Impossible Christianity

The radical nature of regeneration and its effects has been much on my mind lately. My good friend Andy Henderson has been thinking along the same lines, and we recently had a great time of phone fellowship around the idea of “Impossible Christianity.” The gist is that the life that Scripture calls Christians to is impossible to accomplish or counterfeit in the flesh. Thus, any definition of Christian living that can be pulled off by the unregenerate (e.g. a code of conduct that may be practiced by Muslims or Mormons as effectively as by Christians) falls short of the biblical ideal. We’re hoping to sharpen each other around this theme in the future, but a message I recently preached from 2 Peter 1:1-11 on a Sunday evening communicates at least the seed of the idea. You can listen to the message “Christian Virtues are Genetic” here.

(Note: Andy kindly made his notes on the passage available to me for study, and I referenced them like a commentary.)


8 Responses

  1. A great read that I would recommend for this endeavor is “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He discusses the meaning of “grace” very well by contrasting what he labels “cheap grace” with what was actually purchased by the blood of Christ, what he calls “costly grace”. Deeply theological, yet very practical.

  2. No comment on DB, Chris?

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. I actually know very little about DB, Don, and I’ve not read the book. Feel free to comment, if you’d like. For me to comment would be saying more than I know.

  4. All right.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a slippery character. In Contemporary Theology class in seminary at BJU, Dr. Custer categorized him as Neo-Orthodox.

    Bonhoeffer is lauded by many evangelicals as a martyr. He was mixed up in a plot to assassinate Hitler. The assassination failed, it is unclear how much Bonhoeffer was involved, but he was executed for his part in the plot nonetheless.

    Some of his writings indeed convey ideas that resonate with evangelical thought. His condemnation of “cheap grace” referenced above is one of them.

    The problem is that it is very difficult to pin down Bonhoeffer’s meaning. I believe that evangelical infatuation with Bonhoeffer is the result of reading evangelical meaning into Bonhoeffer’s writings, combined with Bonhoeffer’s “hero” status as a “martyr”. (Usually martyrs are one’s killed for their Christian faith, not those killed for murderous plots, but I digress.)

    Here are two excerpts from an article on Bonhoeffer:

    Bonhoeffer’s critique of ethics results in a picture of an Aristotelian ethic that is Christological in expression, i.e., it shares much in common with a character-oriented morality, and at the same time it rests firmly on his Christology. For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behavior is how the reality of the world and how the reality of God are reconciled in the reality of Christ (Ethics, p. 198). To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). There are two guides for determining the will of God in any concrete situation: 1) the need of one’s neighbor, and 2) the model of Jesus of Nazareth. There are no other guides, since Bonhoeffer denies that we can have knowledge of good and evil (Ethics, p.231). There is no moral certainty in this world. There is no justification in advance for our conduct. Ultimately all actions must be delivered up to God for judgment, and no one can escape reliance upon God’s mercy and grace. “Before God self-justification is quite simply sin” (Ethics, p.167).


    The responsible person is, thus, a selfless person, who does God’s will by serving the spiritual and material needs of another, since “…what is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbor” (Ethics, p.136). The selfless model of Jesus is his or her only guide to responsible action. And second, the responsible person must not hesitate to act for fear of sin. Any attempt to avoid personal guilt, any attempt to preserve moral purity by withdrawing from conflicts is morally irresponsible. For Bonhoeffer, no one who lives in this world can remain disentangled and morally pure and free of guilt (Ethics, p.244). We must not refuse to act on our neighbor’s behalf, even violently, for fear of sin. To refuse to accept guilt and bear it for the sake of another has nothing to do with Christ or Christianity. “(I)f I refuse to bear guilt for charity’s sake,” Bonhoeffer argues, “then my action is in contradiction to my responsibility which has its foundation in reality” (Ethics, p.241). The risk of guilt generated by responsible action is great and cannot be mitigated in advance by self-justifying principles. There is no certainty in a world come of age. No one, in other words, can escape a complete dependency on the mercy and grace of God.

    (Emphasis mine)

    The whole article can be found here:

    The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    A critique can be found here:

    Biblical Discernment Ministries

    I don’t necessarily agree with everything on the BDM site, but read the references to Bonhoeffer’s own works at the end of the page. I think this is sufficient proof of Bonhoeffer’s heretical views.

    Lutherans have made Bonhoeffer a martyr. The Wikipedia article on him says:

    Bonhoeffer is commemorated as a theologian and martyr by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Church of England and the Church in Wales on April 9.

    It is understandable how Lutherans might by taken in by his evangelical sounding terminology.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Don, thank you for the outstanding response. To quote directly from Bonhoeffer’s work cited [pp57-58]: “Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. In this short text [ref Mark 2:14] Jesus Christ and his claim are proclaimed to men. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for his decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. According to our text, there is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road-only obedience to the call of Jesus.”

    I read Bonhoeffer, not just commentaries about him or his work. I don’t always agree with some of his writing and I am not ELCA, but I read his works, not specific critiques that already presuppose his doctrinal positions are false or heretical. And he was hanged for his rejection of the Nazi’s “state” religion, defiance of Hitler’s statism and evil, and not because he was implicated in a plot to kill Hitler (something that would have gone against his faith). And, no, I do not claim he is a “hero” who can not be criticized, but I do believe that reading his works makes one able to judge better for himself what Bonhoeffer actually wrote than someone who sees him as “heretical” and finds stuff to write that “proves it. I know DB was tied to the “neo-orthodxy” in fundamentalists raves against the “neos”, and he may well be tied to the movement, but he was a great theologian to study, not just reject out-of-hand because that is the way of the “fundamentalist” which I find a little disconcerting. Nothing personal, Don, I do love your responses here.

  6. Very good, Don and Dale. Thanks for the discussion of DB. Sincerely. Now, let’s leave it at that. Not to change the topic or anything, but…

    Genuine Christianity is still impossible. :)

  7. I love you, Chris. Not a problem. God’s blessings on your endeavor.

  8. Then that leaves Paul’s discourse as we may find in Eph 2:8 simply saying is isnot works nor conduct that saves but simply believing in the work of Christ.
    Faith is what make the righteousness of Christ our virtual righteousness before the Almighty God our Father.
    Any other perception away from this nullifies the work of Christ of spilling His blood in sinless nature for the atonement of sin OF THOSE WHO BELIEVE

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