Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bonhoeffer: Life Together as Disciples of Jesus Christ

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a well-known and greatly loved Christian pastor, seminary teacher, and theologian who was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis for his resistance to Hitler. He was the author of the widely read classics, "The Cost of Discipleship", "Life Together", and "Letters and Papers from Prison." 

As a seminary teacher Bonhoeffer stressed the importance of shared life together as disciples of Jesus, and saw that the Church's renewal would depend on its recovery of the communal dimensions of Christian obedience and shared life. Christians of various traditions are hearing this word afresh in our day and coming to understand that not only do we need this depth of community for our growth in Christ, but it is necessary also in order for transformative Gospel ministry in our neighbourhoods.

The following is from Bonhoeffer's Life Together, originally published in 1939 in German. (The English translation was published in 1954)


Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does that mean? It means first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. Second, it means that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time and united for eternity. 

First, the Christian is the man who no longer seeks his own salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God's Word in Christ pronounces him guilty even when he does not feel his guilt, and God's Word pronounces him righteous, even when he does not feel he is righteous at all. The Christian no longer lives of himself by his own claims and of his own justification, but by God's claim and justification. He lives wholly by God's Word pronounced upon him whether that Word declares him guilty or innocent. 


The death and life of the Christian is not determined by his own resources, rather he finds both only in the Word that comes to him from the outside, in God's Word to him. The reformers expressed it this way: Our righteousness is an 'alien righteousness' a righteousness that comes from outside us. They were saying that the Christian is dependent on the Word of God spoken to him. He is pointed outward to the Word that comes to him. 

The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God's Word in Jesus Christ. Because he daily hungers and thirsts for righteousness, he daily desires the redeeming Word. In himself he is destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside, and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence and blessedness. 


But God has put this Word in to the mouth of others in order that it may be communicated to us. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find his living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God's Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. 

He needs his brother as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community. Their fellowship is founded solely upon Jesus Christ and this 'alien righteousness'. All we can say, therefore, is: the community of Christians springs solely from the biblical and reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another. 


Second, a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. Among people there is strife. 'He is our peace, says Paul of Jesus. Without Christ there is discord between God and man and between man and man. Christ became the mediator and made peace with God and among men. 

Without Christ we would not know God, we could not call upon Him, nor come to Him. But without Christ we also could not know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our ego. Christ opened the way to God and to our brother. Now Christians can live with one another in peace; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only by the way of Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus Christ are we one, only through Jesus Christ are we bound together. To eternity He remains the one mediator. 


Third, when God's Son took on flesh, he truly and bodily took on, out of pure grace, our being, our nature, ourselves. This was the eternal counsel of the Triune God. Now we are in him. Where he is, there we are too, in the incarnation, on the cross and in his resurrection. We belong to him because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ. 

But if before we could know and wish it, we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Christ, then we also belong to him in eternity with one another. We who live here in fellowship with him will one day be with Him in eternal fellowship. 

He who looks upon his brother should know that he will be eternally united with him in Christ. Christian community means community in and through Jesus Christ. 


God himself has undertaken to teach brotherly love; all that men can do to add is to remember this divine instruction and the admonition to excel in it more and more. When God was merciful, when he revealed Jesus Christ to us as our Brother, when he won our hearts by his love, this was the beginning or our instruction in divine love. 

When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with our brethren. When we received forgiveness instead of judgment, we too were made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we then owed to others. The more we received, the more we were able to give; and the more meager our brotherly love, the less we were living by God's mercy and love. Thus God taught us to meet one another as God met us in Christ. 


The fact that we are brethren only through Jesus Christ is of immeasurable significance. Not only the other person who is earnest and devout, who comes to me seeking brotherhood, must I deal with in fellowship. My brother is rather that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, delivered from sin and called to faith and eternal life. 

Our community with one another consists solely of what Christ has done to both of us. I have community with others and I shall continue to have community only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. 

Christian community is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. 


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