Thursday, 6 June 2013

Repentance and Confession

by St. Cyril of Jerusalem
(Second Catechetical Lecture)

  1. Sin is a fearful thing, and unrighteousness is the sorest ailment of the soul, secretly sapping its sinews, and exposing it to eternal fire; a self-chosen evil, the offspring of a man’s set purpose of mind. For that of our own purpose we sin, the Prophet says plainly in one place. I planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto Me?[1] The planting is good, the fruit is evil: and that evil is from our purpose of mind. The planter is blameless, but the vine shall be burnt with fire: for it was planted for good, yet hath of its own purpose borne fruit to evil. For God, according to the Preacher, hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.[2] And the Apostle says, We are His workmanship, created unto good works.[3] The Creator then, being good, created for good works: but the creature, of its own set purpose, turned to wickedness. Sin, then, is a fearful evil, as was said, but not an incurable one; fearful to him who clings to it, but quite admitting of a cure when a man through penitence puts it off. For suppose a man holding fire in his hand: while he holds the live coal, he is certainly on fire; but were he to put it away, he would also rid himself of that which was burning him. And if any think that while sinning, he is not on fire, to him saith the Scripture, Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?[4] For sin burns the sinews of the soul. 

  2. But some will say, What can sin be? Is it a living thing – an angel – an evil spirit? What is this which works in us? It is no foe from without, O man, wrestling against thee: but a shoot of evil taking its increase from thyself. Let thine eyes look right on,[5] and lust does not exist; keep thine own, and take not another’s, and a stop is put to robbery; remember the Judgement, and neither fornication nor adultery, nor murder, nor any unrighteousness shall prevail in thee. But when thou forgettest God, forthwith thou beginnest to devise wickedness, and to accomplish unrighteousness.

  3. However, nature is not the sole cause of evil; there is another, who miserably prompts to it, the devil. He prompts all, yet he prevails only over those who listen to him. Therefore saith the Preacher, If a spirit of the powerful rise up against thee, leave not thy place.[6] Shut thy door, and keep him far from thee, and he shall not hurt thee. But if thou indulgently admit the thought of lust, through thine imaginations, it will strike its roots into thee, and enthral thy mind, and drag thee down into a pit of evils. But perhaps thou sayest, I am a Believer; lust does not gain ascendant over me, even though my mind dwells on the objects of it: knowest thou not that  even a rock is cleft at length by a root which for a long while adheres to it? Admit not the seed, for it will break in pieces thy faith: root out the mischief, ere it blossom, lest by being idle at the beginning, thou have the trouble of axes and fire afterwards. When thine eyes first ail, attend to them in time, lest after thou art blinded thou begin to seek the physician.

  4. The devil then is the chief author of sin, and the parent of evils; and this hath the Lord said, not I: The devil sinneth from the beginning;[7] before him sinned no one. But he sinned not as having received by necessity of nature the principle of sin; (else the blame of sin returns to Him who thus framed him;) but having been framed good, he became a devil from his own purpose of mind, and received his name from his conduct. For being an Archangel, he was called devil, or slanderer, from his slandering; and from a good servant of God, he became Satan fitly so named; for Satan means an Adversary. These doctrines are not mine, but the inspired prophet Ezekiel’s. For he, taking up a lamentation against him, says, Thou sealest up the sun, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty, thou hast been in Eden, the garden of God; and soon after, Thou wast perfect in thy ways, from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee.[8] Very rightly hath he said, was found in thee: for it was not brought in from without, but thou thyself didst beget evil. And the reason he assigns afterwards: thine heart was lifted up, because of thy beauty; I will cast thee as profane out of the mountain of God, I will cast thee to the ground. Parallel to this, is what the Lord says in the Gospel, I beheld Satan as lightning fallen from heaven. Thou seest the harmony of the Old Testament with the New. He, on his falling, drew many away from him. He puts lust into those who listen to him: from him is adultery, fornication, and all evil: through him our forefather Adam was cast out, and exchanged a paradise of wonderful and spontaneous fruits, for this earth with its thorns and thistles.

  5. What then? some one will say. We have been seduced and are lost; is there no chance of salvation? We have fallen; cannot we rise? We have been blinded; cannot we recover our sight? We have been crippled; cannot our feet become straight again? In a word, we are dead; is there no resurrection? Shall not He, O man, who woke Lazarus, a corpse of four days, which stank, shall not He much more easily raise up thee, a living man? He who shed His precious blood for us, the same shall rescue us from sin. Let us not give sentence against ourselves, brethren; let us not abandon our case as hopeless: not to believe there is hope in penitence, is dreadful indeed. For he who is without expectation of salvation, spares not to increase the evil; but he who hopes for a cure, is easily induced to spare himself. Thus the robber who expects no mercy runs into recklessness; but if he hopes for pardon, often betakes himself to repentance. Nay does the serpent strip himself of old age, and shall not we cast the slough of wickedness? Does thorny ground by good tillage become fruitful, and is salvation to us irrecoverable? Nature then admits of salvation; all that is wanting is the purpose of mind.

  6. God is loving to man, and that not a little. For say not, ”I have committed whoredom and adultery: fearful things have been done by me, nor once only but often; will He forgive, will He forget?” Hear what the Psalmist says; O how plentiful is Thy goodness, O Lord.[9] Thy accumulated sins surpass not the multitude of the mercies of God; thy wounds baffle not the skill of the chief Physician. Only give thyself to Him in faith: tell the Physician thine ailment; say thou also as David did; I said, I will confess my sins unto the Lord: and what he says next shall also be fulfilled in thee; And so Thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin.

  7. Wouldest thou see the loving-kindness of God, O thou that art lately come to the Catechising? wouldest thou see the loving-kindness of God, and the abundance of His longsuffering? Hear thou concerning Adam. Adam disobeyed, the first whom God created; might He not at once have visited him with death? But see what the Lord does, in His great love towards man: though He casts him out of the Paradise, the sin making him unfit to continue there, yet He places him opposite to Paradise,[10] that seeing that he had forfeited, and what a downfall he had suffered, he thenceforth might be saved by repentance. Cain, the first born man, became a fratricide, a deviser of evils, the cause of murders, and the first who envied; yet when he had slain his brother, to what was he doomed? a fugitive and a vagabond shat thou be in the earth.[11] How great the sin, how light the doom!

  8. This then in very deed is loving-kindness in God, yet it is small compared with what follows: for consider, I pray, the history of Noah. The giants sinned, and lawlessness was there lavishly poured out upon the earth; and in consequence the deluge was ordained to come upon it. In his five hundredth year God puts forth the threat, and in his six hundredth He brought the deluge on the earth. Seest thou the breadth of God’s loving-kindness, extending over the space of a hundred years? what He did then after the hundred years, could He not have done at once? but on purpose did He extend it, to give room for repentance. Seest thou the goodness of God? And had those men repented, they would not have come short of His loving-kindness.

  9. Let us proceed to others, who have been saved by repentance. Perchance some among the women will say, “I have committed whoredom and adultery, I have defiled my body with excesses; is there salvation?” Cast thine eyes, O woman, to Rahab, and do thou also expect salvation; for if she who openly and publicly committed whoredom was saved through repentance, shall not she, who has committed one such act before the gift of grace, be saved through penitence and by fastings? For enquire how she was saved: this only said she, The Lord your God, He is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.[12] Your God, for she dared not call Him her own, on account of her unchastity. And if thou wouldest receive a written witness that she was saved, thou hast it recorded in the Psalms, I will think upon Rahab and Babylon with them that know me.[13] Oh the great loving-mercy of God, which makes mention even of harlots in the Scriptures: and not simply I will think upon Rahab and Babylon, but with this added, with them that know me. On men therefore, and likewise on women, is salvation, viz. that which is secured to us through repentance. 

  10. And though the people sin as one body, it does not surpass God’s loving-kindness. The people made a calf, yet did not God give over His love-kindness. Men denied God, but God denied not Himself. These are thy gods, O Israel,[14] they said; yet again, as was His wont, The God of Israel became their Saviour.[15] And not only did the people sin, but Aaron too the high-priest. For it is Moses who says, And upon Adam came the wrath of the Lord; and I entreated, he says, for him,[16] and God forgave Him. What then? Did Moses, entreating for a high-priest who had sinned, prevail with the Lord, and does not Jesus, the Only-begotten, when He entreats for us, prevail with God? And did He admit Aaron, in spite of his fall, to the high-priesthood, and will He obstruct thy entrance to salvation who art come from the Gentiles? Repent, O man, henceforth thyself, and the gift shall not be withheld thee. Present thy conduct unrebukable before Him henceforward: for God is in very truth loving to man, nor can the whole race of man worthily tell out His loving-kindness. No, not if all the tongues of men were to come together, could they even thus unfold some part of His loving-kindness. For we declare some part of what is written concerning His loving-kindness to men: but we know not how much He forgave to Angels: for them also did He forgive, since One only is sinless, Jesus, who purgeth our sins; - but of these enough.

  11. If thou wilt, I will set before thee additional precedents respecting our state. Let us come to the blessed David, and take him for an ensample of repentance. He fell, that highly gifted man. Walking in the evening-tide on the house-top after his sleep, he looked unguardedly, and was moved by human passion. His sin was completed; but in it perished not that nobleness of mind which confesses a transgression. Nathan the prophet came, swiftly, to detect and to heal his wound. The Lord is wroth, he says, and thou hast sinned.[17] So spoke the subject to him who had the kingdom; yet the king, though in purple clad, did not take it ill, as regarding not the speaker, but Him that sent him. He was not blinded by the military circle which stood about him; for his mind discerned the Lord’s angelical host, and as seeing the Invisible, he submitted in the anguish, replying to his visitor, or rather through him to Him who sent him, I have sinned against the Lord. Thou seest how a king could be humble-minded, how he could make confession. Had it been brought home to him by any one? Were many privy to the matter? The matter was done quickly, and forthwith the Prophet came an accuser, and the sinner acknowledges the crime. And according to the frankness of his confession was the speed of his cure, for the prophet Nathan who had threatened him, says straightway, And the Lord hath put away thy sin. Thou seest how very quick was the relenting of the God of loving-kindness. Yet he says, Thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme. For though on account of thy righteousness thou hadst many foes, yet thy self-command was thy protection; but now that thou has let go thy best weapon, thy foes, who were standing ready, are risen up against thee. The Prophet then thus comforted him.

  12. But holy David, for all he heard it said, The Lord hath put away thy sin, shrunk not from penitence, king though he was: but put on sackcloth for purple, and for his gilded throne sat down, a king, in ashes on the ground; not only sat but fed on ashes, (as he saith himself, I have eaten ashes as it were bread,[18]) and wasted with tears his lustful eye. Every nigh, he says, wash I my bed and water my couch with my tears.[19] When his lords urged him to eat bread, he would not: for seven whole days he prolonged his fast. If a king thus made confession, oughtest not thou a private man to make confession? And after Absalom’s rebellion, though he had many roads for escaping, he chose to flee by the Mount of Olives, all but invoking mentally the Redeemer who should thence ascend to heaven. And when Shimei cursed him bitterly, he said, Let him alone; for he knew that he who forgiveth, shall be forgiven.[20]

  13. Thou seest how excellent it is to confess; thou seest that to the penitent there is salvation. Solmon also fell; but what saith he? Afterwards I repented.[21] Though Ahab, king of Samaria, was a most abandoned idolater, a monster, the murderer of prophets, a stranger to godliness, the coveter of other men’s fields and vineyards, yet when the prophet Elias came to him after he had slain Naboth through Jezebel, and only threatened him, he rent his clothes and put on sackcloth; and what says the merciful God to Elias? Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before Me?[22] as if, almost, He would persuade the fiery temper of the prophet to condescend to the penitent: for I will not bring, He saith, the evil in his days. Thus, though Ahab on his pardon was not about to leave his evil courses, the God of pardon pardoned him; - not as ignorant of the future, but bestowing on the penitence of the moment its corresponding pardon: for a just judge suitably answers each case as it arises.

  14. Again, as Jerobam stood sacrificing to idols on the altar, his hand withered, when he bade seize the Prophet who denounced him. On this experience of his power, he says, Entreat the face of the Lord thy God;[23] and for this word his band was restored. If the Prophet healed Jerobam, was not Christ healing power to deliver thee from thy sins? Manasses, again, was most extravagant in his crimes, who sawed asunder Esias, and was polluted with idolatries of every kind, and filled Jerusalem with innocent blood: yet, when he was led captive to Babylon, he converted his afflictions into a healing course of penitence: for Scripture says, that Manasses humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him; and He was entreated of him, and heard his supplications, and brought him again into his kingdom. If he who sawed a Prophet in sunder, was saved through penitence, mayest thou be saved, who hast not done ought so great.

  15. Beware lest thou rashly mistrust its power; wouldest thou know how great force it hath? wouldest thou know this strong weapon of salvation, and learn what strength Confession hath? An hundred and eighty-five thousand enemies did Hezekias turn to flight through Confession. Yet great as this really is, it is but trifling compared with what is still to be told. Through repentance, the same king recalled a Divine decree which had already gone forth. For when he was sick, Esaias said to him, Set thy house now in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.[24] What was there to expect more? what remaining hope of life, when the Prophet said, For thou shalt die? Yet Ezekias did not stop from penitence; for remembering what was written, For turning away and sighing thou shalt be saved,[25] he turned away to the wall, and lifting his thoughts from his bed heavenwards, (for no thickness of walls hinder prayers devoutly offered up,) he said, “Lord, remember me: for it is sufficient for my cure that Thou remember me: Thou art not controlled by times, but Thou Thyself givest law to life; for not on our nativity, and on stars in conjunction, depends our life, as some idly talk; but of life and its duration Thou Thyself art the Lawgiver, according to Thy will.” And thus he, who through the Prophet’s sentence despaired of life, received and addition of fifteen years, the sun, in sign of it, tracing his course back. Now the sun turned back for Ezekias; for Christ, it was eclipsed; not retracing his steps, but suffering eclipse, and thereby shewing the difference of the two, Ezekias and Jesus. Ezekias prevailed to the cancelling of a sentence of God; and will not Jesus vouchsafe His free gift, the forgiveness of sins? Turn away, and bewail thyself, shut to thy door, and pray Him to forgive thee, and remove from around thee the burning fires; for Confession has strength to quench even fire; has strength to tame even lions.

  16. But if thou disbelieve, consider what befell Hananiah and the rest. What fountains did they open? How many waterpots had quenched a flame, which rose to forty-nine cubits? But wherever the flame, exceeded ever so little, there faith gushed out like a river, and there they uttered a spell against their sufferings, saying, Just art Thou, O Lord, over all things which thou hast done towards us: for we have sinned, and broke Thy commandments.[26] And penitence destroyed the flames. If thou disbelieve that it can quench the fire of hell, learn it from the history of Hananiah. But some quick hearer will say, “Them God rescued justly; because they would not commit idolatry, God gave them this power.” Since this has been suggested, I will proceed to one more example of penitence.

  17. What thinkest thou of Nebuchadonosor? Hast thou not heard from the Scriptures that he was bloodthirsty, savage, having a lion’s mind? hast thou not heard how he disinterred the bones of the kings? how he led the people into captivity? how he blinded the eyes of the reigning prince, first giving him to see the slaughter of his children? Hast thou not heard that he broke to pieces the cherubim, not the invisible – no, suppose it not, O man – but the carved cherubim; and that mercy-seat, from which God used to speak audibly? Nebuchadonosor trampled down the veil of holiness: he carried off the censer to a temple of idols; he seized on all the offerings; and burned down the Temple to its foundations? What multiplied punishment did he deserve for slaying kings, setting fire to holy things, leading captive the chosen people, and placing the sacred vessels within idol temples? Was he not worthy of ten thousand deaths?

  18. Such was the greatest of his evil deeds; now turn to the loving-kindness of God. He was turned into a wild beast;[27] he abode in the wilderness, he was scourged that he might be saved. He had claws like a lion, for he made the saints his prey; he had a lion’s mane, for he was a ramping and a roaring lion.[28] He ate grass as an ox; for he was as cattle not knowing Him who had given him the kingdom. His body was bathed with the dew, because he had already seen the fire quenched by dew, and believed not. And what happened? After these things, he saith, I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honoured Him that liveth for ever.[29] When, therefore, he perceived the Most High, and offered up sounds of thanksgiving to God, and came to feel grief for what he had done, and learnt his own weakness, then God restored to him the honour of the kingdom.

  19. What then? Hath He given Nebuchadnosor, after such acts, pardon and the kingdom, on his confession, and shall He not give to thee on repenting the forgiveness of sins, and the kingdom of heaven, if thy life be in accordance? The Lord is loving to men, and swift to pardon, slow to vengeance; let no one then despair of his own salvation. Peter, the chiefest and first of the Apostles, before a little maid thrice denied the Lord; but when remorse touched him he wept bitterly; and to weep shews a heartfelt penitence. Wherefore, not only received he forgiveness for the denial, but was spared his Apostolic dignity.

  20. Having then, brethren, many ensamples of men who have sinned, and repented, and been saved, do yet also heartily make your confession to the Lord: that ye may both receive the pardon of your past sins, and be counted worthy of the heavenly gift, and inherit the heavenly kingdom with all the Saints in Christ Jesus; to whom is the glory for ever and ever. Amen.


[1] Jer. 2:21, [2] Eccles. 7:29, [3] Eph. 2:10, [4] Prov. 6:27, [5] Prov. 4:25, [6] Eccles. 10:4, [7] 1 John 3:8, [8] Ez. 28:12-17, [9] Ps. 31:20, [10] Gen 3:24, [11] Gen. 4:12, [12] Josh. 2:11, [13] Ps. 87:4, [14] Exod. 32:4, [15] Is. 63:8, [16] Deut. 9:20, [17] 2 Sam. 12, [18] Ps. 102:10, [19] Ps. 7:7, [20] 2 Sam. 16:10-11, [21] Prov. 24:32, [22] 1 Kings 21:29, [23] 1 Kings 13:6, [24] 2 Kings 20:1, [25] Isa. 30:15, [26] Dan. 1:6-7, [27] Dan. 4, [28] Ps. 22:13, [29] Dan. 4:32.

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