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FIRST-PERSON: Bonhoeffer still speaking

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–In the 50 years since he was hanged by Hitler’s henchmen outside Flossenbürg prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has achieved impressive crossover appeal among strikingly diverse Christian traditions and has drawn the attention and praise of ethicists — both secular and religious. Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship” continues to sell at an amazing clip, finding readership on every continent.

But why? What accounts for such sustained and widespread appeal?

The clue may lie in perhaps the most widely know Bonhoeffer quote: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Penned almost three years before his fateful decision to abandon the safety of Manhattan and wade into the murderous vortex of Hitler’s Germany, Bonhoeffer seems to have taken Jesus’ call for self-denial to heart, and succeeding generations of believers continue to take notice.

I suspect that there is something deeply imbedded in the believing soul that must celebrate the offering of a kind of obedience to our Lord that perhaps we ourselves have withheld. We long to see our Savior receive the response His call deserves, even if offered by another. Bonhoeffer seems to meet the yearning in some way. And when we turn to his published writings, Bonhoeffer offers help for 21st century disciples on numerous fronts:

— Authentic discipleship.

First, Bonhoeffer not only lived boldly, but also wrote boldly — calling for a rediscovery of costly grace, genuine Christian community, self-sacrificing service to the world, and death-defying witness to Jesus Christ. And since he made good on his audacious vision of discipleship by knowingly exposing himself to death and then actually suffering execution, discerning Christians should sit up and take notice. The secret of Bonhoeffer’s continuing appeal can be summarized in one word — authenticity. He talked the talk and then when the fateful moment came, he walked the walk. Such things do not make a man right every time he writes or speaks on a subject — but agonized exposure to martyrdom does demand a hearing, and Christians appropriately continue to give Bonhoeffer just that.

— Bible-driven discipleship.

His rediscovery of the Bible out of the fog of pretentious, unbelieving, and eventually abortive higher-critical abuse of the biblical text has borne impressive fruit. Against the hankering after daily divine guidance so prevalent among evangelicals, Bonhoeffer calls us back to the concrete divine instruction in the Bible itself and simple obedience to the clear will of God. Perhaps God is not playing hide-and-seek with His will for our lives after all.

— Discipleship in community.

In a culture increasingly hospitable to isolation and anonymity, Bonhoeffer reminds us that God’s purposes center not on the Christian alone but on the Christian within the church, the body of Christ. Whereas churches compete in a Christian-consumer, winner-take-all landscape that affirms and rewards the spiritual shopper for spiritual products, promising to make him holy, Bonhoeffer proclaims an intrinsically relational discipleship where mutual interdependency between covenant-bound brothers and sisters defines the path to holiness and indeed to Jesus Himself.

— Discipleship, truth and heaven

Finally, at a time when the achievement of felt-relevance stops the mouths of many who detect seeker-sensitive compromise of the Gospel message, Bonhoeffer insists that the issue is not how to make the Gospel relevant to the world but rather to expose how irrelevant we have all become in our rebellion against the living God. Although born to privilege and aristocratic escape hatches of safety and comfort, Bonhoeffer plunges himself into the trials of his people, taking seriously his own status as a pilgrim and stranger on the earth, longing for a city not made by human hands.

We cannot make Bonhoeffer walk and talk like an evangelical — he was not one. But what Bonhoeffer got right belongs to the entire Church and, I suspect, has special application to evangelicals who point to Scripture as the sole authority for their faith and practice.

When a man risks and then sacrifices his life because of his commitment to Jesus Christ, it does not make him a saint or even right, but it does seize our attention and demand a fair hearing. Bonhoeffer does not disappoint. His life and work continue to stand as welcome challenges to obedient discipleship for us today.
Mark DeVine is the author of “Bonhoeffer Speaks Today: Following Jesus at All Costs,” available online at www.LifeWayStores.com. Devine is associate professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. More articles by DeVine are available on his website, www.TheologyProf.com

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  • Mark DeVine