Tag Archives: repentance

Bonhoeffer and Discipleship

November 2017 Pulse

“Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” These words eloquently summarise the central message of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s influential book, The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1937.

This book began life as a series of lectures about the Sermon on the Mount, delivered by Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde, a seminary that trained ministers for the “Confessing Church” during the Nazi period. Bonhoeffer later joined the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, a crime for which he was arrested and executed at the age of 39.

In this book, Bonhoeffer tried to disabuse his readers of the idea that they could take God’s grace for granted just because they have received it freely and unconditionally. Hence, in the pages of The Cost of Discipleship we find the oft-repeated refrain that although grace is free, it is never cheap.

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church,” Bonhoeffer insists. “We are fighting today for costly grace.”

By “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer is referring to a religion that makes no demands on its adherents, a religiosity that gives a polite nod at commitment but refuses to pay the price it exacts.

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate,” he writes.

The free grace of God is costly because it is made available through the sacrificial death of Christ on Calvary’s cross. But this grace is also costly for Christians because it “calls us to follow Jesus Christ”.

For Bonhoeffer, then, at the heart of Christian discipleship is obedience to Christ. No one can claim to be a Christian – a believer – if he is not also a disciple, that is, if obedience does not characterise his life: “… only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”

The obedience demanded of the believer is also not something open to negotiation or bargain, but absolute, without reservation or hesitation. For if you are only partially obedient – which means that you occasionally acquiesce to sin – “you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control”.

True obedience therefore requires self-denial, the resolve to remove the self with its ambitions, passions and wants from the centre of one’s life so that Christ may take His rightful place there. To obey is to smash the idol of the “sovereign self” and to bring the self into humble submission to the true Sovereign.

Only when we are determined to deny our selves can we embrace the suffering that comes with discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes movingly: “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”

In this book, Bonhoeffer also explores the profound relationship between discipleship and the moral law of God by drawing creatively from the Lutheran tradition that shaped his theology.

To be obedient is to live our lives according to the purposes for which God created us; it is to bend our wills to God’s. And since God’s will is revealed in His moral law, the disciple must order his life according to it.

But the divine law points to the holy God who, in giving it, invites His people to commune with Him. This means that the divine law, which is purposed to usher us into an intimate covenant relationship with God, can never be reduced to rules – the dos and don’ts – that govern external behaviour.

The Christian can never be an antinomian (who regards the moral law of God as unimportant) or a legalist (who thinks that the Christian life is only about rule-keeping). In other words, discipleship is not just about doing what is required by the law; but if one ignores God’s law one ceases to be a disciple.

Discipleship therefore has to do with obedient love.

“If you love me,” Jesus said to His disciples, “you will keep my commandments … Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.” (John 14:15, 21)


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

One Vocabulary, Different Universes

November 2017 Feature

It is increasingly common to hear or read words such as “exclusivism”, “inclusivism”, and “pluralism” in public discourse whether it is used by academics, activists or politicians. It is assumed that everyone is on the same page; thus the terms are insufficiently, if not rarely defined. This is not helpful, and in fact problematic for Christians whose traditions and thinkers have been using such words, with well-defined understanding.

In his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, missiologist Timothy Tennent discusses the above terms, setting out the general Christian understanding of the words. Exclusivism is a position taken by conservative and evangelical Christians that stands on three non-negotiables: the absolute and unique authority of Jesus, His life, death and resurrection as the decisive hinge of history, and the necessity for repentance and faith in Jesus for salvation.

This position is represented by Henrik Kraemer (The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, 1938) and, more recently, Ronald Nash (Is Jesus the Only Savior? 1994), among many others. This is also the position that many Protestant churches in Singapore have taken.

Inclusivism, as a theological perspective, accepts the first two of the three non-negotiables of exclusivism, but not the third. This position has led to the idea of “anonymous Christians” (Karl Rahner), people who belong to other faiths but nevertheless experience salvation in Christ even though they may not know Christ or the Bible, or join the Christian faith.

Pluralism rejects all three non-negotiables of exclusivism. A well-known proponent of this view is John Hick (An Interpretation of Religion, 1989), who argues that all religions provide means of salvation and that Christianity is just one of many viable faiths, and not necessarily the most advanced of them.

It is in the light of this background that Christians have difficulties uncritically accepting public statements made by thought leaders in non-Christian, and especially secular, spaces. The politically correct way of thinking is that exclusivism is bad, inclusivism is good, and pluralism is what we should embrace for a peaceful and harmonious society.

But many questions have to be asked to seek clarifications and for all to try to be on the same page so that we can really engage in dialogue and arrive at mutual understanding. Take, for instance, the term “religious harmony”. I was once asked by a journalist what I thought about it, and I had to ask the journalist how she would define the term. She was at a loss.

I then explained that if “religious harmony” meant a harmony of religions, then I did not think the churches would be in favour of that. However, if the term meant harmonious relationships between people of different faiths seeking to live in peace and mutual understanding, then the churches support it because that is also what the Bible teaches.

There are two kinds of exclusivism; theological and social. This is where confusion and misunderstanding can arise. There is a tendency to confuse both aspects in one single idea, as if to say that those who stand for theological exclusivism (as per exclusivism as defined above) are also for social exclusivism. This cannot be further from the truth.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; Protestant Christians commemorate the clear doctrinal exclusivity expressed in the Reformation mottoes: Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone. This is based on scriptural teachings on the uniqueness of Christ, His life, and the salvation found in Him alone (Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5; Rev 17:14).

But Scripture also teaches social inclusivity. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Mt 22:39; Lk 10:25-37). We are to live peaceably with all (Rom 12:18), and help and serve the poor and needy in society (Mt 25:35-36; Jam 1:27). Theological exclusivism does not mean social isolationism but stands together with social outreach and compassionate and missional involvement in society.

So, are Christians exclusivists or inclusivists? Such a question does not recognise the nuances of Christian thought and practice. In reality Christians are theologically exclusive and socially inclusive. To not recognise this is to collapse the ideas to suggest that social inclusivism is the same as theological inclusivism (as defined earlier), and that theological exclusivism is the same as social exclusivism. This will hinder any attempt at actual dialogue and understanding.

This also brings us to the question of whether our society is best defined as pluralistic, as some have argued. The problem is that pluralism, as many Christian thinkers in our midst understand it, is a philosophy. That we live in a diverse society is an observable fact, but to say that we are a pluralistic society is to impose a certain philosophy or underlying perspective.

One is a sociological observation, the other is a religious statement. There is a difference, as theologian Lesslie Newbigin has shown, between plurality and pluralism.

When people of different faiths (including secularists and those who do not profess any faith) engage in discussions, and there is social discourse, our different ideas about words, phrases and terms can become a hindrance to true communication and understanding if they are not sufficiently defined. We may not all agree on the definitions but we must at least understand and appreciate what is meant by words that may have different meanings for different people.

It is not like the language of mathematics, which in most cases transcends culture and society. Russian, Chinese, Italian and Indonesian mathematicians all understand one another when they discuss mathematics (not necessarily other things) because they use a well-defined mathematical vocabulary.

But in general social discourse, our lips may say the same words, but our minds may have different ideas. We may use the same vocabulary (in a superficially understood way), but we may be talking from different universes.

We may not agree on a single vocabulary accepted by all, but we must define and explain what we mean when we use certain words, to reduce misunderstanding and confusion and to promote real engagement.



Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

 

Repentance and Forgiveness

September 2017 Credo

Reader’s Question: Does the Bible teach that Christians should forgive the unrepentant?

Christians are commanded to forgive because they worship the God who forgives. In Matthew 6:15, we read: ‘… if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’.

But are Christians required to forgive those who have wronged them even if the offenders remain unrepentant? What, if any, is the relationship between forgiveness and repentance?

Christians are divided on this issue. Some Christian writers, like R. T. Kendall, believe that forgiveness should be given unconditionally, even to offenders who are not repentant and who continue in their offense.

However, the majority of Christian theologians and spiritual writers maintain that forgiveness should only be extended to offenders who are truly repentant. Based on passages like Ephesians 4:32, where Paul exhorts his readers to forgive ‘one another, as God in Christ forgave you’, they maintain that we should forgive as God forgives (See also Colossians 3:13).

How does God forgive? It is clear in Scripture that God does not forgive the stiff-necked and unrepentant sinner. In fact, the Bible explicitly teaches that only the repentant will receive divine forgiveness and the blessings of salvation (Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 3:19).

There are numerous passages in the NT that underscore that forgiveness is premised on repentance. For example, in Luke 17:3 we read these words of Jesus: ‘Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him’.

In this passage, the subjunctive ‘if’ (Greek: ean) sets the condition for forgiveness. This passage therefore clearly teaches that forgiveness should always be conditioned upon repentance.

Matthew 18:15-17 helps us to look at this issue from another angle. Here Jesus gives specific instructions on how to deal with a member of the community (suggested by the descriptor ‘brother’) who has sinned.

Several attempts must be made to convince the person of his sin, but if all these attempts fail and the offender refuses to listen and repent, ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’ (v 17).

In Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community, ‘Gentile’ denotes ‘heathen’. ‘Tax collector’ is here used as a derogatory term since the Jews despise people in this profession. Commenting on the force of Jesus’ injunction, Donald Hagner writes: ‘Thus the unrepentant offender is not simply put out of the community but categorized as among the worst sort of persons’.

This passage again stresses that forgiveness is only offered to the repentant sinner.

Christians who maintain that forgiveness is not dependent on repentance but must be extended unconditionally to the offender often point to Jesus’ words on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). Kendall, for instance, argues that Jesus asked God to forgive the people who crucified him without expecting them to first repent of their wrongdoings. Of Jesus’ executioners Kendall writes: ‘There was not only an utter absence of repentance, but also total contempt’.

Jesus’ prayer should not be understood as an anomalous departure from the general biblical principle that forgiveness must be preceded by repentance. As the NT scholar Noval Gledenhuys has shown, Jesus’ prayer demonstrates his ‘earnest longing that his persecutors should be given another chance to repent before otherwise inevitable judgement is executed on their sins!’

Jesus is the very embodiment of that unconditional love that the Bible calls agape, a love that is extended even to one’s enemies. It was this agapic love that compelled Jesus to pray for his torturers and executioners (Cf., Matthew 5:44).

The Dutch NT scholar William Hendricksen paraphrases Jesus’ prayer thus: ‘In thy sovereign grace cause them to repent truly, so that they can be and will be pardoned fully’.

Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, emulated his Lord when he prayed ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ just before he died at the hands of his persecutors (Acts 7:60).

Jesus’ prayer therefore does not breach the principle that forgiveness is conditioned upon repentance. Rather it shows his magnanimity and willingness to forgive his executioners.

The prayer therefore teaches us that Christians must be always willing to forgive their offenders when they repent. This brings us back to the Lucan passage discussed above. Luke 17:4 reads: ‘and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, “I repent”, you must forgive him’. To love with agapic love is to be always willing to forgive.

In doing so, we are imaging our gracious God, who is always willing to forgive us of our sins when we confess them in penitence (1 John 1:9).

However, to offer forgiveness without repentance is to cheapen grace itself, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has perceptively pointed out when he wrote: ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance’. Unconditional forgiveness also devalues the theological and spiritual significance of repentance.

The advocates of unconditional forgiveness often argue that if we refuse to forgive the offender unless he repents, we will be weighed down with hatred and mired in bitterness. While this can certainly be true for some people, it is not necessarily the case.

Christians are called to love everyone (even their enemies) unconditionally regardless of whether they express remorse for their wrongdoing. It is possible to love someone in the biblical sense (i.e., with agapic love), with a love that is never resentful (1 Corinthians 13:5), even when an unsettled issue continues to persist.

The advocates of unconditional forgiveness have wrongly conflated the command to love others (which is unconditional) and the command to forgive one’s offenders (which is conditional). Or, they have wrongly assumed that to love someone in the biblical sense necessarily requires Christians to automatically and unconditionally forgive their offenders.

The ultimate goal of forgiveness is reconciliation, the healing of relationship. This is just not possible if there is no repentance on the part of the wrongdoer, that is, if the offender denies that he has committed an offense or if he does not show remorse.


 


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.