Bonhoeffer’s Double Standards

I’m finally working through Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, which has been a long time coming. It’s the last book I need to read for the course I took in January, Reading Bonhoeffer, but I feel like it should have been one of the first Bonhoeffer books I read. It’s certainly one of the more accessible of his writings, though that doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult. Perhaps challenging is the better word.

In Bonhoeffer’s day, German Lutherans had (apparently) been enjoying Luther’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone for a long time, to the point where grace had become an assumption, and thus had little power in people’s lives. Bonhoeffer starts his book by talking about “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He holds that costly grace, or real grace, comes as a result of obedience in faith. Faith cannot be separated from obedience. Faith and obedience are a sort of chicken-and-egg situation: do you obey because you believe, or do you believe because you obey? Ultimately, the answer is both, which can be hard to get your head around. In obeying, you show that you believe at the same time that you learn to believe.

This discussion of cheap and costly grace has helped me tremendously to understand Luther. Living hundreds of years later and never having actually read Luther, all I know of his thought comes through a massive game of Telephone, distorted by time and retelling. I know mostly about the abuse of the doctrine, but Bonhoeffer put Luther in perspective for me.

Luther was a penitent monk who had given up everything to follow Jesus (Monks aren’t exactly known for their wealth and worldly ways), had trained for years in spiritual disciplines, and then realized that he was saved by God’s gift to him, which he received in faith. None of his training or renunciation of the world, none of what he gave up to be a disciple, was what actually saved him. It was just Jesus, from the start. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is not a renunciation of works – he’d probably do it all again – but rather a strong recognition that works in themselves will not save anyone. Even the most pious works can be done with self-serving attitudes or purposes, but even right purposes and attitudes are evidence of Christ working in us and not something that we ourselves can be credited with.

Does this mean that works, even if good, are not necessary? Not at all; as has already been said, faith cannot be separated from obedience. It was only after Luther had gone through all of those acts of obedience in faith that he could properly recognize that faith was all that was required. His life of obedience had been the soil in which faith grew (a notion that still provides the foundation for the Catholic doctrine of grace, in which we grow in grace by works of obedience that make us into people capable of receiving more grace from God). Luther, as a veteran disciple of Christ, was able to say truly and with full force that salvation is by grace through faith, and that works themselves are of no value to salvation; the same phrase coming out of the mouth of a new or lukewarm disciple is not true in the same sense, if at all. Luther’s grace was costly, coming after toil and sacrifice; but assuming grace as a principle and eschewing works altogether is cheap grace, or not grace at all. I see this as somewhat of a double standard, but a good one.

In chapter 3 Bonhoeffer talks about “simple obedience,” and again I see a double standard here. He uses the example of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. By asking this question, Bonhoeffer points out, the young man is actually trying to avoid the question: he knows the law and has followed it all his life. He’s looking for something more. Bonhoeffer says he’s looking for a way to avoid the question, to turn a commandment into a philosophical question to be discussed rather than obeyed. I was always under the impression that he was just insecure and wanted guidance. In either case, Jesus turns him back to simple commands that should be obeyed just as simply. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.

We have a way of interpreting Jesus’ commands in an inward, spiritual way, that doesn’t actually require us to simply obey him. We don’t really need to sell everything we have and give it to the poor in order to follow him, we just need to hold our possessions so lightly that they have no hold over us, so that we could hypothetically sell them and give all our money away. Rather than actually doing so, it might actually seem better to hold on to our money and things so that we can remain in this state of hypothetical “obedience.” Our method of “obeying” can thus often mean doing the exact opposite because of our insistence on reinterpreting the command. Bonhoeffer points out that if we obeyed our parents this way, or obeyed the authorities this way, we’d be in serious trouble.

Again, there is a double standard here. We don’t all need to give our money away, and we don’t all need to take a vow of poverty. Doing so might even be a type of self-righteousness, or legalism, or some other negative thing. There are other commands in the New Testament that talk about holding our possessions lightly. But once again, it’s easy for some people to “obey” Jesus in this paradoxical sense, obeying spiritually but not actually. Bonhoeffer holds that this is cheap grace, claiming to obey but actually being disobedient. Those who have actually obeyed Jesus simply, though, and followed him, are capable of obeying spiritually. It’s one thing for a long time disciple who has been practising simple obedience for some time to talk about and practise obeying the spiritual intent of Jesus’ literal commands; it’s quite another for a less mature disciple to use it as an excuse to avoid Jesus’ straightforward commands.

The key to it all is formation: obeying Jesus in faith makes us into the type of people who have enough faith to obey.

4 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer’s Double Standards

  1. That is a wonderful brief analysis brother! This is the very reason that every couple of years I go back to “Discipleship” as a reminder of the call to faith-filled obedience that rejects spiritualizing obedience (which is no real obedience). It is a call to simple obedience and not shirking the call put to myself and the Church. For all of Bonhoeffer’s wiggling in his Ethics (for which I also regularly reread), here we find a more concise call to not avoid the question put to us, but to answer with simple obedience (which I believe he is actually saying in his Ethics, but not so clearly as here).

    • Thanks Rick!

      I just hope he gets to a more concrete vision of just what that looks like. I appreciate how much Bonhoeffer is willing to give over to individual context, but sometimes I just have a hard time figuring out what he’s actually calling us to.

  2. Nice Jeff! Thanks for posting this. I think the “double standard” makes sense once we realize what Dallas Willard never tires of reminding us: that grace is not opposed to effort; it’s opposed to earning. Luther’s justification by faith relieves us from having to earn anything; it does not excuse us from having to exercise effort (or obedience) as we are formed into Christ. Like Paul’s tension: “I strive to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has already taken hold of me.”

    • Thanks Patrick! Yes, I very much appreciate how Bonhoeffer has clarified Luther for me (and without excusing modern Lutheranism’s faults). He criticizes with the authority of an insider, and as an outsider that’s always nice to hear 🙂

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