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?

Assaulting Hostility

The cross is an assault. In the cross God attacks all that divides us from himself and from other human beings. According to Paul, hostility is the barrier between our Maker and us. It is a mutual hostility. On our end it is wicked, unjustifiable hostility. On the Lord’s side it is just and necessary. In the cross God endures his own hostility toward sinners by sending his Son. He crushes our hostility by uniting us to Christ, erasing our history, and giving us his perfect past. In Christ we are no longer viewed as hostile sinners toward God. At the same time he grants us a regenerate nature and the Holy Spirit who transforms our hostility into love and obedience. In the cross God also annihilates the hostility that exists in human relationships. All that he has done for us by extension transforms human relationships for those in Christ. This cruciform assault on hostility is known as reconciliation. God obliterates everything that keeps us from himself and makes a way for us to draw near to Him. These truths are explained in detail in Ephesians 2:11-19.

Cosmic Reconciliation

In the last two posts the theme of reconciliation has progressively widened. We have moved from the reconciliation of the individual to the reconciliation of members in community. In this post the theme of reconciliation breaks all parameters as it touches every corner of the universe. God’s peacemaking mission is larger than the individual and the community. It includes the globe. Look at this important text in Colossians.

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:19-21).

The Creator has come in the flesh. All the fulness of deity dwells bodily in the man Christ Jesus. Only the Creator could create the cosmos and only the Creator can recreate the cosmos. The work of reconciliation is the work of mending every fracture in the whole created order. The claim of this text is nothing short of astounding. The cross changes the universe. It is by the blood of Christ’s cross that he makes peace and accomplishes reconciliation with all things. It is by the cross that the whole world will be set right. The groaning creation will be liberated because of the cross-work of the Son. Every living being, whether willingly or unwillingly, will be properly subject to the King of Kings. There will be no inch of world that is not transformed by the cross of the Lord Jesus.

James Dunn summarizes this facet of reconciliation. “The vision is vast. The claim is mind-blowing. It says much for the faith of these first Christians that they should see in Christ’s death and resurrection quite literally the key to resolving the disharmonies of nature and the inhumanities of humankind, that the character of God’s creation and God’s concern for the universe in its fullest expression could be so caught and encapsulated for them in the cross of Christ.”

A Fatherless World

Helmut Thielicke once said that, “the history of the world is the story of humanity without a Father.” This drives to the heart of the theme of reconciliation. Every gospel motif or theme helps us understand something about the nature of God, the need of man, and the necessary action God must take if we would be rescued. The theme of reconciliation taps into the image of the family and the setting of the home. It is relational to the core. Our sin separates from our Father and our home. Reconciliation is the gracious activity of the Triune God to mend all thats been ruptured. It is God in pursuit of the orphan and the homeless—-that is the entire world. There are three dimensions to reconciliation in the New Testament. There is a vertical dimension, a horizontal dimension, and a cosmic dimension. In the next three posts I will seek to explain all three.

The Relentless Pursuit

I just completed another gospel poem. This one is on the theme of reconciliation. It attempts to capture God’s fierce and relentless pursuit of his sin ravaged world. In the next few posts I will touch on some of the helpful things I have been learning on this theme.

Forgetting Forgiveness

Character transformation is a significant part of Christian discipleship. The New Testament is filled with exhortations to strive for Christlikeness. Peter has some instructive things to say for how we should think about this area of discipleship. He tells us that we have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). We have been united to Christ and now his very nature and character is finding expression in us. We have been regenerated and reborn, which has created in us a new creation impulse. We have a new desire within our hearts to walk in obedience to God. We have been given the Holy Spirit who compels and enables our every act of good. The good gifts of  the Spirit and our renewed nature flow forth from the gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ issued in both. From Peter’s second letter we learn that the gospel is not merely the origin of our initial transformation. He calls his readers to pursue a long litany of character qualities (2 Pet 1:5-7). He assumes that these qualities will be present and increasing in the life of every disciple. If they are not growing in this he way he tells us there is a clear reason why. “For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Pet 1:9). Like a skilled doctor Peter gives an expert diagnosis of a fruitless life. As he assesses why a believer may lack the godly qualities that should characterize his life he makes a very simple observation: they have forgotten. They have become nearsighted and blind missing the very thing they need to continue growing. They have forgotten forgiveness. They have forgotten the gospel. When the gospel is forgotten godliness wanes. The source of our initial character transformation is the same source of our ongoing change. The flip side of forgetting is remembering. As we continue to remember, believe, and apply the gospel we will be changed. I believe the primary exhortation we need to hear over and over again in our journey is “Remember”! We must remember the gospel of our salvation.

The Welcome of God

Reading Romans 15 this morning I came across this phrase that has become a favorite to me. “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom 15:7). In the context Paul is urging the church to embrace others in spite of differences and disagreements. He is calling them to selfless service. He tells them to imitate Jesus who “did not please himself” (Rom 15:3). At the heart of his instruction stands the cross (Rom 15:4). The greatest act of service and the warmest welcome are both found in the cross of Christ. On that tree Jesus refused to please himself and instead gave himself away for the good of others. The arms of God spread open on the cross are God’s welcome to sinful humanity. He has welcomed us. We therefore are called to welcome others no matter the differences. The cross puts sacrifice at the heart of hospitality.