On this day in 1945, after spending two years in a concentration camp, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for being involved in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler and couched his resistance to the Nazis as an act of faith, refusing several times to leave Germany to preserve his safety.
Bonhoeffer is among ten 20th century martyrs whose statues stand above the remodeled west entrance to Westminster Abbey in London. Incidentally, he’s joined in that place of honor by a Baptist pastor from Atlanta named Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bonhoeffer is not just remembered for his principled stand against the Nazis. His books continue to be widely read, and he continues to influence new generations of theologians. In The Cost of Discipleship, he talks about the relationship between belief and obedience using the calling of the disciples and the parable of the rich young ruler as examples. He argues that belief and obedience are inextricably bound as two sides of the same coin of faith. In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer–and in preparation for Easter–let me suggest three things we usually get wrong about faith.
Three Things We Forget About Faith
Many of us live as if faith were only an intellectual exercise. Faith is more than intellectual assent to a set of propositions. Faith is behavioral. Faith is emotional. And faith is experiential.
Faith Is Behavioral
Faith is at least as much about what we do as it is about what we believe. Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship that “faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” At Easter we are reminded that it is through Christ’s faithfulness, even to death, that we find our salvation. Christ’s faithfulness was not merely intellectual. Christ’s faithfulness led him one step at a time toward Jerusalem. Christ’s faithfulness led him to endure trial, scorn, mockery and death. He calls us to be faithful by taking up our own crosses. Faithfulness is lived out in grand gestures and simple actions every day.
Faith Is Emotional
Faith–if it is faith–encompasses our whole being. Faith changes our hearts. Hard-heartedness is incompatible with Christian faith. Hardened hearts are turned toward selfless generosity. Our bias toward legalistic judgmentalism gives way to compassion. Our tribal tendency to mistrust those who are different from us is transformed into open acceptance of all of God’s children. Those who follow Jesus will discover in Christ a love that trumps self-preservation. For Bonhoeffer, that meant execution in a concentration camp. You may be called to that kind of sacrifice,too. But for most of us it might just mean a steady shift away from indifference toward those who are suffering.
Faith Is Experiential
Faith is not faith as long as it is based on someone else’s experience. You can’t get faith from a book or lecture. You don’t inherit faith from your parents. It doesn’t rub off on you if you hang out with the right people. Faith is the result of a personal experience with Jesus Christ. Some people think that the mystical experience of faith is nothing more than overly emotional sentimentality. I disagree. This Easter, read the first part of Luke 24. It is the remembered experience of Christ that brings faith in the resurrection…a remembrance encouraged by the mystical presence of angels.
This Easter remember those who have been willing to make great sacrifices to stand up to injustice and advance the cause of Christ. And remember that faith is more than an intellectual exercise. God wants every part of us, not just our heads.
See you Sunday.