Eastern Orthodox/Confession and Salvation
QUESTION: Dear Herman,
I am very new to Orthodoxy and trying to learn more about it. Coming from a Western tradition, I am having trouble understanding the role of confession in salvation for Orthodox Christians. I understand that Orthodox Christians believe confession is a sacrament, but is confession necessary for salvation the way that it is taught in the Catholic Church? If not, what then is the role of confession in the life of a Christian?
Additionally, was confession ALWAYS practiced in the church? I read somewhere that it developed in the 3rd or 4th century as a way to forgive sins after one was baptized. Thank you very much for your time and expertise!
ANSWER: John 20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
James 5:16 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.
These are the words of our Lord Himself and His brother the holy Apostle. This is well before the 3rd century.
In the early days of the Church, people would confess to the entire congregation. in the 4th century, once the Church came out of "hiding" when the persecution ended, the Church made confession a more private affair, between the one confessing and the priest, who exercises the authority granted to the bishops from the Apostles who received it from Christ Himself to pronounce forgiveness of sin.
Confession, along with all the sacraments, are visible signs of the Holy Spirit working in the life of the Church. This is spiritual therapy and medicine received through the spiritual hospital which is the Church to heal us of the sickness that is sin. When you go to a doctor, you have to tell him what is wrong with you, or at least describe your symptoms so that he can prescribe the appropriate treatment. So too with confession. You describe the spiritual symptoms so that the priest can prescribe the best treatment to help you overcome this sin, to help you repent sincerely and effect "metanoia" or change your way of life so that you don't sin.
In Greek, the word for sin is "amartia" which means "to miss the target". Confession and counseling from the priest help us to "hit the target" which is to "be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect". (Matthew 5:48). I don't know about you, but I need all the help I can get!
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thank you so much for your response to my question.
A follow-up question I have is related to salvation. How does confession relate to salvation? In the Catholic faith, as I am sure you know, you MUST confess mortal sins to be saved. I know there are no classes of sins in Orthodoxy, but is confession required for salvation? The reason I ask is because in your response, you speak of confession as something that is good for a Christian, that helps a Christian deal with sin, etc. You never mention how this deals with salvation though or if it is required at all. Thanks again!
Well, if we continue with the idea that sin is not a crime to be punished, it is a sickness to be healed, then "salvation" means being "healed".
Is going to the doctor REQUIRED to be healed? Sometimes people get better without a doctor, but isn't it better to seek the guidance and treatment of a reputable doctor? Doesn't that generally make it more likely that you will be healed? But is it "required"?
Orthodoxy is less about what is "required" and more about what is beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things edify, all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful, says the Holy Apostle Paul. We do those things that the Church has found to be helpful, efficacious, beneficial. What is "required"? That we forgive others as we would have God forgive us, that we love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves. Everything else we do, not because it is "required" but because we love God and trust in His Word that these things will help us.
It is not about laws, it is all about love.