How is confession before a priest supported by scripture?
In the Scriptures it is clear that the heart of the matter of repentance is the heart itself—“A broken and contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51(50):17). But in the Bible, the heart is not the seat of emotions and subjective experiences; it is the God-ordained spiritual center of the human person, by which our “whole spirit, soul, and body” are to be sanctified “completely” (1 Thess. 5:23).
True repentance extends from the heart to the whole person, just as sin begins in the heart and is eventually manifested tangibly and bodily (Matt. 15:19). As even Martin Luther taught, the meaning of repentance “is not restricted to repentance in one’s heart; for such repentance is null unless it produces outward signs in various mortifications of the flesh” (95 Theses, Thesis 3).
Since repentance involves the whole person, confession of sin is not a private experience relegated to one’s “heart”. Rather, in the Scriptures the whole process of repentance is a very robust turning away from former thoughts, words, and deeds, with confession of sin. A zeal and intention to struggle to conform our lives to God’s will. Real repentance includes a public confession of sin.
Consider the confession of Zacchaeus, the notorious tax collector who was converted by the presence of the Lord. His confession of sin was made in the midst of a multitude of fellows Jews, his former victims, and included a self-imposed penance, which he declared publicly to the Lord in the presence of the crowds: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (Luke 19:8).
We have another example in the parable of the prodigal son. When the younger son came to himself and had a change of heart, he immediately formulated his plan of action:
"I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants'” (Luke 15:18–19).
In the New Testament, all four passages dealing with confession of sin reveal the public nature of confession (Ma . 3:6; Mark 1:5; Acts 19:18; and James 5:16). In each of these cases the particular verb exomologeo' is used, whereas a different word, homologeo', is used for occasions when a confession of faith is made.
The suffix common to both of these verbs is logos, which means “a word,” “to speak or declare.” Exomologeo’ means “to speak out or agree to declare,” to confess verbally and publicly. And so when the Apostle John writes, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), it is understood that this is the Church’s practice of confession, a verbal acknowledgment of sin.
With this knowledge we can also recognize that those who came to St. John the Forerunner for baptism were “confessing their sins” vocally in the presence of the Baptist and those assembled (Matt. 3:6; Mk. 1:5). It is hard to believe that the people first stepped aside to privately and silently confess their sins to God. In the Acts of the Apostles we also read that “many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds” (19:18).
In the Old Testament, David acknowledged his sin verbally in the presence of Nathan the Prophet and received God’s forgiveness through him (2 Sam. 12:7–13). Sins were also acknowledged and atoned for in a public manner in the temple with pre- scribed sin offerings (see Lev. 4-5). Since one’s relationship to God was not private but existed in the context of the worshiping community, sin was also dealt with in the corporate context of the community.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Why do I have to confess before a priest?
The earliest records of confession in post-biblical times reveal that it was also practiced in the context of the community, that is, in the gathering of the local church. Public confessions of sin were made just prior to the commencement of the offering of the Eucharist. Since the Eucharist is the pinnacle of unity with Christ (and thus with His Body, the Church members), one cannot participate worthily when experiencing serious sin or strife with other church members. This is attested to in the first-century document known as the Didache:
“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.”11
The same early Church practice is witnessed to in the Epistle of Barnabas: “You shall confess your sins. You shall not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light.”12 Only after confessions were made was the kiss of peace exchanged and the Eucharist celebrated.
It is unlikely that the leaders of the local community—the bishop or presbyters—were passive onlookers in this process of repentance. It is more likely they were quite aware, having received the confession personally some time prior. For depending upon the seriousness of the sin, the clergy have always taken part in God’s forgiving or retaining sin (John 20:23) and in officially restoring repentant sinners to the communion of the Church. For discernment is required in understanding the seriousness of the sin and in advising an appropriate remedy.
The third-century Christian teacher Origen makes it clear that the priest was an integral part of the process of repentance. Origen comments that a sinner should “not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine.”13 And a bishop from the same era, St. Cyprian of Carthage, writes, “Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience.”14
As the Church grew, this type of public confession seemed less prudent, but the role of the bishop and priest as the apostolic guardians of the faith, the spiritual guides and teachers of the faithful, and the witnesses to sincere repentance remained.
Confession of sins in the presence of the priest as the representative of the whole church maintained the previous principles of accountability and the inherent public nature of confession. As the great defender of Christ’s divinity, St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, explains:
It is necessary to confess our sins to those to whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted. Those doing penance of old are found to have done it before the saints. It is written in the Gospel that they confessed their sins to John the Baptist [Ma . 3:6], but in Acts [19:18] they confessed to the apostles.15
The early Church also recognized that the bishops and the priests continued the apostolic ministry of binding and loosing sin, not in some magical or authoritarian sense according to their own will, but as inspired by the grace of God and bearing witness to His will. Therefore the power to bind and loose, to retain or remit sins, is a symphony between earth and heaven. It is a fulfillment of the prayer given to us by the Lord, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Ma . 6:10).
According to St. John Chrysostom, the great fourth-century preacher and bishop, this power is a heavenly grace bestowed by God on His creatures.
"What great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests. . . . For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels . . . and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants."16
11 The Didache: e Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 4:14, 14:1 [AD 70].
12 Le er of Barnabas, 19 [AD 74].
13 Homilies on Leviticus, 2:4 [AD 248].
14 The Lapsed, 15:1–3 [AD 251].
15 Rules Brie y Treated, 288 [AD 374].
16 On the Priesthood, 3.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Isn’t a silent confession “in the heart” before God enough?
We believe we have answered this question above. It is good to confess our sinfulness before God daily, but in order to fully yield the benefit of repentance, the Church's practice has always included a verbal confession in the presence of those ministers who are "assistants" to the Great Physician, Jesus Christ.
We offer the following reflection which helps to complete our understanding of sin and forgiveness:
In the Orthodox Christian understanding, sin itself is never a private, isolated event. We are all connected and related through our one human nature. Like the sin of Adam and Eve, our sin affects others and, in some way, all of creation, as a rock thrown into a pool creates ripples in every direction.
In our modern culture it is claimed that all things should be allowable as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. This is not the Orthodox approach, since it is impossible that our spiritual condition should not affect those around us. As the poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” By virtue of the contact we have with others, the consequences of our words and actions, or even the energy that emanates from our soul, we bring either grace or harm to others, directly or indirectly. St. Seraphim of Sarov famously expresses this when he advises, “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”
Sin is not essentially the breaking of a rule or law imposed on us from outside, the breaching of a moral code. The Greek word for sin, amartia, originated as a term in archery meaning “to miss the target.” To sin is to miss the target for which we were created; it is a failure to fulfill the destiny for which God made us, which according to the Orthodox teaching is to become like Him by grace. As such, sin is a distortion of human nature, a disease that debilitates our natural capacity for communion with God.
Since Adam’s sin, we have all missed the target to one degree or another. As St. Paul says, we all “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) and are in need of repentance in order to be brought back into union with Him. For this reason, both St. John the Baptist and Jesus Christ began their public ministries with the word “Repent” (Ma . 3:2; 4:17).
But repentance is not a guilt-ridden condition of morose self-loathing. It is not a mere psychological or emotional state. Nor is it a perfectionism that is born of ego. There is no despair with true repentance, because despair has given up hope in God’s grace and mercy. Despair provides a second victory for the devil. St. John Chrysostom writes, “No one should despair of his salvation. Did you sin? Repent. Did you sin a thousand times? Repent a thousand times.”17
In the words of St. John Climacus, real repentance is a “joyful sorrow” or “sorrowful joy” inspired by the movement of God’s grace in the heart, a sorrow that burns away impurity and refines the soul, leaving it joyful, peaceful, alert, and sensitive to God’s will. It is a spiritual realization and conviction that energizes the soul to desire to put away everything that would obstruct it from living in the light and love of God.
The Sacrament of Confession in the Orthodox Church is one of the essential aspects of repentance. First there must be self-knowledge and awareness, some level of spiritual understanding of our condition. Second, there is contrition—that is, the “godly sorrow” written about by the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 7:10), which leads not to despair but to a desire to be changed. Certainly, here we benefit greatly from tearful prayer and hope in God.
The third step is a sincere, verbal confession of sin to God in the presence of the father confessor with humility and honesty, and a desire to turn to Christ and light against the sin that alienates us from Him. The verbal confession is sealed with the prayer of absolution offered by the confessor, who, through the grace of the priesthood, is given the gift of attesting to God’s forgiveness for these sins.18 This is a great mystery of God’s condescension and grace by which He allows His creatures to assist and cooperate in His act of forgiveness and healing.
After his sincere confession, the penitent should depart with full faith in God’s forgiveness, giving thanks for His great mercy. The fourth and final step of repentance is the transformation of our life, the fruit of real repentance. The Sacrament of Confession cannot help us unless we are open to struggling against sin. “Even if all spiritual fathers, the Patriarchs, the Hierarchs and all people forgive you,” says St. Cosmas of Aetolia, “you are unforgivable, if you don’t repent in action.”19 This final step also defines the whole Christian life, for repentance is a continual way of life and movement toward the inexhaustible God.
17 Nektarios Antonopoulos, Return: Repentance and Confession; Return to God and His Church, ed. Anastasia A. Koutoulakis and trans. Fr. Nicholas Palis (Athens: Akritas Publication, 1999), p. 61.
18 In some cases, and particularly for serious sins, the Prayer of Absolution may be withheld until a later date to allow for appropriate time for healing and full repentance.
19 Return, p. 21.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour