Category Archives: Christian Liberty

Sometimes winning means you lose everything (part 1)

A review of Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (part 1)

In the hit TV series 24, Jack Bauer is a counter-terrorist agent seeking out threats to national security and doing whatever is necessary for the greater good of saving the American people. In his high-octane adventures, Jack is no stranger to taking the law in his own hands and facing impossible life and death decisions. His no-nonsense attitude considers no risk too great if only he can save his country from its deadliest enemies. His is a utilitarian philosophy of life – making decisions based on what he considers the greater good; reasoning that it is better for him to kill one criminal than for thousands of innocent people to die.

It’s switch-off, escapist telly that has no real bearing on normal life, certainly not for the Christian who would never be found in such extremely dangerous or complex situations. Or would they? How would a Christian behave if they, by some strange circumstance, find themselves in such situations? What if they were in a situation where to act could mean sinning, but not to act would certainly mean compromising your faith? Would it ever be right for a Christian to kill a tyrant to save thousands, or millions, of people’s lives? What if that tyrant was Hitler?

What would you do, when doing nothing was the most unacceptable alternative?

This was the very real dilemma for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and those around him during World War II. Bonhoeffer was a German Pastor who during the war was the key figure in leaking information about the Nazi atrocities to the West, and was part of the inner circle of conspirators seeking to assassinate Hitler. He was one of the people prepared to stand up to the Gestapo and was eventually killed for his part in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

However, before we get to his dilemma, a bit about his background.  Bonheoffer had a warm and loving upbringing, full of music, the outdoor life and strong relationships. His family were among the most cultured and intelligent in Germany at that time; his father was an eminent scientist and his brother a famous lawyer. Dietrich was always an earnest young man, sincere, intense and thoughtful. His interest in Christianity was always very personal and real, and finally led to him studying theology and becoming a minister.

As a leader of the church in Germany, Bonhoeffer was a prominent and outspoken opponent of the emerging Nazi government. Until he was strong enough to crush it, Hitler first attempted to woo the established church and deceived many of its leader through flattery. Bonhoeffer was not one of these, he was far too perceptive to be taken in.

Bonhoeffer was ruthless in his search for truth, “he accorded theological ideas the same respect that his father accorded scientific ideas…questions about the Bible, and ethics and theology must be treated with the same rigorousness, and all cant “phraseology” must be identified, exposed as such and cut away and discarded. One wished to arrive at answers that could stand up to every scrutiny because one would have to live out those conclusions” (page 127).

But his clarity of thinking and confrontational views often brought him into conflict with the other more-moderate leaders and his piercing prophetic expressions led to him often being misunderstood. Ironically, it was with leaders outside his native country that he found most like-mindedness. His trips to the UK and USA established strong connections with other church leaders and brought him to the attention of the world scene.

Back in Germany the war was about to start and Bonhoeffer was torn between returning to his homeland, where almost certain death awaited him, and staying in America where his increasing fame meant a secure lecturing position and a prosperous future. Ever the anti-celebrity, Bonhoeffer chose to go home and sailed back to Germany, not knowing what awaited him. He would say later on that “he had been “grasped” by God; that God was leading him, and sometimes where he would prefer not to go” (page 70).

However, once back on home soil Bonhoeffer faced a moral dilemma of either joining an army in a war he morally disagreed with, or to avoid conscription, become a conscientious objector and face the firing squad. In the midst of his dilemma, and seeking to retain a useful role within the church, he took a job as an informer with the German secret police reporting on church activities. In a typical Bonhoeffer move, he actually worked as a double agent, secretly helping the church while pretending to inform on them. Only those close to him knew his true motives and allegiance and his duplicitous role caused many in the church to become confused. But these were confusing times, when loyalties to the state, the church and the family that had been intertwined for centuries in German culture were being pulled apart.

The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands as a symbol of truth against an avalanche of lies. It is the story of the power of right to overcome wrong. In his fight against evil he held nothing back – neither his own desire for happiness or his fear of a painful death. In the end he lost everything he had, his family, his fiancee, his promising career and finally his life. Any yet, as we look back from our vantage point we can see that in the final analysis he won. With some Christian leaders you learn from them mostly through their teaching, others teach you through their lives. For Bonhoeffer his life and devotion add greater depth to his teaching for it cost him so much.

Finally, a word from Bonhoeffer about what drove him: “It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God. I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weakness but in strength, and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness” (page 467). God in the centre, God in life. This is what Bonhoeffer was passionate to see lived out, and this is his legacy for us who follow after him. May we found strength to be willing to lose everything in order to win Him who is worth more than life itself.

Part 2 of my review can be found here

When dad lets go of the bike

Book 3 Chapter 19 Section 1-16

Three weeks ago I reached a milestone in my parental life. At the start of the summer I had taken the stabilisers off my daughter’s bike and had been teaching her how to ride on her own. Over the summer I have been running alongside her holding onto the bike teaching her all the skills necessary to ride on her own. Gradually I have been able to loosen my grip and just have my hand hovering alongside the bike as I jog with her.

Well, a couple of weeks ago we were all out as a family and I was jogging alongside her in case she fell. At one point I just knew that she really didn’t need me jogging alongside the bike, so I stopped and watched as she rode her bike down the lane on her own. I felt a strange combination of pride and anxiety – proud that she had finally managed it, but anxious in case she started wobbling. She was free to cycle on her own now, but needed to remember everything I had taught her if she was to stay upright. It is this mixture of a child’s freedom and responsibility that comes to mind when I read this chapter of the Institutes on Christian liberty.

Calvin lays the foundation for Christian liberty by reminding us that the there can only be individual discretion in things that the law is silent about. For when the law speaks on an issue we have no liberty to ignore it, we must obey. While recognising that we cannot perfectly obey, and that we are saved through faith apart from the law, it “ceases not to teach, exhort and urge us to good.” But for those things not mentioned in the law each believer is free do follow their conscience.

But recognising the dangers inherent in giving the children such free reign, Calvin cautions temperance. The danger of allowing individual freedom is that some take advantage, particularly in the area of material riches. Although Calvin admits that “ivory and gold, and riches, are the good creatures of God”, when they are used to “roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the mind and soul with present and be always hunting after new pleasures, is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God.” These people “say they are things indifferent: I admit it, provided they are used indifferently.” Our consciences must be pure from ulterior motives and seek only to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, for “the nourishment which God gives is for life, not luxury.”


Our Christian liberty is very like our heavenly Father teaching us to ride a bike. When I let go of the bike I am trusting that my daughter remembers everything I have taught her about pedaling and steering, and in the same way God has given us his law that gives us the principles by which to use our liberty. Similarly, as I have taught my daughter to listen to her innate sense of balance to keep upright on the bike, so God has given us an inner guide, our conscience, to lead us in wisdom where his word is silent. Combining the two – the inner conscience and written law enables the believer to discern how God would have us behave in matters indifferent. As a loving parent he allows us the freedom and responsibility in many areas of life to act in a way that will please him.  

We will even be able to adapt our behaviour as the apostle Paul did in order to maximise his witness amongst unbelievers and also avoid offending the weaker brother. Calvin cites a great example for “when he (Paul) adopts Timothy as his companion, he circumcises him; nothing can induce him to circumcise Titus” (Acts 16.3 & Galatians 2.3). To some this may appear as situational ethics, but the mature believer understands that this is rather the freedom they have in neutral matters. To so sub-serve our own agendas and desires that we are willing to adapt our behaviour with the sole aim of extending the kingdom and protecting the conscience of our weaker brother.

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like the Jews…To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9.19-23

Father, help us to grow into this freedom. To know your word in our hearts and to listen to our renewed consciences that we may be guided in paths of righteousness. Show us what a life lived like this would look like today – help us to see how we must accommodate our behaviour to win those who are far from you and strengthen our fellow believers. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.