If we don’t confess to another we’re merely forgiving ourselves

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I recently reviewed (here).

Today’s quote offers what I think is a profound insight. I encourage you to ponder it, prayerfully searching your heart.

‘In confession there occurs a breakthrough to assurance. Why is it often easier for us to acknowledge our sins before God than before another believer? God is holy and without sin, a just judge of evil, and an enemy of all disobedience. But another Christian is sinful, as are we, knowing from personal experience the night of secret sin. Should we not find it easier to go to one another than to the holy God? But if that is not the case, we must ask ourselves whether we often have not been deluding ourselves about our confession of sin to God – whether we have not instead been confessing our sins to ourselves and also forgiving ourselves. And is not the reason for our innumerable relapses and for the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living from self-forgiveness and not from the real forgiveness of our sins? Self-forgiveness can never lead to the break with sin. This can only be accomplished by God’s own judging and pardoning Word. Who can give us the assurance that we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins? God gives us this assurance through one another.’ (113)

‘But it is precisely for the sake of this assurance that confession is about admitting concrete sins. People usually justify themselves by making a general acknowledgment of sin. But I experience the complete forlornness and corruption of human nature, insofar as I ever experience it at all, when I see my own specific sins.’ (113)

‘Does all this mean that confession to one another is a divine law? No, confession is not a law; rather, it is an offer of divine help for the sinner.’ (114)
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4 thoughts on “If we don’t confess to another we’re merely forgiving ourselves

  1. But isn’t it also that with others there is the frightening dynamic of telling them new information about ourselves; whereas when we confess to God we are admitting what He already knows to be true. We have the certainty with God that “He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” – whereas confessing to other sinners carries the risk that they might not be faithful or just, and turn on us, reject us, or even harm us?

    Confessing to others is an essential thing, in helping us gain insight into the depths of our own sin, for sure. But there is more to why we don’t confess to others than these quotes perhaps suggest…

  2. Hey Tim – first of all, I love your books and your blog. Total Church and You Can Change are two of my favorites and books that we keep on our church book table. I’m also a fan of Bonhoeffer and like how you are mining his writings for such good thought-provoking quotes.

    But I’m not sure I agree with him on this point. Surely confession to God is not merely an exercise in self-forgiveness? Of course, there are times when confession to one another is appropriate. But is it necessary for forgiveness? Doesn’t this risk the danger of turning the discipline of confession into a new law that subverts the gospel?

    For an alternative perspective on this, drawing from Calvin’s Institutes, see this article I wrote:


    Grace & peace,
    Brian Hedges

  3. Love this book, and it shows us an unusually ‘practical’ side of Bonhoeffer. Its always worth bearing in mind that this was a practical and ‘lived’ theology hammered out in those heady early days of the confessing seminaries.

    On a somewhat lighter note, just made my own ‘confession’ to the blogosphere today: http://bit.ly/deEyDe

  4. Hi Tim,
    I’ve been really enjoying your quotes from Bonhoeffer.
    I’ve just read “The Doctrine of Repentance” by Thomas Watson (Puritan paperbacks).
    In it he write:

    “Are we bound to confess our sins to men?
    The papists inist much upon auricular confession; one must confess his sins in the ear of ther priest or he cannot be absolved. They urge ‘confess your sins one to another’ (James 5v16), but this scripture is little to their purpose. It may as well mean that the priest should confess to the people as well as the people to the priest…. But I am not for confession to men in a popish sense, yet I think in three cases there ought to be confession to men:
    1) Firstly, where a person has fallen into scandalous sin…..(he carries on)
    2) Secondly, where a man has confessed his sin to God, yet still his conscience is burdened, and he can have no ease in his mind, it is very prerequisite that he should confess his sins to some prudent, pious friend, who may advise him and speak a word to him in due season.
    It is a sinful modesty in Christians that they are not more free with their ministers and other spiritual friends in unburdening themselves and opening the sores and troubles of the soul to them. If there is a thorn sticking in the conscience, it is good to make use of those who may help pluck it out.
    3) Thirdly where any man has slandered another… (he carries on)

    In response to the hideous man’s question:

    Whilst I think it is true that there is “the frightening dynamic of telling them new information about ourselves which carries the risk that they might not be faithful or just, and turn on us, reject us, or even harm us?” I think that Watson says we should confess to “some prudent, pious friend” – that is not all and sundry. And in Tim’s last blog on Bonhoeffer’s confession quotes (27th July). When we confess our sins to one brother or sister, it were as it we were confessing sin to the whole church.

    “In this connection, we are talking exclusively about 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 community with the entire congregation. In the one other Christian to whom I confess my sins and by whom my sins are declared forgiven, I meet the whole congregation.’ (111)”

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