At Baptism and Chrismation we become members of the Church, are sealed with the Holy Spirit and receive Grace for our spiritual development and perfection. Immediately following this we find we are still faced with the temptations of sin. So, we need to be concerned about how we maintain our purity of our Baptismal state.
How do we ever fulfill the command given to us by Christ to “be perfect, as our father in Heaven is perfect” (Mat 5:48)? It is only through the Mysteries of Repentance,and Confession and Holy Communion and our good works of love based on faith that we can preserve this purity. Our salvation comes as a gift when our will cooperates with the Grace of the Holy Spirit.
We are all descendants of Adam and Eve who fell from God’s grace and we must struggle to be freed from sin and the passions of this earthly existence which are rooted in our physical make-up. Christ came to give us the Grace necessary for our salvation and the path to follow. He cast the seed and we must cultivate it. Sin is easy and common. When we are not in communion and union with God awe fall and become slaves of our passions. But God is compassionate, so we don’t have to despair about our weak condition. He will forgive us if we are repentant. God's Word promises "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). The faithful are to bring their sins to God in repentance, and through appropriate preparation receive cleansing and forgiveness.
Repentance leads us to salvation provided it is coupled with Confession. Confession is what reconciles us with the Father who loves us unconditionally. He does not want us to die as a sinner, but wishes us to return to union with Him and attain eternal life in His kingdom. We see this clearly in the parable of the Prodigal Son who said, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” (Luke 15:21) With this the father opened his arms and embraced him. The Holy Fathers have taught us that Confession is the renewal of our Baptism. The Lord knows our weaknesses and does not punish us for them if only we are willing to repent and work to change our ways.
Yet, no matter how great our repentance is, if it is not completed by the Mystery of Confession it does not give rise to salvation or reconcile us with God. It is only through Confession preceded by the sincere repentance that our sins can be cleansed and our soul be healed. Repentance alone is not sufficient.
It is no different than when we have a bodily ailment and are suffering. It is not sufficient for us to know what we are suffering from. This will not cure us. We must seek out a physician of the body to help us get well. It is the same with our sins. It is not sufficient to know them and feel sorry about them. This is only the beginning of our healing. We must seek out a spiritual doctor, a Priest who is a Confessor, so he can grant us remission and offer the appropriate remedies for our spiritual sickness. If we do not, we will not be cured and our soul in its sickness will be eternally separated from God.
Many say, “I confess my sins privately in front of my icons at home. I pray and make the sign of my cross and ask for His forgiveness. I know He is compassionate and will forgive me. I do not want to tell them to a Priest because I feel embarrassed and I am fearful that he will reveal my sinfulness to others.
This a serious error. Even the early Christians would stand and confess their sins to God in the presence of the whole congregation. Jesus encouraged His followers to walk in the light together, to confront problems corporately, to "tell it to the church" (Mat 18:17). Thus James writes, "Confess your trespasses to one another" (James 5:16). But as time went on and the Church grew in numbers, strangers came to visit and public confession became more difficult. Out of mercy, priests began to witness confessions of sin privately on behalf of the Church.
It was Christ Himself who gave His disciples the authority to forgive sin and said, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23; cf. Matt 16:19, 18:17-19). He did not give this authority to icons or to anyone other than His disciples. They in turn passed this authority on to their successors, the Hierarchs and Priests. Not even the Theotokos was given this authority. It is only the Priests who were permitted to manage heavenly affairs. There is no doubt that God accepts the repentance of a sinner, but He forgives it only through the medium of the spiritual Father and the Mystery of Confession. In confession the slate wiped clean like at the time of Baptism. This sacrament like the others is a gift from God. It is for our spiritual benefit and to help us attain theosis and salvation.
From the beginning, Christians understood that Ordination endowed the discernment and compassion to speak the words of remission, on behalf of Christ, regarding the sins of those who confess and turn from sin. For God has promised the removing of sin from us "as far as the east is from the west" (Ps 103:12). St John Chrysostom says, "The priests decree below, God confirms above, and the Master agrees with the opinion of His slaves".
"You did not choose Me", Jesus told the Twelve, "but I chose you and appointed you." (John 15:16). To these same disciples Jesus promised, "It is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit" (Mark 13:11). Whom God calls, He equips. Paul writes to Timothy, "Stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Tim 1:6). It is the grace of the Holy Spirit which enables the priest to serve God and the people. Priests are only the visible instrument of God's mercy at the performance of the Mystery, which is performed invisibly through them by God Himself. It is God (the Holy Triune) who forgives our sins.
The Priest is a spiritual physician. He will help you and give you advice about how to fight your passions. He will console you and offer solutions to the many problems you face. He will embrace you and he can commiserate with you. He is not a impartial fearful judge. He is a father, a physician of the soul as well as a brother and fellow sinner who experiences the same problems as you do. He is always praying for you. Pray for him.
There are those who will insist and say that the Priest is a sinner and is therefore unworthy to hear my confession. It is another truth of the Church that the condition of the Priest does not condition the work of the Holy spirit is effecting the Mysteries of the Church. If this were true there would be no Church as we are all sinners including the Priests. In the performance of the Holy Mysteries the Priest does nothing on his own. He is only a tool of God designated through the Apostolic succession. We should not scrutinize the sins of the Priest. We do not do this when dealing with other people. When a check comes in the mail delivered by a sinful mailman we do not hesitate to go and cash it. When we are sick we do not judge the moral condition of the doctor but look for his expertise and knowledge to help us. When you receive your salary from your employer you do not question their moral worthiness. If you need to cross a river and the only bridge to use is an old one you are compelled to use it to cross. You don’t reason about why it is not in better shape. The same with the pipes that deliver us water. The pipes may be rusty yet we drink the water when we are thirsty. Our confessor may be like the bridge or the rusty pipe.. He is assuredly a sinner like us and we should pray for him and have compassion. But his condition has no impact on the validity of any of the Sacraments.
Others think that their sins will be forgiven if they simply give alms and do other good deeds without engaging in Confession with a priest. It is only our pride that does not allow us to humble ourselves and reveal our spiritual weakness to a Priest. What does a person do who is carrying a heavy load when he is tired from this physical effort? He sets it down and seeks a cart or some means to carry the load for him. Likewise, when your sins provide a heavy burden, it is prudent to go to the Priest and with his help to set aside the entire burden of your sins.
With Confession you can feel an incredible sense of relief, joy and satisfaction. You spiritual life will blossom. This is a path to holiness for many of our saints. Saint Cyprian was a renowned sorcerer and after repenting and confession became a Martyr for Christ. Saint Moses the Ethiopian was a former robber. Other examples are saint Mary of Egypt, Eudocia, and there are many more. These saints sinned greatly but in repentance they laid down the burden of their sins with Confession. This is what God wants us to do so we can be united with Him and allow Him to make us gods by Grace.
It is essential to remember that the remission of sins in the Sacrament is an act of mercy. It is given for our spiritual profit, "for edification, and not for destruction" (2 Cor 10:8).
Thus we come before the holy icon of Christ, to whom we confess, and are guided by the priest, our spiritual father, not a judge waiting to had out punishment but a healer and helper, helps us through a cleansing inventory of our lives. When we tell God all, naming our sins and failures, we hear those glorious words of freedom which announces Christ's promise of forgiveness of all our sins. We resolve to "go and sin no more" (John 8:11).
The Greek term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook, of man's vision of the world and of himself, and a new way of loving others and God... It is clear that what is at stake here are not particular acts of contrition, but an attitude, a state of mind. "For this life," states John Chrysostom, "is in truth wholly devoted to repentance, penthos and wailing. This is why it is necessary to repent, not merely for one or two days, but throughout one's whole life…."