (Ezra 10:11).
Nehemiah confessed the sins of Israel before the Lord, including himself among the transgressors (Nehemiah 1:6-7). Then he followed his confession with a request for God’s mercy, and a reminder that God had promised to respond favorably to those who were repentant (Neh. 1:8-11).
Throughout the ninth chapter of his book, Daniel confesses his sin and Israel’s sin to the Lord (cf. Daniel 9:20). The Wisdom of Sirach says we should not be ashamed to confess our sins (Sirach 4:31), and that we should not hinder anyone from confessing in prayer (Sir. 20:1).
Thus, the Scriptures are filled with references to auricular confession, long before we even reach the New Testament, long before we come to the two famous confession passages which follow:
“Confess [your] faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. . . . Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:16-20)
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us [our] sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9)
Indeed, both of these passages give clear instruction for confessing one’s sins. And the passage from James in particular makes it clear that confession should be oral, in the presence of a fellow Christian. So, why do many non-Orthodox sects give us such criticism over our ancient practice of auricular confession to a priest? I believe the primary reasons can be summed up thus:
1. Ignorance of confession in the Old Testament
Many people are unaware that OT Israelites orally confessed their sins in the presence of priests (e.g. Leviticus 5:5-6). Failure to consider this fact may be part of the reason that many Protestant exegetes have failed to properly interpret New Testament passages such as John 20:23, where Jesus grants duly ordained ecclesiastical leadership the authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sins on His behalf. A better knowledge of established OT practices should make it less surprising to discover similar practices in the NT.
2. Ignorance about confession in the New Testament
Many exegetes have noted that James 5 doesn’t narrowly require confession to a priest alone. And indeed, in the early Church it was a common practice to confess one’s sins to the entire congregation, not just to the priest. However, it would be a huge mistake to conclude one’s thought processes at this point. First, it is important to note that even when one confesses to an entire congregation, one is still confessing to a priest. When one makes a public confession of sin, the leader of that congregation does not normally plug his ears and walk away. Second, the priests’ ecclesiastical responsibility for maintaining the purity of the Church (cf. Matt. 18, 1 Cor. 5, etc.) implies the necessity of involving the priest in any proceedings concerning the forgiveness of serious sins committed by members of the Church. After all, if the priest is not among those who hear the person’s confession, how can he—in the name of the Church—declare that person’s sin forgiven? And if he cannot declare that person’s sin forgiven, then how can he readmit that person to Eucharistic fellowship? The biblical practice of Church discipline both implies and requires the practice of auricular confession at some level.
3. “Rome-a-phobia” wrongly transferred to Orthodoxy
Many people mistakenly think Orthodox confession is comparable to Roman Catholic confession, falsely assuming that we espouse Rome’s views on merit, penance, purgatory, etc. While it is good to criticize Rome’s doctrinal excesses, it is unhelpful to assume that the East shares those excesses.
4. Sola Scriptura
Even if sola scriptura were an accurate doctrine, the practice of auricular confession would still be quite defensible, as can be seen above. Nevertheless, the doctrine of sola scripturais still for many people a barrier against properly understanding the Church’s teachings regarding confession and repentance. Even if a person does not correctly understand what Scripture teaches about confession, that person should still be able to look at the historic practice of the Church for guidance. And it is undisputed that auricular confession to a priest is a very ancient early Church practice, which continues to be used today. If people would simply trust the Church, their lack of exegetical skills would be far less consequential. Sadly, though, we are faced with millions of people who (1) have a fuzzy and incomplete understanding of Scripture, and (2) demand that their understanding of Scripture be the sole leg they stand on. This combination is appalling.
Thankfully, as Orthodox Christians, we are the heirs of a very firm doctrinal foundation. And among many other things, our foundation firmly supports the practice of auricular confession in the presence of a priest. We can see that the practice is affirmed by Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments, and is simultaneously supported by two thousand years of faithful practice within the Church.
For the process of Repentance to become fully complete, one must literally demonstrate a changed life. A person’s penitent thoughts must become incarnate, manifesting themselves as good works. The sins formerly cherished and practiced must now be abandoned and despised. As Jesus commanded the woman taken in adultery, “Go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
This does not mean that Orthodox repentance is at all similar to Roman Catholic penance. We do not perform prayers, or acts of contrition, with any expectation of meriting an eventual release from our sins. There is no merit. There is only grace. Our only hope is the mercy of God, which—thankfully—is readily available. When we truly confess, He truly forgives.
Nevertheless, we would sorely err if we were to assume that repentant feelings and repentant words could be of any great value without consequently manifesting themselves in repentant actions. Repentance which begins and ends with a mandatory meeting with the priest is not true repentance at all. The Greek word most often used for repentance is metanoia, which literally means “to change your mind”. True changes of mind always result in true changes of actions. We don’t instantly become perfect, but we do improve. Genuine repentance always bears fruit.
Repentance as a Second Baptism
Why has the sacrament of Repentance historically been called a “second baptism”? Now that we have discussed the Church’s view of Repentance, we should be able to answer this question by briefly comparing the two sacraments:
Baptism involves the oral confession of sin. (cf. Matt. 3:6; Mark 1:5; Acts 2:38; 19:2-5,18)
Repentance, too, involves the oral confession of sin. (cf. Lev. 5:5-6; James 5:16ff)
Baptism washes away sin. (cf. Acts 22:16)
Repentance, too, washes away sin. (cf. 1 John 1:9)
Baptism is admission to the Body of Christ. (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13)
Repentance is readmission to fellowship in Christ’s Body. (cf. Matt. 18; 2 Cor. 2:6-8)
Baptism is a person’s admission to the Eucharist. (cf. 1 Cor. 10:17 with 1 Cor. 12:13)
Repentance is a person’s readmission to the Eucharist. (cf. 1 Cor. 5:11 with 2 Cor. 2:6-8)
Baptism washes away sins. And the Church has always understood that the sacrament of baptism cannot be repeated. This is why post-baptismal sin was such a thorny issue for the early Church. There was much discussion and debate, and though some corners of the church temporarily held a view which considered post-baptismal sin to be unforgivable, that view was ultimately abandoned. The Church recognized the glorious truth that God’s forgiveness can be applied to us many times, even if baptismal water cannot.