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)
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?