WE READ IN Matthew 9:1-8 that, when people brought a paralyzed man to the Lord Jesus, He healed the man’s paralysis, but not before telling him, “Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). The bystanders’ initial thought that Jesus had blasphemed was replaced by wonder. As Matthew described it, “they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men” (Matthew 9:8).
The Lord Jesus, of course, was more than just a man. His full humanity was joined without confusion to the divine nature of the Word of God. He forgave sin, then, as the only-begotten Son of the Father. But the onlookers’ amazement would be justified in time: God would give men the power to forgive sin, in the Church.
When the glorified Christ appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, He told 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 20:22, 23). The Church was to extend the presence of Christ in the world both physically and spiritually by imparting the forgiveness of sins to those who came to it in faith.
The first place where the Church bestows forgiveness of sins is in the mystery of baptism. When we are buried with Christ in baptism we rise to a newness of life marked by deliverance from the power of sin. Infants brought for baptism, of course, have no sins of which they may be guilty; adults who receive baptism with repentance are freed from their past sins. As the priest announces at the eighth day removal of the baptismal garments, “you have been baptized, enlightened, chrismated, sanctified and cleansed in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!”
The “Second Baptism”
The early Church recognized that believers might fall into serious sin, particularly when threatened with imprisonment and death during the Roman persecution of Christians. It began using its ability to forgive sin in a new way. Those guilty of serious sin would be reconciled to the Church after confessing their sin and undergoing a period of repentance – what came to be called the Mystery of repentance.
Today we express repentance and experience the forgiveness of sins through the Church in a number of ways:
- Daily prayer of repentance –
- For a member of Christ’s Body, the Church, prayer is the most basic way to experience God’s forgiveness. As St John of Kronstadt said, “Often during the day I have been a great sinner, and at night, after prayer, I have gone to rest justified and whiter than snow by the grace of the Holy Spirit, with the deepest peace and joy in my heart” (My Life in Christ, Part 1).
- Regular Self-Reflection –
- Periodic, even daily self-examination helps us to see the direction of our lives. Our entire existence should be lived in the light of the Holy Spirit. We examine our actions, thoughts and feelings, affirming our true selves in Christ who has taught us to live for God’s glory and discerning where we have let sin draw us away from our true goal.
- A Relationship with a Confessor/Spiritual Father –
- Each person is in a different place in his or her journey. We may on occasion find thoughts in the Scriptures or the Fathers that touch our hearts, but finding someone who knows you and knows the ways of Holy Tradition is like taking a giant step in the Christian life. The fullest dimension of spiritual guidance involves sharing our thoughts and yearnings, not just our sins with this spiritual guide.
- Receiving the Eucharist –
- Several times during the Divine Liturgy we are reminded that the Eucharist is given to us “for the remission of sins.” To receive this gift we must approach “discerning the Body,” as St Paul says: sensing the depth of this Mystery and our unworthiness to take part in it. And so before receiving we say the prayer “I believe, Lord, and profess” specifically asking for the pardon of our offences – the deliberate and the indeliberate, whether committed knowingly or inadvertently – so that we may receive the remission of sins and eternal life in this Mystery.
- Observing the Church’s Fasts –
- The Fasts are another liturgical expression of repentance. Rearranging our lives in obedience to the Church’s weekly and seasonal fasts is a most practical way of affirming our commitment to life in Christ, a daily reminder that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
- The Mystery of Confession –
- As we have seen, Confession was at first considered a “second baptism,” a starting over in the Christian life, when a person had committed serious sin. Over the centuries it became more widely used and is considered appropriate today whenever a person feels the need for it, particularly:
- When a serious sin has been committed;
- When a habitual sin has overwhelmed the Christian;
- When a Christian has stopped growing spiritually and needs a reorientation of priorities.
Confession, with prayer and fasting, is also a customary preparation for important spiritual experiences such as receiving the Eucharist or other Mysteries and observing the Great Feasts of the Church year as a part of the Christian’s ongoing repentance. Thus we read in the Didache (late first or early second century), “On the Lord’s Day come together and break bread … having confessed your transgressions that your sacrifice may be pure.”
No “Cheap Forgiveness”
Some people think that for us to obtain forgiveness we simply need to say a prescribed prayer or undergo a stipulated rite without any real connection to one’s heart. Obtaining God’s forgiveness is not the religious equivalent of paying a traffic ticket. Our sin is forgiven only when two conditions are met.
The first condition is that we extend to those who may have hurt us the same forgiveness we seek to receive from God. We recall this each time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us…as we forgive.” If this is not clear enough we also have the Lord’s caution, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14, 15).
The second condition is that we do something about our sin. This may mean that we make some kind of restitution: return stolen property, or try to rebuild another’s reputation which we have harmed, or the like. It may mean that we take steps to avoid repeating the same kind of offence in the future, particularly if our sin is habitual like indulging in gossip or unseemly talk. As the nineteenth century Greek saint, Cosmas the Aetolian, once remarked: “Even if every spiritual father, patriarch, and hierarch, with all the people forgive you, you are unforgiven if you don’t repent in action.”
To repent in action does not simply mean resolving not to sin again. Like New Year’s resolutions, such declarations rarely are kept for long. We simply do not have the power to keep ourselves from sin. Repenting in action means, first of all, turning to God in prayer to be delivered from our sin. We are counseled to repeat continually the prayer of the tax collector, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Only God, who forgives us when we sin, can prevent us from falling into sin… and that only when we continually desire Him to do so. The sincerity of our prayer to be delivered from sin is shown by how often we are moved to utter it.