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Penance

The sacra­ment of penance is our for­mal act of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with God in the Church when sin has sev­ered us from the Church’s life. Because penance is the way to com­mu­nion with God when that com­mu­nion has been bro­ken by sin, it is often referred to in Church Tra­di­tion as the renew­al of bap­tism, or as the reestab­lish­ment of that con­di­tion of life with God which was giv­en to men in the basic sacra­ments of inau­gu­ra­tion into the Chris­t­ian life.

Not every sin requires the neces­si­ty of for­mal penance through sacra­men­tal rit­u­al. This is obvi­ous because Chris­tians are nev­er com­plete­ly with­out sin. Cer­tain grave sins or the pro­longed sep­a­ra­tion from Holy Com­mu­nion, how­ev­er, do call for the act of sacra­men­tal penance. Also, Chris­tians liv­ing in com­mu­nion with Christ are expect­ed to make use of this sacra­ment peri­od­i­cal­ly in order to hum­ble them­selves con­scious­ly before God and to receive guid­ance in the Chris­t­ian life from their pas­tor in the Church. It is the teach­ing of the Ortho­dox Church that sacra­men­tal penance is nec­es­sary for those receiv­ing Holy Com­mu­nion when they have com­mit­ted grave sins or when they have been sep­a­rat­ed from the eucharis­tic meal for a long time.

The sacra­ment of penance exists in the Church to allow for the repen­tance and recon­ver­sion of Chris­tians who have fall­en away from the life of faith. There are three main ele­ments to the act of for­mal penance. The first is a sin­cere sor­row for sins and for the break­ing of com­mu­nion with God. The sec­ond is an open and heart­felt con­fes­sion of sins. At one time this con­fes­sion was done pub­licly before all men in the midst of the Church, but in recent times it is usu­al­ly done only in the pres­ence of the pas­tor of the Church who stands in behalf of all. The third ele­ment of penance is the for­mal prayer of abso­lu­tion through which the for­give­ness of God through Christ is sacra­men­tal­ly bestowed upon the repen­tant sin­ner.

The ful­fill­ment of penance con­sists in the recep­tion of Holy Com­mu­nion and the gen­uine rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the repen­tant sin­ner with God and all men accord­ing to the com­mand­ments of Christ. From this there obvi­ous­ly fol­lows the neces­si­ty of a sin­cere attempt by the pen­i­tent to refrain from sin and to remain in faith­ful obe­di­ence to God and in upright­ness of life before Him and all peo­ple.

The sacra­ment of penance, like all sacra­ments, is an ele­ment of the life of the Church which pre­sup­pos­es a firm belief and con­vic­tion that Christ him­self is present in the Church through his Holy Spir­it. A per­son with­out the expe­ri­ence of Christ in the Church will not under­stand the mean­ing of sacra­men­tal penance and the need for the open and pub­lic con­fes­sion of sins. When the Church is expe­ri­enced as the new life in Christ and as the gen­uine com­mu­nion with God in his king­dom already present with men in sacra­ment and mys­tery, then not only will sacra­men­tal penance and the con­fes­sion of sins be under­stood, but it will be cher­ished as the great mys­tery of God which it is: the unique pos­si­bil­i­ty for reunion with God through the for­give­ness of Christ who has come to save sin­ners who con­fess their sins and who sin­cere­ly desire to change their lives accord­ing to the ways which he him­self has giv­en.

In a word, the Ortho­dox Church strict­ly adheres to the teach­ing of the Bible that only God can for­give sins, that he does so through Christ in the Church, that his con­di­tions are gen­uine repen­tance and the promise of change which are wit­nessed by con­fes­sion; and that con­fes­sion, by def­i­n­i­tion, is the open and pub­lic acknowl­edg­ment of sin before God and all mankind.