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Lessons from Bonhoeffer, Part 1

All Things Examined



In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s title character warns his pupil, "The young atheist cannot be too careful about what he reads.” The caution is well-taken by anyone whose beliefs are settled, including the young Christian.

Years ago, unaware of that warning, I picked up a book that upturned everything I thought I knew about being a Christian. It was Dietrich Bonheoffer’s classic work The Cost of Discipleship.

Baptized and catechized in the Catholic Church, matriculating in parochial schools, and regularly attending mass, going to confession, and receiving communion, I believed that being a good Christian meant belonging to the “right” Christian organization, embracing its distinctive doctrines, and following its religious practices. Even during a period of spiritual drift in college and early marriage I considered myself a Christian, if a lapsed one, since, to my thinking, Christianity was foremost a matter of religious belief and association.

Some years later, a first-time encounter with the revealed Word of Scripture prompted me to re-evaluate the faith I had set on the shelf. But ignoring the wealth of millennia of Christian thought and tradition, and the counsel of more seasoned Christians, I left Catholicism and institutional religion for a “have-it-your-way” Christianity, customized according to my private and unaided understandings.

Retained in my fast food faith was the notion that following Christ out of the sanctuary and into the world, putting his teachings into practice, was optional. Jesus was my Savior and my Lord, but only over the sacred spaces I had allotted him. Then, on an incautious day, I began reading The Cost of Discipleship.

An unsettling read

The salvo on my settled beliefs began with the opening line: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” My interest was piqued. In the following paragraphs I learned that “cheap grace” was “Christianity without discipleship”—which, more plainly stated, is forgiveness without repentance, salvation without sanctification, deliverance from the judgment of sin without the desire to be delivered from the habit of sin. It hit uncomfortably home.

Standing opposed to the Christ-less religion of cheap grace, was “costly grace.” Costly grace is Christ-filled Christianity established on the Cross of redemption and the Yoke of discipleship. It is not a one-time spiritual experience, 12-step recovery program, or endless flurry of church activities, but the life-long process of taking up our cross and putting on His yoke. My settled beliefs began unraveling.

A few pages later, Bonhoeffer’s koan-like phrase “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes,” set my head aswirl. While I thought it unremarkable that obedience, true and uncoerced, requires belief, the suggestion that true belief, or faith, requires obedience was counterintuitive, if not misguided. Or was it?

It occurred to me that while belief is about what we accept as true intellectually, faith is about what we trust as true through our actions. It is natural, even sensible, I mused, to maintain a dose of skepticism about things we have given our intellectual nod, but not personally verified.

Indeed, a good deal of our beliefs, and a lot of what we believe most strongly, comes from the test bench of personal experience. Like the child who refuses to believe that mother’s spinach casserole is tasty, until he tries it one day. Or the teen who is skeptical that two dropped objects of differing weights will reach the ground at the same time, until he conducts his own test. Or the man who doubts the value of regular exercise until he finishes a six-week fitness “boot camp.”

Those were just a few of the things that crossed my mind in which obedience leads to faith. It seemed that Bonhoeffer was on to something.

Back to Scripture

When I finished the book and laid it down, I realized that my boat had not only been rocked, it had been capsized. Aroused from my spiritual slumbers, I picked up the Bible afresh, opening my eyes to familiar Scriptures whose teachings I had hitherto misunderstood or chosen to ignore.

Foremost was the Sermon on the Mount with its standard of holiness exceeding that of the most meticulously religious people of the day; its call to be salt and light to the world; its command to love and pray for enemies; its golden rule to, in everything, treat others as we would be treated; and its counsel to put the words of Jesus into practice. I was batting .000.

Upon re-reading the parable of the sower, I recognized that among those hearing the Word, believing the Word, and applying the Word, it is the last group that Jesus commends, and identifies as his “mother and brothers.” That wasn’t my group, and that wasn’t good.

The epistle of James, which had always seemed out of temper with the rest of the New Testament, took on a wholly new character. When the Lord’s brother wrote that faith without works is dead, he wasn’t imparting a theological or soteriological truth, but a practical one. Unless belief leads to works, it is intellectual assent, not faith. As an “assenter,” I was in the wrong crowd, again.

At the same time, while works are not salvific (we are saved for works, not by works), they are engines of faith (“only he who obeys believes”) and evidences of it. And the evidences of mine were sorely lacking.

Straight to my heart went Paul’s words to the Corinthians. Referring to the between time of our earthly existence, Paul wrote that “we live by faith, not by sight,” or by guesswork, hearsay, or privately-arrived-at-and-held beliefs, but by faith. Specifically, the “faith once given,” lived-out and passed down by that “great cloud of witnesses.”

Also, Paul didn’t say that we worship by faith, pray by faith, or study by faith, but that we live by faith. Living encompasses all of our human endeavors, whether in the prayer closet, the church pew, or the public square. A person who lives by faith is one whose beliefs inform his decisions, behaviors, and lifestyle to shape his character. For the Christian, living by faith means living the integrated life, as opposed to the bifurcated life.

In the bifurcated life, one set of principles governs the secular and another set governs the sacred. But in the integrated life, there is only one set of principles because everything is under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, everything!

What’s more, it is life enjoined in that visible community known as the Church. This is no institution bound by walls, buildings, cities, or denominations; rather, it is the mystical body of persons across space and time who are knit together by the confession “Jesus is Lord!” and who have been commissioned, empowered, and unleashed to continue the kingdom-building project begun by Jesus. It is a body visible and recognized through the faith-informed lives of members who are engaged in the life-long process of discipleship, learning and applying the teachings of Jesus.

Making changes

All this pointed to some needed changes in my life. Of the first order was discarding the “cheap grace” of the Cross only, for the “costly grace” of the Cross plus the Yoke. That meant abandoning my individualistic Christianity.

No longer could I rely on my personal hunches or private understandings of the faith; I needed the wealth of Christian thought, tradition, and doctrines. I needed the Church and its great cloud of witnesses, a community of faith that could challenge me, encourage me, and hold me accountable, and spiritual leadership vested with scriptural authority to teach, direct, and correct me.

I needed to understand my giftedness, calling, and ministry as encompassing the spheres of marriage, family, work, hobbies, community, country, and the global village. Above all, I needed the words of Jesus to flow from my head to my heart and out into my life as a practiced faith.

Twenty years ago, I set my feet upon that path with stalls, setbacks, and side trails along the way. And while the goal is still in the far field of vision, I am in a much better place than before with greater clarity, confidence, and peace. And it all started with a book by Bonhoeffer.

In the New York Times best-seller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, author Eric Metaxas recounts the life of this modern Christian hero and visionary. Bonhoeffer’s activism against evil and injustice, and his singular insights about the church of his day and his country, hold valuable lessons for Christians of every time and place. Next time we’ll take a close look at them. Stay tuned.

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at centurion51@aol.com.


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