The Virtuous Life

8/5/2020 Glenda Simpkins Hoffman

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the Christians who stands out in the 20th century. He was living comfortably in American and teaching at Union Seminary in New York when the ominous storms clouds of the Third Reich changed everything. He returned to Germany and became a leader in the newly formed “confessing Church.” Biographer Eberhard Bethge described Bonhoeffer as “that fighter on behalf of the First Commandment against the idolatrous syncretism of his time and of our time as well; the composer of devout prayers and inspiring sermons; the fascinating author of spiritual literature; the exciting writer of letters from prison, the sophisticated analyst of the Christian situation in the post-enlightenment era; the witness to faith in Jesus Christ both now in the future.”  

Bonhoeffer is an inspiration because of his willingness to confront the powers that be and remain faithful to Jesus as Lord and scripture as our authority. His book Cost of Discipleship challenges the idea of cheap grace that preaches forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline and Communion without confession. Life Together lifts up not only the importance of personal spiritual disciplines but the need to recognize and live out the community we already have in Christ and to recognize that the church is the church only when it exists for others.  

In his book Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster uses Bonhoeffer as an illustration of the Holiness Tradition. This tradition exemplifies the virtuous life and can be defined as “a life that functions as it should,” and we should explore it because “through it we are enabled to live whole, functional lives in a dysfunctional world.”  

Jesus is the prime example of this. He lived in such loving union with God the Father and was so surrendered to the empowerment of the Spirit that nothing could pull him away from the Father’s love and will. This is evident throughout his ministry, even from the beginning when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Richard Foster writes, 

Throughout those forty days Jesus fasted from food so that he could all the more fully enter the divine feast. Then, when his spiritual resources were at their maximum, God allowed the Evil One to come to him with three great temptations…. These were not just personal temptations; they were temptations for Jesus to access for his own use the three most prominent social institutions of the day—economic, religious, political…. In those forty days in the wilderness Jesus rejected the popular Jewish hope for a Messiah who would feed the poor, bask in miraculous heavenly approval, and shuck off oppressive nations. And he undercut the leverage of the three great social institutions of his day (and of ours)—exploitative economics, manipulative religions, and coercive politics. What we see in those forty crucial days is someone who understood with clarity the way of God and who had the internal resources to live in that way, instinctively and without reservation. Jesus’ actions were living embodiments of the Holiness Stream. 

Jesus’ congruence of life and teaching was something the disciples learned and benefited from as they witnessed him living the kind of life that they heard him teach about.  The Sermon on the Mount undoubtedly had teachings that the disciples heard over and over again that corrected their misunderstandings about life and religion and gave them a vision for life in the kingdom of God. They were given a picture of what it looks like to become a truly holy person—not from the outside in (religion based on fulfilling the law) but from the inside out (an interactive relationship that leads to transformation). This kind of person is like a good tree that bears good fruit (Matthew 27:15-20) and a wise man whose house remains secure even through the storms because he built his house on rock (Matthew 7:24-27).  Jesus was replacing a false idea of what it means to be holy with a new narrative:  

Holiness means the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. It means being “response-able,” able to respond appropriately to the demands of life.… So a holy life simply is a life that works…. Holiness is not rules and regulations. Elaborate lists of do’s and don’ts miss the point of a life hidden with God in Christ…. Holiness is sustained attention to the heart, the source of all action. It concerns itself with the core of the personality, the well-being of behavior, the quintessence of the soul. It focuses upon the formation and transformation of this center…. The goal of the Christian life is not simply to get us into heaven, but to get heaven into us!” 

I love this tradition! I think I spent so many years engaging in behavior modification that it left me feeling frustrated and defeated. But this stream is not about that; it is about transformation of the heart. Are we sorry for the things we have done, or are we sorry that we are the kind of person who does such things? 

In one of my classes with the Renovaré Institute, Richard Foster asked us why Bonhoeffer was chosen to illustrate the holiness stream rather than the social justice stream. I answered, “Because he had become the kind of person who knew what needed to be done. The Holiness Tradition is about becoming the kind of person who is able to resist evil and do good.” 

One of the strengths of this tradition is “the tough-minded, down-to-earth, practical understanding of how we ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’” (2 Peter 3:18). It is the disciplines of the spiritual life that train us in body, mind, and spirit. Just as practicing shooting, dribbling, and passing transforms us into a person who is able to play basketball well, so God uses spiritual disciplines to shape each of us into the kind of person who is able to do what needs to be done. 

We are to train using the principle of indirection. We identify an area where we want to see growth, and we find the corresponding discipline or practice that the Holy Spirit can use to help shape and mold us. And it’s important to share the journey with others. We need others to encourage and support us and to provide loving accountability. And when we fall, we get up and start over again. We confess, receive the grace of forgiveness, and move on, recognizing that our perfection will not be realized until we are with Jesus in glory. 

The holiness stream is reflected in our mission statement, becoming like Christ together for the world. We have to be transformed so that we become the kind of people (individually and corporately) who are ready, willing, and able to engage in the work of Christ in the world. Only then will be able to care for others, share the good news, and dare to speak up for Jesus and stand up for justice. Ultimately this is a work of the Holy Spirit. We will look at Spirit-filled life another day. 

August 5, 2020
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