Pious Fellowship Permits No Sinners

A Christian’s “wish dream” destroys Christian community. In Community (Chap 1 of Life Together), Bonhoeffer explains that it is a Christian’s “wish dream” that is the cause of breaking a spiritual Christian community or fellowship. Why? It is because a serious Christian “is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.” But God shatters such a noble Christian’s wish dream and causes great disillusionment in the Christian community. This is very good when it happens because “every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” Frank Viola regards these observations as “one of the most profound and helpful things that Bonhoeffer ever wrote.”

Confess Your Sins to Each Other (James 5:16). Chap 5 of Life Together is about Confession, which Bonhoeffer regards as critical and crucial to authentic Christian fellowship. “Though (Christians) have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners.” Why can’t genuine Christian community develop from a purely devout fellowship? It is because “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 Gospel Expects Sinners to Come Forth. God came to save sinners. No one can hide anything 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.” All sham must end in the presence of Christ. The misery of the sinner and the mercy of God must be clearly manifested in community and fellowship with one another.

In Confession 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. 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. 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. The expressed acknowledged sin (loses) all its power. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. 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”

In Confession Break-Through to the Cross Occurs. “The root of all sin is pride. The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride. 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 eyes of a brother. Because the humiliations is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing to a brother. 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.”

In Confession Break-Through to New Life Occurs. “Where sin is hated, admitted, and forgiven, there the break with the past is made. Where there is a break with sin, there is conversion. Confession is conversion. Confession is discipleship. Life with Jesus and his community has begun. In confession the Christian begins to forsake his sins. Their dominion is broken. From now on the Christian wins victory after victory.” Prov 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”

In Confession a Man Breaks Through to Certainty. Why is it often easier to confess our sins to God than to a brother who is sinful as we are? If we find this so, might we just be deceiving ourselves and confessing our sins to ourselves and absolving ourselves? Might this be why we relapse to our besetting sins so easily and disobey God so easily? “Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin.” How can we be certain that when we confess our sins our sins are forgiven? “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. It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother. As the open confession of my sins to a brother insures me against self-deception, so, too, the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God.”

Confession Should Deal with Concrete Sins. Otherwise, one might still remain in the dark if they simply make a general confession. “Jesus dealt with people whose sins were obvious. They knew why they needed forgiveness, and they received it as forgiveness of their specific sins.” To Luther, the Christian life was unthinkable without mutual, brotherly confession.

Confess To Whom? Only the brother under the cross. “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.” Why? Because “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. It does not know that man is destroyed only by 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 Danger of the One Who Hears Confession. “This will give rise to the disastrous misuse of the confessional for the exercise of spiritual domination of souls.” What can he do? To not succumb to this sinister danger “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 Danger of the Confessant. He must “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; the 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.”

Confession of sins could become a Christian show of piety. Has confession of sin become routine, habitual, expected, guilt-driven? Has “too pious” of a fellowship not encouraged true confession of sin? Does your Christian community confess concrete sins to each other, resulting in an authentic community?


  1. Ben, I can’t wait to read Bonhoeffer!

    I don’t see the confession Bonhoeffer speaks of as having any value at all for a non-Christian community. It only makes sense for those who believe in the free gift of God: Christ crucified. For all other fellowships, confession of sin is just a pity party.

    I think one reason Christians often stop confessing is that they begin to view confession of sin as a means to get grace. After trying so hard, they find that confession does not bring about grace. The “good for the soul” feeling wears off. Or in the other extreme, some Christians view confession as not being necessary. Why should I confess if Jesus forgave all my sins?

    Hopefully I am reading Bonhoeffer correctly… but I don’t see any of those concepts in the Bonhoeffer quotes above. To him, confession of sin “is the conversion” and seems to be something we continue to do after salvation (not before salvation), and as a way to edify the body of Christ. Confession of sin then becomes almost like a glue, bonding brothers and sisters in the Lord together to encourage us to remain in the grace of God, and hold firmly to the foot of the cross.

    I like to say that Christianity is not Judaism 2.0. I see so many Christians acting like Jews under the Law, as if the gospel is just an improved form of Judaism. So confession loses its value.

  2. Thanks Brian. For sure, true confession can only happen after conversion to Christ by the work of the Spirit. Like any other Christian discipline (prayer, self-control, love, showing mercy, forgiveness, self-denial, etc), confession is not a “work” that we do to get some benefit, even if it is to truly desire an authentic Christian community. Confession is always the result of the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.
    What I mainly got from this is that confession must always be 2 ways. A danger in a hierarchical community is when the “younger” Christian is expected to “sincerely repent,” while the “older” Christian is “not required to do so” like the younger person. I don’t believe that this is ever healthy for any church.

  3. This is a good article that explains how a Christian leader burns himself out and burdens his church members: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/05/13/your-ministry-is-not-your-identity/ I know that as hard, humbling and humiliating as it might feel, I, as an older Christian and a leader, needs tremendous work and tremendous help from others to continually live before the eyes of God and to confess and repent for my own sake!