Orthodox America


  The Mystery of Repentance


Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky

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 inn6cent 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 acknowledgment of one's unworthiness; 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 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)      b) the despondency or 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 their sinfulness.

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 Re 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, He said to them solemnly:

 Peace be unto you...And when He had said this, He breathed on them and saith unto then: Receive ye the Holy Spirit. Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever 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 qi 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)

Priests are only the visible instruments at the performance of the Mystery, which is performed invisibly through them by God Him- self.

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 come not 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 (II Cor. 2:7).

On the other hand, it is essential to remember that the remissionn 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 (II Cor. 10:8). This lays a great responsibility upon the one who performs the Mystery

Holy Scripture speaks of cases of 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 (I 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 Spiriti, 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 remitt6d 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 contrite heart 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.

33:18).

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)

 Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky

 (Excerpt from the English translation by Fr. Seraphim Rose of Fr. Michael Pomazansky's book Dogmatic Theology)

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