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Archive for February, 2015

In our customary self-centered Christianity, we tend to think of confession — if at all — only as a way to gain absolution, the removal of our guilt. Forgiveness does do that indeed but it leads to something far more important.

Bonhoeffer (Ethics, DBWE 6:136) wrote:

Christ conquers us never more strongly than by completely and unconditionally taking on our guilt and declaring it Christ’s own, letting us go free. Looking on this grace of Christ frees us completely from looking at the guilt of others and brings Christians to fall on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Confession does open us to forgiveness, yes. It also opens us to being conquered, claimed by Christ. As he takes on our guilt, he takes us on! We do not drink forgiveness as if from a tap, then turn and go our way. Like blind Bartimaeus, when freed by Christ to go our way, we follow him to Jerusalem. His way is now our way.

And confession protects us from the awful tendency, fostered and nurtured to perfection by many in the church, to concern ourselves with the sins of others. We seem to enjoy the feeling of superiority that comes from becoming judges of other people. None of us is totally free of that temptation but it seems to be especially strong in those who live with a strong sense that right and wrong are defined by rules and regulations, laws and traditions . . . as were the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

Instead, confession simply drives us to our spiritual knees in humility and full awareness that we live solely by the miraculous grace of God. The one who does not live with “Thank you, Lord” on the tip of his or her tongue, has no right to look down at others.

Bonhoeffer adds another dimension to our need for confession and forgiveness:

. . .the quite personal sin of each individual is acknowledged as a source of poison for the community. Even the most secret sin of the individual soils and destroys the body of Christ (I Corinthians 6:15).

Sin is toxic. Sin is contagious. It is a poison which seeps from one to another to the whole, if not by causing others to fall into the same sin, then by dampening the sense of openness to and rejoicing in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

By the grace of God, we are called to confession, cleansed by forgiveness, and restored to freedom and joy in following Jesus Christ, bringing others along with us in our devotion to Christ.

What does an atheist do with his or her sin? Simply try to atone and/or dismiss the sin or its consequences. And remain alone at the deepest level. And that is very sad.

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The question of God’s goodness is interesting in and of itself but it must be preceded by another: By what means can we decide whether God is good? Many in the world today have a ready answer: If God does things the way I would, then he is good. In other words, we can declare God good only if he meets our standards. We are the judges.

There are several problems, of course, with this approach. One is that if God is God, we are incapable of measuring and evaluating his character. He cannot be subsumed under any of the categories we are capable of imagining. Another problem is that “our standards” vary greatly from person to person and from time to time and from culture to culture. As Bonhoeffer said in the essay “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic” in 1929, “Ethics is a matter of blood and a matter of history.”

So we cannot answer the question of God’s goodness by starting with our own definition of goodness. What we are left with (think about this carefully) is, If God is God then God is good. That is to say, God is himself the definition of good. That which is good is whatever is in harmony with the character of God.

How do we know the character of God? Through Scripture and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer said in Ethics, “The source of a Christian ethic is not the reality of one’s own self, not the reality of the world, nor is it the reality of norms and values. It is the reality of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ.”

Bonhoeffer is rejecting an “ethic of motives” and an “ethic of consequences” and an ethic of rules and regulations. The alternative is an “ethic of character.” That is, goodness is not a matter of good intentions and not a matter of good results. It is simply a matter of character, a matter of our unity with Jesus Christ.

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Sometimes people are irritated that Bonhoeffer spoke of “religionless Christianity,” as if it weren’t immediately recognizable as a thoroughly biblical idea. The problem, I suppose, is that we are more used to hearing our own cliches than to hearing the Bible itself. We’ve trimmed and tamed a wild and dangerous book.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). In our desire to evade the direct challenge of that verse, we have to work at it a bit to make the message seem unclear or uncertain. God isn’t asking religion of us. He wants to see in our lives and in our fellowships justice, kindness, and a humble devotion.

“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you'”(Jeremiah 7:22-23). The Lord is not asking religious sacrifice of us. Such sacrifice is an evasion of responsibility: Let the goat pay the price for my sin! Let the slaughtered lamb bear the burden of pleasing God!

Instead, we are challenged in ways like this: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2) Don’t put animals in your place on the altar of sacrifice — put yourself there!

We are not called to ceremony but obedience to and harmony with the Voice of our Lord. Is that so hard to understand?

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