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April 22, 2013

Repentance, the Fourth Mystery

This article “On Repentance” is from the well known Treasury of Orthodoxy (chapter 18) of Bishop Theophilos of Campania (1749-1795), and  is a helpful guide to our Lenten journey.

By Bishop Theophilos of Campania

1. Repentance wipes out post-baptismal sins

Spiritual Master: O my child, we were reborn with  holy baptism, we were armed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit through Chrismation and the divine grace of the Holy Myrrh. We were sanctified with the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, and we would have been perfect saints, had we remained such, without sins. However, because we are self-determined, i.e. endowed with free will, and on the one hand we make bad choices and on the other hand we do not want to conquer the devil who tempts us, the World, the Flesh and many other causes delude us, and we fall into sins, great and small, with deeds, with words and with our thoughts, and it is impossible to be rebaptized in order to have our sins washed away.

Since Christ only once was crucified, died, was buried and rose again, for this reason  Holy Baptism takes place only once, and whoever is rebaptized crucifies Christ again and blasphemes against the Sacrament. Think of this in bodily terms. Whoever gets sick, is not reborn in order to be healed, but is healed in another way and with the use of curing remedies. This is why God who loves humanity and knows how unstable human beings are, provided us with another curing remedy for our sins, the Sacrament of Repentance, through which the sinner who repents can wash away his sins. As St. Gregory of Nyssa says: “One tear is equivalent to a bath, and one sigh of agony brings back the grace which had a little earlier departed.”

2. Repentance is an ancient and divine institution

The Sacrament of Repentance seems to have been designed by God in the Law and from of old, i.e. not only for the Hebrews, but also for the Gentiles, in order to put to shame the Hebrews who did not repent. The Gentile Ninevites sinned and God sent them the Prophet Jonah, who preached to them that they were about to be lost. They immediately fasted, wearing sackcloth, putting ashes on their head, and mourning, and God forgave them, not because they did all these, but because they all repented and abandoned their previous sinful life and their evil ways. As Scripture says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). You see, they were forgiven, because they repented, and actually performed  the deeds which accompany true repentance, i.e. fasting, shedding tears, sighs, and calling upon God with all their heart.

3. What exactly Repentance is

Repentance, then, consists in a change of mind from what is evil to what is good, and of deeds of passions to deeds of healing. Thus, as incontinence, hedonism, gluttony and a careless and loose life create a most passionate situation in the soul that makes it commit inappropriate deeds, so sorrow, continence, pain and spiritual contests cultivate in it impassibility and transport it from a passionate way of life to impassioned tranquility. The definition of Repentance is as follows: “Repentance is the return from what is unnatural to what is natural, from the devil to God.” Christ came for the sinners, to bring them back to what is good. As He Himself says in the Gospel, “I did not come to call the just but the sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13), and elsewhere, “There is great joy in heaven for every sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

4. The saving power of Repentance

The Sacrament of Repentance has a great power. Since we fell from virtue and holiness through our sin, we can be restored to our previous condition through repentance and abstention from sin, and become what we were before. When the Galileans were killed by Pilate, Christ said to those who were present there: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-3). He spoke similarly of the eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you No; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5). Also, the parable of the barren fig tree refers metaphorically to repentance (Cf. Luke 13:6-9). This is why in the Acts of the Apostles it says: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). It is rightly said of  him who repents the following saying: “You have this day chosen God to be your God, to walk in all His ways, and to keep His rules for rectitude, and His judgments, and to harken to His voice. And the Lord has this day chosen you to become a peculiar people to Him” (Deuteronomy 26:17-18). It is also worth recalling here the following saying of St. Augustine: “God made man without man, but he does not save man without man, because if man wants, God wants as well.”

5. Examples from the Old Testament

There were two great sins that David committed, fornication and murder; but through weeping and whaling out of great repentance, he received forgiveness and regained his prophetic charisma. Similarly, King Manasseh not only killed many prophets and sawed Isaiah in half, but turned to idolatry and angered God and was taken captive to Babylon; but he wept bitterly for all this, and not only was he forgiven but regained his kingdom. Similar events occurred to the son of Manasseh. His other son Amon, however, because he committed sin and was contemptuous of God, saying, "My father broke the law and sinned when he was young, but afterwards repented and regained his kingdom, for this reason God permitted that he be delivered to a wretched death, because such an impiety was unbearable" (Cf. 2 Kings 33). Let us ponder, then what we might also suffer if we sin with similar pretenses.

6. Repentance, the manifestation of the mercifulness of God

Whoever sins, is obliged to recognize his sin and to repent as this is right, so that he can quickly find his healing. God is merciful and does not want anything else, except the change of our wrong decision;  and then repentance is good, because it does not allow sin to take root and little by little become a habit that may lead the sinner to perdition. God orders us: “Return quickly to Me and you will receive quickly your healing. Yours are the sins, Mine are the healings. Yours are the evils, Mine are the remedies. I only ask you to repent, and I will immediately heal your wounds.”

There are two great charismas that man received from God. The one is, that when man dies and his body is dissolved, he will rise again and will become immortal from being mortal. The other is, that when man sins, he will be regarded worthy of forgiveness. The demons (fallen angels), however, even if they repent, they are not considered worthy of forgiveness. This is the opinion of some of the divine Fathers. On the contrary however, God’s honor and love for man is great.

7. Repentance in the ancient Greek tradition

I admire the writings of many ancient (pagan) Greeks that I read and see in them many wise precepts which exalt repentance. They say, for example, that when man does good deeds he is close to God and is assimilated to Him. When, however, he commits evil deeds, he is distanced from God and approaches the demons and becomes God’s enemy. Indeed, the Greek philosopher Salustios speaks of repentance as if he were a Christian. I leave many others and I will refer only to a Pythagorean who writes to a friend who became an apostate and pervert: “If you change your mind, I rejoice, but if not, then for me you are dead!”

8. Lack of Repentance and its catastrophic consequences

Every sinner who does not repent, gives birth to himself in a condition of being unable to repent, which means being abandoned by God, and finally becoming an heir of eternal damnation. Also, every wretched sinner who thinks that when he gets old and the time of his death is drawing near, then he will repent and will abandon evil deeds, is greatly deceived. The reason for this is that illnesses and passions operate differently, they darken man’s enlightenment like the clouds that darken the Sun, and remove from them their ability to repent. Such a repentance is a demonic and satanic conception and not aligned to freedom, because had he not grown ill, man would not have repented. This man resembles a old adulterer who, in getting old, cannot commit adultery, and thus thinks that he is free from this sin. He also resembles the avaricious, the greedy and the merciless persons, who during their lives give no alms, but when they sense that their death is approaching then they try to distribute their wealth. These acts are not acceptable to God, who knows the thoughts of men. Man sees the outside, but God knows the thoughts of men, and judges each of them according to their polity and free disposition. Esau wept, not because he repented after he had sold his birthrights, but because he did not receive the blessing of his Father. Hence, he said: “When my Father’s days come to an end, then, I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen. 27:41). Every sinner should know that his death is unpredictable and that, if he dies in sin and unrepentant, then, there is no repentance after death.

9. The effectiveness and necessity of Repentance

To understand the power of repentance it would suffice to mention the following two cases:

The first one is that which the Apostle Peter says in his preaching to those who crucified Christ. He begins like this: “This Jesus whom you crucified…” (Acts 2:36) and then he admonishes them to repent and  to be  baptized and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). O, how great is the power of repentance! It can save and sanctify even those who crucified Christ.

The other example is this: St. Amphilochius of Iconium relates the story that a certain demon, called Zerefer, came to an Abbot who had the charisma of foresight, saying to him that he is a devil and that he wants to ask God to forgive him. God did not disclose to the Abbot that he was truly a devil, because he wanted to show how great the power of repentance is. The Abbot, thinking that he had had before him a man and that it was his humility that made him confess that he was a sinner and a devil, prayed to God to forgive him. Then God revealed to the Abbot  that he was truly a devil, and not a man, and then assured him that he would forgive him on certain conditions: if he stood immovable at a certain place for three years and repeated 100 times every day and night "O God, have mercy on me the abominable," and then, "O God, have mercy on me for the ancient evil deed," and then, "O God, save me the darkened one." When the demon heard these things from the Abbot, he burst into laughter, and said: "If I wanted to call myself the abominable and the ancient evil deed and the darkened one, I would have done that from the beginning and I would have been saved. But now that I am greatly admired, and all tremble at me and I take many as my heritage I will certainly not do it." This what the cursed one said shouting for joy, as he disappeared.

Spiritual child: Indeed, the Sacrament of Repentance is truly great and a second Baptism.

From The Forerunner (January – February – March 2013). Translated by Fr. George Dion Dragas; edited by John Sanidopoulos.