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)


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.

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.

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).

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.

Resurrection, Ascension, and Forgiveness

In the last post we saw the explicit linkage between the cross of Christ and our forgiveness. We now turn our attention to the relationship of forgiveness to the resurrection and ascension of Christ. There are two key texts that draws these themes together, both of which come from the book of Acts.

Text 1

“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation,fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:36-38).
The “therefore” in the text links forgiveness with resurrection. According to Paul, who was the one speaking in the text, forgiveness is now a possibility because the tomb is empty. Christ took upon himself the sin of the world, absorbed the wrath it deserved, and took it with him to the grave. When he rose up from the grave he left our sin there. As a living Savior, he extends forgiveness for the sin he has thoroughly handled. 
Text 2

“The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31).
This text takes things a step further and ties both resurrection and ascension to forgiveness. In fact, in this text, we have cross, resurrection, and exaltation as necessary precursors for forgiveness. The emphasis, however, is on the role of the ascension/exaltation. Notice in the text that the exaltation of Christ was for a specific reason: repentance and forgiveness. Christ was lifted up from the tomb and into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God. He received a rightful seat of authority at God’s right hand in order to forgive.
This gives us a helpful vision of the present posture and purpose of Jesus. Even now he continues to use his power and authority to grant us mercy. He stands ready and able to extend liberating grace to all who would receive. It is as though he is on the edge of his seat looking for every opportunity to grant the forgiveness he so earnestly secured.

Cross and Forgiveness

Forgiveness is rooted in the heart of God, which ultimately finds expression in the saving work of Christ. This saving work encompasses the life, death, resurrection, exaltation, and intercession of Christ. In the next two posts, we will explore different facets of this saving work and their specific contribution to forgiveness. In this post, we will focus on the significance of the cross for forgiveness.

Hebrews contains one of the clearest statements on the link between the cross of Christ and our forgiveness.  Check this verse out. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). The sacrificial system pointed the way to the only possible means of forgiveness: substitution and sacrifice. In God’s economy, where there is no blood there is no forgiveness.

The author of Hebrews presses home this thought in one other place “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:17-18). You can be certain that the presence of forgiveness means that a satisfactory sacrifice has been made. This is a wonderful text. It indicates that the cross of Christ was the definitive sin offering. The Father is completely satisfied with the Son’s death. Nothing, nothing at all can be added to it and nothing further can be done to secure his favor—it is complete.

When Jesus celebrated the Passover and initiated the Lord’s Supper he pointed to the connection of forgiveness and his death. “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you,  for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'” (Matthew 26:26-29). Central to the new covenant is the forgiveness of sin. This text explains that the new covenant was inaugurated through the shed blood of Christ.

All these texts communicate that forgiveness is rooted in and flows out of the cross of Christ. This next passage is an example of forgiveness from the cross. In my view, it captures the heart of God and his intention for being hung upon the tree. “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do'”(Luke 23:33-34). From the cross, Jesus articulates the very reason he is there! What does this communicate about the heart of God and forgiveness? He is extending forgiveness toward sinful acts, directly against him, that are still in progress—they have not even been completed. This is an aggressive extension of liberating grace—a gift he is dying to give.

Debt Cancellation (2)

In this post we will explore two other key texts that explain forgiveness through the lens of debt removal. Again, take note of the financial language throughout these two passages.

Luke 7:41-50: Debt, Forgiveness, and Love
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven-for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
The parable and the factual story drive home the same point. When we grasp the grace of God in removing our debt we are compelled to gratitude and love. Lavish grace is reciprocated by lavish love. The journey of obedience into the first and greatest commandment is directed, motivated, and deepened by grasping the wonder of God’s forgiveness. 
Colossians 2:13-14: The Cross and Debt 
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
In this passage the record of debt likely refers to the condemnation of the law that hangs over our heads due to our transgressions. The text is explicit that the record of debt against us is canceled through the cross. As Christ is nailed to the cross our condemnation and debt is exhausted. 

Debt Cancellation (1)

As was noted in the last post, the cancellation of debt is an important image in the New Testament for explaining and understanding the concept of forgiveness. In this post we will look at two texts that portray forgiveness through this very helpful and accessible image. These texts will not be new to you, but try to look at them with fresh eyes. As you read take note of the debt/payment language.

Matthew 18:21-35: A Parable of a God who Obliterates Debt and Calls us to the Same
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

This is one of the key New Testament passages that addresses the issue of forgiveness. Matthew anchors his discussion in financial imagery. There are three things I would like to draw out from this text.

First, in God’s economy debt/sin is an inescapable reality. Unlike debt here and now, theological debt is not dissolved when we die. The parable is clear that where there is debt there will be payment. This parable opens our eyes to the exorbitant  bill our sin has earned us. It is a payment beyond us.

The second thing this parable draws our attention to is the mercy of the Sovereign. The King of all the earth stands ready to release us from an outrageous debt. This is shocking interaction for a monarch. He gains nothing from releasing this man from his debt—he simply loses. This is mercy.

The third and final observation is that the releasing work of this King is to shape our interaction with those who owe us. This parable brilliantly shows us how ridiculous we are in our unwillingness to release our debtors. Servants of this King are required to imitate his benevolence. Failure to do so excludes one from belonging to this Lord.

Luke 11:2-4: The Lord’s Prayer
And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”

Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer ties together the themes of debt, sin, and forgiveness. This daily petition places forgiveness as a central concern in the life of every believer. We stand before God as debtors. The petition for release should come across our lips as often as our request for daily bread. The ground or basis of this request for forgiveness is very interesting and important. He grounds the request in the fact that our debtors have been released from their outstanding balance. In other words, “God, interact with me, a sinner, the way I have interacted with those who have sinned against me.” This interplay of being forgiven and extending forgiveness is tightly connected throughout the New Testament.