Bonhoeffer…Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) had a brilliant career in theology ahead of him. At seventeen, he began his studies at Tubingen, Germany. He earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin at age 21. Then, at 24, he qualified to teach there. When Adolf Hitler took power, many pastors and theologians yielded to Nazi interference in church affairs, however, for Bonhoeffer there could be no German-Christian compromise with Hitler. He signed the Barmen Declaration, which declared independence from Hitler’s state and from the co-opted church. He helped create the independent “Confessing Church” in Germany.

In 1935, he created and directed a clandestine seminary in Finkenwald (Pomerania) for training young pastors in Christian discipleship. There, he shared life together with about 25 young men devoted to God. It was closed down by the Nazis in 1937 but not before he wrote two classics: “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.” He was officially forbidden to publish or speak publicly but he continued to work for the resistance to the Third Reich.

In 1943, Bonhoeffer’s record of resistance and his involvement in smuggling Jews out of Germany safely into Switzerland (the “U7” operation) got him arrested. Just before he went to prison, he became engaged to Maria. He wrote love letters from his cell but his plans were never to be. After two years in prison, it was learned that he played a part in a failed Hitler assassination attempt. He was declared a traitor and executed by special order of Heinrich Himmler on April 9, 1945 at the age of 39, just a few weeks prior to Hitler’s death and the end of World War II. In August 1996 the German authorities announced that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was no longer regarded by law as a traitor.

It was at his secret seminary in Finkenwald that Bonhoeffer both learned about and wrote “Life Together.” I would encourage you to read it (perhaps in a small group setting, maybe as roommates or suite mates in college, maybe as families). Over the next few weeks let me share a few things that Bonhoeffer said that I have found most helpful in doing Life Together as a church.

“Let (us) thank God on (our) knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

Bonhoeffer saw that the visible fellowship of the church is the result of God’s grace- it is a blessing (Ps.133:1). He says that not all Christians receive this blessing: the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the gospel in foreign lands. The physical presence of other believers is a sourced of immeasurable joy and strength to a believer. Have you experienced this? “The companionship of a fellow Christian is a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.” When we visit the lonely or the sick and touch them and speak encouragement to them, it is as if they were touched and encouraged by God himself. When we bless and affirm each other, we do so with the blessing and affirmation of Jesus Christ. It is to our shame that this incredible gift is so “easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day.” Christian fellowship is based upon grace.

“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ… We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”

I am a brother to you because of what Jesus Christ did for me; and you are a brother or sister to me because of what Christ did for you. We’ve heard that before, but Bonhoeffer unpacks it is a different way. He says that a Christian needs other Christians because of Jesus Christ. Let me personalize this thought. I know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ has pronounced me guilty. Before God, I am a guilty sinner even though I do not feel like one. I also know that God’s Word in Jesus Christ has pronounced me not guilty and righteous because of my faith in what Christ has done for me. God’s word has pronounced me not guilty even though I feel guilty and unrighteous. Therefore the Christian lives by God’s Word pronounced upon him. Thus, where is my salvation? In Christ; how do I know? It has been pronounced upon me by God’s Word.

That is why I love God’s Word, for it forms the very basis of my relationship with Jesus Christ and is the very foundation of the assurance of where I stand with God. And this Word of God has been given to us not only for ourselves but for one another. The Christian needs another Christian to speak God’s Word to him, especially when discouraged and uncertain and when he cannot help himself. He needs his brother to be the proclaimer of God’s Word to him. “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”

This could help enhance our understanding of 1 John 3:19, 20: “By this shall we know that we are of the truth and reassure our hearts before him; for whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts…” The context indicates that the very way we know we belong to God is by how we love one another. I believe that speaking the Word of God into someone’s life is an incredible act of love; it brings encouragement to the heart of a brother/ sister and assurance to our own hearts that we belong to God.

Oh No, Not Predestination!

rubber bandIf there is one thorny theological issue that has totally baffled some and completely angered others, it is the issue of predestination. One cannot escape from the biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty and that human affairs are ordered according to his divine will. At the same time, one cannot deny that the scripture genuinely assumes the very real responsibility of humankind for its free choices and actions. How can you possibly believe in both without diminishing one or the other?

I think that the problem lies in the conflict that arises by our efforts to reconcile both of these biblical realities into a rational system in order to escape the tension of holding them separately. What usually happens is that we end up majoring in one while minoring in the other. It may come as a surprise to many that the Arminian/Calvinist controversy originally began when Jacobus Arminius (who was a Calvinist) did not question election, but the concept of unconditional election. However, I don’t want to get into that.

I was reading 1 Kings 12, a very strategic chapter about the division of Solomon’s kingdom due to the unwise actions of his son Rehoboam. In verse 15, we read: So the king (Rehoboam) did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which he spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. In other words, the Lord had already planned to divide the kingdom by giving the 10 northern tribes to the usurper Jeroboam. Here is an example of how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility crash into each other and produce confusion. How can we understand this without defanging God or making robots out of humans?

We cannot try to synthesize these concepts by our finite reasoning. This will always produce a hybrid that is even worse than the Affordable Health Care Plan. We must hold both of these concepts (God’s sovereignty and human freedom) together without trying to figure out the middle ground between them. J.I. Packer, in a classic that should be in your library, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God,” uses the word antinomy to describe a helpful way of thinking about this apparent discrepancy. He defines antinomy as “an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths….exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable….each rests on clear and solid evidence; but it is a mystery to you how they can be squared with each other.” Antinomy differs from a paradox in that the latter is a figure of speech or a play on words that tends to unite polar opposites. Antinomy holds two truths together in the tension of divine mystery.

Thus God’s plan for Israel was carried out not by the poor robot Rehoboam, but by the free choice of the new king to accept either the counsel of the old wise guys or the foolish counsel of the young whipper-snappers. However, in the end, God brought forth Redemption from the tribe of Judah through the Messiah. We need to hold such a mystery in antinomy in order to understand the wide-sweep of scripture, as well as the profound meaning of oft-quoted passages, such as Romans 8:28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. The understanding that “the good” is being accomplished in the face of life’s suffering can only be grasped by those who believe that God is utterly sovereign, and who, at the same time, freely love him.


Laurie Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute wrote her thoughts about this week’s passing of the Gay Marriage Bill in the Illinois House of Representatives. She shared some of the emails received from “ardent supporters of genderless faux-marriage. “You Lose. Loser!!!!!!!!” “How does it feel? Really bad? Imagine a lifetime of people as evil as you against birth of a child living in misery. No more! Retire, all your work did nothing and means nothing!!! Marriage equality wins!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yayyyyyy, slam dunk in your face, freak!!!! “Reminder, Score: equality 1…Illinois Family Institute and NOM – ZERO!!!!! F U !!!!” “Ha ha! Ha ha, Laurie. You do still have the blood of gay-bashing victims dripping off of your bigot fingers, yet you live in a state where the gay people are going to have federal level equality. Your life is a waste. I think it would be a good idea for you now to kill yourself.”

Certainly not all the supporters of gay marriage are as intolerant and hate-filled as the people who wrote the above responses. Ms. Higgins opined that the defeat of Biblical values was due in part to the fact that “far too many religious leaders claim the church should not be involved in political issues. But what if political issues are first biblical issues? During the slave era, should churches have remained silent as Scripture was twisted to justify slave-holding (just as it is twisted today to justify same-sex pseudo-marriage)? Was it right that so many Christians refused to stand for truth during Hitler’s reign of terror? Should Christians have refrained from participating in the Civil Rights marches in the 1960’s?”

Something in that criticism does not ring true anymore. The slavery issue, Nazi Germany, and even the Civil rights issue were played out against a Christian consensus. In other words, the dominant culture was Christian and functioned on a biblical value system. This is no longer the case today. Our culture has past the point of no return where decisions are no longer made on the basis of biblical morality. In fact, the time has now come when biblical values are not only seen as intolerant, but as bigoted and unjust. In the not too distant future, mark my word, Christianity will be targeted as uncivil and may even be legislated against (like it was in the 1st century). We already see this is small ways—a case before the Supreme Court where a town council in upstate NY was sued because they had prayer before their meetings that was of a distinctly Christian nature.

This cultural shift has been taking place for a long time and we need to see that is the pattern of rebellion against God’s truth that is present in every age. However, it will be more and more characteristic of every culture as we move towards the Day of the Lord. The Bible never gives us the idea that our world is going to get better and better before our Lord returns and yet somehow we are totally bummed when we lose a battle in the culture war. 2 Timothy 3 vividly portrays the godlessness of the Last Days, and Paul specifically says “in fact, everyone who wants to lie a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” It may be gay marriage 1 and biblical marriage 0, but remember the lions (not Detroit) always outscored the Christians in the Coliseum.

I was a pastor of a church in Massachusetts where on May 17, 2004, that state became the first one to legalize gay marriage. In spite of all our efforts, the measure was passed, not by the legislature, but by the State Supreme Court on a 5-4 vote. I know what it is like to be slandered and hated because I was not in favor gay marriage. I never thought it would be possible that such a situation would ever take place in America. However, I had a choice to make; either to seek victim status and try to distance myself and my church against my culture, or to see the increasing desperation of my culture to find happiness apart from God as a greater opportunity to live out and speak the gospel. I was reminded of that last night as I watched My Hope by Billy Graham. It is the message of the Cross that will change and transform. Somehow the darker things are, even the faintest light makes a difference.

Not Growing…Not Normal

growth timeThis past week I read the incredible story of Brooke Greenberg, a 20-year-old who never developed beyond the toddler stage. She passed away last Thursday, having had the body and cognitive function of a 1-year-old. She didn’t grow after the age of 5 — and basically, she no longer aged. She may have been the only person in the world who suffered from a rare genetic disease, so rare in fact that it is called Syndrome X. (

The scientific community looks at Brooke’s death far different than the family. Dr. Eric Schadt, director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology said “Brooke Greenberg, even after her sad passing, may help to reveal answers to one of the major mysteries in human biology: Why do we age and is there any way to slow or suspend the aging process?” While such a statement might give the family some comfort to think their daughter’s death might be helpful to someone else, they are still suffering the pangs of grief and sadness. This was not supposed to happen. Brooke stayed a toddler for 20 years being fed baby food.

When I read this article I immediately thought of the Christian life and the erratic development of many people in their faith. We know that spiritual growth is the norm and is greatly encouraged throughout the New Testament: grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus…let your roots go down deep into Christ…just as you are doing, do more and more…until we all attain mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Christian growth is not a work or a performance; it is a natural outgrowth of the work of God’s justifying grace.

Our evangelical heritage has taught us well of the centrality of the gospel and the work of Christ in the salvation of our souls. It has also taught us the importance of Bible knowledge and of evangelism and missions. This is indeed a precious heritage. However, it has left us with the sense that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to grow us as we read the Bible, pray, and go to church; that spiritual growth will just happen automatically. We do not hear much emphasis on the fact that we must cooperate with the Spirit in our sanctification because it smacks of works and performance and not of grace. We tend to look at the gospel, with its emphasis on repentance and faith, as being appropriate only for beginning of our Christian lives and fail to realize that the gospel is also the vehicle for our Christian growth in holiness.

The result is that many leave the evangelical church because they are hungry for God. They move to the more liturgical and contemplative Christian denominations and some even to syncretized eastern religious practices. However some evangelicals are also realizing that discipleship is more than just missions and evangelism, it is about being with Jesus and being shaped or formed into his likeness. I met with a group of old friends last week who have been together for two years worshipping Jesus, studying Scripture, and holding each other accountable for their intentional spiritual development as Christ-followers.

Look at the Old Testament and the great spiritual revivals used of God in lives of his people through Elijah, Hezekiah, Josiah; the seasons of refreshing through Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross; the amazing impact of the Reformation in Western Europe; the First and Second Great Awakening in the American Colonies, the Prayer Revival of 1858, the Welch Revival of the early twentieth-century. We should be reading these things and praying that God would do the same thing again in our lives and churches. Then we should set about the task of intentionally developing our own spiritual lives. Growth requires an open heart and mind to God’s Spirit; our willingness needs to be followed up by our actions. So, where will you begin? How will you conform to Christ’s image by being with him this week? I think you should ask him that; and maybe in the next few weeks I can give you some helpful direction. You see, I desire to grow too and not have Syndrome X characterize my spiritual life.