Confession and the Fullness of Repentance

As I’ve been reading through St. Ephraim’s Spiritual Psalter I’ve found myself a bit uncomfortable and uneasy at times. I recognize this as a gut reaction based on how I still process salvation and forgiveness as a past event rather than everyday process of being saved. Ephraim has many Psalms that are down-in-the-dirt, nose-in-the-mud degrading from the first-person perspective. But they are about admitting he’s the greatest sinner of all and pleading for mercy from God. Psalm after psalm follows this pattern of admitting all of his flaws in a hyperbolic fashion and then begging for salvation. It’s very humbling but still a bit conflicting to me.

All of this made me uncomfortable because I failed to see the whole picture here. Grace is given freely from God and He does not withhold mercy from those who seek it. But the Church IS the body of Christ, first and foremost. In the Church, salvation isn’t restricted. In fact, it comes through more avenues than I could possibly count. It’s in the sacraments. It’s in baptism. It’s in the Eucharist. But most of all…it’s in our personal repentance. However, our personal repentance is never personal.

Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:16, NKJV)

When I read St. Ephraim, I need to remind myself of one thing – St. Ephraim had a spiritual father most assuredly. St. Ephraim would at least have confessed his sins to someone whether an elder or priest. St. Ephraim pleaded and begged for forgiveness, but there are also Psalms of gratefulness at the abundant grace of God. Between psalm A and psalm B, Ephraim wasn’t anxiously twiddling his thumbs, waiting for God to speak. His psalms showed he was confessing to God first and then we can assume he was most likely going to his spiritual father, confessing his sins and receiving absolution. He most assuredly received peace that this forgiveness was a done deal…multiple times, but above all he received healing. It’s a lot like going to a Doctor and having the doctor stitch you up and bandage you so full healing can begin.

This brings me great peace for a couple reasons: 1) It shows that even in our darkest times, confessing our sins is necessary to receive a peace that surpasses all understanding and to drill God’s love into our hearts and minds. Maybe some people can gain that without confessing their sins, but I know that I cannot. God gives us spiritual liberation through confession. The confession is the plateau of repentance. Hallelujah, that we have such a grand ending to our striving for holiness! 2) The church is an organism and Christ works through his people. We shouldn’t disdain the power of a priest’s apostolic ability to absolve our sins, but we should celebrate that God uses His people….His Body…to bring a physical, direct peace to us.

Confession is another expression of the Incarnation because it’s the physical, fleshy side of repentance. Yes, the work happens in our heart but it is manifested in the physical realm. Mirroring Christ’s love for us by becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Christ Himself, in His person, spoke the words “I forgive you” and it made the Pharisees shake with fury. A physical manifestation of a spiritual reality -that’s what confession does for us.

Praise God for His magnificent grace! Amen.

Relevant texts:

Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life…. On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure. (Didache 4:14, 14:1, [AD 70])

[The Gnostic disciples of Marcus] have deluded many women… . Their consciences have been branded as with a hot iron. Some of these women make a public confession, but others are ashamed to do this, and in silence, as if withdrawing from themselves the hope of the life of God, they either apostatize entirely or hesitate between the two courses. (St. Ireneus, Against Heresies 1:22 [A.D. 189])

[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness. (Tertullian, Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203])

[The bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… . Pour forth now that power which comes from you, from your royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles … and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command. (Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 3 [A.D. 215])

[A final method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner … does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, ‘I said, “To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity”’. (Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248])

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