Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Active Faith

It took me a couple years, but I finally did it. I finished Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

The reason it took me so long has nothing to do with Metaxas’s writing. In fact, I’ve never read such a well-written, compelling, and engaging biography. Once picked up, it was hard to tear myself away. I have a bit of a problem with “out of sight, out of mind,” so whenever I had to put it down…well, this is not a new phenomenon. I have half-finished books all over the house.

While I was reading the book, several times people asked me, “Why did he do it? How could he be a Christian and do it?”

You see, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed – just weeks before Hitler committed suicide at the tail end of World War II – for taking part in a conspiracy to assassinate the Fuhrer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a well-respected pastor, known for his passionate efforts to return the German church to Biblical orthodoxy, as well as his personal compassion for others.

Metaxas neither condemns nor condones Bonhoeffer’s decision to play a prominent role in the conspiracy. He instead presents it as Bonhoeffer saw it (his thoughts taken directly from extensive letters to friends and family): an agonizing decision to be active in the face of evil. In his book Ethics, Bonhoeffer wrestles with the despairing problem that in such a time of horrible evil, often we’re presented with only “unethical” options. His answer? There is no system of ethics – there is only Jesus Christ, the lamp to our feet and the light to our path.

I’ll let you (and encourage you to) read the book yourself to discover Bonhoeffer’s thoughts, prayers, and journey through the extensive correspondence with friends and family that Metaxas presents. What I’m more interested in here is the idea of active faith v. passive faith.

That’s what Bonhoeffer advocated, his whole life as a follower of Jesus: active faith. Faith that seeks God, learns his commandments, and obeys out of love. Not faith that just knows, but faith that does. This was the basis for his most popular work, The Cost of Discipleship.

We often stand paralyzed in the will of God – paralyzed, or just plain apathetic. Too afraid to take a step that might be “wrong” or difficult. And yes, we should desire to walk in the will of God, and we should seek his counsel. But we should not stand frozen on the path waiting for a floodlight. He doesn’t call us to that. He puts his Spirit in us and, I believe, as long as we’re seeking him he won’t let us stray. Yes, we’ll all screw up, make bad decisions, do or say wretched things, because, as Paul said:

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Romans 7:21-25a (NIV)

I think as long as we’re seeking him, he’s going to work his will through us. Take a step, fall on your face, and get up by God’s grace. He doesn’t abandon us. Over and over and over again in the Bible, he calls us his children. Time after time he lavishes grace and mercy and promises he is always with us. What Bonhoeffer preached and indeed what he tried to enact in his own life is that to learn the truth of God and yet sit back on our hands utterly contradicts Biblical truth and the life of Christ. Because, over and over and over again, God calls us his ambassadors; a light for the nations; spreading the fragrance of the knowledge of him; a priesthood of all believers; the life of Jesus manifested in us.




2 thoughts on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Active Faith

  1. The biography is a tremendous book. It took me a while to get though it as well. I was reading it alongsi8de of James Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and The Jews. I recommend it highly.
    Yours is a well written blog! Marry Christmas!

    Jim Nash

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