Confession of Faith, Confession of Sins

Dear Friends in Christ,

The word “confess” comes up often in Orthodox prayers, writings, and sermons. There are two main ways that the term is used in the Church: to confess one’s faith, and to confess one’s sins. The former evokes images of the early Christians standing up for Christ in the arena, refusing to worship the old Roman gods, while the latter often evokes images from popular culture of a darkly-lit confessional and an old Roman Catholic priest sitting there waiting to hear one list off his sins.

Confession, in both senses, however, is really a proclamation, a statement of how things truly are, a “coming clean” so to speak. We have opportunities to confess our faith every day, sometimes by sharing what we believe with our family, friends, co-workers, or neighbors (namely that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, who has destroyed death and the power of sin by the Cross and Resurrection, and that by putting our faith in Him and receiving Holy Baptism, we are born again as new creatures and receive the chance to live the Kingdom of Heaven both now and in the age to come). Other times, it is by how we live, by showing kindness to others, by taking on an extra project at work to help our teammates, by volunteering, or by donating our goods to the poor. And sometimes, we are even called to defend our faith, to confess our beliefs and why they are correct in the face of a challenge to them, such as in the case of secularists or atheists who criticize our belief in God, or those who oppose the Orthodox Christian Church. In rare circumstances (although not so rare in Africa and Asia, or in Russia last century, or Greece in centuries past), we are even called to give our life for Christ, confessing Him before the tribunal of the godless.

Sometimes, however, we fail to live up to our confession of faith, and fall into sin. We are then presented with another form of confession, which is to confess our sins, one of the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments). Holy Confession in this context is to stand before God and come clean, to confess one’s weakness and failings, and to state categorically that without the grace of Christ, we cannot be forgiven and cannot be saved, yet by His infinite mercy and love for man, he restores to us the lost wedding garment, the robe of baptism, which we tear off when we sin, and yet which is restored to us when we repent, giving us a fresh start.

Whereas the public confession of faith requires boldness tempered by humility, in that we must proclaim our faith, but not be antagonistic about it, always keeping love at the forefront, in the case of the confession of our faults, we must approach with great humility at our fallen nature, tempered with boldness in order to take the roots of sin and pull them mercilessly out of our heart. As we gain experience tilling the garden of our soul, we will become more confident in the uprooting of these evil weeds, the passions, which hide in the depths. Confession over time enables us to become more and more self-aware, and to progressively confront and overcome our sinful nature, through God’s grace, bestowed through His priests.

Some will object that we do not need a priest in order to confess our sins; why not confess them to God directly? This is a false dichotomy. Every Christian should make an effort at the end of each day to account for his actions that day, confess that which was sinful, and ask for God’s grace to do better the next day. However, sin does not just affect the individual, but rather impacts the entire community.

Our personal sins contribute in unseen ways to the overall experience of our family, our neighborhood, and our parish. On a grand scale, the vast evil present in this world can be partly attributed to the buildup and impact of trillions of “small sins.” A little too much cholesterol every day will eventually clog the arteries, and in the same way, a few small sins here and there will eventually lead us to bigger problems, and our families will be affected by our illness. Confession to God in private alone does not do enough to recognize the corporate effect of sin, and hence the Church has always practiced a form of public confession, from the time of Ancient Israel to the present. In the early Church, confession was often done in front of everyone. Over time, for various reasons, confession became somewhat more privatized, with the priest standing in as a witness of the community that the one confessing is sincere. The priest then also functions as a witness of the community’s forgiveness, and an assurance to the penitent that God loves him and that everything is forgiven.

Holy Scripture gives us a few insights into this ministry of the ordained priesthood: “And when [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained’” (John 20:22-23). This was the first appearance of the Risen Lord to His Disciples, and it was in the context of His sending them forth to preach the Gospel. Forgiving sins is then an essential part of their mission.

Indeed, after Christ healed the Paralytic in order to demonstrate that He also had the power to forgive sins, we read that, “…when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men” (Matthew 9:8). We seen then how what the multitude noted, that the power to forgive sins had been given to men (not just to Jesus), was confirmed by Jesus breathing on His Apostles. Let us also remember that the breath of God was used previously to give life to Adam, so this should cause us to associate the forgiveness of sins with new life.

Finally, notice how the power to retain sins is also given to the Apostles; if they are to decide whether to forgive or to retain, then the clear meaning of this passage is that they are aware of what each person coming to them has done. The priest, who serves in the place of the bishop, who is a successor to the Apostles, has received this same grace to forgive sins, and he plays an important role in determining whether the penitent is truly sorry, acting as an external check.

We will cite one more example from Scripture. “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. 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” (James 5:14-16).

How then should we confess? Some Orthodox people have not confessed in a long time. Indeed, some may never have confessed, having not been taught to do so, which is a tragedy. The good thing is that it’s never too late to start, as long as we are breathing. Contact me, or another priest local to you, and ask to meet for confession, explaining that it has been some time, or something that you have never done. We will be happy to help you return to this saving practice.

How often should we confess? Some local customs have it that we confess before every communion. Others specify at least once every forty days, regardless of whether one is planning to commune. The important thing is that our confessions be regular and sincere, and that we be prepared for them in advance. Let us not conceal anything from the priest (who will never reveal what is discussed in confession) and thus be cleansed from our sins and forgiven. What we confess now will be covered on the Day of Judgment. It is the quintessential “investment in your future,” and I pray that you will resolve to come and partake of this great blessing!

In Christ,
Fr. Anastasios