John Wesley, Bonhoeffer, and Authentic Christianity

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In the conclusion of John Wesley’s sermon Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, 4, the father of Methodism calls the Church to embrace the radical call of the gospel.  “In a word, be thou full of faith and love; do good; suffer evil. And herein be thou ‘steadfast, unmovable;’ yea, ‘always abounding in the work of the Lord; forasmuch as thou knowest that thy labour is not in vain in the Lord.’”

These powerful words of Wesley capture the essence of the Gospel enacted in a world marked by hatred, pain, and suffering.  Time and time again, the works of Wesley showcase that the Christian faith is one that transforms the world and actively seeks out holiness through Jesus Christ.  But what does this really look like 250 years later?  What has this looked like in the history of the Church?

As the call of Wesley boldly champions Christian fortitude amidst the suffering of evil, one specific Christian figure comes to mind.  Twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the embodiment of Wesley’s call to be full of faith and love, to do good, to suffer evil, and to live out “Scriptural Christianity.”  Bonhoeffer found himself in the middle of one of the most trying times in the history of humanity, the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s.  He had to figure out just what it meant to be a Christian as the German church quickly gave up its foundation of Christ-like love and goodness in exchange for cultural favor in Nazi Germany.  Scriptural Christianity, summed up by Bonhoeffer as “costly grace,” had been lost. The German church had forgotten what it meant to be steadfast and unmovable in their dedication to Christ. From the pulpits of the German church came the ideologies of an evil Nazi regime that was anything but a platform of faith, love, and goodness.  For Bonhoeffer, the people had completely forgotten that if the gospel was truly understood and believed, it would change what we do and how we live.

In 1930, Dietrich Bonhoeffer arrived in the United States to study at Union Theological Seminary.  Upon arrival, Bonhoeffer was greeted by a city still booming from the Jazz Age and the very battleground for the bloodthirsty debates of theological liberals and fundamentalists.

Once at Union, it didn’t take long for Bonhoeffer to see that the seminary was subject to the influential liberal pulpit of Harry Emerson Fosdick, the mass media outlet of Henry Luce (Time magazine), and the great power of John D. Rockefeller himself.  After spending weeks in New York, observing all that the city had to offer, Dietrich remarked, “In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”[1]  Simply put, the church in America wasn’t much different from the church in Nazi Germany.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer clearly observed that American culture was a launching pad for any and every ideology that claimed to have the ability to speak.  In his case, Bonhoeffer saw that this attitude had fully infiltrated the Christian church.  The tides and turns of popular culture wanted and would have their say on the narrative of the Christian faith.  There was no love, no goodness, no authentic Christian fortitude.  Amidst the great sounds of the big city, Bonhoeffer struggled to hear the voice of genuine Christianity.  He commented, “One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity, . . .”[2]

By the time of Hitler’s ascension, much of both the American and German church understood Christ only as abstract thought. But as Bonhoeffer’s life shows, true faith comes to us by costly sacrifice.  Authentic Christianity comes through the holy love of God shown on the cross that transforms our hearts and allows us to continue in faith, hope, and love.  That is costly grace.  Costly grace changes you from the inside out.  Neither law nor cheap grace can do that.

Bonhoeffer would later return to Germany where he would work to have his voice heard.  In fact, his voice was heard the loudest when he ceased to speak, executed at the hands of the Nazi regime for the very principles he stood for—an eternal testament to authentic Christianity.  While Bonhoeffer’s words brought such sharp critique to the culture of his day, I wonder if his observations still ring true.

Like the New York that Bonhoeffer experienced, our contemporary culture plays host to a number of different ideologies that are waiting to be heard.  While each party vies for position, it is inevitable that some will be heard louder than others.  Those heard the loudest will begin to push the competition to the fringe.  Voices that don’t sing the tune of the dominant culture will be forced to adapt or simply be forgotten. This is a reality that was present in the 1930′s version of the globe and is still present today.  From all angles, the Christian faith is being pushed to the edge.  Popular ideologies are speaking up and pushing scriptural Christianity off its narrative.  In many circles the Church is branded hateful, intolerant, and out of touch with an evolving democracy.  I have heard it said that people of faith must embrace the fresh reason of the day or be left behind in their archaic, dying model of belief.

Like Bonhoeffer observed, this very attitude has even crept into the Christian communities that we so love.  The Church has exchanged costly grace for cheap grace. Within many churches today it is all too common to succumb to the temptation of leaving out the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life, in order to have a broader appeal to the culture that we are living in. The Church must not allow itself to be pushed off its story.

In times like these, it is hard to find a voice.  With so many parties speaking up, the Church may wonder whether our convictions will just be white noise among a cacophony of warring disagreement.  Yet now, more than ever, our beautiful world is in desperate need of the authentic body of Christ.  Among the debate, compromise, and even hurt, we have been called to be salt and light, the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. The Church has been called to “be thou full of faith and love; do good; suffer evil. And herein be thou ‘steadfast, unmovable;’ yea, ‘always abounding in the work of the Lord; forasmuch as thou knowest that thy labour is not in vain in the Lord.’”

May it be our prayer that the Church truly be the church as we believe and obey, preach and proclaim the Kingdom of God embodied in Jesus Christ.

[1] Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928–1931, vol. 10, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Douglas W. Stott (New York: Fortress Press, 2008), 265-66.

[2] Ibid., 266.

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Dan Wells is currently working on his Ph.D. in American Religious History at the Florida State University. He serves as pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Hosford, FL. You can follow him on Twitter @TheRealDanWells and check out his personal blog at whatsyourlegacy.wordpress.com.

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