When the truth of the person is underrated or ignored in the realm of theology, this inevitably leads to the creation of a legal, external ethic. Man's ethos or morality ceases to relate to the truth of the person, to the dynamic event of true life and its existential realization. His moral problem is no longer an existential one, a problem of salvation from natural necessity; it is a pseudo-problem of objective obligations which remain existentially unjustifiable. Then repentance too is distorted by elements alien to it, unrelated to the reality of the mystery.
The distortion has its roots in the notion that the mystery is a means to expiation and justification for the individual, a way of setting the psychological conscience at rest. In the framework of this conception, sin is nothing more than individual guilt, and can be classified according to objective gradations: it become a legally predetermined "case" requiring expiation or redemption through imposition of the penalty provided in the corresponding "rule". If the truth of the mystery does not go beyond admission of guilt and enforcement of the rule provided, this is enough to transform confession into a kind of rationalistic legal transaction, an act which is psychologically humiliating yet necessary in order to redeem the moral self-sufficiency of the egocentric conscience. In the framework of this transaction, "remission of sins"—a phrase which refers directly to the existential transfiguration of man accomplished through repentance—is identified with legal "justification" and release from the pangs of guilt. And the educative penances, which are always intended to guide us to physical participation in the realization of our freedom, are interpreted as a price for the redemption of our sins.
In the Roman Catholic West of the Middle Ages, there was a whole theology created to support this individualistic "religious" need for objective "justification," for a transaction with the Godhead, the aim being to provide the fullest possible support for moral self-sufficiency, and by extension for social order. Thus was formulated the theory of "the satisfaction of divine justice through Christ's death on the cross"; and this theory passed both into Protestantism, and into Eastern Orthodox writers in the climate of "europeaning" tendencies and pietistic influences on the in in recent centuries." The image of God is identified with the archetypal sadistic father who thirst insatiably after satisfaction for his "wounded justice", and, by logical extension, delights in the torment of sinners in hell. This legalistic version of the event of salvation ultimately ends with the redemption of sins becoming totally objective, so that the price can even be paid in money - as happened in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, with the notorious indulgences which caused Protestant Christianity to reject the sacrament of repentance altogether.
Confession certainly does aim at a change in man's life. For confession signifies repentance, metanoia, which means a transformation of the mind—the culmination and ultimate end of asceticism, man's concrete effort to make his rebellious individual will obedient to the will of the communion of saints. But a change and an existential alteration such as this is not an individual achievement which cancels out or redeems individual misconduct.' On the contrary, it is realized only with the passage from the individual mode of existence to the real existence which is loving communion and relationship.
The change in man's life which accompanies repentance is an event which presupposes an encounter between personal freedom and the grace of God. It presupposes the dynamism of asceticism, the ceaseless testing of human freedom; but it is the encounter with grace which makes the change in man a living reality, beyond any rationalistic definition. And this comes about in the way that life always does: "It is as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spiting and glow up. and he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself" (Mk 4:26.28).
To persist in using objective attainments to define the mystery of the "new life" and transfiguration of man which is repentance - this is the most tragic form of persistence in the fall, in the individual mode of survival. Our will and effort to rid ourselves of sin is imprisoned in the confines of individual self assurance; in the presumptions of the fall, which is the existential alienation of man. Thus confession becomes an aspect of the life of existentially unliberated man, of the conventional life of this world.