Christ established the sacrament of repentance and confession after His resurrection. Directing Himself to His disciples, He said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained”(John 20:22-24).
The words of Christ are very clear. They leave no room for doubt. His disciples, and afterwards their successors, alone–no one else– have the right to forgive or not to forgive the sins of man. In essence they are instruments of Christ. It is Christ Who forgives the sins of man. The contemporaries of Christ–Pharisees, Sadducees, and others–doubted that Christ could forgive sins, or that He had this authority. We see this in the healing of the paralytic. Christ said to the paralytic: “Your sins are forgiven.” They doubted His authority. And replying to them, “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He said to the paralytic: “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet, and go home”(Mark 2:10-11). The healing of the paralytic was used as proof to those who opposed Christ that He indeed had authority to forgive sins. Of course, this authority arises from His divinity and His sacrifice on the Cross. He gave this authority to the Apostles and to their successors, the Bishops and Priests. He did not give this authority to anyone else, not even to the angels. Let no one say, then, that he can confess to God Himself, or to a saint, or to an icon. No. It can be done only to a Bishop or to a Priest, and to no one else.
Do we need the sacrament of repentance and confession? It would not be necessary if man did not sin. Man, however, sins even after baptism, and so this sacrament is absolutely necessary for our cleansing from sin, our purification, and for the washing of our spiritual selves. It is for this reason that it is called a second baptism.
In order to understand how the sacrament should be performed we need not look further than the meaning of the words repentance and confession. Repentance means a changing of the mind, of thoughts, attitudes, and feelings. It is a recognition of the responsibility and the guilt for committed sins, but also of man’s sinful nature. This recognition must be followed by a willingness to change our ways, yet even this is not enough. This attitude needs to be accompanied by a continual will and effort not to remain in a state of sin, but to continue in the sphere of grace, to live in a state of righteousness, and to climb continually to the spiritual ladder that never ends. This is why repentance is not a momentary matter. It is a way of life. It is a progressive state. This element is totally necessary for the forgiveness of sins, cleansing, purification, justification, sanctification, and glory.
Confession means that what a man has in his heart, he reveals to the representative of Christ, the Bishop or the Priest–whatever wrong he has done, whatever evil thing he has thought–all this is a necessary element for the forgiveness of sins. How can the Priest forgive if he does not know? And how can it be true repentance without confession?
Many people say, “I am embarrassed to speak about it.” Naturally, sins are shameful. But a person should be ashamed when he commits a sin, not when he is confessing. Unfortunately, when we commit our sins not only are we not ashamed but we enjoy it at the time. Later we realize that this is spiritual poison coated with honey. Sin is the spiritual poison that withers the soul and brings about spiritual death.
Repentance and confession are not a trial or a court. It is a shelter for sinners, a hospital. The one who confesses is not judged or condemned. He is surrounded with love, comfort, sincere interest; he is taken care of, healed, assisted, treated by the physician, instructed, and forgiven.
The confessor is not a judge. He is a doctor, a loving father. He is not a warden, but an angel of freedom and forgiveness.
When there is true repentance and confession, remission is granted. The penance that the confessor gives is not a ransom for sins, but rather a pedagogical means for the learning of the one who confesses. It is the crutch of the paralytic, until his feet strengthen and he is able to continue freely. No sin is unforgivable except for the sin of unrepentance, which is, in essence, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In other words, the one who will remain unforgiven is the one who does not believe that God can forgive and save.
Christ, You Who were crucified for us and for all people, Who took on our sins and were tortured, through Whose wounds we are healed, You Who are the physician of our souls and bodies, Who are so lenient and understanding that You established the sacrament of repentance and confession for us to take refuge there, and to be healed at that clinic and in that bath to be washed and cleansed every time we become spiritually unclean, how can we thank You deservingly? The most appropriate way is to take advantage of this opportunity, to repent for every sin and to confess, so that we may be forgiven. We understand this Lord, but we do not do it. Help us to live in a constant state of repentance, purification, and ascent.