Is Bonhoeffer legalistic?

Rick Ritchie has been arguing (1 | 2) to the effect that Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship is legalistic, that Bonhoeffer sets up a standard of perfect discipleship as a condition of salvation in a manner that amounts to works-righteousness.

This is obviously a pretty serious charge to level at a Lutheran theologian. It’s one thing to say that Bonhoeffer over-emphasises law at the expense of gospel – I’m reserving judgment on that one until I’ve finished the book – but I do think the allegation of legalism is misplaced.

For example, in chapter 14 (“The Hidden Righteousness”), Bonhoeffer considers the apparent tension between Matthew 5, in which we are told to:

“let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”

and Matthew 6, in which Jesus tells us:

“do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”.

How to resolve this apparent contradiction between the visible and hidden aspects of discipleship? Bonhoeffer’s answer is, in my view, critical to understanding the argument of his book:

The first question to ask is: From whom are we to hide the visibility of our discipleship? Certainly not from other men, for we are told to let them see our light. No. We are to hide it from ourselves. Our task is simply to keep on following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or of what we are doing.

We must be unaware of our own righteousness, and see it only in so far as we look unto Jesus; then it will seem not extraordinary, but quite ordinary and natural. Thus we hide the visible from ourselves in obedience to the word of Jesus.

This is, of course, quite the opposite of legalistic self-righteousness, or of an inward-looking search for assurance based on the evidence of good works in one’s life. As Bonhoeffer continues:

All that the follower of Jesus has to do is make sure that his obedience, following and love are entirely spontaneous and premeditated. If you do good, you must not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, you must be quite unconscious of it. Otherwise you are simply displaying your own virtue, and not that which has its source in Jesus Christ.

Such a self-forgetful existence can only be the consequence, not the cause, of our fellowship with Christ:

Once again, who can live a life which combines chapters 5 and 6? Only those who have died after the old man through Christ, and are given a new life by following him and having fellowship with him.

In other words, Bonhoeffer’s exposition of Jesus’ words is intended to be descriptive of what the life of the believer looks like (however imperfectly), not prescriptive of a standard to which we must attain as a precondition of salvation. As such, he is saying nothing more than is found in Article VI of the Augsburg Confession – “this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits” – or in Melanchthon’s chapter on “Love and the Fulfilling of the Law” in the Apology.

But what of those of us – namely all of us – who fail to meet the exacting standards laid out in the sermon on the mount, whose faith at times seems so short of “good fruits”? Does Bonhoeffer leave us without hope, crushed by the standards of discipleship imposed as a new law upon the believer?

Quite the contrary, as his exposition of the Lord’s prayer in the following chapter demonstrates. But that is for another post.

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