CoD Part 4, Obedience and Law

Note: The crew of STS-120 has finished their spacewalk activities, including a very dramatic space station solar array repair, and I can get back to normal sleeping, working, and writing schedules!Bonhoeffer

One of Bonhoeffer’s most ‘in your face’ chapters is his chapter titled, “Single-Minded Obedience.” In it he sound more like a fiery, pulpit-pounding, Fundamentalist preacher than the meek, balding, wire-rimmed glasses wearing pastor he was. As I’ve mentioned each time I write on Cost of Discipleship, we cannot read Bonhoeffer without remembering the context within which he wrote. As easy and sometimes proper as it is to read Bonhoeffer as though he were writing to contemporary American Evangelical Christianity, his audience was one of a nationalized Christianity that had essentially completely abandoned the gospel of Christ Jesus. He was writing to ‘enlightened’ and ‘sophisticated’ Germans at the tail end of the period of German higher criticism…folks who were adept at discerning (so they thought) the actual meaning of Jesus’ teaching and were not constrained to a simple, petty, bourgeois straightforward reading of the text.

With that in mind, we mustn’t let Bonhoeffer’s words fall on deaf ears today but should be heard for their convicting power. In this chapter, he gives example after example of how we (i.e. sinful humans) use reason, conscience, sophistry, and intellect to “evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience.” Lest we be too quick to absolve our own American Christianity of these sins, we ought probably substitute more contemporary terms for Bonhoeffer’s and ask ourselves how often we let freedom, our ‘relationship with Christ,’ being ‘Jesus freaks,’ or (insert term here) be our own license for disobedience, a watered-down faith, or lives of cheap grace.

A one-word summary of this chapter might well be simply, ‘Obey.’ In light of today’s flippant American Evangelicalism, Bonhoeffer’s words are a splash of ice water to the face, a wake-up call that our desire for ‘radical’ discipleship and ‘being sold out for Christ’ must be more than simply an empty mantra. At the same time, however, the more I read this chapter, the more I am uncomfortable with Bonhoeffer’s blunt call to obedience because he tends to set up Christ as a second lawgiver. Though he writes against antinomianism and disobedience, his words here are seemingly only a short leap from serious legalism and a misuse of the so-called ‘third use of the Law’ (tertius usus legis)?

For those unfamiliar with the term, the third use of the Law refers to that idea which suggests that the Law of God is to be used by the Christian as a guide or ruler for life. In Reformed thinking, this third use comes in in addition to the first use (as a curb against sin and evil in society) and the second use (a mirror to point out our sinfulness) and is given primacy over the other two in the lives of Christians. In many circles today, the three uses are accepted unquestioningly. This is especially true in American Evangelicalism with its undeniable Reformed influence (ironically, even in the most adamantly anti-Calvinistic circles!).

While I’m not sure I would be comfortable saying I completely reject the third use of the Law, I certainly think its emphasis (even implicitly here by Bonhoeffer) is misguided and potentially dangerous. Yes, Jesus undoubtedly raised the standard of expectations over that demanded by the Old Testament Law. If you don’t believe me, compare the details of the Sermon on the Mount with their OT antecedents and Jesus’ constant repetition, “You have heard it said…but I say…” At the same time, Christ came not as a Law-giver but as a Law-fulfiller. He did not spend his time instructing his disciples in the nuances of Law and commandment-keeping but gives them the simpler and perhaps more difficult call to followership. “Follow me,” is Jesus’ constant refrain in the Gospels.

Imitating Christ should be the focus of living the Christian life, not the Law’s tertius legis. Divorcing the Law from Christ inevitably leads to legalism and Pharisaism, not biblical Christianity. Yes, we must know the Law (and the whole of the Old Testament) if we are to truly know Christ and what it means to follow him, but our emphasis must not lead us to the error of making Scripture into merely a divine list of dos and don’ts.

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