When Jimmy was four, he was in a terrible accident. As a result, he lost his left arm almost from the shoulder down. Thankfully, his other injuries weren’t nearly as severe, but it is hard growing up with only one arm. Ten years later, Jimmy made a strange request to his parents. He wanted to learn kung fu.  His parents thought it was a terrible idea, but they brought him to the dojo so the sensei could be the bearer of the bad news. But to the surprise of all, the sensei decided to take Jimmy in. And for the first three months things were great. Jimmy was working on this one move, and the sensei kept pressing him to master it. But while Jimmy was doing this one move over and over again, the other students were learning new kicks and blocks and holds and strikes every week. Each week, it was something new for all the other students. But the sensei would never teach Jimmy anything new. And this was the way it was for a whole year, one move over and over again. And that is why it was surprising that at the end of the year, the sensei entered Jimmy in a full-contact tournament. Jimmy was outraged. He only knew one move. He was going to get killed! But on the day of the tournament, Jimmy won bout after bout and then finally won the championship. But Jimmy couldn’t understand how. And so, he went to his sensei and asked how this could be. “Well,” said the sensei, “for the last year, you’ve worked very hard. And although you only know one move, you really are very good at it.  But it could also be that the move you use only has one real defense against it. Your opponent has to grab your left arm.”

How do we turn a weakness into a strength? The last chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, has left us with a very difficult challenge. Let’s say 100 people read this blog (that’s a wild, wild exaggeration, but let’s go with it). How many of those readers do you think have changed their minds as a result of this blog and are now committed to confessing their sins to a friend? Who thinks 50? Who thinks 25? Who thinks 12? Who thinks 5? I’ll say it: I would be shocked if there was even one. In fact, I think the right answer is less than 1. In fact, even though I argued Bonhoeffer’s case and supported it with James 5:16, honestly, I’m not even sure I want to start confessing my sins any time soon (okay, I am sure. I’m not going to). Now, if no one is interested in confessing their sins to another person and if one of the major points of the book is that we ought to confess our sins, then I would suggest that we have uncovered a real weakness.

But before we can bring a solution to that problem, we ought to answer two remaining questions from the last chapter. First, Bonhoeffer asks: “To whom should we confess?” Can we just pick a person, any person, and confess to them? Bonhoeffer is adamant: “No.” If we just pick a friend, they may actually end up encouraging us in our sin and minimizing our affront. Instead, we need to pick the right kind of person, according to Bonhoeffer:

“Anyone who lives beneath the Cross and who has discerned in the Cross of Jesus
the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart
will find there is no sin that can ever be foreign to him.
Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin
that nailed Jesus to the Cross
will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother.
Only the brother under the Cross can hear a confession.”

We often think that someone who has a similar background to us and has similar experiences and similar weaknesses would be the perfect person to hear our confession. They would know us and understand. But Bonhoeffer disagrees:

It is not experiences of life, but the experience of the Cross
that makes one a worthy hearer of confessions.
The most experienced psychiatrist or observer of human nature
knows infinitely less of the human heart
than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus.
In the presence of a psychiatrist, I can only be a sick man;
In the presence of a Christian brother, I can dare to be a sinner.”

If we don’t have a deep and personal knowledge of sin and an intimate and distinctive knowledge of God’s grace and mercy, a profound awareness of God’s forgiveness and a sense of living daily beneath the Cross of Jesus, we will never be able to hear a confession, much less be willing to confess our sins to another. Confession, both the giving of and the receiving of, requires sitting beneath the Cross.

Second, are there any dangers in confessing our sins to someone? Bonhoeffer names two. First:

“It is not a good thing for one person to be the confessor for all the others.
All too easily this one person will be overburdened.”

A second danger: we can begin to think more highly than we ought of our work as a confessor and begin to think that we are something rather remarkable because of it. Bonhoeffer writes of this danger:

For the salvation of his soul
let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession.
Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil.
Confession as a routine duty is spiritual death.”

It is amazing how wise Bonhoeffer was. And while he solves three of our problems, he still doesn’t solve the big one: If confessing our sin to one another is necessary and good and is at the core of true forgiveness (as opposed to our self-deceived versions where we pardon ourselves), but we are still unwilling to do it, what should we do. If we have a great plan and no one is willing to execute it, then we don’t have a great plan, we have a weak one. So, what should we do? We should prioritize the Lord’s Supper.

As Paul gives the Words of Institution (1 Corinthians 11:23-29), we are admonished not to partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy fashion. While we maintain there are three primary ways we can do that (partake as if the elements were ordinary bread and wine without discerning their symbolic nature, partaking without embracing Jesus as Lord and Savior and coming to the table forgetting that the table is for sinners saved only by grace and, instead, thinking that you have earned the right to come), there is clearly a fourth way that stands behind these three ways; namely coming to the table without first acknowledging and owning our sin. Nothing disqualifies us from partaking of the bread and the wine like refusing to confess our sin. And that is why, as we come to the table, we always set apart a time for all of us to confess of our sin so that we can hear anew that we have been forgiven.  And that is why, long before we partake of the bread and the wine, we invite people to prepare themselves in three ways: to show forth and remember Christ’s death on the cross for us, to open their hearts to receive spiritual nourishment so they can grow in grace, and for them to commune with God and to hear anew that in Christ there is no condemnation. The Lord’s Supper is more than just a celebration of the forgiveness of our sins, but it is at the core of the service. And as we give ourselves over to confess our sins, standing as it were in front of the cross where Jesus gave his body and blood for us, we receive God’s pardon once again.

In the Heidelberg Catechism, question 56 asks, “What do you believe concerning the forgiveness of sins?” Here’s the answer: “That, for the sake of Christ’s reconciling work, God will no more remember my sins or the sinfulness with which I have to struggle all my life long; but that he graciously imparts to me the righteousness of Christ so that I may never come into condemnation.” Here again, we are reminded that when we remember to confess, God forgets our sin and sinfulness. We come to the table loaded down by sin, but in the seriousness of the moment, knowing that it is possible to partake in an unworthy fashion and that the consequences of doing so are grave, we pour out our heart and cry out for God’s mercy and he bestows upon us grace upon grace and forgives us all of our sin.  True, we may not be confessing our sin to another person. True, we may not be enduring public shame and embarrassment from confessing our sin in front of a friend. True, we may not be deeply humbled by our guilt, but at the Lord’s Table, we see the cross, we are broken by our sin, we affirm that we are sinners, we admit that we have no hope except in God’s outpouring of grace, and we confess our sin directly to Jesus who died for us. And in that experience, we are in one moment, “horrified by the dreadfulness of our own sin that nailed Jesus to the cross” and overcome with joy, for we know that our sins have been washed away in Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Is confessing our sin in the presence of the Lord’s Supper the same as confessing it to another person? At first glance, probably not, but it is very close. And if we approach the Lord’s Supper with the solemnity and seriousness it deserves, I believe it can actually be as powerful and even as meaningful. See, the Lord’s Supper gives us a place to be real about our sin, to publicly confess our guilt and shame, and a place literally to taste God’s forgiveness.  Bonhoeffer writes:

“The day of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion of joy for the Christian community.
Reconciled in their hearts with God and the brethren,
the congregation receives the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ,
and, receiving that, it revives forgiveness, new life and salvation.
It is given new fellowship with God and men.
Here, the community has reached its goal.
Here, joy in Christ and his community is complete.
The life of Christians together under the Word
has reached its perfection in the sacrament.”