PSALMS: Guilt by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Prayer Book of the Bible

Guilt by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

From Psalms

More seldom than we expect, the prayer for the forgiveness of sins meets us in the psalms.  Most psalms presuppose complete assurance of the forgiveness of sins.  That may surprise us.  But even in the New Testament the same thing is true.  It is an abbreviation and an endangering of Christian prayer if it revolves exclusively around the forgiveness of sins.  There is such a thing as the confident leaving behind of sin for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Yet in no way does the Psalter omit the prayer of repentance.  The seven so-called repentance psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) but not only they (also Psalms 14, 15, 25, 31, 39, 40, 41, and others) lead us into the total depth of the recognition of sin before God.  They lead us to the confession of guilt and direct our complete confidence to the forgiving grace of God, so that Luther has quite correctly called them the “Pauline Psalms.”  Usually a special occasion leads to such a prayer.  It is serious guilt (Psalms 32 and 51) or an unexpected suffering that drives to repentance (Psalms 38 and 102).  In every case all hope is fixed on free forgiveness, as it has been offered to us and promised by God in his word about Jesus Christ for all times.

The Christian will find scarcely any difficulties in the praying of these psalms.  However, the question could arise as to how one is to think about the fact that Christ also prays these psalms with us.  How can the sinless one ask for forgiveness?  In no way other than he can, as the sinless one, bear the sins of the world and be made sin for us, (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Not for the sake of his sins, but for the sake of our sins, which he has taken upon himself and for which he suffers, does Jesus pray for the forgiveness of sins.  He positions himself entirely for us.  He wants to be a man before God as we are.  So he prays also the most human of all prayers with us and thereby demonstrates precisely that he is the true Son of God.

It is often particularly striking and offensive to evangelical Christians that in the psalms the innocence of devout people is spoken of at least as often as is their guilt, (cf. Psalms 5, 7, 9, 16, 17, 26, 35, 41, 44, 59, 66, 68, 69, 73, 86, and others).  Here it seems obvious that there is a vestige of the so-called Old Testament works righteousness, with which the Christian can no longer begin.  Yet this outlook is completely superficial and knows nothing of the depth of the word of God.  It is clear that a man can speak of his own innocence in a self-righteous way, but do we not also realize that a man can pray the most humble confession of sin very self-righteously?  Talk about one’s own guilt can be just as far from the Word of God as talk about one’s innocence.

But the question is not which possible motives may stand behind the prayer, but whether the content of the prayer itself is appropriate or inappropriate.  And here it is clear that the believing Christian certainly has to say not only something about his guilt but also something equally important about his innocence and his justification.  It is characteristic of the faith of the Christian that through God’s grace and the merit of Jesus Christ he has become entirely justified and guiltless in God’s eyes, so that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1).  And it is characteristic of the prayer of the Christian to hold fast to this innocence and justification which has come to him, appealing to God’s word and thanking for it.  So not only are we permitted, but directly obligated – provided we take God’s action to us at all seriously – to pray in all humiliation and certainty: “I was blameless before him and I kept myself from guilt,” (Psalm 18:23); “If thou testest me thou wilt find no wickedness in me,” (Psalm 17:3).  With such a prayer we stand in the center of the New Testament, in the community of the cross of Jesus Christ.

The assertion of innocence is particularly evident in the psalms which have to do with the affliction that comes from godless enemies.  Here more attention is given to the rightness of the cause of God, which, to be sure, also gives certain “rights” to the one who clings to it.  That we are persecuted for the sake of God’s cause really sets us in the position of the “righteous” as over against the enemies of God.  Alongside the factual innocence, which of course can never be only factual because the grace of God always has to do with us also personally, there can be found, then, in such a psalm a personal confession of guilt (Psalms 41:4; 69:5).  That is again only a sign that I really do depend on the cause of God.  I can then ask, even in the same breath: “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people,” (Psalm 43:1).

It is thoroughly unbiblical and destructive to think that we can never suffer innocently as long as some error still lies hidden within us.  Neither the Old Testament nor the New is of this opinion.  If we are persecuted for the sake of the cause of God, then we suffer innocently, and we suffer with God himself; and that we are really with God and therefore innocent will demonstrate itself precisely in this that we pray for the forgiveness of our sins.

But we are innocent not only in relation to the enemies of God but also before God himself, for he sees us now united with his cause, in which he has involved us, and he forgives us our sins.  Thus all psalms of innocence flow into the hymn:

Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.

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  1. PSALMS: Guilt by Dietrich Bonhoeffer — The Value of Sparrows | By the Mighty Mumford

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