In response to the sermon this past Sunday, Colleen Peters passed along a series of quotes from four very significant theological writers: Richard Foster, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and Frederick Buechner. We thought it made a lot of sense to share these words here, as they provide enough food for thought to keep us all nourished for a good while.
* * * * *
First up is Richard Foster, from his landmark book Celebration of Discipline:
“Confession is a difficult discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. … therefore we hide ourselves from one another and live in veiled lies and hypocrisy. But if we know that the people of God are first a fellowship of sinners, we are freed to hear the unconditional call of God’s love and to confess our needs openly before out brothers and sisters. We know we are not alone in our sin. The fear and pride that cling to us like barnacles cling to others also. We are sinners together. In acts of mutual confession we release the power that heals. Our humanity is no longer denied, but transformed. … Bonhoeffer writes, ‘a man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light.’ … The discipline of confession brings an end to pretense. God is calling into being a church that can openly confess its frail humanity and know the forgiving and empowering graces of Christ. Honesty leads to confession, and confession leads to change. May God give grace to the church once again to recover the discipline of confession.”
* * * * *
Next, an extended excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship:
“Confess your faults to one another” (James 5:16) He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, not withstanding corporate worship, common prayer and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness, the final breakthrough to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone in our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!
But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone. “My son. Give me thine heart” (proverbs 23:26) God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates the sin.
Christ became our brother in the flesh in order that we might believe in him. In him the love of God came to the sinner. Trough him men could be sinners and only so they could be helped. All sham was ended in the presence of Christ. The misery of the sinner and the mercy of God – this was the truth of the Gospel in Jesus Christ. It was in this truth that his church was to live. Therefore, He gave his followers the authority to hear the confession of sin and to forgive sin in his name. “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” (john 20:23)
When he did that Christ made the Church, and in it our brother a blessing to us. Now our brother stands in Christ’s stead. Before him I need no longer to dissemble. Before him alone in the world would I dare to be the sinner that I am; here the truth of Jesus Christ and his mercy rules. Christ became our brother in order to help us. Through him our brother has become Christ for us in the power and authority of the commission Christ has given to him. Our brother stands before us as the sign of the truth and the grace of God. He has been given us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name. he keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.
So in the Christian community when the call to brotherly confession and forgiveness goes forth it is a call to the great grace of God in the church.”
* * * * *
On to C.S. Lewis, from The Weight of Glory:
“Now it seems to me that we often make a mistake both about God’s forgiveness of our sins and about the forgiveness we are told to offer to other people’s sins.
Take it first about God’s forgiveness. I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology, I will never hold it against you and everything will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it, you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites. Of course in dozens of cases, either between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two. Part of what seemed to be at first the sins turns out to be really nobody’s fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven. If you had a perfect excuse you would not need forgiveness: if the whole of your action needs forgiveness then there was no excuse for it. But the trouble is that what we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some ‘extenuating circumstances’. We are so very anxious to point these out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. And if we forget this we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses.
There are two remedies for this danger. One is to remember that God already knows all the real excuses very much better than we do. If there are real ‘extenuating circumstances’ there is no fear that He will overlook them. Often He must know many excuses that we have never thought of, and therefore humble souls will, after death, have the delightful surprise of discovering that on certain occasions they sinned much less than they had thought. All the real excusing He will do. What we have got to take to Him is the inexcusable bit, the sin. We are only wasting time by talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused. When you go to a doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong – say, a broken arm. It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and eyes and throat are all right, the doctor will know that.
The second remedy is really and truly to believe in the forgiveness of sins. A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it: from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favour. But that would not be forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.“
* * * * *
And finally from Frederick Buechner, with words that speak to the principal text for the sermon, 1 John 1:8-9:
“The gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy. And yet, so what? So what if even in his sin the slob is loved and forgiven when the very mark and substance of his sin and of his slobbery is that he keeps turning down the love and forgiveness because he either doesn’t believe them or doesn’t want them or just doesn’t give a damn? In answer, the news of the gospel is that extraordinary things happen to him just as in fairy tales extraordinary things happen. … Lear goes berserk on a heath but comes out of it for a few brief hours every inch a king. Zaccheus climbs up a sycamore tree a crook and climbs down a saint. Paul sets out a hatchet man for the Pharisees and comes back a fool for Christ. It is impossible for anybody to leave behind the darkness of the world he carries on his back like a snail, but for God all things are possible. That is the fairy tale. All together they are the truth.”