The Gospel today tells us that after His baptism, Christ preaches that the Kingdom of God is at hand so we should all repent.
Christianity without repentance is hypocritical, a mockery, even dangerous. It claims what is not rightfully ours, forgiveness without a change of heart. It can only do this in a formal sort of way since such attitudes are based on there being nothing to forgive in the first place. It therefore opposes the truth about ourselves and the significance of what God has done, is doing and will do for us. As St. John says in his First Letter, Chapter 1:-
This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
I don’t know about you but I would rather not call God a “liar.” As St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 3, verse 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ...
However, many people just don’t think of themselves in this way. In their own understanding their actions and thoughts are neither good nor bad, neither perfect nor imperfect. In so far as these things are thought about at all, a soul is revealed that just muddles along, confident that it is normal and ordinary; neither in the need of the forgiveness of God nor the faith that goes with that. Sin is what evil people do. It doesn’t touch me.
There is absolutely nothing anyone else can do about this except to make clear to that person that no one who is impure shall see God, [Matthew 5:8]. Purification, forgiveness, the cutting out of the root of sin, not just the weeds that grow on the surface of things; this only comes about through repentance and we cannot do that for anyone else nor even bring them to the point of wanting to do it for themselves. Only God can disturb a soul sufficiently so as to prompt the first tentative steps towards repentance. We might add that as His servants, counting ourselves, with all humility, as the first amongst sinners, we should judge no one. There is a deep and healing soul surgery that proceeds from repentance, which God brings about, painfully sometimes and often slowly, to bring us all up to the full stature of Christ. He is the true image of God in Whom the redeemed are called to participate, and especially when they receive the Holy Mysteries of His Body and His Blood.
The word most frequently used in the New Testament for repentance is “metanoia.” It means an “about turn” ... a revolution in our attitudes arising from a change of mind and heart and a return to God. When we repent in this way we gain both self-knowledge and self-mastery by the grace of God and we are well on the way to recovery. Avoid the issue, however, close our eyes and stop up our ears to the truth and we are dead already. Turn to God and live; such might be a simple summary of the gospel message.
We need to be very practical about repentance and understand quite clearly what God calls us to do. Listen to the Gospel of St Luke for the first step:
I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, ...” [Luke 15:18]
The Orthodox Church has a very practical, loving and healing ministry for all the believers ... confession, the great healing sacrament. If you have come across confession before, either as an idea or in practice, you may be thinking about “sin lists,” artificial or pathological guilt, judgmentalism, formalism and the like. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the Orthodox practice of confession before (not “to”) a priest. The priest in the prayers says:- “I am only a witness ... ” ... and so he is. The penitent stands before the icon of the Lord and His Cross and he unburdens his soul to the Saviour. Our Lord Jesus Christ only looks back with Infinite Love and Compassion and He heals that soul with his forgiveness and strengthens the change of heart with his grace. The person walks out of confession a free man or woman. The priest is there to facilitate the confession, gently prompting or maybe correcting distorted understandings but always allowing the person to talk more freely and honestly to God. All the Orthodox spiritual literature about confession speaks of it as “medicine” ... not in quasi legal terms at all. That person’s relationship with God has to be put right, not just once but regularly for we all sin continually, far too readily in fact not to need confession.
Confession is not the whole story when it comes to repentance. Repentance has to be seen in the context of wider spiritual guidance. We need that guidance because we sometimes deceive ourselves through sin and we then fail to think and act for the highest good of ourselves and others. There is a proverb in the legal profession going back centuries: “Whosoever is his own counsel has a fool for his client.” The same applies in the spiritual life. Orthodox Christians have (if they can) spiritual fathers and mothers who will provide such wise and good counsel based on their ability to listen to their charges, their own hearts and God. It is often more difficult, obviously, to find such a person in non-Orthodox societies but it is always worth the effort if such a person may be found.
Repentance, therefore, lies at the very heart of the Christian life. We close with some salutary words on the matter from St John of the Ladder:
However great the life we lead may be, we may count it stale and spurious, if we have not acquired a contrite heart. For this is essential, truly essential if I may say so, that those who have again been defiled after baptism should cleanse the pitch from their hands with unceasing fire of the heart and with the oil of God.