We have spent the majority of our time exploring forgiveness on the vertical. We have briefly viewed the implications of the vertical for the horizontal. In this post, let’s look a little more closely at two texts that draw out some important things about forgiveness in the community of faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a brilliant chapter about these two texts in his book, Life Together. I will give you the texts first and then turn it over to him to draw out the importance of these passages.Text 1: John 20:21-23
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me,even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.'” Text 2: James 5:13-16
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Confession and Communion (Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 110-112)
He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone it may be that christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break through to fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners the pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we ARE sinners! But it is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: you are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He wants you alone. ‘My son, give me thine heart’ (Prov. 13.26). God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates sin. Christ became our brother in the flesh in order that we might believe in Him. In Him the love of God came to the sinner. Through Him men could be sinners and only so they could be helped. All sham was ended in the presence of Christ. The misery of the sinner and the mercy of God- this was the truth of the gospel in Jesus Christ. It was in this truth that His church was to live. Therefore, He gave his followers the authority to hear the confession of sin and to forgive sin in His name. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained (John 20:23). When He did that, Christ made the church, and in it our brother, a blessing to us. Now our brother stands in Christ’s stead. Before Him alone in the whole world I dare to be the sinner that I am; here the truth of Jesus Christ and His mercy rules. Christ became our brother in order to help us. Through Him our brother has become Christ for us in the power and authority of the commission Christ has given to him. Our brother stands before us as the sign of the truth and the grace of God. He has been given to us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name. He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God. So in the christian community when the call to brotherly confession and forgiveness goes forth it is a call to the great grace of God in the church.