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The Mystery of Repentance (Russian покаяние, pokayaniye) or Confession (Greek ἐξομολόγησις, exomológēsis) is one of the holy mysteries (or sacraments) in the Orthodox Church, as well as many other Christian traditions. Through it, the penitent receives the divine forgiveness of Christ for any sins that are confessed. Confession is made to a confessor (Greek πνευματικός, pnevmatikos; Russian духовник, dukhovnik), usually a parish priest or monastic.

Historical Development

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Confession In the Bible

Old Testament

"He shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong." Num. 5:7

"Those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and they stood and confessed their sins and the guilt of their fathers. While they stood in their places, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day and spent another fourth of the day in confession and worship of the LORD their God." Nehemiah 9:2-3

"And read out publicly this scroll which we send you, in the house of the LORD, on the feast day and during the days of assembly: 'Justice is with the LORD, our God; and we today are flushed with shame, we men of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem, that we, with our kings and rulers and priests and prophets, and with our fathers, have sinned in the LORD'S sight and disobeyed him. We have neither heeded the voice of the LORD, our God, nor followed the precepts which the LORD set before us.'" Baruch 1:14-18

The New Testament

John the Baptist and Forerunner exhorted his listeners to confess. See, e.g., Matthew 3:6 and Mark 1:5. We also see evidence of it as a practice of the early Church in Acts 19:18, 1 Timothy 6:12, 1 John 1:9, and James 5.16.

The Early Church

During the first six centuries of the Church, it cannot be said that the Mystery of Confession existed "in the same sense in which we say" that the Mysteries of Baptism and Eucharist existed during the same period.[1]. However, there were several practices that no doubt formed what became to be known as the Mystery of Repentance in the sixth century -- the us of a general confession before the Eucharist, public or private confession before a bishop or presbyter, and confession before several presbyters, with or without the bishop.[2]

Preparing for Confession

Reflection on the Ten Commandments is often recommended as part of an examination of conscience.

See also:

Frequency of Confession

Frequency of confession varies by jurisdiction, parish, priest, and penitent. Some follow the ancient practice of confessing during the fasting periods. Others confess monthly or even before every time they wish to receive communion.


It has been a rule through the Church that a cleric may not reveal any sins he hears during a confession. A violation of this rule is a violation of the canons and, in Orthodox Russia, of criminal law.

Some instances of the rules are:

  • "The secrecy of the Mystery of Penance is considered an unquestionable rule in the entire Orthodox Church. Theologically, the need to maintain the secrecy of confession comes from the fact that the priest is only a witness before God. One could not expect a sincere and complete confession if the penitent has doubts regarding the practice of confidentiality. Betrayal of the secrecy of confession will lead to canonical punishment of the priest." From "Guidelines for Clergy" (Orthodox Church in America)
  • St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite exhorts the Spiritual Father to keep confessions confidential, even under strong constraining influence. The author of the Pedalion (the Rudder), states that a priest who betrays the secrecy of confession is to be deposed. The Metropolitan of Kos, Emanuel, mentions in his handbook (Exomologeteke) for confessors that the secrecy of confession is a principle without exception."[3]
  • In St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite's Exomologitarion, he writes: "Nothing else remains after confession, Spiritual Father, except to keep the sins you hear a secret, and to never reveal them, either by word, or by letter, or by a bodily gesture, or by any other sign, even if you are in danger of death, for that which the wise Sirach says applies to you: "Have you heard a word? Let it die with you" (Sir. 19:8); meaning, if you heard a secret word, let the word also die along with you, and do not tell it to either a friend of yours or an enemy of yours, for as long as you live. And further still, that which the Prophet Micah says: "Trust not in friends... beware of thy wife, so as not to commit anything to her" (Mic. 7:5).
  • For if you reveal them, firstly, you will be suspended or daresay deposed completely by the Ecclesiastical Canons, and according to political laws you will be thrown in jail for the rest of your life and have your tongue cut out. Secondly, you become a reason for more Christians not to confess, being afraid that you will reveal their sins, just as it happened during the time of Nektarios of Constantinople when the Christians did not want to confess on account of a Spiritual Father who revealed the sin of a woman. The divine Chrysostom both witnessed these things and suffered because of them on account of his trying to convince the people to confess. It is impossible for me to describe in words how much punishment this brings upon you, who are the cause of these things."[4]
  • St. John of the Ladder writes: "At no time do we find God revealing the sins which have been confessed to Him, lest by making these public knowledge, He should impede those who would confess and so make them incurably sick."[5]
  • The Byzantine Nomocanon states, in Canon 120: ""A spiritual father, if he reveals to anyone a sin of one who had confessed receives a penance: he shall be suspended [from serving] for three years, being able to receive Communion only once a month, and must do 100 prostrations every day."[6]

Service Order for Confession

Both Slavic and Greek texts point to Patriarch John IV of Constantinople, also known as John the Faster, as the compiler of the service order for Confession.

The usual posture today is for both the priest and penitent to stand next to one another, sometimes facing the altar, sometimes at an analogion placed elsewhere in the church for hearing confessions. However, there are at least two 14th century sources which direct the priest or both the priest and penitent to sit.

The Form of Absolution

There are two basic approaches in use to the form of absolution. What is called the Greek uses the third-person form, as in "may God forgive you...." What is called the Russian is in the first person, as in "I ... forgive and absolve you...." The use of the indicative in the Russian form is due to the adoption of Latin Catholic usage by Metropolitan St Peter Mogila in the seventeenth century.

General Confession

Some parishes practice what has been called "General Confession." Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev describes it thusly: "...the priest goes out to the parishioners, reads the prayers before confession, and then himself names the more widespread sins, repenting of them on behalf of the faithful. After this the faithful silently come forward to have the prayer of absolution read over them. Strictly speaking, this kind of confession is a profanation of confession, since wordless group repentance can't be substituted for a believer's personal repentance before God with the priest acting as witness. When possible, general confession should be eliminated from parish practice. In those parishes where the priest is physically incapable of confessing each parishioner individually, general confession may be conducted out of necessity, but it cannot completely take the place of individual confess."[7] Some parishes practice general confession as described, with parishioners able to choose a line to receive only absolution from the priest, or another line where they can name their sins to the priest before receiving absolution. In such parishes, even if they most often choose the former, everyone is expected to choose the latter according to parish custom (monthly or during the fasting seasons, or more frequently if conscience dictates).


Jurisdictional Resources

Greek Orthodox Resources

Orthodox Church in America

Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)


  1. Metropolitan Hilaron Alfeyev, Orthodox Christianity, Vol. V, Chapter 4.
  2. Ibid.
  3. From Guidelines for Clergy (Orthodox Church in America)]
  4. St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite, Exomologitarion: A Manual of Confession, trans. Fr. George Dokos (Greece: Uncut Mountain Press, 2006), p. 191f.
  5. St. John of the Ladder, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Homily to the Shepherd), (Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1979), p. 243. (This homily is missing from the English translation of Fr. Lazarus Moore)
  6. translated by Fr. Alexander Lebedeff from the Slavonic text
  7. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Orthodox Christianity, Vol. 5, chapter 4.

Other Resources

  • Confession with Examination of Conscience and Common Prayers compiled and annotated by Paul N. Harrilchak (Reston, VA: Holy Trinity Church (OCA), 1996) ISBN 0930055012 (cloth) / ISBN 0930055020 (pbk.)

In Literature

External Links