Bonhoeffer on Guilt


Christians are persons who no longer seek their salvation, their deliverance, their justification in themselves, but in Jesus Christ alone. They know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them guilty, even when they feel nothing of their own guilt, and that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them free and righteous even when they feel nothing of their own righteousness…

“It’s just not fair,” many people say, “Being pronounced guilty when we don’t even know of our offense.”

True enough, superficially, but think of it in terms of, “The Law of Unintended Consequences.” You certainly have no conscience-pangs, until you discover you’ve hurt someone without knowing. Once you find out, though, you feel like crawling into the nearest deep hole … if you’re at all socially responsible, that is.

I experienced that at least once, but a particular episode stands out in my mind: One night, I spotted a coworker exiting a bar. I only took note because I knew she was a recovering alcoholic. Without thinking, I mentioned my sighting to another coworker, but just in an offhand way. I didn’t think I was gossiping, which is one of my favorite sins to rag on. Of course, that offhand report reached the lady I had seen. The whole situation wouldn’t have been so awful if she hadn’t considered me a friend. Friends don’t gossip about friends, that’s an unwritten law of social behavior, so my ex-friend felt betrayed, hurt to the quick. Remember that deep hole I mentioned? I was Judas-in-residence for quite some time.

If you’re wondering about the unintended wrong that put you on God’s “bad” list, you don’t have to look very far: Just gaze into your heart-of-hearts. There is something there that you haven’t put to rights, even if it was the lie you told your parents when you were yet a kid. At first, you worried about it ’cause you knew lying was wrong. Even if you didn’t get away with it, you kept practicing until you became good at it, and after a while it didn’t seem so wrong, just expedient.

Okay, you may be the one exception to that history lesson; maybe you got caught and punished, and never ever lied to anyone again. Well, maybe your hidden sin was that item that found its way into your coat pocket, and never found its way back home. Or what about that bully who taunted you about the stupid-looking glasses you had to wear. Maybe you didn’t really mean he should go away and die, with you enjoying all the worms crawling out of his nose, but the idea sounded none-the-less appealing.

One sin, one stupid, piddling little sin, is all it takes to erect a barrier between you and your Creator, and nothing you can do will erase your guilt. That’s the job of God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Another of Bonhoeffer’s statements above caught my attention: “God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces them free and righteous even when they feel nothing of their own righteousness.” That’s exactly why I believe I am free of sin, and righteous in Christ Jesus. I certainly have no righteousness of my own to offer God, and I don’t feel righteous, even though I now have Christ’s righteousness. Jesus’ apostle Paul said it well:

Romans 3:21-25 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– (22) the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: (23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, (25) whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

There’s one sure way of knowing if you are in sin, and need Christ’s righteousness: if you already feel righteous. If you don’t need the Savior, you need him more than most. The converse is also true: If you don’t feel guilty of falling short of God’s perfection, you certainly have.


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