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Question 87.

To be forgiven must one go to confession or can one pray to God privately? I read a book years ago I think by Francopolous entitled our orthodox faith which insisted we must go to confession to be forgiven. Another priest said we only need to confess our serious sins at confession. The Lord's prayer asks our Heavenly Father to forgive us our trespassers. Therefore,what is our Church's position concerning confession and forgiveness?

 

Answer to Question 87.

 

Christ instituted the Sacrament of Confession by breathing on his apostles and saying: “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) Here we have Christ giving the authority and power to his disciples to forgive or not to forgive sins. This authority was then passed on to the bishops who are the ultimate spiritual fathers of a Church. Bishops then pass on this authority to certain Priests whom they deem are spiritually experienced to guide and advice the flock in spiritual matters.

Now for Christ to institute this Sacrament means that there is a need for people to confess their sins, but also that they must confess them before a priest. The bishops and priests are the only canonical and lawful successors of the Apostles and only they have the power to grant forgiveness and remission.  St John Chrysostom writing on the glory of the Priesthood says: “…how great is the honour which the grace of the Spirit has bestowed on priests… for having their life in this world, they have been entrusted with the stewardship of heavenly things, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For he did not say to the angels “What things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose, shall be loosed.” Those who are lords on earth have indeed the power to bind, but only men’s bodies, but the authority to bind that we speak of touches the very soul and transcends the heavens. What priests do on earth, God ratifies above. The Master confirms the decisions of his slaves. Indeed he has given them nothing less than the whole authority of heaven. For he says, “Whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven, and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” What authority could be greater than that? “The Father hath given all judgement unto the Son.” But I see that the Son has placed it all in the hands of the priests. If a man “cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven except he be born again of water and the spirit,” and if he that eateth not the Lord’s flesh and drinketh not his blood is cast out of everlasting life, and all these things can happen through no other agency except through the sacred hands of the priests’ how can anyone, without their help, escape the fire of Gehenna or win his appointed crown? They are the ones - they and no others - who are in charge of spiritual travail and responsible for the birth that comes through baptism. Through them we put on Christ and are united with the Son of God and become limbs obedient to that blessed Head. So they should properly be not only more feared than rulers and kings, but more honoured even than fathers. For our fathers begot us “of blood and the will of the flesh”; but they are responsible for our birth from God, that blessed second birth, our true emancipation, the adoption according to grace. The priests of the Jews had authority to cure leprosy of the body, or rather, not to cure it, but only to certify the cure… But our priests have received authority not over leprosy of the body but over uncleanness of the soul, and not just to certify its cure, but actually to cure it”.

Thus we should not be as the Protestants who, like many other things, have abolished this God instituted Sacrament and because they never confess their sins they are completely ignorant of its significance. When they read the Bible, they pass over and pay no attention to the words of our Lord with which he established the Sacrament and gave to his disciples the authority to forgive sins. They grant remission to themselves and their mentality, being more easily acceptable in our modern world, has infected many Orthodox who have also abolished this Sacrament of confession for themselves and argue that they confess before the Icon of Christ or the Virgin, or that they tell their sins directly to God in their prayers.  But Christ didn’t tell us to confess before his Icon neither did he tell us that by confessing directly to him in our prayers we would receive forgiveness of our sins. Neither the Icon nor our personal prayers can give us absolution. Christ entrusted this authority to the clergy and shepherds of his Church. Only the Priest can pronounce the prayer of absolution.