Posts filed under ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’

Ash Wednesday: The Church Confesses… (Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Guilt, Justification, and Renewal)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s radical message reaches to our own day.

From his unfinished magnum opus, Ethics, we are given an essay on ‘Guilt, Justification, and Renewal’[1]. In this astonishing document, Bonhoeffer dares to confess in the name of the Church the Church’s failure to keep God’s commands in his own time. Then he recognizes the objections some will raise and answers them.[2]

This Lent, may the Church not only remind individual members of their sins, but understand and confess its corporate guilt in refusing to be Christ for the world, so that in the confession of the Church, ‘humanity may be judged by Christ and therefore exist before him,’ and ‘convicted in their guilt, (be) justified by the one who takes on and forgives all human guilt, namely, Jesus Christ.’ [3]

The church confesses that it has not professed openly and clearly enough its message of the one God, revealed for all times in Jesus Christ and tolerating no other gods besides. The church confesses its timidity, its deviations, its dangerous concessions. It has often disavowed its duties as sentinel and comforter. Through this it has often withheld the compassion that it owes the despised and rejected. The church was mute when it should have cried out, because the blood of the innocent cried out to heaven. The church did not find the right word in the right way at the right time. It did not resist to the death the falling away from faith and is guilty of the godlessness of the masses.

The church confesses that it has misused the name of Christ by being ashamed of it before the world and by not resisting strongly enough the misuse of that name for evil ends. The church has looked on while injustice and violence have been done, under the cover of the name of Christ. It has even allowed the most holy name to be openly derided without contradiction and has thus encouraged that derision. The church recognizes that God will not leave unpunished those who so misuse God’s name as it does.

The church confesses it is guilty of the loss of holidays, for the barrenness of its public worship, of the contempt for Sunday rest. It has made itself guilty for the restlessness and discontent of working people, as well as for their exploitation above and beyond the workweek, because its preaching of Jesus Christ has been so weak and its public worship so limp.

The church confesses that it is guilty of the breakdown of parental authority. The church has not opposed contempt for age and the divinization of youth because it feared losing the youth and therefore the future, as if the future depended on the young! It has not dared to proclaim the God-given dignity of parents against revolutionary youth and has made a very worldly-minded attempt ‘to go along with youth.’ Thus it is guilty of destroying countless families, for children’s betraying their parents, of the self-divinizing of youth, and therefore of abandoning them to fall away from Christ.

The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering of body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them. It has become guilty of the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

The church confesses that it has not found any guiding and helpful word to say in the midst of the dissolution of all order in the relationship of the sexes to each other. It has found no strong or authentic message to set against the disdain for chastity and the proclamation of sexual licentiousness. Beyond the occasional expression of moral indignation it has had nothing to say. The church has become guilty, therefore, of the loss of purity and wholesomeness among youth. It has not known how to proclaim strongly that our bodies are members of Christ.

The church confesses that it has looked on silently as the poor were exploited and robbed, while the strong were enriched and corrupted.

The church confesses its guilt toward the countless people whose lives have been destroyed by slander, denunciation, and defamation. It has not condemned the slanderers for their wrongs and has thereby left the slandered to their fate.

The church confesses that it has coveted security, tranquility, peace, property, and honor to which it had no claim, and therefore has not bridled human covetousness, but promoted it.

The church confesses itself guilty of violating all of the Ten Commandments. It confesses thereby its apostasy from Christ. It has not so borne witness to the truth of God in a way that leads all inquiry and science to recognize its origin in this truth. It has not been able to make the loving care of God so credible that all human economic activity would be guided by it in its task. By falling silent the church became guilty for the loss of responsible action in society, courageous intervention, and the readiness to suffer for what is acknowledged as right. It is guilty of the government’s falling away from Christ.

Is this going too far? Should a few super-righteous people rise at this point and try to prove that not the church but all the others are guilty? Would a few churchmen like to dismiss this as a rude insult and, presuming to be called judges of the world, proceed to weigh the mass of guilt here and there and distribute it accordingly? Was not the church hindered and bound on all sides? Was not all worldly power arrayed against it? Should the church have endangered its ultimate purpose, its public worship and its congregational life, by taking up the struggle against anti-Christian powers? So speaks unbelief, which perceives confession of guilt not as regaining the form of Jesus Christ who bore the sins of the world, but only as a dangerous moral degradation. Free confession of guilt is not something that one can take or leave; it is the form of Jesus Christ breaking through in the church. The church can let this happen to itself, or it will cease to be the church of Christ. Whoever spoils the church’s confession of guilt is hopelessly guilty before Christ.

In confessing its guilt the church does not release people from their personal confession of guilt, but calls everyone into a community of confession. Only as judged by Christ can humanity that has fallen away exist before Christ. The church calls all whom it reaches to come under this judgment.

The church and the individual, convicted in their guilt, are justified by the one who takes on and forgives all human guilt, namely, Jesus Christ. This justification of the church and the individual consists in their becoming participants in the form of Christ. It is the form of the human being judged by God, delivered over to the death of the sinner, and awakened by God to new life. It is the form of the human being as it is truly before God. Only as drawn into the shame of the cross, the public death of the sinner, is the church – and the individual in it – received into the community of glory of the one who was awakened to new righteousness and new life.


[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol.6). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004, 134-145. (Quoted text from pages 138-42.)

[2] The critical apparatus in the DBW edition from which this excerpt is taken has several very helpful explanations of the specific problems in German society Bonhoeffer may have been addressing. Nevertheless, multiple interpretations and implications may be taken for our own day, which will no doubt vary depending upon the perspective of the reader.

[3] Ibid., 142.

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February 22, 2012 at 7:00 am 2 comments


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