The value of the secular calling for the Christian is that it provides an opportunity of living the Christian life with the support of God’s grace, and of engaging more vigorously in the assault on the world and everything that it stands for.
Let the Christian remain in the world, not because of the good gifts of creation, nor because of his responsibility for the course of the world, but for the sake of the Body of the incarnate Christ and for the sake of the Church. Let him remain in the world to engage in frontal assault on it, and let him live the life of his secular calling in order to show himself as a stranger in this world all the more. But that is only possible if we are visible members of the Church. The antithesis between the world and the Church must be borne out in the world. That was the purpose of the incarnation. That is why Christ died among his enemies. That is the reason and the only reason why the slave must remain a slave and the Christian remain subject to the powers that be.
This is exactly the conclusion Luther reached with regard to the Christian’s secular calling during those critical years when he was turning his back on the cloister. It was not so much the lofty standards of monasticism that he repudiated, as their interpretation in terms of individual achievement. It was not otherworldliness as such that he attacked, but the perversion of otherworldliness into a subtle kind of “spiritual” worldliness. To Luther’s mind that was a most insidious perversion of the gospel. The otherworldliness of the Christian life ought, Luther concluded, to be manifested in the very midst of the world, in the Christian community and in its daily life. Hence the Christian’s task is to live out that life in terms of his secular calling. That is the way to die unto the world. The value of the secular calling for the Christian is that it provides an opportunity of living the Christian life with the support of God’s grace, and of engaging more vigorously in the assault on the world and everything that it stands for.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Visible Community”, The Cost of Discipleship
I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship with one of our church’s spiritual mothers (1Tim 5:2). We’re three chapters in and I’m sure this won’t be the last excerpt I post.
Here’s Bonhoeffer reflecting on Jesus’ command to the rich man to “go and sell your possessions”:
Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty. Indeed in the very act of giving away his goods a man can give allegiance to himself and to an ideal and not to the command of Jesus. He is not set free from his own self but still more enslaved to himself. . .
The shocked question of the disciples “Who then can be saved?” seems to indicate that they regarded the case of the rich young man not as in any way exceptional, but as typical. For they do not ask: “Which rich man?” but quite generally, “Who then can be saved?” For every man, even the disciples themselves, belongs to those rich ones for whom it is so difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven. The answer Jesus gives showed the disciples that they had understood him well. Salvation through following Jesus is not something we men can achieve for ourselves–but with God all things are possible.
. . . only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes. It is quite unbiblical to hold the first proposition without the second. We think we understand when we hear that obedience is possible only where there is faith. Does not obedience follow faith as good fruit grows on a good tree? First, faith, then obedience. If by that we mean that it is faith which justifies, and not the act of obedience, all well and good, for that is the essential and unexceptional presupposition of all that follows. If, however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other–and then we get the practical question, when must obedience begin? Obedience remains separated from faith. From the point of view of justification it is necessary thus to separate them, but we must never lose sight of their essential unity. For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship