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Haddon Robinson Preaching Retreat 2019

Chris —  May 14, 2019

I am again privileged to be part of the Haddon Robinson Study Retreat (Map of Participants — Don’t miss Ireland!). This year we are studying the book of Isaiah and our guest lecturer is Tim Mackie of The Bible Project. Watch the Bible Project on Isaiah 1-39 and Isaiah 40-66!

Each year a group of pastors gather for a week of intense study Covenant Harbor Camp near Lake Geneva, WI . Our format is simple. We invite a world-class scholar to teach us on one or more books of the Bible. As we are taught on a technical level, we collaborate to envision how to preach the Scripture we are studying to our congregations.

We were inspired by Dr. Haddon Robinson to begin this retreat. Haddon is one of the most influential teachers of homiletics (preaching) in the English speaking world in the last 100 years. Most of us who are part of this retreat studied under Haddon. All share a commitment to the clear proclamation of God’s Word.

For the rest of Chris Braun’s blog…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Quote

‘American Gospel’ Blows a Hole in the Prosperity Gospel

The new documentary American Gospel: Christ Alone, directed by Brandon Kimber, takes aim at this scourge. America has always been a pragmatic, can-do kind of country, and the film argues that the material focus of the prosperity “gospel” suits American culture.

In offering this searing critique, which applies not merely to “them” out there but to us (for many of us love money and ease more than we might be comfortable admitting), Kimber first establishes what the true gospel is: good news centered in the finished work of Christ. Standing in the place of sinners like us, Jesus has absorbed the perfect wrath of the Father and made a way out of hell and into heaven. When we trust Christ as our Lord and Savior by God-given faith, we are instantly justified and counted righteous in God’s sight, the very merit of Christ’s now being our own (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 5:1–2; Eph. 2:8–9). Numerous evangelical theologians and pastors comment on this truth in the film, together building a clear and potent case for faith in Christ.

True Stories of True Faith

American Gospel traces the stories of real Christians whose lives have intersected with prosperity teaching in some way. One woman sobs as she recounts how health-and-wealth teaching ripped her life apart, piece by piece, until she had nothing. The film also introduces us to Katherine Berger, a woman suffering from numerous dreaded illnesses—one after another, it seems—who nonetheless radiates bright faith in God.

Also prominent in the film is Costi Hinn, nephew of faith-healer Benny Hinn. Costi served on his uncle’s team as a “catcher” who witnessed apparent miracles around the clock. His testimony—soon to release as a book—takes us into the seamy experience of the faith-healer, an enterprise that preys on the poor and suffering to enrich the flush and covetous.

The moment that crystallizes the shameful nature of faith-healing comes when Costi discusses how Benny Hinn would (and does) “heal” people with minor ailments. When it came to terminally ill children and other sufferers facing profound challenges, the “healer” refused. This was the first jarring note in Costi’s young life that eventually led him out of prosperity religion (and that’s what it is—a different religion than biblical Christianity).

American Gospel does not hold back; the camera pans back to the outer boundaries of auditoriums at Hinn crusades, where desperate parents cradle diseased children, ignored, unwanted, and unhealed. We watch this, and we hear Justin Peters testify to this experience personally, and we cannot help but feel both sadness and righteous anger—Christ’s own anger. The money-changers are still in the temple, still making God’s name a mockery.

This is an exact parallel of what Jesus did not do. He did not enter the ministry to make money. He did not work in the name of God to be popular and liked. He did not heal those who could do anything for him. Rather, he came to the physically and spiritually poor and made eucatastrophes of them all—not only addressing their bodies but, in many cases, saving their souls. He was not in it for himself; he was in it for the Father’s greater glory and the sinner’s true salvation. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Sadly, Christ’s name is invoked by “faith healers” like Hinn and others whose ministries don’t reflect him.

Call Your Skeptical Friends

American Gospel succeeds in its mission. It shows the spiritual and even eternal stakes of prosperity religion. It reveals the danger of allowing any endeavor, however virtuous on the surface, to seep into the preaching and application of the biblical gospel. The movie champions the true, saving gospel, and it unpacks this message with clarity and conviction. Here’s hoping many viewers will come across American Gospel on various streaming platforms (iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo), and that Christians will find opportunities to watch the film with unbelieving neighbors and friends. The prosperity “gospel” is a great foil by which to evangelize, for it is patently a sham to many outside of the church. A film like this could be a great apologetic for those with a skeptical bent, for example.

Though nicely shot and edited, the film could be a bit tighter, and the summation of the gospel message takes some time to unfold. So many voices speaking to different issues can begin to send the brain whirling, though I did appreciate how Kimber mixes in Christian leaders both well known and also lesser known. As is not uncommon today, American Gospel presents the gospel message primarily in terms of justification, which is the heart of the euangelion but not the doctrinal sum. The film references the local church but could say more about its importance. Similarly, the moral implications of the gospel are somewhat muted in American Gospel. If we must not make the moral dimension of Scripture the point of every passage, neither should we lose sight of it. But these are small critiques, not major ones.

High Stakes

The prosperity gospel comes with a terrific cost, as all false teaching does; it does not merely ruin intellectual systems, it ruins individual lives. We see this firsthand in the film.

American Gospel does not merely “destroy arguments” of the prosperity kind in keeping with apostolic aims (2 Cor. 10:4–5). It also shows us that the natural man craves miracles: healing, wealth, favor, better “benefits” and sales “commissions” (this is literally what a Bethel pastor leads a congregation to ask God for), a life stripped free of suffering and challenge. But the miracles God brings in most of our lives are often quite different: quieter, less showy, but powered by the saving gospel.

Instead of immediate healing, Christians may well be called to persevere in suffering. Instead of wealth, we may be called to learn contentment in our situation. Instead of coming back from the dead as in “heaven tourism” books, we must all face death and square with mortality. Instead of the cessation of trials upon the exercise of faith, we may be called to endure trials over the long haul. Instead of undimmed favor with power-brokers, we may be called to anonymity and unappreciated toil. Instead of a life of globe-hopping circuit-riding, we may be called to tuck in with our families (especially our children) and love them well, normal day by normal day. Instead of experiencing an unbroken string of personal triumphs, we may take many hits as we await the ultimate cosmic triumph of our warrior-savior, Christ Jesus. These are “ordinary miracles,” the very work of God in us.

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October 24, 2018

As I reflect today on the death of the writer/pastor Eugene Peterson, I can’t help but think about many of the things he taught me. One of the most important, though, was a lesson in anatomy, on the difference between the skeleton of a beetle and a kitten. Believe it or not, that lesson has proven to be one of the most important for my life.

For years, I had written and spoken about the importance of bones in the Bible—from Joseph’s brothers promising to carry his bones from Egypt into the Land of Promise to the fulfilled prophecy that not one of Jesus’ bones would be broken. I had never thought through, though, just how different human bones are from that of some of other of God’s creatures—and why.

In his 2017 collection of sermons, When Kingfishers Catch Fire, Peterson recounted what he had learned about endoskeletons and exoskeletons. “In the early stages of development, creatures with exoskeletons (that is, skeletons on the outside, like crabs and beetles) have all the advantages, as they are protected from disaster,” Peterson wrote. This advantage ends, though, because though the creatures molt into different forms, “there is no development because there is no memory.”

“Creature with endoskeletons (that is, skeletons on the inside, like kittens and humans) are much more disadvantaged at first, being highly vulnerable to outside danger” he wrote. “But if they survive through the tender care and protection of others, they can develop higher forms of consciousness.”

Therein, Peterson noted, lies a parable. “The man who asked the question of Jesus had lived his life with an exoskeleton,” he wrote. “His material goods and moral achievements were all on the outside like a crust, and they separated him from both his neighbor and his God.” The change he needed for eternal life was one that he resisted because it would leave him vulnerable, feeling exposed before the world.

I can relate to that. It seems that one of the primary spiritual obstacles for me is to abandon an exoskeleton of self-protection, to trust the one who counts all my bones and sees to it that however much I may suffer, I will not be finally broken. I also find myself often seeking refuge in a kind of steely Stoic resignation, rather than in the kind of Christ-life that can be hurt, that can weep. This is, of course, the only kind of life that can truly love and be loved.

This means learning to be served by others. In another book, Peterson writes about a time when he came close to ministry burnout. He told his church elders that he had no time for study, no time for prayer, no time for close personal relationships. Again, I can relate. His elders decided, when they learned that a primary trouble for him was the endless blur of administrative meetings,  that except for the monthly session meeting, the pastor would not attend any more meetings.

This seemed like a Godsend, until one Tuesday night, when Peterson was restless, and, knowing there was an elders’ meeting going on, meandered over to the church, and sat in the back of the room. One of the elders stopped and asked him what he was doing there. Peterson replied that he was free and wanted to be present to offer moral support. The elder said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust us?”

Peterson reflected: “Defensive phrases assembled themselves in my mind, but I never spoke them. The abrupt challenge was accurate and found its target. ‘I guess I don’t,’ I said. ‘But I’ll try.’ And I left. I haven’t been back.”

The issue was a matter of exoskeletons versus endoskeletons. The hard shell of self-protection would rather not need others. We don’t wish to be in their debt. We trust our own activity, our own sense of control, more than the vulnerability that comes with being ministered to by others. And yet, only the crucifiable self is, ultimately, glorifiable.

The shell of protection—of our own doing and being and winning and displaying—can convince us that we don’t need others, or even, though we won’t admit it, that we don’t need God. But, deep within, we know that structure we build on the outside is protecting us only from what we need the most: the love of God, the communion of saints, the carrying of the cross. We are, in the end, protecting ourselves from blessing.

This kind of blessing is what Peterson meant when he spoke of the Beatitudes, words for which familiarity often becomes our exoskeleton, protecting us from how shocking they really are.

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Few aspects of local church ministry are as challenging or necessary as bridging the timeless truths of the gospel to the historically contingent, ever-changing context of the surrounding culture. Enthusiasm for proper contextualization is to be commended. The Word of God must be made intelligible in order for it to edify (1 Cor. 9:19–23; 14:22–25).

The video-venue model of ministry—showing a live feed or recorded sermon on screens rather than having an in-person pastor preaching on stage—is an example of a popular method of ministry contextualization that, despite its efficiencies, is problematic.

I’m not talking about videotaping a live sermon and making it available on a website for those unable to attend church on Sunday. I’m talking about ministries where a sermon-on-the-screen, delivered to a satellite campus by a remote feed, has become normative for the Sunday morning service.

Lessons From Paul’s Ministry

At least three non-negotiable aspects of Paul’s ministry render a video-venue approach problematic in the teaching ministry of a church.

1. Relational Orientation

Consider, first, the relational orientation of Paul’s ministry. He planted the church in Thessalonica during his second journey (Acts 17). A short time after he had departed, he reminded the Thessalonians, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). The Thessalonians came to “know” Paul’s motivation for ministry (vv. 5–7) and were “witnesses” to the apostle’s “holy and righteous and blameless” conduct (v. 10).

Paul was known by those he taught. His ministry in Ephesus was characterized by the same relational intimacy between the teacher and the hearers of the Word. As with the Thessalonians, Paul confidently reminds the Ephesian elders of the relational integrity of his ministry: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia” (Acts 20:18). Luke emphasizes the depth of Paul’s relationships with the Ephesians later in the narrative, as he is about to depart for the last time: “There was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (20:37–38).

Paul apparently felt strongly about sharing close personal relationships with those he taught. Contrast this with the video-venue pastor, or any pastor of an overly large church, who teaches the Bible each week to individuals with whom he has no personal relationship.

By its nature, the sermon-on-a-screen approach dangerously isolates the cognitive from the relational aspects of our faith. Shepherds in the New Testament world did not bring in a food truck to feed their sheep. They fed the flock themselves.

For Paul and the early Christians, the cognitive and relational aspects of Christian leadership were inseparable. This, in turn, gave him and his co-workers the moral authority to challenge their converts to imitate their behavior.

2. Imitation

The imitation theme was a central component of Paul’s ministry (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9). Paul’s converts were able to imitate him only because they knew him well. And apparently this was standard fare for early Christian leaders; the author of Hebrews similarly exhorts: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7).

The ability to imitate a church leader assumes you are familiar with that leader’s life. I can only imitate someone I know. But this kind of relational intimacy is hard to cultivate in video-venue settings or overly large churches where leaders are inaccessible.

3. Reproduction of Leaders

The importance of reproducing leaders also raises questions for a remote preaching ministry. A key qualification for elders in the New Testament church was the ability to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). There were a plurality of elders in the early Christian congregations and, from what we can tell, they shared the teaching of the Word (e.g., Acts 13:1). This dynamic likely provided a key avenue for raising up new pastors.

When a single individual teaches 5,000 to 10,000 people Sunday after Sunday, where do the other pastor-elders in the church learn to exercise this crucial aspect of ministry? Megachurches do a good job of raising up efficient ministry managers. But are we successfully developing the next generation of Bible-teaching shepherds?

Christ’s Relational Ministry

Paul wasn’t the only example of New Testament ministry that prioritized a relational orientation. Jesus himself modeled it. The apostle John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus of Nazareth came to us as a person—not as a set of pixels on a screen.

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“A strangely fascinating power is exerted by those who are utterly sincere.  Such believers attract unbelievers, as with the case of David Hume, the eighteenth-century British deistic philosopher who rejected historic Christianity.  A friend once met him hurrying along a London street and asked him where he was going.  Hume replied that he was going to hear George Whitefield preach.  ‘But surely,’ his friend asked in astonishment, ‘you don’t believe what Whitefield preaches, do you?’  ‘No, I don’t,’ answered Hume, ‘but he does.’

I am convinced that in our day simple sincerity has not lost any of its power to appeal or to impress.  It was in 1954 that Billy Graham first hit the headlines in Britain, with his Greater London Crusade.  Approximately 12,000 people came to the Haringay Arena every night for three months.  Most nights I was there myself, and as I looked round that vast crowd, I could not help comparing it with our half-empty churches.  ‘Why do these people come to listen to Billy Graham,’ I asked myself, ‘when they don’t come to listen to us?’

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by
Chris Brauns 
May 15, 2018

I am again privileged to be part of the Haddon Robinson Study Retreat. This year we are studying the Gospel of Mark and our guest lecturer is Mark Strauss of Bethel seminary. 

Each year a group of pastors gather for a week of intense study Covenant Harbor Camp near Lake Geneva, WI . Our format is simple. We invite a world-class scholar to teach us on one or more books of the Bible. As we are taught on a technical level, we collaborate to envision how to preach the Scripture we are studying to our congregations.

We were inspired by Dr. Haddon Robinson to begin this retreat. Haddon is one of the most influential teachers of homiletics (preaching) in the English speaking world in the last 100 years. Most of us who are part of this retreat studied under Haddon. All share a commitment to the clear proclamation of God’s Word.

For the entire post…

 Feb 22, 2018 by Alyssa Duvall

Yesterday, we announced with solemn joy that evangelist Billy Graham, at age 99, had died and passed into the glorious presence of God. Today, we wish to remember Graham and the incredible work he did for the kingdom of Christ. Listen and be blessed by his seven most powerful sermons in the videos below:

  1. Three Things You Cannot Do Without

  2. Who Is Jesus?

  3. Reaping What You Sow

  4. The Value Of A Soul

  5. How To Live The Christian Life

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Image Via Shutterstock

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian most known for his book The Cost of Discipleship and his involvement in the plot to assassinate Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, suffered a great deal at the hands of the Nazis, including his eventual execution. In the summer of 1937, just as the Gestapo was arresting Bonhoeffer’s friends, the pastor preached about God’s judgment in Psalm 58 — but he didn’t say what a modern American might expect.

“The wicked are perverse from the womb; liars go astray from their birth. … O God, break their teeth in their mouths; pull the fangs of the young lions, O LORD. Let them vanish like water that runs off; let the arrows they aim break in two. … The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. And they will say, ‘Surely, there is a reward for the righteous, surely, there is a God who rules in the earth'” (Psalm 58:3, 6-7, 10-11).

So how did Bonhoeffer, a Christian who lost his life trying to assassinate Hitler, apply this verse to his own life? Did he rail against Hitler’s evil? Not exactly. (For the full letter, read Meditating on the Word, a compilation of Bonhoeffer’s works compiled and translated by David McI. Gracie.)

“Is this fearful psalm of vengeance to be our prayer? May we pray in this way? Certainly not! We bear much guilt of our own for the action of any enemies who cause us suffering,” Bonhoeffer declared in a sermon on July 11, 1937

This message is powerful, given what had happened to Bonhoeffer in the months — and even days — before. In January 1936, he lost his grandmother — who defied a Nazi boycott of Jews by shoving through brownshirts to buy strawberries from a Jew. Throughout 1937, the Gestapo carried out interrogations, house searches, confiscations, and arrests against Bonhoeffer’s seminary students. Ten days before this sermon, they arrested his friend and fellow pastor Martin Niemöller (the man famous for the “first they came for the Jews …” poem).

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Nearly seven decades since his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Bonhoeffer’s influence lives on, largely because of his classic devotional writings (especially The Cost of Discipleshipand Life Together), his penetrating questions on what it means to live as a Christian in the modern world (found in his later writings Letter and Papers from Prison and Ethics), and his riveting and challenging biography. But at the center of Bonhoeffer’s engagement with the world was his understanding of the prominent and unique role of preaching. Bonhoeffer’s close friend Eberhard Bethge claimed that “Bonhoeffer acted and analyzed out of a responsibility for preaching . . . the Bonhoeffer who taught, the Bonhoeffer who was obedient to the Word, the Bonhoeffer who was involved, was governed by preaching and its majesty” (Fant 1975, 3). Further, Bethge explains, “Preaching was the great event in his life; the hard theologizing and all the critical love of his church were all for its sake, for in it the message of Christ, the bringer of peace, was proclaimed. To Bonhoeffer nothing in his calling competed in importance with preaching” (Fant 1975, 7-8). Similarly, John D. Godsey describes Bonhoeffer as “a man for whom preaching was an integral part of life” (Fant 1975, 6). Preaching played such an important role in the thought and life of Bonhoeffer that Victoria Barnett argues that we cannot “understand Bonhoeffer the resistance figure of Bonhoeffer the theologian without understanding Bonhoeffer the preacher” (Barnett 2012, x). Preaching stands as the central and unifying event that brings all of the facets of Bonhoeffer’s life into focus.

This emphasis on preaching is surprising given the fact that Bonhoeffer spent very little time in a regular pulpit ministry. Although he preached consistently throughout his adult life, he spent only two periods serving in a congregational pastoral position, both of which were outside of Germany. While awaiting ordination in 1928, Bonhoeffer served as a pastoral assistant to a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain. He then returned to Berlinfor further academic writing and teaching, before accepting a pastoral call to two German-speaking congregations in London, which he would serve from the fall of 1933 to the spring of 1935.

He left London to return to Germany in order to establish an underground seminary for the training of pastors for the Confessing Church. When the seminary was shut down by the Nazis in 1937, he continued training pastors through collective pastorates. Eventually, because of the threat of military conscription, Bonhoeffer accepted a position in the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization that was a center of the Resistance movement, in which he served until his arrest on April 5, 1943. Over the next two years he would be imprisoned until his execution, on April 9, 1945.

Because of the limited time that Bonhoeffer spent in a weekly preaching ministry, his entire collected works contain only seventy-one complete sermons (Barnett 2012, xi). He almost never spoke to large crowds, the only possible exceptions being his addresses given at ecumenical gatherings outside of Germany. But as Bethge comments, preaching to large groups of people did not really appeal to him. “He preferred a small, easily defined congregation that could move with him as he developed his train of thought” (Bethge 2000, 389).

Bonhoeffer the Preacher

Bonhoeffer’s first attempts at preaching began in 1925 at the age of nineteen. He was excited by the opportunity because he realized the life-giving effect that a sermon can produce. His professor of practical theology, Friedrich Mahling, commended his effort, calling it very fine “in content and form, in its dashing masculine style and heartfelt goodness, pure truthfulness and conscientious seriousness” (Bethge 2000, 90). His examination sermon on Luke 9:51-56 contained the directness that would mark his preaching, as he declared, “the walls of the centuries separating us from this story have fallen away. We face Jesus eye to eye.” But his examiners judged that he needed more work in his transition from the academy to the church, determining that he “will have to discard some things and learn some things before he is able to write a really finished sermon. . . . He is lacking in clarity” and must “cultivate a simple and noble simplicity” (Bethge 2000, 91).

During Bonhoeffer’s time in Barcelona, he gained his first hands-on experience in congregational ministry. The pastor of the church, Fritz Olbricht, seemed grateful for the relief and gave Bonhoeffer frequent opportunities to preach. In addition to other responsibilities, he preached nineteen sermons. Bonhoeffer worked hard on his sermons, writing to his parents on November 27, 1928, “Writing sermons still takes up a great deal of my time. I work on them a whole week, devoting some time to them every day” (Fant 1975, 9). He struggled with his motivations when his preaching was well received, yet acknowledged, “But on the other hand, who wouldn’t be pleased about a full church, or that people who haven’t come for years” (Bethge 2000, 111). When Olbricht noticed that the number of worshippers would significantly increase on the Sundays when Bonhoeffer was scheduled to preach (regular attendance was only around 40 people), he stopped announcing the preaching schedule ahead of time (Bonhoeffer 2012, 7).

Bonhoeffer’s Barcelona sermons contained many of the themes that he would continue to develop throughout his life. He spoke of man’s absolute dependence upon God’s grace and the direct opposition between true faith and religion, several times using Karl Barth’s analogy of the Tower of Babel to describe the futility of religion. His preaching also evidences the demanding and serious nature of discipleship in this world. In a sermon preached on April 15, 1928, he said, “the world is full of God, this notion becomes threatening and frightening precisely because it demands responsibility. Our life and action are not to be meaningless. . . . Every moment of our life is related to God” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 5). In this sermon Bonhoeffer also emphasizes the centrality of the Bible by stating that there is “no moment in life when Jesus’ word does not have something to say to us. Our entire life stands under that word and is sanctified by that word” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 4).

During Bonhoeffer’s Barcelona ministry, his sermons were not as strongly biblical as they would increasingly become later in his ministry. For his texts he consistently selected brief, biblical phrases and topically developed the theme. Bethge says that in these sermons, Bonhoeffer’s language “borders on flowery, and he made sweeping assertions” (Bethge 2000, 112). He also made more frequent use of personal references and illustrations than he would in the later years. Even though some sections of his sermons were too difficult for his congregation to fully grasp, the warmth of his pastoral concern that they received during the week increased their reception.

Several years later, while teaching at the University of Berlin in 1931, Bonhoeffer experienced a shift that would significantly influence his subsequent preaching and ministry. Bonhoeffer did not like to speak about conversion because of what he saw as the overemphasis of personal testimonies among the pietists; he consistently thought that telling any personal story was a distraction from speaking about Christ. Yet even Bonhoeffer described this event as when he became a Christian. One contributing factor in this change was his friendship with Franz Hildebrandt, who pushed Bonhoeffer further in the direction of the Bible and Luther. Bonhoeffer rarely mentioned this transformation but did describe it in a letter to a friend several years later in 1936:

Then something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible . . . I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it—but I had not yet become a Christian. . . . Also I had never prayed, or prayed only very little. For in all my loneliness, I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people about me. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became clearer to me how far that must go. . . . The revival of the church and the ministry became my supreme concern (Bethge 2000, 205).

The effect of this event produced a remarkable change in the direction of Bonhoeffer’s life. Prior to this his intention was to pursue an academic career, but now he began to move in the direction of parish ministry (a move that was at first resisted by his father, a university professor in neurology and psychiatry). Throughout his early life, he had not regularly attended church, but now he became an active churchgoer and longed for preaching and the sacraments. His own preaching became focused on the Bible, and he began to preach on longer passages rather than brief phrases. This experience also significantly impacted his writing, which moved away from discussing others’ ideas to expounding the message of the Bible. According to James Woelfel, “his early interest was in the formal problems of dogmatic theology,” but he began “increasingly to devote himself simply to the material dogmatic task of interpreting the Holy Scriptures.” Woelfel further observes that in contrast to his earlier writings (The Communion of the Saints and Act and Being), “Bonhoeffer’s writings after 1932 consist largely of theological exegesis and homiletics” (Woelfel 1970, 208). This is reflected in Klass Runia’s assessment of The Cost of Discipleship as “one of the most penetrating expositions of the Sermon on the Mount” (Runia 1964, 16). Bonhoeffer’s connection to the Christian faith had been as an intellectual studying theology; now he became a deeply committed Christian. Now his preaching had a newfound “urgency which had not been characteristic of them before, an urgency that insisted upon a single-minded devotion to Christ” (Fant 1975, 14).

In April 1936 Bonhoeffer further described these convictions in a letter to his brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher, who, in contrast to Bonhoeffer, continued in the path of liberal theology:

Is it . . . intelligible to you if I say I am not at any point willing to sacrifice the Bible as the strange word of God, that on the contrary, I ask with all my strength what God is trying to say to us through it? Every other place outside the Bible has become too uncertain for me. I fear that there I will only bump into my own divine Doppelgänger. . . .

And I want to say something to you personally: since I learned to read the Bible this way—which has not been long at all—it becomes more wonderful to me with each day. . . .

You wouldn’t believe how happy one is to find the way back from the wrong track of some theologies to this elemental thing (Bethge 2000, 206).

These deepening convictions led to an increased sense of the primacy of preaching since preaching is the way that God speaks his word to his people. In his first sermon in London on October 22, 1933, upon accepting the pastorate of the St. Paul’s and Sydenham Churches, he described the criterion by which a congregation should assess a pastor’s ministry: “There is really only one question for a congregation to ask of its pastor: Are you offering us the eternal world of God, the word of life, wherever you can, in the pulpit and in daily life? Or are you giving us stones instead of bread?” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 89). He then described the miraculous nature of preaching:

This is what makes a sermon something unique in all the world, so completely different from any other kind of speech. When a preacher opens the Bible and interprets the word of God, a mystery takes place, a miracle: the grace of God, who comes down from heaven into our midst and speaks to us, knocks on our door, asks questions, warns us, puts pressure on us, alarms us, threatens us, and makes us joyful again and free and sure. When the Holy Scriptures are brought to life in a church, the Holy Spirit comes down from the eternal throne, into our hearts, while the busy world outside sees nothing and knows nothing about it—that God could actually be found here. Out there they are all running after the latest sensations, the excitements of evening in the big city, never knowing that the real sensation, something infinitely more exciting, is happening in here: here, where eternity and time meet where the immortal God receives mortal human beings, through the holy Word, and cares for them, where human souls can taste the starkest terrors of despair and the ultimate depths of God’s eternity (Bonhoeffer 2012, 90).

Bonhoeffer practiced and advocated the use of a simple and direct style in preaching so as not to distract from the word of God. In his homiletics lectures at the underground seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde, he passed this focused style on to his students. He warned that the “movement of the word to the congregation should not be hindered by the preacher, but rather he should acknowledge it. He should not let his own efforts to get in its way” (Fant 1975, 128). He further emphasized a strict restraint in preaching:

I must refuse to indulge in tricks and techniques, both the emotional ones and the rhetorical ones. I must not become pedantic and schoolmasterish, nor begging, entreating, urging. I do not try to make the sermon into a work of art. I do not become unctuous and self-centered or loud and boastful. By forsaking my personal ambitions I accompany the text along its own way into the congregation and thus remain natural, balanced, compassionate, and factual. This permits the Word’s almost magnetic relationship to its congregation. I do not give life to it, but it gives life to me and to the congregation (Fant 1975, 138).

He advised his students to be well prepared before stepping into the pulpit because this “allows the greatest amount of factual, direct preaching from the pulpit. Only the unprepared preacher has to use the techniques of emotionalism, shouting, or exercising influences through pressure. These techniques betray his insecurity” (Fant 1975, 149). He again warned against the use of excessive expression because of the nature of the preaching task: “Truthfulness and factuality suggest simple methods. They discourage senseless shouting and emotional excitement in preaching and worship. We are witnesses, not the trumpets of the Last Judgment” (Fant 1975, 172).

Even though Bonhoeffer advocated a strict simplicity in preaching, that does not mean that he did not believe in using vivid language. Reflecting on his own sermons, he “noticed that the most effective sermons were those in which I spoke enticingly of the Gospel, like someone telling children a story of a strange country” (Fant 1975, 12). His Finkenwalde students recounted that he encouraged them “to speak colorfully” (Fant 1875, 38). He understood that the greatness of the message required that the preacher attempt to convey the greatness of that about which he spoke. In a sermon preached in Berlin in May 1932, he began:

One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough. A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. People should run and not be able to rest when the gospel is talked about (Bonhoeffer 2012, 34).

An excellent example of the affection-stirring use of language can be found in the concluding sermon in a four week series on 1 Corinthians 13, which he preached to his congregations in London. When expounding the phrase “the greatest of these is love”, he climaxes by asking a string of nine questions, all of which begin with the words “What can be greater than . . . ?”

For the rest of the post…

May 2019
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