“Then, along with the other’s freedom comes the abuse of that freedom in sin, which becomes a burden for Christians in their relationship to one another.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 79.
During our exploration of Life Together I have remarked, from time to time, that it would be nice to be able to talk to Bonhoeffer about what he meant when he wrote this thing or that thing, about what he envisioned for the Body of Christ when he described facets of life together, about how his own experience informed his thinking and writing. I find the next three paragraphs of Life Together to be especially the case. I’ve been pondering these paragraphs for a while before writing about them and even now am reluctant to do so because: I have questions for Bonhoeffer about his meaning and how he saw sin and forgiveness in the church in practical daily life; and I cannot possibly share my own thoughts about the matter comprehensively through the medium of a blog – to do so would change the character of this series on Life Together. As it stands, these paragraphs leave many unanswered questions in terms of what Bonhoeffer thought sin and forgiveness should look like in the life of the church – someone who knows Bonhoeffer’s writings better than I do (his sermons and letters and lectures) will likely have a better understanding.
I think that life together needs to be worked out in life together, and as I interact with these three paragraphs I am deeply mindful of this. What I mean is that the relationships of the Body of Christ are dynamic and organic, they are full of life and are animated by the Holy Spirit. I am not aware of any static Biblical language regarding the Church of Jesus Christ. Consider that we are “growing into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21); that we are “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:19).
The Body of Christ is incarnational, it is human and Divine, frail and mighty, sometimes it sees clearly, sometimes dimly – at all times the members of the Body desperately need the grace, and mercy, and life of the Head of the Body, our Lord Jesus. We are different than the first Adam, who became a living soul; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit and it is He who lives within us; the first Man was made of dust, the second Man is the Lord from heaven – our identity is not in the first Man but in the second Man (see 1 Corinthians 15:45 – 49). We are learning to bear the image of the heavenly Man (2 Corinthians 3:17 – 18).
This is important for a Biblical understanding of sin and forgiveness within the Body of Christ, and it is important in terms of what our expectations should be. If our core identity as Christians remains that of sinners – then we ought to expect sin and sin and more sin, for sinners sin as a way of life. On the other hand, if our core identity in Jesus Christ is saints, which is the term the New Testament uses for Christians more than any other term, then we ought to anticipate obedience to Christ as we love Him and others, and as we affirm one another in Jesus Christ. This is not an exercise in positive thinking, it is an exercise of belief in the Word of God, about what God says about the work of Jesus Christ and the reality of that work in us, about His empowering presence within us – as individuals but also, I think, more importantly as His People.
Bonhoeffer writes (page 79), “The sins of the other are even harder to bear than is their freedom…”
The first hurdle we have with the first paragraph are the words “sin” and “sins”. Much of the professing church lives as if it does not think there is such a thing as sin, or it uses the term in the sense of “imperfection” or “mistake”. Sin has been reduced to psychology and therapy, it doesn’t require obedient repentance (the only Biblical repentance). Then there are other Christians who trivialize sin by focusing on cultural norms within their church traditions and elevating those norms to Biblical commandments.
Jesus Christ died on the Cross and experienced the wrath and judgment of God bearing our sins and our sin nature to bring us back to God so that we might live in intimacy with Him and with one another. Sin in all of its forms is hideous, dark, and deadly. When we make sin a matter of psychology or a matter of cultural norm we lessen our perception of its hideousness and we justify ourselves and our truly sinful actions and thinking. When we repent of deviating from religious cultural norms we need not repent of Biblical sins – which are indeed true sin – death-dealing sin.
We are at the place, in much of the professing church, where it is deemed culturally sinful to speak of Biblical sin. When we do this we preclude the follower of Christ from seeking true forgiveness for true sin lest someone be offended. It is as if a person with cancer is prohibited from calling the disease cancer and seeking cancer treatment because the “C” word is unpleasant – he or she may have a allergy pill but not surgery, chemo, or radiation because those treatments are unpleasant and painful. Therefore we have people desperately seeking the closure and redemption and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ in Biblical obedient repentance, but who are precluded from doing so because we will not acknowledge the reality sin. We have hospitals that no longer have treatment rooms or surgeries – we only dispense medications to relieve pain and perform palliative care. Our pastors and teachers are often more like hospice workers than Biblical servants – the difference being that congregations and their leaders deny Biblical sin while hospice workers and their patients know that death is approaching.
Much of the professing church does not know what repentance is, it thinks it is confessing sin but it is much more than that – it means turning around and following Jesus Christ in obedience, this is why I’m styling this as obedient repentance, it is more than confession of sin, more than “I’m sorry” – it is following Jesus.
Perhaps every church ought to ask itself, “Do we believe in Biblical sin? Do we understand the Biblical view of sin? Are we living with an awareness of what true Biblical sin is?”
If I think pancreatic cancer is simple indigestion I will regret it.