The practice of confession

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 1234567, 8.

This is the ninth and concluding post in a series examining Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic book on Christian community. His focus in the last chapter is the practice of confession within the church.

Scripture admonishes followers of Christ to "Confess your faults one to another" (James 5:16 KJV). But as Bonhoeffer notes, many Christians neglect this instruction to their detriment: "He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone," and this despite being together with others in worship, prayer and fellowship. Without confession as part of the practice of the community, its fellowship "permits no one to be a sinner... everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship." The result is people gathered together, yet living alone "in lies and hypocrisy" (p110).

Confession leads to truth and liberation

This unfortunate situation compromises the truth and grace of the gospel, which confronts us and then receives us and forgives us as we truly are: sinners! In that there is true liberation. And so Christian community without confession leads to people who are not being truly liberated--people who are wearing masks to conceal truth, rather than being open about the reality of their sin and finding liberation in Jesus Christ who "gave his followers the authority to hear the confession of sin and to forgive sin in his name" (p111). On this point, Bonhoeffer quotes Jesus' instructions to his followers; "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained" (John 20:23 KJV).

Many Protestants are uncomfortable on this point. Can a human forgive sin? Isn't that the purview of God alone? In one sense, yes it is. Sin is against God and God is the one who forgives sin. But Jesus' point (and Bonhoeffer's with him) is that our Lord has given to the church the calling to be conduits of God's forgiveness. And thus the church is called to declare God's forgiveness to people. Make no mistake, doing so represents administering great power and authority--great grace. When a Christian brother stands before another Christian brother who is confessing their sin, he is doing so in Christ's stead, and in Christ's stead he declares the liberating truth of God's forgiveness in Christ. Something very profound, very powerful is occurring here.

As grace-filled brothers receive the confessions of their brothers, they are extending God's word of forgiveness. And as this occurs, the community becomes a place of truth--of openness--of mercy--of real healing. In such a community a person need not hide from the truth of their own sin. They can dare to be the sinner that they actually are. They can begin to see Christ more clearly for who he actually is--a brother who is there to forgive and to help. And they also begin to see other members of the community as brothers who are there to help in Christ's stead. 
[Such a brother] 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" (p112).
Through confession of sin, one brother to another, there is true and profound breakthrough to authentic Christian community, and true transformation of individuals. Sin likes darkness, but when it is brought into the light through confession, strongholds that enslave people in sin are broken: "God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron" (Psa 107:16).

This is a breakthrough person-to-person and also a breakthrough to the humility of the Cross. One of the great sins that holds us enslaved to other sins is pride. But confession demands, and yields humility. In confession we die to self--we let go of self-protective false pride. Bonhoeffer comments:
In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ, in 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 had conqured him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life (p114).
And so through the death to self-protective self that real confession is, we enter into new life. In short, "confession is conversion...Christ has made a new beginning with us...Confession is discipleship" (p115). On this point, Bonhoeffer quotes Proverbs: "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Proverbs 28:13). He then notes that "What happened to us in baptism is bestowed upon us anew in confession" (p115).

Why confess to a person?

Some might respond to Bonhoeffer's plea for brother-to-brother confession with this though: "I confess to God, not to people" But Bonhoeffer notes that our confessions to God often are merely confessions to ourselves, and as a result we are living in self-forgiveness rather than in real forgiveness, and so the cycle of sin continues. But when we confess to a brother, we can be certain that we are not merely confessing to ourselves, but to God, represented to us by our brother. 
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... Our brother has been given me that even here and now I may be made certain through him of the reality of God in His judgment and His grace (p116).

Who should hear confession?

Who is qualified to hear a confession of another? Do they need to be a trained psychologist? Bonhoeffer says no. The primary qualification is that such a person lives "beneath the Cross of Jesus: that they be a person who is deeply aware that they too are a sinner saved by grace. Such a person is non-judgmental. Such a person loves the other brother with the merciful love of God that leads through the death of the sinner to the life of the child of God" (p119).

Bonhoeffer also notes that in a Christian community, one person should not serve as the confessor for all the others. When that is the case, there is a danger that the work will become routine and thus an empty sham. Worse yet, there is the danger that it will become a source of spiritual domination.

Confession leading to Communion

Bonhoeffer concludes the book by noting the importance of confession preceding reception of holy Communion. "It is the command of Jesus that none should come to the altar with a heart that is unreconciled to his brother" (p121). It is thus appropriate (even vital) that in the worship services of the community, prayers of confession together with a declaration of forgiveness in Jesus name precede the receiving of the Lord's Supper. But even more importantly, the church that regularly practices confession person-to-person, will find at the Lord's Table true Christian community. Bonhoeffer comments:
Here [at the Lord's Table] 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" (p122).
Here is a sample order of service that would fulfill Bonhoeffer's goal for the community to begin with confession and proceed to a declaration of forgiveness followed by communion.

Call to Confession. The text here was written by Dr. Gary Deddo.
As we enter now into a time when we are renewed by God’s grace,
Let us remember that, the one who died, the one who was raised for us and our salvation, is our living Lord. His ministry did not end on the Cross. Raised from the dead and ascended to the Father, He remains our high priest, continually interceding for us. He remains the one and only mediator between God and humanity.  
Even here and now, this Sunday morning, he serves as our Great Worship Leader. As his adopted brothers and sisters, He takes us into the very presence of God our heavenly Father. Because of him we can approach the throne of grace boldly as we offer our confession. 
Even in our time of confession, he leads us, serving as our gracious and faithful high priest. He is ready to receive our confessions, sanctify them, and lift them up to our heavenly Father. And day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year he more and more enables us by his Spirit to share more completely in the perfect confession he makes in our place and on our behalf as our Great Substitute who lives now and forever to make intercessions for us.
Please join me in the prayer of confession shown in your bulletin [or on screen, etc]
Prayer of Confession. This is recited aloud and in unison by the congregation. The following sample prayer is quoted from the Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Declaration of forgiveness followed by Communion. The worship leader begins by declaring God's forgiveness--typically in prayer like this example adapted from the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God have mercy on us,
forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,
strengthen us in all goodness,
and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life.
Communion is then served with an appropriate invitation and with prayers of consecration/blessing.