Friday, September 17, 2010

The Sacrament of Repentance in Orthodox Theology, part 1 (by Clint)

In his Confessions, St. Augustine spoke to God, saying, “Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it repose in Thee." These words teach that man’s greatest desire and need is to be united with God. Yet every person suffers from the same problem that keeps him from that union with God – sin. Both the scriptures and the Church Fathers teach that God created mankind in a sinless state – but man still possessed a free will. By choosing to look to himself as the center of reality (thereby claiming to be god), man disrupted the unity that had existed between God and man. Yet though the union between God and man was broken, man still seeks to be restored to that previous relationship. While this restoration is accomplished through the life and incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, man must participate in his redemption. He is not a passive receptacle of God’s grace, but rather must work together with God (Philippians 2:12). This work is called Repentance and is accomplished in the Sacrament of Confession.

When a person is baptized, he receives forgiveness for all sins committed prior to that baptism. But even after being received into the Community of Faith, Christians continue to struggle with evil desires and commit sins, regardless of whether baptized as infants or adults. Since there is no “re-baptism” recognized by Orthodoxy, God provided the sacrament of Repentance in order that Christians who sin may continue to be in union with Him. Through Repentance, Christians are reconciled to the Church, and thereby to God. St. Athanasius claimed that “sufficient repentance will absolve every sin". The wage of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but by being rejoined with God in Christ, man is made a victor over death (Romans 8:37).

It is through Repentance that grace is transmitted for the healing of both soul and body. Most theological discussion about Repentance indicates that it is only if one truly repents that sins are remitted. The person that does truly repent is the one who seeks after God’s Kingdom (St. Matthew 6:33) and learns to care about heavenly things, rather than earthly ones. It is imperative that man realizes that he is not saved or reconciled through Christ because of his virtues, but because of his willful decision to repent and cease from sin. By recognizing and acknowledging sinful behaviors and thoughts, the Christian demonstrates that he understands how far he has fallen short of the life to which he was called. There can be no attempted justification of sinful actions, but a declaration that sin was committed. Without this repentance, there can be no true life, no salvation or acceptance into the Kingdom of God.

Repentance is commonly understood to be a godly sorrow about sin. It may even be considered to be grief or guilt about past actions or thoughts. As true as these things may be, they are woefully incomplete as a definition of Repentance. In fact, at the heart of Repentance is not sorrow or guilt, though they may certainly be present. Rather, the heart of Repentance is a transformed outlook and redirection. Rather than looking to one’s self as the ultimate reality, a penitent Christian changes focus and redirects attention on Heavenly things. True Repentance is not to simply express sorrow over evil actions committed in the past, but to look forward to the potential reality of what one may become through the grace of Christ. The reality of Repentance is summed up in St. John 1:5: “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The prophet Isaiah demonstrated this in his reaction to drawing near to God: “Woe is me…I am a man of unclean lips and…my eyes have seen the… Lord of Hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). Yet his Repentance was accepted, he was cleansed from his sin and worked together with God, serving the Lord wholeheartedly.

to be continued....


oswulf said...

Wow, Clint. You have written a lot of good stuff out here in cyberspace that I did not know about. Thanks for this series!

Clint said...

Well, I hope you were able to read all three installments. I think it would be lacking to only get one portion, without the others.

I actually wrote this for my St. Stephen's course of study.

I appreciate the kind words.