Bonhoeffer on the Grace of Confession

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the great pastors and theologians of the 20th century. He was also an incredibly brave and socially conscious activist. Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis in 1945 because of his involvement with an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. You can read about Bonhoeffer in Eric Metaxas’ recent Bonhoefferand you can learn more about the assassination attempt in the film Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

Bonhoeffer, more than any other recent protestant thinker that I know of, practiced regular confession of sin and wrote about it extensively. This is a lost grace among many protestants and while it is still practiced among Catholics the heart of it is often misunderstood. Reading Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on confession, most of which can be found in his book Life Together, will help reformed churches to recover this much needed grace. Let me summarize a few of his points:

Confession ought to be concrete

“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.” (p. 117)

We tend to confess generally and only to God. We might throw up a prayer like: “God forgive me for my many sins.” This isn’t very helpful. In order to experience the full grace of confession we need to confess concrete, specific sins. And we need to confess to another person. This isn’t necessarily a divine law, but it is a divine help. When we confess specific sins to actual people we will experience the full benefits that come with confession.

Confession is a means of grace

“When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.” (p. 112)

Often times we think about confession as something that we have to do before we can experience the presence of God and receive grace. Or we might think of confession as a first step in a recovery process. We confess only so that we can then talk about action steps and solutions so that we don’t sin again. Many of us might even come to the table of confession with an action plan already made so that we don’t look entirely shameful (like the prodigal son). But according to Bonhoeffer this is totally missing the point.

Confession isn’t something we do before we can experience grace. It’s not a first step in the recovery process. Confession is itself an experience of grace. Confession is itself recovery. When we confess our sin to a brother or sister we are, in that moment, experiencing the grace and presence of God and simultaneously experiencing recovery. It’s not bad to consider action steps for the future but we need to understand that confession itself paired with nothing else is valuable.

Confession is the doorway to true community

“If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother he will never be alone again, anywhere.”(p. 113)

Unless we know one another as sinners we don’t really know one another at all. We are sinners. So when we all bring hidden sin out into the light we can have full fellowship with each other – not just as believers but also as unbelieving sinners. Because all of us are both. If you’re feeling alone is it because there’s something going on in your life that no one else knows about?

Confession kills our 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.” (p. 114)

When we confess our sin to a brother or sister we are dealing our pride a fatal blow. In the moment of confession we are abandoning our last attempt to justify ourselves. In confession we cannot be seen as strong, capable, or righteous. We are admitting that we are sinful, have no excuses, and that God’s grace is our only hope. In other words, confession is actually trusting Jesus to justify us rather than trying to justify ourselves. The root of all sin is pride. So if confession kills our pride it also kills our sin.

Confession is the start of a new life (every time we confess)

“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.'” (p. 115)

When we confess our concrete sins we also forsake them. To bring them out into the light and to acknowledge their sinfulness is to make a clean break with our sin. It’s just like what happened in our conversion. Every time we confess our sin to a brother or sister we are, in a sense, being converted anew. This doesn’t mean that we’ve lost our salvation and are being saved all over again. But it does mean that we’re experiencing a fresh awareness and experience of our salvation. Confession breaks the power of hidden, ongoing sin. When we bring it out into the light it’s suddenly easy to walk away from it. So in order to combat sin in our lives we ought to confess often and quickly.

For more on Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on confession, read his Life Together.