“The Christian community should not be governed by self-justification, which violates others, but by justification by grace, which serves others. Once individuals have experienced the mercy of God in their lives, from then on they want only to serve.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 72.
After writing the above, Bonhoeffer quotes Romans 12:16; 12:3; and 12:17. He also quotes Thomas a Kempis, “The highest and most useful lesson is to truly know yourself and to think humbly of yourself. Making nothing of yourself and always having a good opinion of others is great wisdom and perfection.”
Bonhoeffer (page 73) writes, “Only those who live by the forgiveness of their sin in Jesus Christ will think little of themselves in the right way. They will know that their own wisdom completely came to an end when Christ forgave them. They remember the cleverness of the first human beings, who wanted to know what is good and evil and died in this cleverness.”
I want to say at the outset that I don’t understand all that Bonhoeffer means when he talks of “self-justification.” I am currently reading Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer and in Bethge’s discussion of Bonhoeffer’s theological thinking in prison, during the last months of his life, the subject of self-justification comes up. Since Life Together was written in 1938, and Bonhoeffer was still reflecting on self-justification in 1944 – 45, this idea was no doubt in a state of development.
We can tell what Bonhoeffer saw as the antithesis of self-justification by the extended passage in Romans that he uses as well as from his quotation from Thomas a Kempis. I am reminded of Paul words to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:26 – 2:2) – Christ is everything, Christ crucified is central, and we are to glory in Christ alone. God brings to nothing the things that are.
Why is the New Testament replete with exhortations to consider others better than ourselves? It is the way of Christ, it is the way of the Cross. It is the way God, who took upon Himself the form of man, who became a partaker of flesh and blood (Hebrews Chapter Two), who humbled Himself even to the death of the Cross (Philippians Chapter Two).
Justification by grace not only frees us from seeking self-justification before God, it also frees us from justifying ourselves before others. The justification by grace that allows us to stand before God is the same justification that allows us to live in the midst of others. When we are justified by grace we no longer seek to prove ourselves by our own merit, our own works, our own intellect – our focus is removed from ourselves and is centered on Christ, and through Christ our focus is on loving and serving others.
If I am nothing then I have nothing to defend, nothing to point others to for which they ought to glorify me. If I am what I am by the grace of God in Christ, if Christ is my life, if He is the Author and Finisher of my faith – then I am freed from the gravity of self-justification.
If I am reading Bethge correctly, and I still have much to read, it seems as if Bonhoeffer thought that religion often leads to self-justification. There was certainly self-justification going on in Corinth, one group identified with this teacher and another group with that teacher – hence Paul’s emphasis on everything being in Christ and all glory being found in Christ. Our religious traditions and our doctrinal “distinctives” and our music and I suppose so many other things can lead us collectively and individually into self-justification. I imagine that we are even capable of allowing white sauce or red sauce to be the basis for self-justification.
What I mean is that we have a propensity to justify ourselves, individually and as groups of people – we are all too ready to take glory that only belongs to God, we are too ready to add to the Cross, we are too ready to make something or someone other than Christ and the Cross the basis for acceptance, fellowship, and glory.
Bonhoeffer writes (page 73), “The first person, however, who was born on this earth was Cain, the murderer of his brother. His crime is the fruit of humanity’s wisdom.” This is where the wisdom of man leads us – to murder. It might not be physical murder, but it can be the murder of relationships, the murder of service to others, the murder of unity in the Word and Spirit in Christ, and it can lead to the death of koinonia, of life together.
Self-justification is toxic and confines us to the prison of self; justification by grace in Jesus Christ is life-giving, perpetually renewing us into the image of God in Christ, and it releases us for lives of service to others. When we live in self-justification our joy is in ourselves; when we live in the justification of grace our joy is in others…and that is a joy that we can carry into eternity.