This is not just a problem with the Catholic schema, however. One also finds something similar, e.g., in St Mark of Ephesus. In his first homily on purgatory, Mark distinguishes three remissions of sin: (1) during Baptism, (2) after Baptism, through conversion and good works, and (3) after death, through the prayers and good deeds of the Church. The first remission, Mark tells us, is not bound up with any labor. It is "grace alone and of us is asked nothing else but faith." The second remission is painful, involving contrition, repentance, and weeping. The third remission is also painful, "for it is bound up with repentance and a conscience that is contrite and suffers from insufficiency of good." "Moreover," says St Mark, "in the first and last remission of sins the grace of God has the larger part, with the cooperation of prayers, and very little is brought in by us. The middle remission, on the other hand, has little from grace, while the greater part is owing to our labor." Quite honestly, I find this presentation as unsatisfactory as the classical Roman position. It too seems to suffer from a juridical construal of post-baptismal sin and seems to suggest that God has to be persuaded by our ascetical works to forgive. The unconditionality of God's love and mercy seems to get pushed aside. No wonder some folks in the early centuries inferred that it would be best to postpone Holy Baptism until later in life. Yet surely such an inference is wrong--and not just because death can come to us at any time, without warning.
IMHO, this is an area that requires more reflection by both Catholics and Orthodox.
I will try to take a shot at interpreting St. Mark, according to my understanding of baptism and repentance.
When we believe and are baptized (assuming an adult convert), we repent of our sins, confess them, and commit ourselves to turning our life around in the Body of Christ. Assuming we repented with sincere intentions, our baptism sets us free of all the guilt of our past sins—God has called us to repent, we heard him, and we cooperated with him. We are now forgiven, reconciled to our own conscience, and ready to begin Life in Christ, the process of deification. We must continue to struggle and cooperate with God’s grace to attain this goal, but when we are confronted with the Great White Throne at the Last Day, we have nothing to be ashamed of from before our baptism, because we have turned away from our sins since then.
But now, after baptism, we know better. We have been joined to a higher calling, and ignorance is no longer an excuse for us. If, before our baptism, we had been entrusted with two talents, now after our baptism, we find ourselves with five. We have more to answer for.
To speculate about the third phase of repentence, after death, unless one believes in purgatory, there is not much (probably nothing) a departed soul can do to in tems of good works. It may still repent, but that is all. Hence, it is left to God’s mercy and our prayers.
As for postponing one’s baptism until one is older, I think we both agree that this is a “cheap way out.” However, many of the early converts would postpone their baptism intil age 30 to imitate Christ, not as a “get out of jail free” card. I’m not sure postponing baptism necessitates a legalistic, magical, or otherwise crass understanding of it. There were, of course, people like Constantine, who waited until their deathbed. Whether he was using this as an excuse for any sins he committed after his conversion is something we’ll never know. But doubtless the majority of people postponing their baptism were not taking advantage of it as an excuse to sin more. Surely God looks disfavorably on such a thing.
Does this all make sense to you? We’ve been spending the whole thread trying to dissect the doctrine of purgatory, so I suppose it is fair to try to pick at Orthodox teaching as well!