St. John Chrysostom on Hebrews 6

This past week seems to have been a good week for me reading St. John Chrysostom. It started from my reading of the book Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament X, Hebrews, and then looking up further contents for the selections. This is the second selection from the same author I’m quoting.

I have written previously on Hebrews 6 and the possibility for those who have fallen away to repent and be restored. I want to quote Chrysostom, who takes a somewhat different angle, especially with the increased emphasis on baptism. In general, however, I found this very good reading. You can find the whole book on Christian Classics Ethereal Library, a wonderful resource page which I encourage you to visit.

[8.] What then (you say)? Is there no repentance? There is repentance, but there is no second baptism: but repentance there is, and it has great force, and is able to set free from the burden of his sins, if he will, even him that hath been baptized much in sins, and to establish in safety him who is in danger, even though he should have come unto the very depth of wickedness. And this is evident from many places. “For,” says one, “doth not he that falleth rise again? or he that turneth away, doth not he turn back to [God]?” (Jer. viii. 4.) It is possible, if we will, that Christ should be formed in us again: for hear Paul saying, “My little children of whom I travail in birth again, until Christ be formed in you.” (Gal. iv. 19.) Only let us lay hold on repentance.

For behold the love of God to man! We ought on every ground to have been punished at the first; in that having received the natural law, and enjoyed innumerable blessings, we have not acknowledged our Master, and have lived an unclean life. Yet He not only has not punished is, but has even made us partakers of countless blessings, just as if we had accomplished great things.

Again we fell away, and not even so does He punish us, but has given medicine of repentance, which is sufficient to put away and blot out all our sins; only if we knew the nature of the medicine, and how we ought to apply it.

What then is the medicine of Repentance and how is it made up? First, of the condemnation of our own sins; “For” (it is said) “mine iniquity have I not hid” (Ps. xxxii. 5); and again, “I will confess against myself my lawlessness unto the Lord, and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my heart.” And “Declare thou at the first thy sins, that thou mayest be justified.” (Isa. xliii. 26.) And, “The righteous man is an accuser of himself at the first speaking.” (Prov. xviii. 17.)

Secondly, of great humbleness of mind: For it is like a golden chain; if one have hold of the beginning, all will follow. Because if thou confess thy sin as one ought to confess, the soul is humbled. For conscience turning it on itself causeth it to be subdued.

Other things too must be added to humbleness of mind if it be such as the blessed David knew, when he said, “A broken and a contrite heart God will not despise.” (Ps. li. 17.) For that which is broken does not rise up, does not strike, but is ready to be ill-treated and itself riseth not up. Such is contrition of heart: though it be insulted, though it be evil entreated, it is quiet, and is not eager for vengeance.

And after humbleness of mind, there is need of intense prayers, of many tears, tears by day, and tears by night: for, he says, “every night, will I wash my bed, I will water my couch with my tears. I am weary with my groaning.” (Ps. vi. 6.) And again, “For I have eaten ashes as it were bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.” (Ps. cii. 9.)

And after prayer thus intense, there is need of much almsgiving: for this it is which especially gives strength to the medicine of repentance. And as there is a medicine among the physicians’ helps which receives many herbs, but one is the essential, so also in case of repentance this is the essential herb, yea, it may be everything. For hear what the Divine Scripture says, “Give alms, and all things shall be clean.” (Luke xi. 41.) And again, “By alms-giving and acts of faithfulness sins are purged away.” (Prov. xvi. 6.) And, “Water will quench a flaming fire, and alms will do away with great sins.” (Ecclus. iii. 30.)

Next not being angry with any one, not bearing malice; the forgiving all their trespasses. For, it is said, “Man retaineth wrath against man, and yet seeketh healing from the Lord.” (Ecclus. xxviii. 3.) “Forgive that ye may be forgiven.” (Mark xi. 25.)

Also, the converting our brethren from their wandering. For, it is said, “Go thou, and convert thy brethren, that thy sins may be forgiven thee.” And from one’s being in close relations with the priests, “and if,” it is said, “a man hath committed sins it shall be forgiven him.” (Jas. v. 15.) To stand forward in defense of those who are wronged. Not to retain anger: to bear all things meekly.

There are a couple of key points that I know would seem odd to my United Methodist congregation, though they aren’t contrary to Wesleyan theology.

First, as I already mentioned, the strong emphasis on baptism and its character. One can repent, but cannot be rebaptized. Many modern church members see baptism as nothing more than a celebration of a life experience, rather than the deep spiritual reality reflected here and elsewhere in patristic literature.

Second, the description of the nature of repentance and the activities and attitudes that go with it will be foreign to many modern Christians. Repentance often means to us that we say “I’m sorry” and express determination not to continue, with a level of determination that will keep us on the straight and narrow until nightfall.

I might think some of the intensity reflected in this passage is perhaps slightly overdone, but then again, perhaps it is a necessary expression. Are we not more likely to treat our sin more lightly than it deserves than we are to treat it too harshly?

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