The Nicene Creed

The Nicene creed was written around A.D. 325. It was adopted in the face of the Arian controversy. Arius, a Libyan presbyter in Alexandria, had declared that although the Son was divine, he was a created being and therefore not equal with the Father. He made the statement “there was when he was not.” This belief made Jesus less than the Father, which posed challenges to the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of salvation. The Nicene creed was a response to this challenge and a correction to his error.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
and all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he was born of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and His kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son
he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Nicene creed builds on and elaborates the Apostle’s Creed. Paramount in this creed is the explanation of the person of Christ and his relation to the father. The creed also elaborates on the saving work of the Son, the person and role of the Spirit, and things pertaining to the church. I will highlight a few of these key areas.

  • The Son of God is unique in his dependence on the Father– He is “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This creedal statement has created a lot of discussion and debate throughout church history. The doctrine here described has been called “eternal generation.” A.A. Hodge attempts to put this mystery into words. Eternal generation is “an eternal personal act of the Father wherein, by necessity of nature, not by choice of will, He generates the person (not the essence) of the Son, by communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead, without division, alienation, or change, so that the Son is the express image of His Father’s person, and eternally continues, not from the Father, but in the Father, and the Father in the Son.”
  • The Son of God is unique in his equality with the Father– The creed clarifies and balances the previous statement when it says that the Son was “begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.” The doctrine of “eternal generation” does not call into question the absolute equality of the Father and Son. They share the identical nature and essence. The Son knows no beginning, he has always been. He has always shared everything with the Father.
  • The Son of God is unique in his role as Creator– The creed specifies the Son’s key role in creation: “Through him all things were made.” This is a new and important addition to the Apostle’s creed that further establishes the deity of the Son.
  • The Son of God in his unique role as Redeemer– The creed frames the saving work of Christ in a fresh way. “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” The humility of the incarnation and the empowering of the Holy Spirit are center stage in this description of Christ’s mighty work.
  • The Holy Spirit is unique in his role as Life-Giver– The creed identifies the Spirit as the “Lord,” equal to the Father and Son. As the Lord, he is the “giver of life.” It is the Spirit’s vocation to breathe life and sustain it. We see this in both creation and new creation.
  • The Holy Spirit is unique in his relationship to the Father and Son– The Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This is another phrase that has produced a lot of discussion, debate and significant conflict. The doctrine here has been called the “procession of the Holy Spirit.” A.A. Hodge explains the teaching. Procession refers to “the relation which the third person sustains to the first and second, wherein by an eternal and necessary, i.e., not voluntary, act of the Father and the Son, their whole identical divine essence, without alienation, division, or change, is communicated to the Holy Spirit.”
  • The Holy Spirit is a proper object of our worship– The creed recognizes that worship necessarily follows the affirmation of deity. The Spirit is worthy of worship alongside the Father and Son.“With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.”
  • The Holy Spirit inspired the prophets– The creed affirms the Spirit’s role in the speech of the prophets and by extension the inspiration of Scripture. “He has spoken through the Prophets.”
  • The link between baptism and forgiveness– This creed, unlike any previous, addresses baptism. It also draws a link between forgiveness and baptism. “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

Richard Bauckham on Forgiveness

Here is another section of an interesting article I read by New Testament Scholar, Richard Bauckham. He touches on a very rich aspect of forgiveness—the pain endured to make it possible. In this short reflection, Bauckham touches on the suffering of God that marked his forgiving grace.

When some brutal murder is in the news, reporters always press the victim’s relatives to say how they feel about the murderers. I always find it an unpleasant spectacle. All too often the reporters seem to be trying to extract expressions of hatred and bitterness. Quite often we hear the grieving relatives say that they could never forgive the people who did that.

Of course, we are not surprised that people in such circumstances should feel like that. We easily understand how, being so badly hurt, they should feel it impossible to forgive. We can share their sense that justice demands retribution, not forgiveness.

But then it is all the more striking that sometimes a person in such a situation says that they feel no bitterness towards the murderers. These forgiving people are no less feeling. We can see that they loved their murdered relatives no less than the others who say they cannot forgive did. They grieve no less. In fact, one gets the impression that they have suffered more, felt the hurt more deeply, let it reach further into their hearts. They have absorbed the pain so deeply that it doesn’t come pouring back out of them as bitterness and hatred. They know there’s been quite enough pain and they don’t want to pass any more on, even to those who deserve it.

Sometimes these people come across as characteristically forgiving people, people whom, if you knew them, you would expect to react like this. But that doesn’t mean that forgiving is painless. Quite the opposite. Forgiveness is only painless when the crime is trivial or hasn’t affected us very much. And to forgive what people do to those we love is more painful and more demanding than to forgive what they do to ourselves.

All this may help us to understand a little what it means for God to forgive us. One of the things Jesus showed us is that it is God’s nature to forgive. God is characteristically forgiving. In a sense, we can expect God to forgive. As people sometimes say, “Of course, God will forgive: that’s his business.” Yes, but this doesn’t mean that forgiveness is painless for God. Quite the opposite.

All the evil we do hurts God. It spoils and damages the world God has made and the people God loves and cherishes. So it hurts God deeply. And God absorbs all that pain so deeply that he forgives.

This is one way of understanding how it is Jesus’ death on the cross that brings God’s forgiveness to us. God in Jesus’ suffering bore all the pain of forgiving us. He didn’t let the hurt bounce back against those who crucified Jesus – all of us. He took it into his heart.

This happened in the very public event of Jesus’ crucifixion, an event which has become one of the best known events of history. That’s because we need to see God’sforgiveness. We need to see it in order to really believe it. And we need to see it so that it can affect us and change us.

I don’t know how murderers react when they see their victims’ relatives on the television news. Maybe sometimes it may make them regret what they’ve done. If so, I’m quite sure that it would not be the unforgiving but the forgiving reactions which would have this effect.

When we see God’s forgiveness of our evil – when we view the cross in this way – that changes us. God doesn’t wait till we’ve changed our ways and become better people before forgiving us. Rather it is God’s forgiveness that brings us to repentance and new life.

Gospel Irony in the Joseph Narrative

As we saw in the last post, the story of Joseph is an incredible narrative of forgiveness. This being the case, we can learn some helpful things from this story as we think about the gospel.  I want to focus on the theme of irony and its link to the work of Christ.

The sinful act of the brothers was the saving act of God. By selling their brother into slavery they were securing their rescue. This is how Joseph saw it. This is how God saw it. The story is dripping with irony. Sin was the instrument of salvation. Here is God’s saving equation in the story of Joseph (Gen 50:20).


One event: Joseph is sold into slavery.
Two intentions: Human evil and divine good.
One result: Salvation for the sinful brothers.


 Joseph absorbed in himself the pain of the wrong done to him and extended grace and forgiveness. He recognized that their sin toward him was God’s chosen means to preserve their lives.

This gospel irony is ripe in the crucifixion narratives. God is saving sinners through their sinful actions. The nails pounded into his hands were necessary for the forgiveness of the man holding the hammer.

There was never a more wretched act than the murder of God’s Son. God came to us and our response was to wipe him off the face of his own earth. The cross reveals the true nature of our sin. We would rather destroy God than exist with him. The biblical assertion that we are “enemies of God” is not hyperbole.

Yet, and this is mind boggling grace, the assault of humanity on their Creator is the occasion of their salvation. Here is God’s saving equation in the life of Christ (Acts 2:23).


One event: Jesus is crucified on a cross.
Two intentions: Human evil and divine good.
One result: Salvation for the sinners.


 At the cross, the Son of God takes into himself the vengeance of God against sin. He does not destroy his attackers, he rescues them. He takes our sin to the grave. And do you know what is on his mind when he is raised the third day? Bringing grace to the people that crucified him.

His first order of business was to get his disciples organized to go forth and preach the good news. And their first mission was to herald the gospel to Jews in Jerusalem who were responsible for his death! He was in haste to forgive his enemies. He was eager to wash the hands that were covered with his blood. I don’t understand God’s math, but I am so thankful he operates that way.

The Sovereignty of God: A Remedy for Bitterness?

I spent some time studying and writing on the story of Joseph this month. One of my research assignments was to read the narrative with an eye to the theme of bitterness and forgiveness. I was encouraged by what I learned and a bit surprised as well. You know the story. Here is a thematic rundown of his life.

Joseph was favored by his father, hated by his brothers, and sold by his own flesh and blood. He was wrongly accused for immorality, unjustly imprisoned for integrity, and left to rot in a prison cell. He was forgotten by the cupbearer, remembered by God, and exalted by Pharaoh. He gave food to the hungry, grace to his offenders, and honor to God. He was proud in his early years, humble in his middle years, and stately in his older years.

Joseph had every reason to be a bitter individual. Can you imagine being sold by your own family and then forced into a life of slavery? What about being falsely accused of a crime and then imprisoned for around 13 years at the prime of your life? It is hard to grasp the trauma and pain that Joseph experienced.

In the story, Joseph is brought face to face with his brothers. Amazingly, he gives them grace and forgives them for what they did. It was not easy, the text seems to point to the conflict raging within Joseph. He held a position of authority that would have enabled him to exact vengeance on his brothers. He refuses revenge. Instead, he pardons and absorbs the pain. Forgiveness always requires that someone absorb the pain of the wrong.

What enabled Joseph to give grace? How could he after so much suffering? Throughout the story, Joseph points to his source of strength multiple times. This is where the surprise comes. Joseph’s forgiveness was rooted in and motivated by the the sovereignty of God. What a strange place to draw this type of strength. Wouldn’t God’s sovereignty actually make Joseph more bitter? After all, he was ultimately responsible for Joseph’s suffering.

Joseph didn’t see it that way. He makes some incredible statements in this story about his faith in God’s comprehensive reign. Here are two sections of the story that capture Joseph’s astonishing perspective.

So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt (Genesis 45:4-8).

Joseph’s grace toward his brothers came flowing out of the conviction that God put him in Egypt. Three times he calls God the sender. He views his brothers wicked plan as the means through which God worked out his plan. Notice how the people who wronged him fade away in light of his belief in God’s control. His beef was ultimately with God. I would guess that there were many late night wrestling matches with God while in prison that brought him to this place of calm trust.

After Jacob dies the brothers are fearful that Joseph is going to lash out on them. They approach Joseph and get on their knees to beg for mercy. Joseph weeps at their actions. Then he makes this statement.

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:19-21).

Again Joseph turns to his faith in God’s sovereignty. He knew his place and he let God have his. He did not attempt to sit in the Judge’s seat. He did not attempt to transgress his creaturely boundaries. He knew his place and he accepted it. He also believed that all the horrible things that happened to him were orchestrated by a God of good intentions. He even grasped that all he went through was for the benefit of the very people that had wronged him so terribly. Joseph waged war on his bitterness and his weapon was God’s sovereignty.

Divine Forgiveness: The Trinitarian Shape of Liberating Grace

This is the last post in a long series of meditations on the theme of forgiveness. It seemed fitting to conclude with a look at the Trinitarian shape that divine forgiveness inevitably takes. It is inevitable due to the fact that when we speak of God extending forgiveness we are talking about Father, Son, and Spirit pardoning sin. When you look at forgiveness in the New Testament through this lens some rich insights emerge.

The Father


God the Father is the benevolent King who cancels our debts  (Matt 18:21-35). He is often designated as the subject of forgiveness (Eph 4:32, Col 2:14, 3:13, 1 Jn 1:9). He is the one in heaven to whom  we direct our prayers for pardon (Mk 11:25, Lk 11:4). The Father is specified as the one who refuses to hold our sin against us and instead buries it out of sight. (Rom 4:7-8, Heb 10:17). We learn that forgiveness flows from the riches of his grace and is accomplished for his name sake (Eph 1:7-8, 1 Jn 2:12).
 The Son


God the Son proves his divine identity through his authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:1-10, Matt 9:1-7, Lk 5:18-26, Acts 13:36-40). His mission served to both reveal and conceal the forgiveness of sin (Lk 1:77, Mk 4:12). Like his father, Jesus releases people from their awful debts  (Lk 7:41-49). The unique role of the Son is that he accomplishes forgiveness through his blood (Matt 26:27-29). Even while breathing his last breath upon the cross the Son is speaking forgiveness (Lk 23:34). The Father’s invitation to a new relationship marked by liberating grace is contingent upon, indeed created by the death and resurrection of his Son (Matt 26:27-29, Acts 5:30-32, 13:36-40).  The New Testament is adamant that forgiveness is a reality exclusively in Christ (Eph 1:7-8, 4:32, Col 1:13-14).
The Holy Spirit


The Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence is tied directly to the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38-39). The Spirit takes the new covenant blessing of forgiveness (Matt 26:27-29) and presses it into our conscience. The Spirit empowers the proclamation of the forgiveness of sin (Lk 4:18-19). The Spirit also directs the church and guides them into intelligent forgiveness (Jn 20:22-23). He is also the sole object the one sin that was considered beyond forgiveness (Matt 12:31-32, Lk 12:10), which was essentially to equate the Holy Spirit with an unclean demonic presence (Mk 3:28-30).
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit


The work of God always consists of unity and diversity. We can discern the unique traces of each of  the individual persons in the Trinity in the work of forgiveness and yet we can never separate them. The grace of pardon is the work of the one true God. There are two forgiveness texts that make explicit mention of the three persons of the Trinity.
John 20:22-23
“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.'”
The mission of the Trinity was forgiveness  for the world. The Father sent the Son who accomplished this saving work by the Spirit. John tells us that this same pattern shapes the mission of the church. Sent by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit, the church is invested with the authority to declare forgiveness to the world and in the community of faith. The text is quite clear that the Spirit empowers the forgiveness that is modeled after the sacrificial love of the Father and Son. Forgiveness in the world is meant to mirror the divine forgiveness of the Godhead.
Ephesians 4:29-5:2
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” 
The cross provides the contours for properly thinking about forgiveness. The grace of pardoning someone else is to be an act of imitation. We are to view the work of God and mimic that as we relate to those who have wronged us. Just as the Triune God has forgiven us so we are to forgive.  Divine forgiveness includes the united and specific work of each of the persons of the Trinity: the sending work of the Father, the sacrificial work of the Son, and the serving work of the Spirit. 
From where we stand the call of forgiveness is a call to sacrifice and death. The work of pardon is always preceded by death. For us, we must die to our bitterness, wrath, and revenge. We must drown the old man and all his desires to withhold grace from the offender. This requires trust in the Father, power from the Spirit, and the pattern of Christ. It also requires the forgiveness of God that we are trying to be conduits of to others. In our attempts to forgive we need forgiveness.
We can be confident and assured that we are in good hands. God is no stranger to the work of forgiveness. He authored this work and practices it with amazing skill and passion. He will apply that forgiveness to us and enable us to do so with others. He is committed to do this for those that belong to him.
 

The Ground of Forgiveness

Why forgive? Why does God forgive? Why should we forgive? The “why” question drives us down to the ground level of forgiveness. What are the biblical grounds for forgiveness? Here are two New Testament texts that provide a helpful entry point into this discussion.

For His Sake
“I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1 Jn 2:12). God forgives us for his own sake. This is not a new thought. It is as old as the book of Ezekiel. At the peak of Israel’s rebellion God unveiled his gracious plan and promise. But look closely at his motivation.

“But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came. ‘Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.  And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you'” (Ez 36:21-26).

The entire new covenant was motivated by God’s concern for his holy name and his desire to vindicate it. He even goes as far to say, “It is not for your sake.” Forgiveness, cleansing, a new heart, and the Holy Spirit are all gifts of this new promise (Ez 36:25-27). These are all given us for his name sake. God’s concern for his name is foundational to our forgiveness. This is rock solid ground. Our forgiveness is secure and certain because his commitment to his holy person is immutable. If God’s name undergirds our good then we are well situated.

For Your Sake
“Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs”  (2 Cor 2:5-11).

This passage is in the context of church discipline. One of the members of the Corinthian congregation has been removed from the fold for immorality. Paul is calling on the church to observe his repentant posture and  welcome him back into the community. He tells them to follow his example and forgive the man. He then states that he forgave him for their sake so that they would not be deceived by the evil one. Forgiveness  here is for the benefit of  all human parties. It is for the sake of the forgiven one and the forgiving one.  This perspective nicely balances the one above. It is my view that divine forgiveness is concerned about all three parties. Forgiveness is for the sake of God, the sake of the offender, and the sake of the offended.

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 CONFESS?


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.
TWO DANGERS


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.
THE JOYFUL SACRAMENT


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.
 

More from Bonhoeffer on Confession and Forgiveness

This post picks up where the last one left off. This entire chapter by Bonhoeffer on forgiveness is worthy of attention. I will spread the rest of the chapter out over this post and one other.  I believe you will be helped and challenged by it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Confession and Communion (Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, 112-118)

BREAKING THROUGH TO COMMUNITY


In confession the break through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle  until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16).
Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a christian brother, the last stronghold of self justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother. The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God. It has been taken away from him. Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ. Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time. The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren in Jesus Christ. 
Moreover, what we have said applies solely to confession between two christians. A confession of sin in the presence of all the members of the congregation is not required to restore one to fellowship with the whole congregation. I meet the whole congregation in the one brother to whom I confess my sins and who forgives my sins. In the fellowship I find with this one brother I have already found fellowship with the whole congregation. In this matter no one acts in his own name nor by his own authority, but by the commission of Jesus Christ. This commission is given to the whole congregation and the individual is called merely to exercise it for the congregation. If a christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother he will never be alone again, anywhere.
 BREAKING THROUGH TO THE CROSS


In confession occurs the break through to the cross. The root of all sin is pride, superbia. I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death. The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride; for it is precisely in his wickedness that a man wants to be God. Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride. To stand there before a brother as a sinner is an ignominy that is almost unbearable. In the confession of concrete sins the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eves of a brother. Because this humiliation is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing to a brother. our eyes are so blinded that they no longer see the promise and glory in such abasement. 
It was none other that Jesus Christ Himself who suffered the scandalous, public death of a sinner in our stead. He was not ashamed to be crucified for us as an  evildoer. It is nothing else by our fellowship with Jesus Christ that leads us to the ignominious dying that comes in confession in order that we may in truth share in His cross. The cross of Jesus Christ destroys all pride. We cannot find the cross of Jesus if we shrink from going to the place where it is to be found, namely, the public death of the sinner. And we refuse to bear the cross when we are ashamed to take upon ourselves the shameful death of the sinner in confession. In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the cross of Jesus Christ, in the confession we affirm and accept our cross. In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother-which means, before God- we experience the cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation. The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life.
BREAKING THROUGH TO NEW LIFE


In confession the break through to new life occurs. Where sin is hated, admitted, and forgiven, there the break with the past is made. ‘Old things are passed away.’ But where there is a break with sin, there is conversion. Confession is conversion. ‘Behold, all things are become new’ (2 Cor 5:17). Christ has made a new beginning with us. As the first disciples left all and followed when Jesus called, so in confession the christian gives up all and follows. Confession is discipleship. Life with Jesus Christ and His community has begun. ‘He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy’ (Prov. 28:13). In confession the christian begins to forsake his sins. Their dominion is broken. From now on the christian wins victory after victory.
What happened to us in baptism is bestowed upon us anew in confession. We are delivered out of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus Christ. That is joyful news. Confession is the renewal of the joy of baptism. ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning’ (Ps. 30:5).
BREAKING THROUGH TO CERTAINTY


In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do,  we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning word of God itself.
Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves by with the living God. God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as i am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. But since the sin must come to light some time, it is better that it happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgment. Our brother has been given me that even here and now Imay be made certain through him of the reality of God in His judgment and His grace. As the open confession of my  sins to a brother insures me against self deception, so too, only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God. Mutual, brotherly confession is given to us by God in order  that we may be sure of divine forgiveness.
But it is precisely for the sake of this certainty that confession should deal with CONCRETE sins. People usually are satisfied when they make a general confession. But one experiences the utter perdition and corruption of human nature, in so far as this ever enters into experience at all, when one sees his own specific sins. Self examination on the basis of all Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession. Otherwise it might happen that one could still be a hypocrite even in confessing to a brother and thus miss the good of the confession. Jesus dealt with people whose sins were obvious, with publicans and harlots. They knew why they needed forgiveness, and they received it as forgiveness of their specific sins. Blind bartimaeus was asked by Jesus: what do you want me to do for you? Before confession we must have a clear answer to this question. In confession we, too, receive  the forgiveness of the particular sins which are here brought to light, and by this very token the forgiveness of all our sins, known and unknown.
Does all this mean that confession to a brother is a divine law? No, confession is not a law, it is an offer of divine help for the sinner. It is possible that a person may by God’s grace break through to certainty, new life, the cross, and fellowship without benefit of confession to a brother. It is possible that a person may never know what it is to doubt his own forgiveness and despair of his own confession of sin, that he may be given everything in his own private confession to God. We have spoken here for those who cannot make this assertion. Luther himself was one of those for whom the christian life was unthinkable without mutual, brotherly confession. In the large catechism he said: ‘Therefore when I admonish you to confession I am admonishing you to be a christian. Those who, despite all their seeking and trying, cannot find the great joy of fellowship, the cross, the new life, and certainty should be shown the blessing that God offers us in mutual confession. Confession is within the liberty of the christian. Who can refuse, without suffering loss, a help that God has deemed it necessary to offer?
 

Forgiveness in Community

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.

Forgiveness as Imperative and Imitation

For the Christ follower, forgiveness is not a choice. Forgiveness is a command. It is a command, however, that has been lived and modeled for us by Jesus. In the New Testament, forgiveness is an imperative to follow and a model to be imitated. These two themes will be looked at briefly.

Forgiveness as Imperative


“And whenever you stand praying, forgive (ἀφίετε), if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive (ἀπολύετε), and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).
In both passages the verb for forgive is in the imperative mood. “Forgive” is a divine command issued without exception to God’s people. It is a responsibility, a must laid upon us if we belong to God.
Forgiveness as Imitation


“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:29-5:2).
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:12-13).
Commanded forgiveness is intended to take on a certain form or shape. The mold of forgiveness into which we are to conform is the sacrifice of Christ. The hinge conjunction “as” draws out this point in both of the above passages. Forgiveness is not formless and void. It has the contours of a ragged, splintered cross. It is a forgiveness that costs and bleeds. The more we understand and think on the grace of the cross the better we will understand the way we are to engage with those who have wronged us.