By George Simopoulos
If you asked me a year ago who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was and what I thought about him, I probably would have said he was a modern theologian who veered off into the heresy of neo-orthodoxy. While his reputation as a Barthian is well known, it is a bad habit for any well-meaning student to presume to know a person’s personal convictions without first hearing that person lay them out. Thanks to a friend’s aptly chosen Christmas gift I was opened up to the contemplations of a theologian par-excellence, and I believe that the lessons he has to teach are more relevant today than ever before.
Before I dive into the crux of the review, allow me to explain what sparked this sudden interest in Bonhoeffer’s works. In a coffee shop sometime before Christmas a friend asked me if I was interested in any books. Gullibly, I believed this was just nice conversation and blurted out some books on theology and a biography on Bonhoeffer, written by Eric Metaxas, mostly because of another friend’s recommendation. Naturally, my friend bought me the only book I listed that would actually make a decent gift. I was not at all interested in the man as much as I was interested in the history surrounding the man. I mean really, who can resist the intrigue of a man described as a pastor, martyr, prophet, and spy. With book in hand and plenty of winter-break reading time, I was elated to see the Bonhoeffer of history.
After getting through the first few chapters, I was taken aback at how well Metaxas was able to bring the character of Bonhoeffer to life and present his thoughts as something genuinely worthy of deeper examination. From his disciplined school life to his courageous martyrdom at the Flossenburg concentration camp, there was a clear progression in Bonhoeffer’s thought as the notion of discipleship emerged at the cornerstone of his theology. His focus on discipleship was not merely some theological principle he drummed up. It was clearly taught throughout scripture and demanded the adherence of Christians, including Bonhoeffer. In fact it was Bonhoeffer’s willingness to obey Christ, at the cost of his life, that made his work feel much more like pastoral instruction than theological discourse. He endured through the many costs involved discipleship. He responded with courage and perseverance in the light of grave losses and glorified Christ all the more. By the end of the book and after dwelling on the life of Bonhoeffer, I wanted to live as he had lived (and I know how corny that sounds). I wanted to have the courage to stake my whole life on the message of the gospel. I wanted to be like this modern-day Paul.
I jumped on the opportunity to write on Bonhoeffer in a class I was taking and started to research his thought from an academic perspective. Sure I encountered some articles and monographs describing Bonhoeffer as a situational ethicist, possible apostate, and Gandhi-esque humanist, but reading the actual words of Bonhoeffer in his letters from prison and his book, The Cost of Discipleship, I saw more of what he had hoped to demonstrate though his life.
The cost of discipleship to my new friend Bonhoeffer was simply to live according to God’s grace. Not a revealing statement to anyone who has read the New Testament, but oh how profound that truth is when we understand grace. Bonhoeffer separated grace into two categories: cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace is a grace we know all-to-well. It is that grace we impart to ourselves to be as God’s people, but to live as if we still belonged to the world. It is ‘justification of sin without justification of the sinner.’ Costly grace by comparison, is “the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pear of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods.” It is a grace that justifies only when the person who receives it leaves everything else behind to follow Christ.
To Bonhoeffer this cheap grace was a pervasive disease which had rotted the Lutheran Church from the inside, of which he was a pastor for, as well as many other denominations alike. Like many today in the Evangelical Church, we pay honors to the pure doctrine of grace. We often repeat the well-known formulas spoken by the apostles, early church and church reformers. Yet we pervert the truths we utter when we fail to take the gospel seriously enough to apply it to our own lives. Not much has changed since the days of Bonhoeffer. Vast swaths of evangelical Christians espouse belief in Christ, but deny the very one they supposedly follow when they betray him with their cultural attitudes and lifestyles. It is sad to say but today we look more like the world than the church. Granted, we may not be the cloistered German audience that Bonhoeffer was referring to, but when we hold to a view of divorce that the Woodstock generation held and see part of out biblical mandate as claiming a piece of the American Dream, I have difficulty believing that the ‘transformation by the renewing of one’s mind’ which Paul spoke about is actually taking place.
“How should we then live?” This remarkably accurate book by the late Christian philosopher, Francis Shaeffer, traces the rise of Western thought and how it has begun to fall, with many eerie predictions being validated since its 1976 publishing. As the title of book suggests, we may be living in a culture that has begun to deteriorate into absurdity, but how should we then live? Bonhoeffer simply stated that conscious obedience to Christ is the only way to engage one’s faith. Our obedience must be conscious precisely because it is our conscious and unconscious sin that leads to unbelief and disobedience. When we neglect to search the scriptures and believe what has been lucidly taught, we are prevented from listening to Christ and believing his grace. For as John says in his gospel: “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free”. This sort of detachment from the world is rightly asserted by Bonhoeffer not to be through one’s attempts at forcibly believing, but solely in the work of the Holy Spirit in you, if indeed He is in you.
When we individually begin to see that our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, motivations, and actions belong to Christ, we are faced with the dilemma given only to the Christian: obedience or disobedience? The Christian must ask: Does my belief align with the lucid teaching of scripture? In faith, do I trust that what God has said to me is in fact true? Is knowing God worth facing possible alienation from the world? We are bombarded daily with all sorts of variations comprised within the dilemma to obey or disobey, but when an honest survey is conducted on the church it is evident that there are instances of disobedience that have either been ignored or supported.
The cover of my copy of The Cost of Discipleship has a painting of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, by Fra Angelico; a picture that begins to make sense as the reader progresses far enough into the book to see Christ’s counter-intuitive words on the mount as the only way to live life. For the sake of brevity I will not explore the entirety of Bonhoeffer’s thought regarding the Sermon on the Mount, but I will attempt to play the part of the prophet and emphasize the main point that must be stressed for the hoped repentance of Christ’s beloved church.
Bonhoeffer quotes the words of Jesus in Matthew 5: 16-20 to illustrate an important point to the disciple of Christ. Namely that Christ did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. More to the point though, those who teach others not to obey the law of God will be considered among the least in the kingdom of God. How is this to be understood? Bonhoeffer explains that Christ himself had no law that acted as a barrier to his fellowship with his disciples. Discipleship meant ‘adherence to Jesus Christ alone, and immediately. The surprise is that the disciples are bound to the OT law! This means both that adherence to the law is something quite different from following Christ, and that adherence to anything which violates the law hinders our primary motivation of discipleship under Christ. We are inextricably bound to acknowledge the righteous law of God if we are to continue in earnest with our desire to follow Christ.
Bonhoeffer does not believe the law must be fulfilled in some legalistic sense. Far from it! Bonhoeffer makes the point that it is Christ who ultimately fulfilled the law for us and it is only in personal communion with Him that the law can actually be fulfilled. Jesus, when at once we are justified by him, comes between His disciples and the law. Jesus becomes the righteousness of his disciples. This however presupposes that we acknowledge the law and seek to adhere to it. To do otherwise is only to accept Christ’s work on the cross as an unnecessary impediment to some vain goal.
If I have accomplished my task of unpacking Bonhoeffer’s thought effectively, you should see by now that Christians cannot hold God’s grace under the judgment of a law which condemned Christ and justified man (remember cheap grace vs. costly grace). As Paul has said in his epistle to the church in Galatia “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” If you have been crucified with Christ, then so should the desire to rationalize a law, be it prevailing opinion or personal preference, which contradicts the lucid teachings of scripture, while at the same time not overstepping the boundary of God’s law so as to seek its fulfillment apart from fellowship with Christ. When these worldly elements of untransformed notions are purged, the simple believer in Christ does away with libertinism and legalism at once, leaving only the disciple and his Lord on a road that leads to everlasting joy.
You might be wondering by now how this specifically relates to a Christian testimony in a post-postmodern Canadian context. This is the first book review in the series and I believe it was a well selected one for the reason that it identifies our identity as Christians, both in relation to the world and to many flawed elements in the church. As I venture to review more great works in the months to come, I hope to build on this foundation and use it to remind us that we as Christians have a special calling in life. The restlessness, protesting, sadness and lunacy we see around us are most certainly grounds for deep concern, and I empathize with you if you feel this way, but it is vital that we understand what it means to follow Christ before we beckon our lost friends to heed the words of Christ “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”