Once More Bonhoeffer

This is the last of three posts that touch on Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about forgiveness and confession. Hope you enjoy the conclusion.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Confession and Communion (Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 118-122)


To whom shall we make confession? According to Jesus’ promise, every christian brother can hear the confession of another. But will he understand? May he not be so far above us in his christian life that he would only turn away from us with no understanding of our personal sins?
Anybody who lives beneath the cross and who has discerned in the cross of Jesus the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart will find there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother. Looking at the cross of Jesus, he knows the human heart. He knows how utterly lost it is in sin and weakness, how it goes astray in the ways of sin, and he also knows that it is accepted in grace and mercy. Only the brother under the cross can hear a confession.
It is not experience of life but experience of the cross that makes one a worthy hearer of confessions. The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest christian who lives beneath the cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of men. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only be his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The christian brother knows when i come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless myself who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the cross of Jesus Christ. It is not lack of psychological knowledge but lack of love for the crucified Jesus Christ that makes us so poor and inefficient in brotherly confession.
In daily, earnest living with the cross of Christ the christian loses the spirit of human censoriousness on the one hand and weak indulgence on the other,and he receives the spirit of divine severity and divine love. The death of the sinner before God and life that comes out of that death through grace become for him a daily reality. So he loves the brothers with the merciful love of God that leads through the death of the sinner to the life of the child of God. Who can hear our confession? He who himself lives beneath the cross. Wherever the message concerning the crucified is a vital, living thing, there brotherly confession will also avail.

There are two dangers that a christian community which practices confession must guard against. The first concerns the one who hears confessions. It is not a good thing for one person to be the confessor for all the others. All too easily this one person will be overburdened; thus confession will become for him an empty routine, and this will give rise to the disastrous misuse of the confessional for the exercise of spiritual domination of souls. In order that he may not succumb to this sinister danger of the confessional every person should refrain from listening to confession who does not himself practice it. Only the person who has so humbled himself can hear a brother’s confession without harm.
The second danger concerns the confessant. For the salvation of his soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession. If he does so, it will become the final, most abominable, vicious and impure prostitution of the heart; his act becomes an idle, lustful babbling. Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil. It is only God’s offer of grace, help and forgiveness that could make us dare to enter the abyss of confession. We can confess solely for the sake of the promise of absolution. Confession as a routine duty is spiritual death; confession in reliance upon the promise is life. The forgiveness of sins is the sole ground and goal of confession.

Though it is true that confession is an act in the name of Christ that is complete in itself and is exercised in the fellowship as frequently as there is desire for it, it serves the christian community especially as a preparation for the common reception of the holy communion. Reconciled to God and men, christians desire to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is the command of Jesus that none should come to the altar with a heart that is unreconciled to his brother. If this command of Jesus applies to every service of worship, indeed, to every prayer we utter, then it most certainly applies to the reception of the Lord’s supper.
The day before the Lord’s supper is administered will find the brethren of a christian fellowship together and each will beg the forgiveness of the others for the wrongs committed. Nobody who avoids this approach to his brother can go rightly prepared to the table of the Lord. All anger, strife, envy, evil gossip and unbrotherly conduct must have been settled and finished if the brethren wish to receive the grace of God together in the sacrament. But to beg a brother’s pardon is still not confession, and only the latter is subject to the express command of Jesus.
But preparation for the Lord’s supper will also awaken in the individual the desire to be completely certain that the particular sins which disturb and torment him and are known only to God are forgiven. It is this desire that the offer of brotherly confession and absolution fulfills. Where there is deep anxiety and trouble over one’s own sins, where the certainty of forgiveness is sought, there comes the invitation in the name of Jesus to come to brotherly confession. What brought upon Jesus the accusation of blasphemy, namely, that he forgave sinners, is what now takes place in the christian brotherhood in the power of the presence of Jesus Christ. One forgives the other all his sins in the name of the triune God. And there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over the sinner who repents.
Hence the time of preparation for the Lord’s supper will be filled with brotherly admonition and encouragement, with prayers, with fear, and with joy. The day of the Lord’s supper is an occasion of joy for the christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and the brethren, the congregation receives the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and, receiving that, it receives forgiveness, new life and salvation. It is given new fellowship with God and men. The fellowship of the Lord’s supper is the superlative fulfillment of christian fellowship. As the members of the congregation are united in body and blood at the table of the Lord so will they be together in eternity. Here the community has reached its goal. Here joy in Christ and His community is complete. The life of christians together under the word has reached its perfection in the sacrament.

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