Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 19 In Or Out?

How do you know who is a Christian?  Are you a Christian if you identify yourself as one?  Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:3 says “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says Jesus is accursed, and that no one can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Spirit.”  Some people say that that is how we identify Christians: everyone who can say “Jesus is Lord” is a genuine Christian.

Other people will tell you that being a Christian is a matter of doctrine.  That is primarily the task for which the historic Creeds have been formed: to identify who is in and who is outside the Church.  Do you subscribe to the Apostles Creed?  Then you are part of the “holy catholic church” and a member of “the communion of saints.” 

While many evangelicals do not formally have a creed, informally most would tell you that being a Christian does mean that you subscribe to the core tenets of Christianity: “Mere Christianity” as CS Lewis put it.  American Evangelicalism also has its own unique language to describe the status of those who have been born-again.  Ask an evangelical if you are a Christian and He is likely to reply “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Personal Savior?”

Finally, some people think that this question has no value.  They, with Martin Luther for example, note that Jesus tells us that the Church will contain both wheat (true Christians) and tares (false ones) until Christ comes back for his bride.  Any attempt on our part to discern something that is only within the hearts of others is doomed to failure and should not be undertaken.

We are in chapter 19 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  The passage Bonhoeffer starts out with is found in Matt 7, verses 13-23.

13"Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  14Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.  15"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  16You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Therefore by their fruits you will know them. 21"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' 23And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'

Note first that Jesus establishes the existence of those who are Christians in word only.  Not everyone who says to Jesus “Lord Lord” really means it.  And it is not that they are followers in word only.  Jesus tells us that some who have done great things for the Kingdom were never known by him.  Casting out demons is not enough.  Doing great miracles and prophesying in His name is not enough.  Even building ministries and mega-churches is not enough to be a guarantor of faithfulness.

Furthermore Jesus doesn’t just tell us that some will have the appearance but not the substance of Christianity, he tells us to beware.  Beware of false prophets.  Is that something you are consciously aware of?  Do you critically examine the things that you hear on the radio, from other Christians, and even from this pulpit?  1John 4:1 instructs us “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but try the spirits to see if they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

What do we have to beware of?  I looked up the references to false prophets (or false teachers as they are sometimes called) to see what the New Testament had to say on the subject.  Peter devotes a whole chapter to the subject in 2 Peter and Paul talks about false teachers in several places.  The overwhelming impression I got was that false teachers are not just those who teach something that is wrong.  Because of our human fallibility we will all err at times.  I may be mistaken at times as I teach here in a Sunday School class or opening.  But this alone doesn’t make me a false teacher.  Peter says that false prophets want to “use you for gain”.  Paul says that false teachers “desire to enslave you”.  This is Jesus’ point in his description of false prophets.  They look like sheep but inwardly are wolves.  False prophets teach wrong out of evil motives: whether for their own profit or from a sense of self aggrandizement and desire for power.  They don’t merely make mistakes; they desire to use the gospel for their own selfish ends.

Now this is an unpleasant subject to contemplate.  We do not like to imagine that such people exist.  Maybe even more distressing, however, is the idea that we could be fooled by them.  Surely we would recognize spiritual bondage, even if it came cloaked in a disguise of increased virtue.  Surely we would know when we are being fleeced, even if the fleecing was hidden in an appeal to our generosity.  And yet Jesus does not tell us that we will recognize a con job when we see it. 

What he does tell us is that there is a way to find out false prophets.  In fact, they will show themselves eventually by their fruit.  It is almost a Law in the sense that Gravity is a law, it is a fact of nature: trees bear fruit according to their kind.  For a while we may be able to hide our sinful natures from others, but eventually we are found out.

For us this means a careful balance.  We found last time that we are not to Judge our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We must not try to attack others with their shortcomings and we are asked to demonstrate love in looking for the best possible motives for their actions.  And yet now we must also look at the fruit; especially the lives of teachers.  We must consider whether the lives of the Christians whose teaching we appreciate reflects a life of discipleship.

It is our duty to remain on guard, to examine the spirits as John said, even of those whom we have appreciated and admired.  Beware, Jesus says.  Let us pray that we are.