THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE (CONFESSION)
Undoubtedly, every person as a sinner needs sincere repentance before God in order to restore close fellowship with Him. This fellowship with God is broken by sin. Evangelical Christians wholeheartedly advocate the need for and the importance of repentance in the life of every Christian. However, those Christians, whose confession is founded on God’s Word, the Bible, dispute the Orthodox doctrine which teaches that repentance actually is a sacrament of repentance based on the authority of Christ performed through ordained priests. After studying this topic, I am fully convinced that our readers will see all the inconsistencies of the Orthodox doctrine of repentance compared with that of the Holy Scriptures, regardless of how many theologians of the Eastern Churches want to convince us otherwise.
Here is how Eastern Orthodoxy explains its teachings on the Sacrament of repentance, as well as their opinion of the view of evangelical Protestants on this issue:
“We priests have witnessed the most common spiritual injury arising as a consequence of sin in man… It takes a major cleansing of the conscience, burdened with the guilt of a big secret, because it is more difficult to conceal it than to be open about it. The time comes when he will find a suitable person in whom to confide. It could be an independent person, assuming that someone appropriate is at hand. He confesses it to him, and his soul is just relieved.
Therefore the Church of God has established the sacrament of confession. It is based on the authority of Christ and the Holy Apostles. “‘As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:21-3)
In this way, Christ authorized priests with the grace of the Holy Spirit to choose forgive or not to forgive sins.”
“Those who practice confession know that it takes much more mental effort to openly admit their sins before the priest than it does merely in the soul to confess them directly and without mediation to God. And if this recognition is more difficult, it even brings a person more relief than just internal regret. Thus the Savior established the sacrament of repentance with His apostles, including with them their successors, in saying ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ (Mt. 18:18) This promise given to the Apostles by the Redeemer was fulfilled after the resurrection when He appeared to his disciples and told them, ‘Peace to you. As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (Jn. 20:21-3)… Thus the Protestant and sectarian rejection of the sacrament of repentance is in opposition to the Holy Scriptures, of which the sectarians claim is their sole source of faith and in which they based their entire teaching.”
So, according to Orthodox belief, the Church established the holy sacrament of repentance based on the commandments of Christ and the apostolic empowerment to forgive sins of people in the name of God. Of course, this implies that the sinner confessed just before the most holy person without the presence of other witnesses, and the priest is obliged to keep absolute secrecy on the confessions he heard.
Detailed study of this topic in further chapters that is based on the Holy Scriptures will establish the truth about whether the exercise of the sacraments of repentance – as they exist today in Eastern Orthodoxy – were commanded by Lord Jesus Christ, or else, like many other teachings, were formed many years after the death of the apostles.
In attempting to defend the biblical basis of the sacrament, Lazar Milin mentions in his book that the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist preached repentance, which later were continued by Christ and the apostles. Since the Orthodox begin their claim to legitimacy of the sacrament on the basis of the Old Testament, let us also examine the call of repentance in the time of the Old Testament.
The Call to Repentance in the Old Testament
The Scriptures as a whole testify that God is a Being who cares about the welfare of all mankind, as we noted in the second and third chapters of this book. After the election of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the development of the numbers of their offspring, the people of Israel, and after their deliverance from Egyptian slavery, God gave them His commandments. These commandments to the Jews ought to have led them to peace and prosperity – which they would have enjoyed had they obeyed the Lord. Here are some of the commandments and the promises given to the people:
“Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’”
“Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy.”
“And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?”
“If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God.”
However, if the Israelites departed from the commandments of God and did evil before the Lord, they would receive various punishments:
“However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country. Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed. The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.”
However, because of His great love and longsuffering, the Lord did not immediately punish His people. Instead, He awaited their repentance and return to the paths of divine righteousness:
“”Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”
“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?… For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!”
The Old Testament testifies to us that the Almighty was merciful not only with His chosen people but also other people who did not know Him. Some examples of God’s patience with the pagans included the Lord relenting punishment on the pre-Flood world over 120 years (Gen. 6:1-13), the 400 years of the Amorites (Gen.15:16), and the major city of Nineveh (Book of Jonah).
However, although God’s call to repentance addressed through the prophets enables some people to repent and stay alive, others refuse His call. This is why they were punished. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find evidence of the “sacrament” of repentance. Although the Orthodox would respond to this statement by noting that one should not expect to find sacraments in general in the Old Testament, we shall study the issue further in the New Testament. Because they claim this “sacrament” to be in the New Testament, we shall realize that neither does it exist in the New Testament, not even at a distant profile.
The Call to Repentance in the New Testament
In this part of the chapter we will examine the purpose of the call to repentance that John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus Christ made to the Israelites, even though their actions technically occurred in the Old Testament period. Mark’s Gospel describes the activity of Christ’s herald:
“The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
All Gospel texts that foretell Christ’s activities echo the same message. John called for the people who fell away from God to repent. After they have realized their sinfulness and transgression against the will of the Lord, they would repent and then receive baptism, an external symbol of an internal reality signifying forgiveness and cleansing of their sins. However, such texts do not give us even the slightest information that people went to John privately and confessed their sins. Rather, their recognition of sin was made publicly before all the people present. With regard to the Gospel ministry of Jesus, we also encounter the same message as John the Baptist:
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!””
Under the influence of Jesus’ words, many did repent and became His disciples. The woman sinner, who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfumes and wept bitterly for her sins, expressed repentance before many eyewitnesses:
“When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them… Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.””
A similar case took place in the home of the rich tax collector Zacchaeus, who gained his wealth through dishonest means. As proof of his repentance, Zacchaeus promised that any money he stole from them he would repay four times what he stole:
“All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ ” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.””
Therefore, all examples of repentance, which are described in the New Testament during the time of Jesus’ earthly life were done in public, not in secret. There is no single precedent in the New Testament for the sacrament of “repentance” or “confession” as performed in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Lazar Milin mentions one case of repentance recorded in the New Testament writings. Written in the book of Acts, he alleges that it refers to “confession” of people before the Apostle Paul. The text reads like this:
“Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.”
These quotations from Scripture make it obvious that those who believed did not confess privately to apostle Paul alone, as what the Orthodox apologist is attempting to convince us. Rather, they demonstrate that many people came to faith, including, of course, the apostle. As verse 19 tells us, these events took place in front of every person present. Such public confession of sin is affirmed by the apostle James, who said that believers need to confess sins before each other, not just specially ordained confessors (priests) who perform a sacrament.
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
In order to finally confirm once more that the confession of the priests was not part of the apostolic practice and the fact that this performance of the sacrament of confession was introduced much later, let us examine data from Church history. Here is what the Orthodox scholar Eusebius Popovic reveals:
“It is clear that public repentance gave way to private penance, which was connected to private confession. Private confession and penance became required for all chrismations, and public repentance with its four steps became rare, and finally was limited to great cardinal sins, which caused offense to the public. Confession was introduced first in the East and then in the West. In Constantinople the abolition of public contrition gave rise to a great scandal, which occurred in 391. At the time of Patriarch Nectarius (381 – 397), public penance was done by the penitential priest, also called the presbyter poenitentiarius… The incident that led to this crisis involved a noble woman who was ordered to do public penance. When she came to fulfill her duty, she met with a deacon who seduced her. This crime was reported to the Patriarch, and he removed the deacon from his post. But the Patriarch did not stop there as this erupted into a widely known scandal. On the advice of the presbyter Eudemon (Eudaemon), the Patriarch abolished the institution of regular public penance and the office of penitential priest altogether. He invited every sinner, who is addicted to mortal sin that could lead to public excommunication, to seek advice and forgiveness of clergymen in secret and private penance. Such confession became a general practice in the East. Around the middle of the fifth century, Pope Leo I (the Great) (440 – 461) began in the West an effort to abolish primarily a public confession for venial sins and thus laid the foundation for the eventual abolition of regular public penance in the West as well.”
These historical accounts show that public penance for sins was done in front of other Christians just as in apostolic times. Over time, such practice was gradually abolished and replaced with the use of private secret confession before a priest. For this reason (among other reasons to be mentioned later), it is impossible to believe the claims that Orthodox penance and confession, as presented by their theologians, were found and practiced at the time of the Apostles.
The Use of Rosaries in Orthodox Prayers
Before addressing the issue of what exactly the Lord Jesus Christ meant when He delegated the forgiveness of sins to the church, and to what extent the majority Serbian Orthodox Church properly understands His command, one more issue needs to be examined. Specifically, this issue concerns the use of prayer beads, also known as rosary beads, by the Orthodox (and Roman Catholic) Churches. They claim to use these beads as a tool for “bullets”, i.e. an efficient way to repeat their prayers. The Orthodox historian Eusebius Popovic comments on the rosary:
“This device, which also is used by followers of pagan Eastern religions, consists of one cord, which is threaded with 100 or 200 balls of wood, amber or other substances and shaped like a crown. The beads are so slippery that they can easily pass through the fingers like ‘bullets’ , hence the name “rosary” has remained with us. In the West, there is a device called the “rosarium” (Rozenkranz), a wreath of roses, not the actual crown, but the spiritual rose (with Germans using the cord for praying).”
The rosary, which the Orthodox historian recognizes is used in many other Eastern pagan religions, began to be used in Christianity after monasteries from the fourth century onwards started to teach new forms of penance. The monks were trained to do long spells of ascetic penance, including fasting, living on dry food, and chanting many times (sometimes even several hundred times) refrains such as “Lord have mercy”. Others would be compelled to repeat the prayer “Our Father” and falling to their knees in an act of repentance a few hundred times a day. This falling to his knees in the Eastern Greek Orthodox Church is known as “the great prostration” or “great metania” (the great repentance). This name was later assigned to the rosaries, which were supposed to serve as substitutes for hundreds of “great prostrations”, e.g. falling on the knees and reciting prayers. Considering themselves to be lifelong penitents, the monks always carried these prayer beads with them. In today’s Serbia, the rosary has become a cool fashion trend. Many Serbs wear rosary beads like a bracelet, yet they do not live repentant lives at all.
However, it is critical to highlight the fact that members of pagan religions used rosaries in their prayers since ancient times, from which we can deduce that they were introduced to Christianity from polytheism. Anyone who knows the Bible can attest that the Scriptures mention nowhere the use of the rosary as an aid to prayer. None of the Lord’s true followers ever used the rosary in Biblical times. Moreover, since the rosaries function for the repetition of prayers by thumbing through each bead, their use opposes the teachings on prayer given by Christ in the New Testament. Most likely, Christ had in mind the prayers that the pagans practiced with rosaries when He forbade His disciples from using repetitive prayer. The Lord Jesus taught His disciples the following words:
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Consistent with Christ’s teachings, the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 instructs Christians to “pray to God without ceasing.” It certainly does not teach believers to constantly repeat the same prayer over and over again. Rather, it urges believers to always have the spirit of prayer and to be ready to pray for God’s will to be fulfilled at any moment. Therefore, prayers with the rosaries are completely foreign to New Testament Christianity.
The Catholic encyclopedia admits that excavations in the ancient city of Nineveh found two statues representing women with wings, which may be the holy tree, holding in their hands a rosary. Also, Muslims use rosaries with 33, 66 or 99 beads representing the names of Allah. Hindu devotees of the god Krishna (Vishna) repeated the mantras with the rosaries, which have 108 beads. Devotees of the god Shiva used rosaries to invoke all of the 108 names of his god. In the 13th century, Marco Polo was very surprised when he saw the King of Malabar use rosaries with precious stones to count his prayers. In the same way the Catholic saint Francis Xavier and his companions were stunned when they saw that the Buddhists in Japan also widely used prayers with rosaries. Eight centuries before Christ, the Phoenicians used rosaries to honor the goddess Astarte (i.e., the goddess mother known as the Queen of Heaven). In ancient Rome, women wore necklaces with balls that are called “Moni” (reminders) that are used to remind them of prayers.
In any event, therefore, it is clear that Christians in the apostolic age did not know or use the rosary to repeat identical prayers. For this reason, true Christians today should not use them either, especially when the Lord forbade the pagan practice of prayer repetition. However, we have already noticed the fact that the first church did not practice the secret confessions to priests based on the testimony of Scriptures and history. This leads us to the next question: What did Jesus mean when He spoke to the apostles about forgiving sins? Does Eastern Orthodoxy correctly interpret His words?
“If You Forgive Anyone’s Sins, They Will Be Forgiven.”
In the Gospel there are three statements of the Lord Jesus Christ, which are very
similar. The Orthodox defend their views on confession and penance based on these 3 verses:
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
“Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.”
In these verses that specifically pertain to our study, it is important to interpret them in the broader context of the Scriptural passages where they are found. This issue is critical for gaining a proper understanding.
First, then, the Lord Christ told the apostle Peter something that was later communicated as the Word of God to His other disciples. It is interesting, of course, that this passage mentions “the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven” only in the case of Peter. Since we will certainly analyze the popular belief that St. Peter unlocks the door in Heaven for the soul of each deceased person, we will unlock the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures as to the meaning of the “keys” and their significance. Namely, as the Acts of the Apostles reveal, it is the apostle Peter who preached to the Jews on the day of Pentecost (fifty days after the resurrection of Christ) and called them to repent of their sins. Their greatest sin was their consent to the atrocity of the crucifixion of the Son of God. As a result of Peter’s preaching, many Jews repented and received forgiveness and salvation. Thus, they became part of the newly established Church of Christ. Ten years after this event, when the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven were opened to the Jews who had transgressed against God, the apostle Peter was one of the first apostles to whom the Lord revealed that uncircumcised Gentiles also should be allowed entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven. Until this time, the first Christians were all Jews by nationality or proselytes, that is Gentiles who were circumcised and fully accepted the Jewish faith. These first Christians preached the gospel only to other Jews and proselytes in Israel and among the diaspora. They did not consider it proper to preach to the uncircumcised:
“Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.”
When he entered the house of the Roman officer Cornelius (Acts 10) after much strife with God over this mission, Peter finally understood God’s plan to evangelize believing Gentiles to enter Christ’s kingdom. Even before Peter finished his sermon on salvation, the household of Cornelius trusted in Christ as their Savior and the Holy Spirit descended upon them. Since that time, after a short time of persuasion , all the other apostles joined Peter in sharing the faith with Gentiles.
Thus, the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven that the apostle Peter received from Christ functioned to open the entrance of His Church to the Jews and then to all other nations under heaven. Of course, we still need to determine what the rest of the passage of Christ’s speech in Matthew 16:18-19 means.
As mentioned in the first part of this study of the sacraments, it is expected of every Christian who has received the Holy Spirit to have a daily commitment and desire to please God. However, the Bible makes it clear that God’s great people sometimes fall into temptation and commit sin. For this very reason, all such people need sincere repentance before God. However, unfortunately, some Christians go too far in their sinning. Their conscience becomes dulled, and they persist in their sin. They apparently do not realize that they are on a path leading away from the Lord. There are several such examples in the New Testament. The death of the married couple Ananias and Sapphira because they conspired to lie before the apostle Peter and a large number of Christians (Acts 5), “the handing over to Satan” of the immoral man in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:5), and Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus (1 Tim. 1:20, 2 Tim. 2:17-19) are but a few examples of what the apostles and other elders of the first Church encountered. It is in these situations that the apostles and others had to be aware of their responsible ministry, which consists of proper spiritual leadership and maintenance of a healthy spiritual fellowship within the church. At times, this could only be achieved through marking and removing people who refused to repent and wished to spread strife and sin from the community. The apostle Paul recorded an interesting statement regarding a church member who committed sin with their own relatives (by having sex with his stepmother):
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”
In this case, the apostle urges the entire community to condemn this sin and to completely separate for a time from the perverse brother by ending any fellowship with him. The words “to save his spirit on the day of the Lord” tell us that a person will not lose his salvation (which he receives only once), but he will have to suffer the consequences of his sinning. Such people are Christians who have entered into the Kingdom of Heaven, but yet they lack even one good deed for which God would commend and reward them. For such believers, Paul stated the following:
“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
The previous examples show the apostles’ of the first Church had the role of being fellow workers with the Lord, Christ’s helpers and administrators of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 3:9, 4:1-2) who strived to build up the body of Christ in His Church (2 Cor. 13:10). Thus the early apostles received from the Lord the gift of teaching Christians who were on a much lower level of understanding of spiritual truth than themselves (Eph. 4:11-15). The apostles were the authority of the truth of Christ’s teachings and doctrine – how salvation comes through faith – and the issues of practical Christian living.
The Protestant theologian R. T. France explains that Jesus uses the terms “bind” and “loose” in Mt. 16:19 and 18:18 as technical terms similar to the way Jewish Rabbis communicated their teaching in sayings. These terms refer to that which was or was not permissible. (The term “bind” means “to ban” and “loose” means “to permit” the commission of certain actions). According to the author, a similar example can be seen in Acts chapters 10 and 11 and 15:7-11, when the apostle Peter declared that God’s decision for the Gentiles as worthy before God for salvation on an equal par with the Jews. Until that time, they had not known this truth. What is particularly interesting is that experts indicate the original Greek language used in Mt. 16:19 and 18:18 was stated in a rather awkward manner. The verbs are stated in the “future perfect” tense. Thus, a literal translation would render these controversial parts as “shall be bound in the heaven and will have been bound in heaven.” It actually should mean that the apostles and other servants of God in the New Testament period are not given the authority to forgive sins as a holy sacrament according to the teachings of Orthodoxy. Rather, their purpose is to reveal to people what the eternal God permits and forbids in preaching. It also shows the foundation of certain teachings, the church’s moral norms, the way in which worship is actually performed, and how to erect what God intended since eternity past.
This is precisely the case with the text in John 20:22-23 quoted earlier. This text states:
“And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”
By studying the whole context of these verses, we can recognize that Christ on the day of his resurrection, when He spoke these words, found some of his disciples hidden in a sealed room because they feared arrest. They included ten of the Apostles (His betrayer, Judas Iscariot, was already dead since he committed suicide, and even the Apostle Thomas was not present), along with some others who were not counted among them, probably including women such as Mary Magdalene, who had earlier visited the disciples in this secret place. The gospel narrative of Matthew earlier revealed that Jesus did not ascribe the meaning to the words He gave regarding the disciples’ ability to forgive sins that traditional Eastern Orthodoxy interprets. (This clearly demonstrates that early Christians had a completely different practice than today’s Orthodox “penance”.) We still need to understand what exactly Jesus meant when He commanded the disciples in the New Testament examples to “forgive sin” of those who have committed sin.
One direct example of dealing through forgiveness with a sinner, who in this case caused damage to the entire church fellowship, is given in the epistles addressed to the church at Corinth. As mentioned earlier, among the local believers lived one who lived in the sin of sexual immorality. The apostle Paul exhorted the believers to warn and avoid fellowshipping with him so that he might be shamed and come to repentance. A year after he wrote the first epistles, the apostle Paul was able to write that the moral situation regarding this sinner changed significantly for the better. The former sinner grieved for his sin and the rebuke which he received for it and repented from his heart. That is why Paul could write the following:
“If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent—not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. The reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.”
As we see from this example, the apostle did not insist that the sinner make a separate
confession to himself or anyone who alleges that his “authority of the Lord” grants Paul alone the right to forgive sins by performing the sacraments of penance. Paul simply said that he forgave the man who had been forgiven by the entire fellowship, despite the fact that Paul was physically quite far away from Corinth. This apostolic practice fully concurs with Christ’s teaching on mutual forgiveness. Christ the Lord said:
“So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
The evangelists Matthew and Mark wrote the following:
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. [But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your sins.]”
The Apostle Paul affirms Jesus’ teaching by saying that Christians must live a life of mutual forgiveness:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
In other words, the New (and Old) Testament is filled with examples of divine forgiveness, as well as teaching believers to imitate their Heavenly Father who forgives.
And so, no matter how much effort they expend to find the writings of the apostles and the smallest example that anybody has ever even hinted at the need for confession of sin before the priests for their “absolution”, such examples cannot be found in the Scriptures. All these texts along with sources of later church history, of course, confirm the fact that the sacramental practice of penance and confession before priests, as it exists today in Orthodoxy, was introduced only later in history into the church. In the beginning of the church, the Apostles did not know of its existence and did not practice it.
Now that we have established the biblical truth of repentance, let us move on to examining the next sacrament, which is closely related.