Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Chasing Away the Cobwebs

During the first year my family was abroad, we received some visitors from the States.  Getting to know them was a pleasure, and they went out of their way to bless us. One of those blessings was a book.  Back then, before the advent of E-readers, it was difficult for me to find books in English, especially Christian reading material, so I was excited to dive in.  I've read it a number of times these last six years, and it has followed me through two different moves.

The book, The Cost of Discipleship, is by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer, whom I had never heard of, was a Nazi era Lutheran theologian. Outside of academic circles, he is best known for his work in the German opposition.  He was finally hung just weeks before the surrender of Germany due to his involvement in planning an assassination attempt against Hitler.

There are two ideas from the book that I have absorbed and added to my way of thinking about our relationship with God. The first idea is that obedience is how we learn faith.  Bonhoeffer puts it this way, "Unless he obeys, a man cannot believe." (p 66)   He dismisses out of hand all justifications that begin with "I don't have enough faith."  As he says, no child would get away with such nonsense.  Suppose I say, "Go to bed," and my daughter said, "I don't trust you enough to believe that you have my best interest at heart and so I'll stay here." Her belief is irrelevant.   She'd still get a spanking. In this context it's obvious to us that it is obedience that teaches the child to have faith in his parents.  The parallel stands true; the first and necessary step to faith is obedience.

What prevents us from obeying and building our faith?  Our rationalizations! Bonhoeffer points out that we don't really think Jesus meant what he said.  The gospels are full of hard sayings like,"every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it" (Matthew 12:36).  It's dangerously easy to reinterpret them.  Perhaps, we say to ourselves, Jesus doesn't really mean I have to think about EVERY word that I say.  Traffic, small annoying children, fights with my husband, those tempting situations aren't actually included are they?  Bonhoeffer pierces through all those lovely excuses, declaring if we want to follow Jesus, we have to start by obeying what he said, not what we wished he would have said.

My second take home idea from the book was that something can be true as a conclusion that is NOT true as a beginning point.  For example, is this a true statement?  While my children are small, I will not be able to keep up with the laundry.  (Hey, don't judge! I don't have a drier!) It is true as a conclusion to my last 4 years of experience.  However if I start with "I cannot keep up with the laundry," and conclude that therefore I should not bother washing any more little dresses, we will have a problem at our house.  It's a silly example but the logical fallacy has very serious consequences when it is applied to theology.

Bonhoeffer points out that all kinds of true statements like, "We are saved by grace through faith" (Ephesians 2:8) can be used as the beginning data for a calculation that ends in disaster. Like my tragic laundry example, I could say, "Since I am saved by faith, trying hard to obey is useless," or "Since I need grace, and all my attempts to become holy are doomed to fail, working out some practical holiness now is pointless."  The conclusion, "Without grace I am lost" is no excuse for sin.  As Paul pointed out so clearly in Romans 6, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?"

Hold that in mind and look at Ephesians 2:8-9.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Bonhoeffer's two thoughts work like a lens.  Using them, I see these verses more clearly than before.  Reminding myself that obedience is the first and necessary condition for faith, I realize that I was created to work. There is no excuse for disobedience in this matter.  It would be like a car deciding it would like to be lawn art instead of a transportation vehicle.  When a car doesn't "go" we say it's broken.  What do we call a Christian who won't work?  I don't need more faith or some particular gift of the Spirit, or an invitation.  God made me to work and I best get busy!

However at the end of the day, I can cheerfully say, as a conclusion, that all that work is nothing.  It is nothing to boast about, nothing that earns my salvation or makes God owe me anything.  Every good deed was simply me growing in faith.  As a conclusion, being saved by grace through faith is a great relief to me.  I am not trying to save myself. I am simply obeying in faith the one who is busy saving me.  It's not my work that does the job; it's the simple gift of God.

It's a rare and wonderful book that chases away cobwebs and helps us think more clearly.  That's what this book did for me.   It swept away my excuses and highlighted the kind of fuzzy thinking that we are all prone to.  And it called me back to a more honest obedience which leads me to a truer faith. 


Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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