The sacrifice of Christ is the propitiation for all the sins of mankind. Every grace we receive in any way is due to Christ’s redemptive work. It is through the application to an individual at baptism, of what the Lord has accomplished, that His death, burial and resurrection become our own. We are baptized into His death and rise up to walk in the newness of life.
In baptism we enter into a new relationship with God; we are born again into a new life and receive our birthright, the "right" to inherit eternal life. The evil of the world surrounds us, however, and we still have an inclination toward sin. We transgress daily against God and our fellow man. These offenses are violations of our baptismal vows. They are products of the condition of our spiritual life, which in turn is produced by our forgetting the goal of the Christian life - holiness or perfection.
The Church, as the Body of Christ, the extension of the Incarnation and the ministry of Christ, has as its only business, the salvation of souls. A major part of this work has to do with the forgiveness of sins. This responsibility has been given to the Church by its Divine Founder and Savior. Thus the main point of the Church’s teaching and preaching, following the example of Christ Himself, is repentance, and even convincing its members that they have a need for repentance. (See Matthew 3:2 and 4:17)
The first step in the process of repentance is a realization that sin is, above all else, separation from God and from the true life which is in Him. This includes, simultaneously, a realization that any life without God, or any life in which He plays only a minor role, is not really living.
We find ourselves today in a man-centered and self-satisfied society whose view of itself has rubbed off on many Christians. As our society seems to be quite pleased and accepting of itself, so too the general populace, including members of the Church, tend to see themselves as pretty decent fellows, "feeling good and very content" about their lives, having "no problems or worries," in a spiritual sense. Just as the modern world does not think that it has sinned or has anything for which to be sorry, so also many Christians, under the influence of this deadly philosophy, do not really believe they have sinned. Typically they admit to being guilty of very common and minor transgressions, for which, however, some sort of qualification is not infrequently made, such as, "… but everyone does these things."
In addition there is a certain so-called science that teaches individuals to place blame elsewhere for mistakes and failures. Sin is replaced by "complexes" and "problems."
The very air we breathe is filled with self-praise and adulation. Individuals are told that they live in the best possible society among the best possible people, and we Christians seem to take this affirmation quite seriously.
Take the average Orthodox community in this country — what has become the measure of success — attendance, the bank account balance, the number of parochial activities or affairs? How does this perspective differ from the way in which a corporation or club measures its success? Our Churches must emphasize the unique call to repentance in light of a Heavenly Kingdom revealed in and through God’s only-begotten Son, Incarnate. Ultimately, a heart turned towards God, is the only true measure of the Church’s successfully completing its mission.
The Church is the ark of salvation sailing over the sea of despair and the darkness of sin. It is not an institution which exists to satisfy the needs felt by those who are "members in good standing."
The result of all that we have mentioned thus far, is that many of us have reduced confession, the sacrament of repentance, to a duty, one of many religious obligations to be fulfilled during the course of a year, a formal compliance with some abstract canonical norm, an end in itself with no spiritual consequences whatsoever. When we do make our confession we often approach the priest in order to talk about our problems, not sins. To speak of sins is too humiliating. We can have problems, however, and still be seen, and see ourselves, as respectable.
The Christian view of life in this fallen world is fundamentally tragic; it has to be if we understand the real contents of the Gospel, if we examine closely the life of our Savior and His relationship to society around Him. True repentance is precisely the discovery by man of the abyss that separates him from God and from his true homeland, because of sin. So the Christian life must be one of constant repentance — the Greek word, metanoia — of changing the mind, a reevaluation of all values in the light of Christ, a constant reconversion.
At the very beginning of the greatest of all penitential seasons (Great Lent), the Church has dedicated the first two Sundays to the lessons from the Gospel concerning the Pharisee and the Publican, and that of the Prodigal Son. They contain the essence of the entire message of repentance, teaching us to examine not only individual, isolated sins, but our deepest motivations. What do we seek first in our lives? Is it the Kingdom of God and His righteousness? Where is the real treasure of our hearts? The lessons also explain that life in its totality can and must be referred to Christ. When this notion is internalized then we are on our way to true repentance, to a life-saving decision to turn towards God.
Let us listen carefully to the admonition of the priest at the end of the sacrament of confession:
"In all these points thou must henceforth be upon thy guard. For thou has received a second Baptism according to the Christian mystery. And thou must see to it that God helping thou make a good beginning. But, above all, thou must not bear thyself lightly towards these things, lest thou become a cause of scorn to men; for these things do not befit a Christian. But may God, by His grace, aid thee to live honourable, uprightly and devoutly."
And to the prayer just before Absolution:
"O Lord God of the salvation of thy servants, gracious, bountiful and long-suffering, Who repentest Thee concerning our evil deeds, and desirest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live: show Thy mercy now upon Thy servant, and grant unto him an image of repentance, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance, pardoning his every transgression, whether voluntary or involuntary. Reconcile and unite him unto Thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, with Whom also are due unto Thee dominion and majesty, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen."
Thus confession is the sacrament or mystery of reconciliation and love, not of judgment and condemnation. It is integral to the life of any disciple of Christ, Who through His unsurpassed goodness and compassion, suffered for the salvation of men, granting them the means for a holy life through repentance and through the life of the Church, which is itself the sacrament, par excellence, of His presence among us.
From The Dawn
Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America