Bonhoeffer and forgiveness

In my previous post, I suggested that Bonhoeffer’s treatment of the Lord’s Prayer provides additional evidence against any charge of legalism – whether that is legalism in the sense of outright works-righteousness, or in the sense of mixing law elements into the gospel.

What I had in mind was his treatment of the petition, “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors”. Bonhoeffer writes:

Every day, Christ’s followers must acknowledge and bewail their guilt. Living as they do in fellowship with him, they ought to be sinless, but in practice their life is marred daily with all manner of unbelief, sloth in prayer, lack of bodily discipline, self-indulgence of every kind, envy, hatred and ambition. No wonder that they must pray daily for God’s forgiveness.

Note that this puts paid to any notion that Bonhoeffer is presenting sinless perfection, or even a certain level of legal obedience, as a condition for fellowship with Christ. We ought to be sinless, but in reality two things are true about us: we do live in fellowship with Christ, but at the same time we commit real sins that need real forgiveness. Simil iustus et peccator.

But here we hit a snag, namely the condition the prayer imposes on our forgiveness, and which Jesus reiterates in Matthew 6:14,15, immediately after the text of his prayer:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Here, surely, is an opportunity for Bonhoeffer the legalist to bring the hammer down upon us again. The condition is quite simple and straightforward; Jesus means what he says; there is no escape. And indeed this is what Bonhoeffer appears to start to say. However, he then takes this thought in a radically different direction from that which one might expect:

But God will only forgive them if they forgive one another with readiness and brotherly affection. Thus they bring all their guilt before God and pray as a body for forgiveness. God forgive not merely me my debts, but us ours.

Note in particular the word “thus”: it is because we are required to forgive others that we make this prayer corporately. In other words, the corporate nature of the Lord’s prayer, its nature as a prayer of the church, means that it is its own fulfilment of the condition in this petition. As we pray this petition together, at that point we are actually forgiving those who have sinned against us by drawing them into the same prayer. The fact that the old self may spring back to life immediately after our prayer and resume its hatred and unforgiveness is neither here nor there.

Bonhoeffer makes the same point in his exposition of verses 14 and 15:

As a summing up Jesus emphasizes once more that everything depends on forgiveness of sin of which the disciples may only partake within the fellowship of sinners.

Again, this is as far from legalism as it is possible to get. This condition is not aimed at driving us to attempt its fulfilment by our own interior efforts to attain a “forgiving” state of mind; it is pointing us towards the place in which that forgiveness of the sins of others is made concrete and actual, the place in which we acknowledge that those around us are sinners and yet continue to live in fellowship with them: the church.

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