Written by Vladimir Moss


The power to bind and to loose is one of the main charismata of the Christian priesthood. And yet its real meaning is not immediately obvious. For the question arises: can it really be true that the power to bind and to loose is given unconditionally to every priest who has been allowed to perform the sacrament of confession, in spite of the fact that every priest, like every man, is fallible and can make mistakes? Suppose a priest refuses to absolve a genuine penitent: is God obliged to keep the man bound, that is unabsolved from his sin, simply because a priest refuses to absolve him? Or, on the other hand, suppose that a priest looses a man from his sins in spite of the fact that he has not repented of them genuinely: is God, too, obliged to loose him?

Let us begin with a textbook of dogmatic theology: “The Mystery of Repentance is a Grace-giving sacred rite in which, after the faithful offer repentance of their sins, the remission of sins is bestowed by the mercy of God through the intermediary of a pastor of the Church, in accordance with the Saviour’s promise…

“Priests are only the visible instruments at the performance of the Mystery, which is performed invisibly through them by God Himself.

“St. John Chrysostom, having in mind the Divine institution of the authority of the pastors of the Church to loose and bind, says: ‘The priests decree below, God confirms above, and the Master agrees with the opinion of His slaves’. The priest is here the instrument of God’s mercy and remits sins not on his own authority, but in the name of the Holy Trinity.”[1]

This makes clear that the power of the sacrament belongs to God, not the priest. As the priest says in the Greek rite: “My spiritual child, who hast confessed to my humble person, I, humble and a sinner, have not power on earth to forgive sins, but God alone; but through that divinely spoken word which came to the Apostles after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying, Whosesoever sins ye are remitted, they are remitted, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained, we are emboldened to say: Whatsoever thou hast said to my humble person, and whatsoever thou hast failed to say, whether through ignorance or forgetfulness, whatever it may be, may God forgive thee in this world, and in that which is to come… “May God Who pardoned David… forgive thee all things, through me a sinner, both in this world and in the world to come, and set thee uncondemned before His Terrible Judgement Seat.”[2]

At first it would seem that the Russian rite contradicts the Greek in giving power to the priest himself, independently of God: “May our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, through the grace and bounties of His love for mankind, forgive thee, my child N., all thy transgressions. And I, an unworthy priest, through the power given unto me by Him, do forgive and absolve thee from all thy sins.”[3] However, there is reason for believing that the use of the personal pronoun “I” here was introduced into the Slavonic rite of absolution in the Ukraine in the seventeenth century under Catholic influence, and therefore does not express the Apostolic tradition. Earlier, however, the Russian rite attributes to the priest a much more modest role: “Behold, my child, Christ standeth here invisibly and receiveth thy confession… I am but a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all the things which thou hast said to me.”[4]

That God alone forgives sins is also testified in the Lives of the Saints. Thus in the Life of St. Peter, Archbishop of Alexandria we read that the priests Achilles and Alexander, together with many believing and noble citizens, went to St. Peter when he was in prison for the faith and asked him to receive the heretic, Arius, whom he had excommunicated, back into the Church. Peter replied: “Beloved, you do not know for whom it is that you make this request. You ask forgiveness for a man who rends and shall tear asunder the Church of Christ. You know that I love all my sheep and do not wish that even one of them should perish. Before all else I pray God’s compassion to grant salvation to all and to forgive the sins of every man. But Arius I refuse to accept, for he has been cast out of the Holy Church by God Himself and excommunicated not so much in accordance with my judgement as with God’s…”[5]

Again, in the Life of St. Gregory, Bishop of Agrigentum (+6th century) we read: “Then Eudocia threw herself at the feet of Saint Gregory, crying, “Have mercy on me, O servant of God, and forgive me, the wretch, who have sinned against you!...” “It is not given us to forgive sins,” said Gregory, “but the most merciful God. However, we are obliged to pray for the remission of men’s sins, so I will beseech His compassion to forgive your offenses.”[6]

So the role of the priest is to pray and to witness; but it is God Who works and Who forgives the sin. Thus St. John Chrysostom points out that the power of the sacrament works even through unworthy priests precisely because the power does not come from men, but from God, while the priest merely “lends his tongue and offers his hand”: “For the sake of you, the right-minded, will He, though the priests be exceedingly vile, work all the things that are His, and will send the Holy Spirit… For the things which are placed in the hands of the priests it is with God alone to give; and however far human wisdom may reach, it will appear inferior to that grace… But why speak I of priests? Neither Angel nor Archangel can do anything with regard to what is given from God; but the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit dispense all, while the priest lends his tongue and offers his hand. For neither would it be just that through the wickedness of another, those who come in faith to the symbols of their salvation should be harmed.”[7]

Again, Blessed Theophylact of Bulgaria writes: “The power to forgive sins is a divine power; hence, we must show honor to the priests as to God. Even if they are unworthy, they are still ministers of divine gifts, and grace flows through them just as it flowed through Balaam’s ass, enabling it to speak. Human frailty does not hinder the working of grace. Therefore, since grace is bestowed through the priests, let us honor them.”[8]

So for the sake of God’s justice and mercy, the sincere believer will not be deprived of the gifts of the Holy Spirit – including the remission of sins – that are given through the priesthood, even if the priest is evil, because the power is from God. But the reverse is also true: if the penitent does not in fact repent, then he remains bound, whatever the priest says. As St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow, writes: “He who does not think at all about correcting himself confesses in vain, labors in vain, for even if the priest says, ‘I forgive and absolve,’ the Holy Spirit does not forgive and absolve him!”[9]

So the power to bind and to loose is conditional - conditional on the priest having true knowledge of God’s will in relation to the penitent, whether he has been forgiven by God or not forgiven, and conditional on the penitent truly repenting. It is not the priest who forgives or refuses to forgive, but God: his task is to discern whether God has forgiven or not, and to act accordingly.

This leads us to the provisional conclusion that the priest’s power to bind and to loose is not in fact a power in the conventional sense. It is not a power to forgive sins in the active sense, but a power to discern whether sins have already been forgiven. Thus according to the English Orthodox Father, the Venerable Bede (+735), the power to bind and to loose consists precisely in the power of discerning who is worthy to enter the Kingdom: “The keys of the Kingdom designate the actual knowledge and power of discerning who are worthy to be received into the Kingdom, and who should be excluded from it as unworthy.”[10]

Again, St. John of Karpathos interprets the keys given to Peter in terms of spiritual knowledge: “Peter was first given the keys, but then he was allowed to fall into sin by denying Christ, and so his pride was humbled by his fall. Do not be surprised, then, if after receiving the keys of spiritual knowledge you fall into various evil thoughts.”

Again, St. Symeon the New Theologian speaks of the key of knowledge: “What shall I say to those who want to enjoy a reputation, and be made priests and prelates and abbots, who want to receive the confidence of others’ thoughts, and who say that they are worthy of the task of binding and loosing? When I see that they know nothing of the necessary and divine things, nor teach those things to others nor lead them to the light of knowledge, what else is it but what Christ says to the Pharisees and lawyers: ‘Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you do not enter yourselves, and you have hindered those who are entering’ (Luke 11.52). But what is the key of knowledge other than the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith?”[11]

The following incident from the Life of the Holy New Hieroconfessor Theodore Rafanovich (+1975) shows the absolute sovereignty of God in this matter. In 1923 Fr. Theodore was arrested and exiled to Chernigov, where he served with New Hieromartyr Archbishop Pachomius of Chernigov (+1937). However, some priests slandered him to Archbishop Pachomius, who banned him from serving. Some time later, when Vladyka was beginning to celebrate the liturgy, he felt himself as it were bound, and it was revealed to him that the reason was his unjust punishment of Fr. Theodore. Vladyka stopped the service and ordered Fr. Theodore to be brought to him in the altar. Bowing down to him to the earth, Vladyka asked his forgiveness and blessed him to serve with him…[12]


Let us now approach the subject from a somewhat different point of view, and ask whether the power of forgiving sins, however, we interpret it, is given to priests alone.

And let us begin with the Holy Scriptures. In the Old Testament Nathan the Prophet, although not a priest, as far as we know, received David’s confession and then announced to him God’s forgiveness in a manner reminiscent of the sacrament of Confession (II Kings 12.13). In the New Testament, St. James the Brother of the Lord and first Bishop of Jerusalem, urges Christians to confess their sins to each other (James 5.16).

No mention is made of the priesthood in that verse; but it will be worth putting these words in context by quoting the whole passage: “Is any sick among you? Let him call the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, having anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick one, and the Lord will raise him; and if he has committed any sins, it will be forgiven him. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for each other, that ye may be healed. The petition of a righteous man is very strong. Elijah was a man of like passions as we, and he prayed that it should not rain, and it rained not on the earth for three and a half years. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit. Brethren, if any of you errs from the truth, and someone converts him, know that he who converted the sinner from the error of his way will save his own soul from death and will hide a multitude of sins.” (James 5.14-20).

Clearly, the first part of this passage refers to the sacrament of Holy Unction, which is performed by priests, “the presbyters of the Church”, and which, while mainly directed to the healing of the body, also contains an element of the healing of the soul and the forgiveness of sins (especially forgotten ones). “Therefore”, continues the Apostle, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for each other”. Now Archbishop Averky considers that “one another” refers to the priests present at the sacrament of Holy Unction: “The link with the preceding words through the word ‘therefore’ gives grounds for supposing that here confession before a spiritual father is meant – that is, also the sacrament of repentance, which is usually united with the sacrament of Holy Unction. ‘The petition of a righteous man is very strong’ (5.16) – by the ‘righteous’ here are understood those people whose prayer is more perfect. Here, of course, it is not only people who possess personal righteousness that are meant, but again the presbyters who have been given a special privilege to pray for people and carry out the sacraments. As an example of how much the prayer of a righteous man can do, the holy Apostle cites the prayer of the holy Prophet Elijah…”[13]

Yes, but the striking fact is that the holy Prophet Elijah was not a priest. So while the word “righteous” here obviously does not exclude priests, neither does it exclude righteous laymen. And this leads us to suppose that when St. James urges the faithful, in the preceding verse, to confess “to one another”, he was again not excluding righteous laymen. However, it may be that the Sacrament of Confession is not referred to here, but rather the revealing of thoughts to an elder or eldress, who may be a simple monk or nun. For Elder Leonid of Optina writes: “The newly tonsured one is to reveal her conscience to the eldress and receive advice and instruction as to how to withstand the enemy’s temptations. However, this is not a confession, but a revelation; in this is fulfilled the apostolic tradition: ‘Confess your faults one to another’ (James 5.16). The Sacrament of Confession is entirely another matter and has not relation to revelation [of thoughts]…”[14]

In any case, the key of knowledge, the power of discerning whether God has forgiven a person, was given to Elijah, as to many righteous men of non-priestly rank. Thus St. Ambrose of Milan writes: “And God said to Elijah: ‘Have you seen that Ahab is mournful and grieves? My rage shall not burst out against him.’ Do you see how mourning for sins wipes away sins?”[15]

In another passage, St. Ambrose indicates that a sinner needs above all an intercessor to plead for him before God, but does not say that that intercessor has to be of the priestly rank: “It is written, ‘If a man has sinned against God, who shall entreat for Him?’ (I Kings 2.25). The writer implies, not an ordinary man or one of the common sort, but only a man of excellent life and singular merit. It must be such a one as Moses, who both merited and obtained that for which he asked…” (Moses also asked for obtained forgiveness for his brother Aaron. Moses and Aaron were of the priestly tribe of Levi, but it appears that Moses’ role was not that of a priest, which belonged to his brother, but rather that of a king, as we see in icons of Moses and Aaron.) “Such intercessors, then, must be sought for after very grievous sins… Stephen prayed for his persecutors who had not been able even to listen to the name of Christ, when he said of those very men by whom he was being stoned, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge’. And we see the result of this prayer: Paul, who held the garments of those who were stoning Stephen, not long after became an apostle by the grace of God, having previously been a persecutor.”[16]

According to the tradition of the Desert Fathers, unordained but holy monks were put in charge of novices and had the boldness to say whether a novice had received forgiveness from God – independently, as it would seem, of the sacrament of confession. St. Basil the Great writes: “Confession of sins is to be made to those who are able to heal… From old times, the penitents confessed to saints.”[17] The confessors of his days often included unordained monks, such as St. Barsanuphius the Great.[18]

Nor could the priesthood make up for a lack of holiness. For, as St. Dionysius the Areopagite writes, a priest who is “unillumined” (aphotistos) is “no priest, not at all, but an enemy, a trickster, one [who] fools himself and [is] a wolf amidst the people of God”. [19] And according to Nicetas Stethatos, someone who is unitiated in the spiritual life is “falsely names even if by ordination he is set over all the others in rank…”[20]

Again, Golitzin points out that in the Eastern Church the sacrament of confession by a priest did not enjoy any official status as a sacrament (leitourgema) until the time of Symeon of Thessalonica in the fifteenth century.[21] This may be related to the fact that in the Greek Church then, as now, permission is not immediately granted to a priest to carry out Confession – that is, to become a pnevmatikos, or spiritual father: only after a period of testing is he granted this right. This would appear to indicate that the power to bind and to loose is not automatically granted to all canonically ordained priests, and is not inherent in the gift of the priesthood as such.

In the seventh century, St. Anastasius of Sinai was asked how many ways there were of receiving the forgivness of sins. He answered this question as follows: “Three. The first is: to stop sinning. The second is: to repent worthily. And there is a third way for sinners to be saved: through temptations and sorrows and patience… For there are times when God casts the sinner who does not repent into temptations and through the temptations he comes to humility, and through humility he is saved without asceticism.”[22] It is striking that the saint says nothing here about the sacrament of Confession. Perhaps because neither the sacrament of Confession nor any other sacrament in which the forgiveness of sins is given (e.g. Holy Communion and Holy Unction) is of any use if there is no true repentance or humility in the soul of the penitent. But in his next answer the saint does speak about confession, if not to a priest, at any rate to another Christian. Thus in response to the question: “Is it good to confess one’s sins?” he answers: “It is good and very useful – but not to all, for it will not only not benefit you [to confess to anybody], but will also defile those who listen to you. Therefore find a spiritual man, who is able to heal you and pray for you, and confess to him alone.”[23] In his next answer, Anastasius replies to the question how a man can know that God has forgiven him, not by referring to a priest’s prayer of absolution, but to a more internal criterion: “From his own conscience, and from the boldness his soul has in prayer to God.”[24]

Could it be accidental that the saint does not refer to the sacrament of Confession as one of the ways of receiving the forgiveness of sins, nor to the prayer of absolution as giving reassurance of forgiveness? It appears not, because in an earlier and more extensive answer to the same question, while warning against the danger of confessing to inexperienced and passionate men, “blind guides leading the blind”, he writes: “If you find an experienced spiritual man who is able to heal you, confess to him without shame and with faith, as to the Lord… For John the Theologian says that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to take away our sins and cleanse us from all iniquity (I John 3.6)… Again, the Brother of the Lord according to the flesh says: ‘Confess your sins one to another, and pray for each other that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.’ (James 5.16) Again, the Apostle [Paul] says: ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens and in this way fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6.6)… For it is God’s custom to work the salvation of men not only through angels but also through holy men. Of old it was through the prophets, and in the last times it was through Himself and the Divine Apostles… Therefore if it is a man who listens to the confession, it is God who through him converts and educates and forgives, just as he forgave David through Nathan… For the saints are the ministers of God and co-workers and stewards unto the salvation of those who wish to be saved…”[25] So the saint by no means undervalues the importance of confession before others, but it must be to an experienced man – a saint, in fact. He does not say that confession must be to a priest, just as St. James in the passage quoted does not refer to the necessity of confessing before a priest (although in the previous verse he says that “the elders of the Church” have to be called to carry out the sacrament of Holy Unction).

Why is it necessary to confess before an experienced and holy man? First, because, as St. Anastasius points out, the penitent may involuntarily defile the confessor by putting evil thoughts and desires into his mind. Secondly, because in the case of serious, and even not so serious sins, a penance (epitimia) is necessary in order to deepen the penitent’s consciousness of his sin and help him to prevent a repetition of the sin in the future. [26] A passionate confessor will not be able to do this. He will give inappropriate penances and advice, either too strict or too lenient; and his whole attitude to the penitent’s confession may be such as to discourage the penitent from confessing to him again.

A most important witness to the patristic tradition in this question comes from St. Symeon the New Theologian. In his Letter on Confession, he writes: “Let us… see from when, and how, and to whom this power of celebrating the sacraments [hierourgein] and of binding and loosing was given from the beginning, and so proceed in due order just as you asked the question so that the solution may be clear, not just for you but for everyone else. When our Lord and God and Savior said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Yours sins are forgiven you’, the Hebrews in attendance were all saying: ‘This man is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins except God alone?’ (Matthew 9.3; Mark 2.7; Luke 5.21). Up to that time remission of sins had not yet been granted, not to prophets, nor to priests, not to any of the patriarchs. The scribes were thus making difficulties because, really, a kind of strange, new teaching and reality was being proclaimed. And, because of this newness and strangeness, the Lord did not find fault with them. Instead, He taught them what they were ignorant of by proving that it was as God and not as man that He granted remission of sins. For He says to them: ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins’ (Matthew 9.6), He says to the man with the withered hand, ‘Stretch out your hand,’ and he stretched it out and it was restored ‘whole, healthy like the other’ (Matthew 12.13). By means of this visible wonder He provided a guarantee of the greater and invisible one. The same applies to Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1ff), to the harlot (Luke 7.36f), to Matthew at his tax collector’s post (Matthew 9.9f), to Peter after he had denied the Lord three times (John 18.17), to the paralytic (John 5.5) to whom, after the Lord had healed him, He said: ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may befall you’ (John 5.14). By saying this He showed that the man had been taken by illness because of his sins and that, in being freed from the former, he had also received forgiveness of the latter, not because he had been praying for it for a long time, not because of fasting, not due to his lying on the ground, but instead and only because of his conversion and unhesitating faith, his breaking-off with evil and true repentance and many tears, just as the harlot (Luke 7.38 and 44) and Peter who wept bitterly (Matthew 26.75).

“Here is the source of that great gift which is proper uniquely to God and which the Lord alone possessed. Next, just as He was about to ascend into heaven, He bequeathed this great charism to His disciples in His stead. How did He imbue them with this dignity and authority? Let us find out the what, and the how much, and the when. The chosen eleven disciples were gathered together behind closed doors. He entered and stood in their midst and breathed on them, saying: ‘Receive ye the Holy Spirit, whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ (John 20.22-23). At that time He enjoined on them nothing about penances, since they were going to be taught [about such things] by the Holy Spirit.

“As we said, therefore, the holy Apostles summoned this authority in succession for those who were to hold their thrones. Not one of the rest of the disciples ever conceived of presuming upon it. The Lord’s disciples preserved with all exactitude the rightness of this authority. But, as we said, when time had gone by, the worthy grew mixed and mingled with the unworthy, with one contending in order to have precedence over another and feigning virtue for the sake of preferment. Thus, because those who were holding the Apostles’ thrones were shown up as fleshly minded, as lovers of pleasure and seekers of glory, and as inclining towards heresies, the divine grace abandoned them and this authority was taken away from them. Therefore, having abandoned as well everything else which is required of those who celebrate the sacraments, this alone is demanded of them: that they be Orthodox. But I do not myself think that they are even this. Someone is not Orthodox just because he does not slip some new dogma into the Church of God, but because he possesses a life which keeps harmony with true teaching. Such a life and such a man contemporary patriarchs and metropolitans have at different times either looked for and not found, or, if they find him, they prefer [to ordain] the unworthy candidate instead. They ask only this of him, that he put the symbol of the faith [the Creed] down in writing. They find this alone acceptable, that the man be neither a zealot for the sake of what is good, nor that he battle with anyone because of evil. In this way they pretend that they keep peace here in the Church. This is worse than active hostility [to God], and it is a cause of great unrest.

“It is because of this that the priests have also grown worthless and no better than the people. None of them are that salt of which the Lord spoke (Matthew 5.13), able to constrain and reprove and keep the life of another from wasting away. Instead, they are aware of and conceal each other’s faults, and have become themselves inferior to the people, and the people in turn still worse than before. Some of the latter, though, have been revealed as superior to the priests. In the lightless gloom of the clergy these people appear as burning coals. If the former were, according to the Lord’s word (Matthew 5.16), to shine in their lives like the sun, then these coals would seem radiant but would be dark in comparison to the greater light. But, since only the likeness and vesture of the priesthood is left among men, the gift of the Holy Spirit has passed to the monks. It has been revealed through signs that they have entered by their actions into the life of the Apostles. Here too, however, the devil has been busy at his proper work. For when he saw that they had been revealed as, in a way, the new disciples of Christ in the world, and that they had shown forth in their lives and done miracles, he introduced false brethren, his disciples, and when after a little while, these had multiplied (as you can see for yourself!), the monks as well were rendered useless and became altogether as if they were not monks at all.

“Therefore it is neither to those in the habit of monks, nor to those ordained and enrolled in the rank of the priesthood, nor yet to those who have been honoured with the dignity of the episcopate – I mean the patriarchs and metropolitans and bishops – that God has given the grace of forgiving sins merely by virtue of their having been ordained. Perish the thought! For these are allowed only to celebrate the sacraments (and I think myself that even this does not apply to many of them, lest they be burned up entirely by this service who are themselves but straw). Rather, this grace is given alone to those, as many as there are among priests and bishops and monks, who have been numbered with Christ’s disciples on account of their purity of life…”[27]


Now the authority of St. Symeon in the Orthodox Church is great. He is one of only three saints to whom the title of “theologian” has been given. He knew the mysteries of God, not through reading or instruction, but through direct experience. Nevertheless, these words seem, at first sight, to be at variance with the tradition of the Church as a whole. Can it be that a priest who is correctly ordained, and Orthodox in his confession of faith, but not Orthodox in his way of life, can lose the power to bind and to loose, while a man who is not ordained “according to the traditional order”, as St. Symeon puts it, can nevertheless receive that power because of the purity of his life?

We have seen that according to St. Dionysius the Areopagite an “unillumined” priest is “no priest at all”, but a wolf. But how literally are we to take these words? And would it not be harmful to take them literally, since we would appear to be undermining the authority of the priesthood and discouraging people from going to the sacrament of Confession?

In guiding an Orthodox course between the Scylla of Catholic clericalism and the Charybdis of Protestant anti-clericalism, it is necessary to establish, first of all, that God wishes all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth – not only the truth about the Orthodox dogmas, but also the truth about themselves, about their sins and passions. It is only in confessing this dual truth – about God and themselves – that Christians can be saved. And God aids them in this is every possible way.

Thus for those who, without the aid of a priest or mediator, have a deep and compunctionate consciousness of their sins, it is sufficient to confess to God alone in their heart. That this is sufficient for some people and some sins is demonstrated by the text of innumerable prayers. After all, why do we pray the Jesus prayer if this does not, by itself, bring us forgiveness of sins and freedom from passion? Why pray our morning and evening prayers on our own if the frequent petitions for the forgiveness of sins in these prayers do not in actual fact bring forgiveness? True compunction of heart is sufficient for God, even if nobody but God sees it; for “a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise” (Psalm 50.17).

For “I do not force you into the midst of everyone,” He says, “nor do I make an exhibition of you before many witnesses. Tell your sins to me in private that I may heal your sores and deliver you from your pain.”[28] Again, as St. Anastasius of Sinai says: “Men have often sinned before others, and then, confessing in secret to God, they received forgiveness…”[29] Again, New Hieroconfessor Barnabas, Bishop of Pechersk (+1963), writes: “The Lord knows everything, and if we had not sinned in soul and body, we would have no need of a bodily mediator, a witness at the Terrible Judgement of God that the soul cleansed this sin through repentance, we would talk with God Himself. And now confession is nothing other than conversation with the Lord through a mediator – a spiritual father.”[30]

So at the beginning, for those pure in soul and body, no mediator was necessary. But now, for those who have defiled both soul and body to such an extent as to have become insensitive to depth of their fall – that is, for almost all Orthodox Christians after the very first generations – a mediator is necessary. It is necessary because, without such a mediator, we would suppress our knowledge of our sins, speak to God only about the more superficial ones and fail to come to true compunction. Even great saints do not always come to a knowledge of their sins without help from others. Thus it required the mediation of Moses to bring forgiveness to Aaron and Miriam, and the intervention of the Prophet Nathan to bring the Prophet-King David to full knowledge of his sin against God and Uriah.

And so in the first millennium of Christian history, we find the practice of “confessing to each other” – that is, seeking out a spiritual father or mediator, who may or may not be a priest, but who, in the opinion of the penitent, is able, skilfully and tactfully, to bring the sins of the penitent into the light, where they are immediately destroyed. The emphasis here is not on the position of the confessor in the hierarchy of the Church, but on his personal holiness, his discernment, his skill in posing the right questions and imposing the right epitimia and, above all, his love. Through his love, his prayers will ascend to the Throne of God, and for the sake of his love God will soften the hardened heart of the penitent and lead him to a true confession of his sins…

However, by the end of the first millennium, as St. Symeon the New Theologian (+1022) witnesses, this gift of mediating for a fellow sinner in confession was becoming very scarce. Confession was becoming dangerous – and not only for the penitent, but also for the confessor. Thus St. Symeon writes: “Look here, I beg you. Do not by any means assume the debts of others at all while you are indebted yourself in the same way. Do not dare to give remission of sins if you have not acquired in your heart Him Who takes away the sin of the world.”[31]

And yet, in spite of these increased dangers, by the middle of the second millennium, as we have seen, confession to a priest had been raised to the level of a sacrament, and is generally accounted one of the seven sacraments to this day. Why?

Not having found a direct answer to this question in the theological literature, the present writer can only offer a tentative answer to this question…

The history of the Church since the middle of the second millennium has been one of almost continual decline. Until approximately the time of the Russian revolution, this was not a decline in numbers – in fact, the numbers of those who nominally belonged to the Orthodox Church had never been higher. But in terms of holiness, of the fruits of the Spirit, it represented a sharp decline. As the Lord said to the angel of the Church of Sardis: “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (Revelation 3.1). It was only after the revolution (and not only in Russia) that this inner spiritual death of the majority of Orthodox Christians was revealed, when great numbers of them fell away into heresies or schisms or simply atheism.

In these conditions, the Holy Spirit that guides the Church and her leaders laid special emphasis on the sacrament of confession as that vital link that was still able to reunite the fallen Christian to the Church. For the Christian that has fallen into mortal sin cannot be rebaptized: his only chance of salvation is to confess his sins, to undergo that second baptism by tears. But only in very few cases can he do that alone: he needs a helper, a mediator – and that, in the majority of cases, can only be the local priest. Moreover, for the Christian who has just come to a realization of the terrible seriousness of his sins, there is the danger of despair, of feeling that he cannot be forgiven. And here the formula of absolution which the priest alone has the right to pronounce, absolving all his sins with certainty in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (as long as the penitent truly repents), represents a vital assurance.

In the Russian Empire a minimum once-a-year confession before a priest was mandatory according to State law. This measure has been frequently criticized as being none of the State’s business; but if one reads the lives of Russian saints who confessed large numbers of once-a-year laity, such as St. John of Kronstadt, and notes the regularity with which they had to absolve mortal sins, one can see this measure may well have saved many from eternal damnation. And if the generally low spiritual level of the priesthood still represented a real danger (priests of the quality of St. John or the Optina elders were very rare), nevertheless the danger of despising the priesthood, and not going to confession at all, represented a much greater danger…

There is another reason why, in these conditions of steep spiritual decline, the sacrament of confession should have acquired such importance. When many Christians have committed mortal sins, but have not come to a full realization of their seriousness, it becomes a necessity for the priest to be able to refuse them Divine Communion, lest they partake to their condemnation – and he himself incur the wrath of God for communicating the unworthy. But this is not possible if the priest does not know the Christian, as was often the case in large city churches in Russia, and has not heard his confession. As St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow, said: “It is necessary to reveal your sins properly and without any concealment. Some say, ‘For what reason should I reveal my sins to Him Who knows all of our secrets?’ Certainly God knows all of our sins; but the Church, which has the power from God to forgive and absolve sins, cannot know them, and for this reason She cannot, without confession, pronounce Her absolution…”[32] For unless he is clairvoyant, there is no way for the priest to know whether a Christian should be admitted to the Holy Mysteries unless he has heard his confession, or knows that he has confessed his sins to another spiritual father. Thus St. John Chrysostom says: “Let no-one communicate who is not of the disciples. Let no Judas receive, lest he suffer the fate of Judas… I would give up my life rather than impart of the Lord’s Blood to the unworthy. And I will shed my own blood rather than give such awful Blood contrary to what is right.”[33]

This reminds us that the final seal of the forgiveness of sins is the mystery of Divine Communion, and that as being “the stewards of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4.1), it is exclusively the priests who have the power to bind and to loose believers who desire to approach the Holy Chalice and receive the remission of sins through the Blood of Christ. It is this power – the power to grant or withhold access to the Holy Mysteries, the power of spiritual life and death – that the Lord gave to the Apostles and their successors to the end of time. Thus when St. Peter of Alexandria refused to admit the heretic Arius to Communion, he demonstrated the power of binding. And when the local priest of every Orthodox parish admits believers to the Chalice who have been absolved from their sins in the sacrament of confession, he demonstrates the power of loosing… But if one, looking at the degradation of the priesthood in the contemporary Church, laments that this power of the keys is so often abused, he should remember that we have a Great High Priest in the heavens Who is above all earthly bishops and priests, and Whose supremely just sentence overrides all others; for He alone “killeth and maketh alive, bringeth down into hades and raiseth up again” (I Kings 2.6), insofar as He alone “has the keys of hades and death” (Revelation 1.18).

December 11/24, 2008.

Prayer before confession of St. Symeon the New Theologian

O God and Lord of all! Who hath power over every breath and soul, the only One able to heal me, hearken unto the prayer of me, the wretched one, and, having put him to death, destroy the serpent nestling within me by the descent of the All-Holy and Life-Creating Spirit. And vouchsafe me, poor and naked of all virtue, to fall with tears at the feet of my spiritual father, and call his holy soul to mercy, to have mercy on me. And grant, O Lord, unto my heart the humility and good thoughts that become a sinner who hath consented to repent unto Thee, and do not abandon unto the end the soul that hath united itself unto Thee and hath confessed Thee, and instead of all the world hath chosen Thee and hath preferred Thee. For Thou knowest, O Lord, that I want to save myself, and that my evil habit is an obstacle. But all things are possible unto Thee, O Master, which are impossible for man. Amen.

[1] Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2005, pp. 291, 293.

[2] A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983, p. 55.

[3] A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, p. 60.

[4] A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, p. 59.

[5] St. Demetrius of Rostov, The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, House Springs, Mo.: Chrysostom Press, 2001, volume III: November, p. 592.

[6] St. Demetrius of Rostov, The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, House Springs, Mo.: Chrysostom Press, 2001, volume III: November, p. 537.

[7] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 87 on John, 4.

[8] Bl. Theophylact, Explanation of the Gospel of John.

[9] St. Innocent, “What is Necessary for a Saving Confession?”, Orthodox Life, vol. 38, no. 4, July-August, 1988, pp. 20-22.

[10] St. Bede, Sermon on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, P.L. 94, col. 219, sermon 16.

[11] St. Symeon the New Theologian, Discourse 33, 3.

[12] Kratkoe zhitie Otsa-Ispovednika Katakombnoj Tserkvi Ieromonakha Fyodora (Rafanovicha), &pid=679 (in Russian).

[13] Averky, Rukovodstvo k Izucheniu Sviaschennago Pisania Novago Zaveta (Guide to the Study of the Sacred Scriptures of the New Testament), volume 2, Jordanville, 1987, p. 150 (in Russian).

[14] Elder Leonid, in Fr. Sergius Chetverikov, Elder Ambrose of Optina, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1997, p. 137.

[15] St. Ambrose, Second Homily on Repentance; quoted in George S. Gabriel, On Confession and the Power to Remit Sins, Dewdney, B.C.: Synaxis Press, 1994, p. 30.

[16] St. Ambrose, Concerning Repentance, book 1; in Gabriel, op. cit., p. 28.

[17] St. Basil, Ascetical Works; in Gabriel, op. cit., p. 26.

[18] Gabriel, op. cit., p. 31.

[19] St. Dionysius, Epistle VIII; quoted in Golitzin, St. Symeon the New Theologian: On the Mystical Life; The Ethical Discourses, volume 3, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.

[20] Nicetas Stethatos, in Mantzarides, Palamika, pp. 279-280 (in Greek).

[21] Golitzin, op. cit.

[22] St. Anastasius, Odigos (The Guide), Answer 104, Mount Athos, 1970, p. 171 (in Greek).

[23] St. Anastasius, Odigos, Answer 105, p. 171.

[24] St. Anastasius, Odigos, Answer 106, p. 171.

[25] St. Anastasius, Odigos, Answer 6, pp. 16, 17.

[26] As Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev writes: “The sacrament of Confession is not limited to a mere acknowledgement of sins. It also can offer advice on how to avoid particular sins in the future. It also involves recommendations, or sometimes epitimia (penalties) on the part of the priest. It is primarily in the sacrament of Confession that the priest acts in his capacity of spiritual father.” (The Mystery of Faith, London: Dartman, Longman & Todd, 2002, p. 145).

[27] St. Symeon; in Golitzin, op. cit., pp. 197-200.

[28] St. John Chrysostom, Fourth Homily on the Rich Man and Lazarus, in Gabriel, op. cit., p. 29.

[29] St. Anastasius, Odigos, in Gabriel, op. cit., p. 27.

[30] St. Barnabas, Osnovy Iskusstva Sviatosti (The Foundations of the Art of Holiness), Nizhni-Novgorod, 2001, p. 275 (in Russian).

[31] St. Symeon, Moral Homily 6, in Gabriel, op. cit., p. 32.

[32] St. Innocent, op. cit.

[33] St. John Chrysostom, Homily 83 on Matthew, 6.

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