This idea is often tethered to the concept of salvation as a one-time event in which a person repents of his or her sin, “accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior,” and is henceforth “saved.”
This notion runs in stark contrast to most sacramental, or high church, traditions, east and west alike, where repentance is treated as a lifelong practice.
For Orthodox Christians it could be said that repentance is imbedded in the fiber of their daily life with God. There is not a Church service, a sacrament, or even a prayer that does not involve repentance on some level.
At the heart of the Orthodox emphasis on repentance is the knowledge of the innumerable ways in which a person can separate himself or herself from the life of God. Following the creation account in Genesis, when man was created in the image and likeness of God, the Orthodox view each person as having retained the image of God and having lost the likeness of God after the fall. The image of God is reflected in the attributes which distinguish mankind from the animal kingdom: reason, free will, moral and ethical responsibility, etc. However, the likeness of God relates to God’s “life”. This likeness was lost through Adam’s sin resulting in slavery to corruption and death. For the Orthodox, repentance is the key to both growing in and retaining the life of God.
Knowing the power of repentance to safeguard oneself from aberrant thoughts and actions that work to obscure union with God, repentance is for the Orthodox Christian the praxis of faith. With salvation understood in terms of deification (in short, as a “journey” in union with God rather than a one-time static event) repentance is at the forefront of all holy disciplines. God calls His children to be, as Paul termed it, “fellow workers” (synergoi) in His great work of salvation. This co-operation, or “synergism,” with God has repentance as its vital component. Thus, repentance does not carry the stigmatism of dwelling in nagging despair over one’s eternal resting place—the feeling that at any moment one can “lose his salvation”—but is rather the power to maintain the gift of God’s grace; as St. Cyril of Jerusalem (cir. 380 AD) said, “It is for God to grant His grace, your task is to accept that grace and to guard it.”
As mentioned above, the Orthodox believer has constant encounters with repentance as a centerpiece of the faith. Orthodox liturgies are filled with worship couched in an attitude of repentance. Every service opens with three prayers, each of which includes a petition of repentance for transgressions, followed by numerous prayers for mercy. Each of the seven sacraments practiced by the Orthodox Church involves repentance for the purpose of readying the participant’s heart to receive from God. Then, if one follows the Orthodox daily prayers, he or she will find an abundance of penitent supplications mirroring the Psalms.
Confession as Healing
Taking a closer look at the sacrament of confession reveals much of the Orthodox understanding of repentance as a whole. To begin with, the sacrament is found in some of the earliest records of the Church. Following the Apostolic tradition, the early Church perceived confession to be a direct link in the healing of both soul and body (James 5:16 and 1 John 1:9). So strong is the belief in the healing quality of confession, that the rite often precedes the other sacraments as well. For example, prior to baptism and chrismation the believers engages in their first sacrament of confession; the idea is that repentance makes the heart ready to receive the cleansing waters of baptism. Many Orthodox saints throughout history spoke of the “baptism of tears,” which some regard as baptism in its truest form—the grace of tears produced from an attitude of solemn repentance made holy by God for the cleaning of sin. Prior to partaking of the Eucharist the Orthodox believer will participate in confession, and if not in formal confession he or she will pray together with the congregation repentant-rich communion prayers as part of the Divine Liturgy just before approaching the Eucharist.
Confession: Communal or Private Affair?
Early on, the sacrament of confession was a public affair; a penitent would literally confess his or her sins before the entire congregation. It didn’t take long for this practice to prove itself indecent as it tended to scandalize many in the Church. Eventually the Church saw fit to have private confession between the priest and the penitent.
As an added bonus to the “safer” setting created by this change, it also gave the penitent an opportunity to have what today we might call individual counseling. After the penitent confessed his or her sins the priest would pray and then have an opportunity to provide one-on-one spiritual guidance. And, if the situation warranted, this guidance would include prescribing acts of penance. Penance served as a means of discipline for the mind and body; a way for the individual to engage in combat against his or her evil passions, and, if the sin was of such a nature that it resulted in broken fellowship with the Church community, it served a way of return to the Eucharistic communion. It should be noted that in most cases today penance is omitted, as it typically does not serve an essential function of the sacrament.
The unique understanding of repentance in the Orthodox tradition is also highlighted by the emphasis on the priest’s role in the sacrament. A serious contrast between the Orthodox east and the Latin west is illustrated in the manner in which the confession takes place. In the Orthodox Church the penitent and the priest meet standing together in front of an icon of Christ, rather than in a private booth, sitting on opposite ends of a veil where the priest and penitent’s identity is hidden. The Orthodox arrangement lets the penitent know in no uncertain terms that he or she is not alone in his or her struggle and that the confession is made to Christ and Him alone. The priest stands beside the penitent as a “witness” of the confession. This role of the priest as witness is further clarified in the very prayer prayed by the priest, and as found in the Greek books containing the formula of absolution. The formula is worth quoting here in full:
Whatever you have said to my humble person, and whatever you have failed to say, whether through ignorance or forgetfulness, whatever it may be, may God forgive you in this world and the next… Have no further anxiety; go in peace.
The Latin traditions typically reserve more emphasis on the priest’s role in the actual forgiveness and absolution of sins. This difference is reflected in the formula of absolution as found in the Slavonic Orthodox tradition, which is also worthy of full quotation:
May Our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, through the grace and bounties of His love towards mankind, forgive you, my child, all your transgressions. And I, an unworthy priest, through the power given me by Him, forgive and absolve you from all your sins.
As noted by Timothy Ware, this Latin influence of using the word “I” was introduced into the Orthodox formula by Peter of Moghila in the Ukraine in the eighteenth century, and was thereafter adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church. Its inclusion in the rite is highly contested by many Orthodox.
But regardless of the controversy, both formulas present the priest as a “humble person,” as an “unworthy priest,” one who is powerless in his own effort to forgive sins. The priest accompanies the penitent into the presence of Christ as a spiritual guide. There is a true mark of the intimate communion between the penitent, the priest, and God. As in all the sacraments of the Church, this sacrament is performed as an ecclesial event; the priest is present as a representative of the Church as a whole. Thus, as private and autonomous as repentance is on the surface, the sacrament of confession reveals that repentance is actually a matter of communal significance with the entire Body of Christ. It is the mystical reality of the fact that when one member suffers, all suffer with him; and when one member is healed, all are healed with him.