Chapter 12: The Saints

1 John 1:5-2:6

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him’, ought to walk just as he walked.


The theological doctrines of justification and sanctification feature prominently in this chapter as Bonhoeffer explores God’s work of the justification of the sinner and the ongoing work of sanctification that takes place within the church-community, with some side examination of lists of vices and sins. The result is some difficult-to-navigate reading.

The helpful question to ask is why Bonhoeffer has gone off on what seems, at first read, to be a lengthy tangent of a chapter. As he has built up the idea of the visible church-community that is the actual Body of Christ in the world, Bonhoeffer must confront the elephant in the room: the state-controlled church in Germany (The German Evangelical Church). Though it contains many of the trappings of the “church,” this state-controlled church has allowed itself to become a mouthpiece of the Nazi party, it has allowed the teachings of the Gospel to become perverted so that they mean the very opposite of what they say. In short, rather than being the Body of Christ, it has allowed itself to become the anti-Christ.

The struggle for Bonhoeffer is that there cannot be a church-as-it-is-supposed-to-be (an invisible church) that is separate from the church that we see (the visible church). Through the doctrines of justification and sanctification, Bonhoeffer tries to make sense of this glaring disparity. Whether he is successful is left to the reader to decide.

A crystallizing paragraph in the chapter comes not at its beginning or end, but right in the middle:

The community of saints is not the ‘ideal’ church-community of the sinless and the perfect. It is not the church-community of those without blemish, which no longer provides room for the sinner to repent. Rather it is the church-community that shows itself worthy of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins by truly proclaiming God’s forgiveness, which has nothing to do with forgiving oneself. It is the community of those who have truly experienced God’s costly grace, and who thereby live a life worth of the gospel which they neither squander nor discard.

(DBW IV, p.269)

Theological Crash Course

  • Doctrine of Justification: Justification is the way by which God removes the stain of sin from the sinner and declares the unrighteous to be righteous. The understanding of how this is done varies by religious tradition. In Lutheranism, where the doctrine of justification is preeminent, it is understood to be an event where, by our faith in the righteousness of Jesus, we receive this gift of justification that God offers us by grace alone (i.e., we cannot earn justification).
  • Doctrine of Sanctification: Sanctification is the ongoing process by which we are set apart and made holy. In Lutheranism, the work of sanctification is brought about by the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the Word of God and the gathering together of Christians by the church. Through the process of sanctification, we are able to do good works in the world, which are a sign of our sanctification, not a sign of our worthiness. Finally, the process of sanctification begins after the act of justification, but is never completed in our lifetimes.

Reflection Questions

Bonhoeffer writes, “our good works are nothing but God’s own good works for which God has already prepared us.” (DBW IV, p.279) What does that mean to you? Have you had the experience of recognizing God working through you?