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ST. MARY OF ZION

ETHIOPIAN ORTHODOX TEWAHEDO CHURCH - LONDON

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'Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit'

St Matthew 28: 19

Charity No. 282910

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The Sacrament of Penance

I. Definition

Although believers are reborn through the sacrament of baptism, and receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of confirmation, yet this does not mean that they have got an immunity against sin.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, etc in the Old Testament, Peter, John, etc in the New Testament - all committed sin, even when they were on the pinnacle of holiness.  For this reason this sacrament of penance was instituted in order that through it the sinner can return to God after confessing his sins to the priest.  According to the power given by Christ to His ministers to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in Him, the penitent receives, through the mediation of the priest, forgiveness of sins when he comes to him repenting and confessing them.

 

Because it is necessary that everyone should examine himself before accepting the Holy Communion, this sacrament of penance is therefore administered generally before accepting the Holy Communion.  "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.  For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body."  (Cor.  11:28, 29)

 

 

II. The Institution of the Sacrament

 

It was instituted by the threefold promise of the Lord

 

(1) When Christ said to Peter after declaring that He was the Son of the living God: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt.  16:19)

 

(2) When He promised all disciples saying: "Verily I say unto you, whatsoever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."  (Matt.  18:18)

 

(3) When, after His Resurrection, He showed them their great commission to the world.  "As my Father hath sent me, even so I send you.  And when He said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained (John 20: 21-23)

 

 

III. The Outward Sign

 

There are two audible signs in this sacrament:

(1) The confession of the penitent to the priest.  True confession stands in:

 

1. Repentance and sorrow for the sins committed.  "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out."  (Acts 3:19)

 

2. Resolution not to return to those sins.  When the prodigal son returned to his father he was at once pardoned and accepted because the father was sure that he would not return to that far country.

 

3. Faith in the mercy and forgiveness of God.  Everyone that came to the Lord while on earth asking for mercy used to hear this cheerful message " thy sins be forgiven thee" because of his faith in Him, or at least, the faith of those who brought him to the Lord.

 

4. Confessing sins to the priest, especially those which have the mastery over the sinner.  The reason for the confessing sins to the priest are:

 

a. In order to get through him absolution from all his sins.

 

b. In order that the penitent can get his spiritual advice as to the way to conquer his temptations and lead the holy life.

 

(2) The words of absolution is spoken by the priest over the penitent.

 

The sacrament of penance is called a spiritual medicine.  And the priest is considered a spiritual physician to treat all the diseases of the penitents.  Therefore he should treat every case as carefully as possible.

 

It should be well known that the "seal of confession" is the obligation of secrecy imposed upon the priest with regard to everything made known to him in confession.  The obligation is absolute and admits no exception.  It binds by natural, divine, and ecclesiastical law, and is not abrogated by even the penitent's death.  The reason for this stringency is quite clear.

 

 

IV. The Invisible Grace

 

The invisible graces which are granted through this sacrament:

 

(1) Remission of sins.

 

(2) Reconciliation with God.

 

 

V. The Types of Sin That Can be Forgiven

 

(1) The Bible teaches us that every sin can be forgiven however grave it may be, provided that the sinner should return to God in repentance.

 

"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."  (Is. 1:18)

 

(2) It teaches also that God is ready to pardon and accept everyone.

 

"Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out" (John 6:37)

 

"God desires that all men be saved, and come unto the knowledge of the truth."  (1 Tim.  2:4)

 

David who committed two grave sins, was pardoned.  Peter who denied the Lord three times, in a very shameful way, was pardoned.  The woman who was taken in adultery was pardoned (John 8:11) Christ asked for pardon even to those who committed the greatest crime by crucifying Him.

 

(3) In Matt.  12:31 we find that "the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men".  This means that those who reject and oppose the work of the Holy Spirit, and refused to accept God's salvation will not be pardoned.

 

 

VI. Ecclesiastical Discipline

 

 In some cases the priest finds it necessary to inflict some kind of discipline on the sinner when he commits a great sin, e.g. he can rebuke him, asking to fast for some days, pass a longer time in daily prayer, tell him to give some money to the poor, prevent him from receiving a Holy Communion for some time, or impose some other kind of discipline.

 

(1) This right was given to the priests by Christ Himself.  He gave them the right not only to loose, but also to bind (Matt.  16:19); not only to remit sins, but to retain them (John 20:23)

 

(2) The Apostles themselves used it.

 

"Deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor.  5:5). See also 2 Cor.  2:6, 7 and 1 Tim 5:20.

 

(3) The reasons for this discipline are:

 

1. In order that the sinner can recognise how grave his sin is.

 

2. In order that it may serve as a cure to his soul.  When the sinner of Corinth was punished, he repented, and St Paul wrote to the church to accept him.  "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.  So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow".  (2 Cor.  2: 6, 7)

 

3. In order that others may fear, and do not commit the same sins or the like.  "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear."  (1 Tim.  5:20)

 

(4) The minister should be very careful in using this right.  He should recognise that, as a physician, he must be very careful in applying the various kinds of medicine.  A slight disease is not in need of the same drug which is needed in serious cases.

 

" Treat - as a kind of physician - the sick person.  Use some medicines for his salvation.  Do not use severe medicine, but a very mild one.  Clean his wounds and make firm through the words of consolation.  If the wound is deep, use the medicines which build up the flesh.  If it is filled with pus clean it with a disinfectant medicine, i.e with rebuking of words and afterwards with comforting words.  If the wound becomes wider, use a severe unguentum, i.e. terrify him with the day of judgement.  If it becomes wider, burn it, and order him to fast for some days.  If you find that there is no use of any kind of treatment, consult very experienced physicians, and cautiously cut the corrupted member in order not to cause all the church members to be corrupted.  But, do not hasten to cut any member.

 

If you pass any sentence unjustly upon anyone you should know that this sentence returns upon your head."

 

"Do not pass one sentence upon all kinds of sins.  But examine every sin in order to give the suitable judgment.  There are some persons who just deserve your prayer for them, others you should ask to pay the alms to the poor, others you should ask to fast, others you should drive out of the church for a certain period appropriate to their sins."  (Didaskalia Ch. 8).

 

(5) But the Church of Rome thinks that these punishments are meant to pacify the justice of God.  This is utterly wrong because nothing can pacify His justice except the blood of Christ which was shed for our redemption. (Rom. 3:25; Col. 1:20; 1 Pet. 2:24 etc.)

 

 

VII. Who has the Right to Administer this Sacrament

 

This right was primarily given to the Apostles as shown above.  Afterwards it was transferred to their successors, the bishops; then on to the priests who are in contact with the people.

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