Natural Born Sinners

An Overview of the Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“I shall have no right”, Bonhoeffer wrote to Niebuhr before leaving America, “to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people….Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security.”

From G. Liebholz’s Memoir preceding the introduction to Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship

I sometimes wonder what we Christians mean when we say “we’re in the world and not of it.” Of course, I realize we usually mean we dwell here but we don’t allow the world to influence us—we have no part in the evil of this world. I cannot help but think we forget that we were natural born sinners, born to Adam’s race, enemies from birth, raging against the God who made us (Romans 5:10). We were “the world.” I had a conversation with a co-worker recently in which we discussed the self-righteousness found so often in the body of Christ. Have we so easily forgotten the grace of God?

The hypocrisy of Man the Repentant does not justify the wickedness of Man the Unrepentant as surely as it, in itself, does not bring honor to Christ What good can come of our hypocrisy? A couple of things can happen. Recognizing our hypocrisy will break our hearts and humble us to the point of repenting before God the Father, and from that repentance our humility will sympathize with unregenerate sinners for one thing. I believe we Christians so often neglect this when we’re trying to distance ourselves from the world. Also, the fruit of our humility will eventually be apparent to those in our lives, and in this God will be glorified.

The meat of the matter for myself, because I really am writing this to myself primarily, is that when we see this world run faster away from God, the more we should mourn for it and those in it. I for one do not revel when the wicked act wickedly and incriminate themselves before their Creator all the more, heaping judgment on themselves. I find myself desiring less to retreat into the hills away from the evil found in the cities below, and more desirous of striving with their denizens because I know how much God has forgiven me. If I were trying to analogize, I might seem to be going against Bunyan’s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress but I am not.

Bunyan’s protagonist, Christian, dwelt in the City of Destruction. He had an overwhelming burden on his back, and being approached by Evangelist he was given a parchment and instructed to flee the city which (true to its name) would soon be destroyed. He did flee. So I might sound a bit like I’m saying Christian should have stayed. I’m not suggesting this, and also, Bunyan wrote it as an allegory. In a straightforward way, I will say to myself and other believers: we have been delivered from perdition by God’s grace. We fled the City of Destruction and ran to the cross because Christ came to us first and took our sin and became our righteousness.

We were natural born sinners with the death penalty like Barabbas; Christ was crucified in Barabbas’ place, and in our place as well. The Bonhoeffer quote at the beginning of this post spoke to me in a way few quotes do. In 1939, he gave up security and freedom to return to the despotism and godlessness in Nazi-controlled Germany. Surely he knew there was danger in that place as well as God’s judgment on it’s leaders and those who shut their eyes and hearts to the atrocities perpetrated. Still, he went. I suppose it could be said that he was “in the world and not of it.”

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