Accountability vs. “The Mutual Consolation of the Brethren”

Amongst Evangelicals, it is common to have an “accountability partner” or an “accountability group”.  The well-meaning goal of this is in light of the fact that we are sinful, to find a person or group who can help us in the sins that we especially tend to commit.  There is a danger in this though.  Such “partners” and “groups” have at their goal a law oriented remedy.  While some sort of “improvement” may be made in behavior, the inevitable results are one of the following:  despair over not being able to kick the sin or a false sense of self-righteousness where sin is disregarded.  Bonhoeffer talks about the latter in Life Together and calls this the “pious fellowship”:

The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.  So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.  Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous.  So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.

There is another way.  A way which does not end in despair or hypocrisy: Luther called it the “mutual consolation of the brethren”.  Such a relationship puts the Gospel at its center.  It does this through confession and absolution.  This has two parts:  first there is contrition, that is repenting of one’s sin; and the second is absolution, that is the speaking of forgiveness to another.  When forgiveness is the goal and end not only do we deal with one another honestly as sinner to sinner under the grace and forgiveness of Christ, but we also are given the very thing (the Gospel) which produces the good Fruit of the Spirit which walks according to the Holy Will of God.

Some further reading:

1 Confession in the churches is not abolished among us. The body of the Lord is not usually given to those who have not been examined [1 Corinthians 11:27–28] and absolved. 2 The people are very carefully taught about faith in the Absolution. Before, there was profound silence about faith. 3 Our people are taught that they should highly prize the Absolution as being God’s voice and pronounced by God’s command. 4 The Power of the Keys [Matthew 16:19] is set forth in its beauty. They are reminded what great consolation it brings to anxious consciences and that God requires faith to believe such Absolution as a voice sounding from heaven [e.g., John 12:28–30]. They are taught that such faith in Christ truly obtains and receives the forgiveness of sins. – Article XXV of the Augsburg Confession

Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions, Edited by Paul Timothy McCain, 50 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).


13 Besides this public, daily, and necessary confession, there is also the confidential confession that is only made before a single brother. If something particular weighs upon us or troubles us, something with which we keep torturing ourselves and can find no rest, and we do not find our faith to be strong enough to cope with it, then this private form of confession gives us the opportunity of laying the matter before some brother. We may receive counsel, comfort, and strength when and however often we wish. 14 That we should do this is not included in any divine command, as are the other two kinds of confession. Rather, it is offered to everyone who may need it, as an opportunity to be used by him as his need requires. The origin and establishment of private Confession lies in the fact that Christ Himself placed His Absolution into the hands of His Christian people with the command that they should absolve one another of their sins [Ephesians 4:32]. So any heart that feels its sinfulness and desires consolation has here a sure refuge when he hears God’s Word and makes the discovery that God through a human being looses and absolves him from his sins…

32 When I urge you to go to Confession, I am doing nothing else than urging you to be a Christian. If I have brought you to the point of being a Christian, I have thereby also brought you to Confession. For those who really desire to be true Christians, to be rid of their sins, and to have a cheerful conscience already possess the true hunger and thirst. They reach for the bread, just as Psalm 42:1 says of a hunted deer, burning in the heat with thirst, 33 “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, O God.” In other words, as a deer with anxious and trembling eagerness strains toward a fresh, flowing stream, so I yearn anxiously and tremblingly for God’s Word, Absolution, the Sacrament, and so forth. 34 See, that would be teaching right about Confession, and people could be given such a desire and love for it that they would come and run after us for it, more than we would like. Let the papists plague and torment themselves and others who pass up the treasure and exclude themselves from it. 35 Let us, however, lift our hands in praise and thanksgiving to God [1 Timothy 2:8] for having graciously brought us to this our understanding of Confession.

– Luther’s Exhortation to Confession

Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions, Edited by Paul Timothy McCain, 651 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

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