“He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” Wow. That is profoundly true. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made this observation in his little, yet classic book, Life Together.
Bonhoeffer is better known for his book The Cost of Discipleship and for his opposition to the Nazis during World War II. They responded by hanging him, just weeks before the war ended. His death was a great loss to the church in Germany and throughout the world. Yet, through his writings, he “though dead, still speaks.”
Perhaps no extrabiblical writer is quoted more often concerning discipleship (commitment to Christ) than Bonhoeffer. His classic statement, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die,” coupled with his conviction-filled assault on “cheap grace,” mark him as a man who was serious about following Christ. And his life of faithful discipleship backed up his words. But what we dare not miss is that, for Bonhoeffer, the cost of discipleship was paid in the context of life together in the community of faith. This point comes home powerfully and persuasively in Life Together.
As I was re-reading portions of this book I was once again struck by the essential truth that the Christian life was never intended to be lived in isolation. Rather, it is designed by God to be lived in identification with other Christians—not merely in the mechanics of “attending church” together but rather, to use a well-worn but important phrase, in “doing church” together.
Bonhoeffer’s book has been called “the classic exploration of faith in community.” I agree. Yet for anyone who loves the church—for anyone who especially loves their local church—what he writes appears to be biblical common sense. In other words, “life together” is the assumed commitment of those with saving faith. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints” (1:15). That is, faith in Christ and love for the church are two sides of the same salvific coin. Life together is the expectation of those who indeed have spiritual life. A large part of this life together—and what is often a stumblingblock to staying together—is transparency concerning our sin and our sins.
I recently talked with a brother about some struggles he was having. After about 45 minutes of conversation it occurred to me that, fundamentally, his struggle was in coming to grips with the reality that, after all, he was human! And with humanity comes both limitations and sinfulness. As I shared with him this simple observation, it seemed that a light switched on and that a heavy burden rolled from his shoulders. The realisation that he was both weak and in need put him in the position in which he could then lean wholeheartedly on the Lord. All he needed was a brother to point him to the answer—an answer he already knew. I would suggest that this is precisely the kind of ethos that we need and that we should be constantly growing in our church.
Saints are sinners too. Martin Luther, another German, understood this. In his well-known phrase, Luther said that a Christian is “simul justus et peccator.” That is, a Christian is simul (at the same time) justus (just or righteous) and peccator (a sinner). The sooner we embrace this reality, the better equipped we are to fight the good fight of faith—empowered by the gospel. But as Bonhoeffer noted, we dare not fight this battle alone. To do so is like showing up at a gun fight with a pocket knife. Bonhoeffer was right: “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” And most likely the loner will spiritually bleed, and maybe even bleed to death. Life together, however, provides overwhelming power to defeat the enemy.
James teaches us the value of confessing our sins to one another (James 5:16). He understood that, without transparency, we will most likely remain under either a cloud of self-condemnation or under the delusion of self-justification. In either case, we are simply driving ourselves deeper into non-reality, into loneliness—utter and useless loneliness. Therefore, we need to confess our sins to one another with the goal of hearing the gospel and experiencing the wonder of reconciliation with God and others.
I have often heard that “sin will keep you from the Bible and the Bible will keep you from sin.” But let me widen that to say that it is equally true that unconfessed sin will keep you from the church, and the goal of the church is to keep you from ongoing sin. Sure, you might continue to attend church while holding on to your sin, but attendance is a far cry from “togetherness.” But as you meaningfully engage with the Body, you are freed to share your sins and struggles and to then experience the freedom that Christ intends for you through the gospel.
If you are holding yourself at arm’s length from the church, then relax your shoulder, come closer, and join together. You may find yourself truly getting it together.
There is no need to be “utterly alone.” As you engage with the church you will find that, indeed, confession is good for the soul. Bonhoeffer, whose father was a famous psychiatrist, helpfully observed, “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.” And since Jesus came to save sinners, that is a good place to be.