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The Limits of Evangelisation - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship


Every attempt to impose the gospel by force, to run after people and proselytize them, to use our own resources to arrange the salvation of other people, is both futile and dangerous. It is futile, because it is wrong to cast pearls before swine, and dangerous, because it profanes the word of forgiveness, by causing those we fain would serve to sin against that which is holy. Worse still, we shall only meet with the blind rage of hardened and darkened hearts, and that will be useless and harmful. Our easy trafficking with the word of cheap grace simply bores the world to disgust, so that in the end it turns against those who try to force on it what it does not want. Thus a strict limit is placed upon the activities of the disciples, just as in Matt, x they are told to shake the dust off their feet where the word is refused a hearing. Their restless energy which refuses to recognize any limit to their activity, the zeal which refuses to take note of resistance, springs from a confusion of the gospel with a victorious ideology. An ideology requires fanatics, who neither know nor notice opposition, and it is certainly a potent force. But the word of God in its weakness takes the risk of meeting the scorn of men and being rejected. There are hearts which are hardened and doors which are closed to the word. The word recognizes opposition when it meets it, and is prepared to suffer under it. It is a hard lesson, but a true one, that the gospel, unlike an ideology, reckons with impossibilities. The word is weaker than any ideology, and this means that with the word in their hands the witnesses are weaker than the propagandists of an opinion. But although they are weak, they are ready to suffer with the word and so are free from that morbid restlessness which is so characteristic of fanaticism.

The disciples can even yield their ground and run away, provided they do so with the word, provided their weakness is the weakness of the word, and provided they do not leave the word in the lurch in their flight. They are simply the servants and instruments of the word; they have no wish to be strong where the word chooses to be weak. To try and force the word on the world by hook or by crook is to make the living word of God into a mere idea, and the world would be perfectly justified in refusing to listen to an idea which did not appeal to it. But at other times, the disciples must stick to their guns and refuse to run away, though of course only when the word so wills. If they do not realize this weakness of the word, they have failed to perceive the mystery of the divine condescension. The same weak word which is content to endure the gainsaying of sinners is also the mighty word of mercy which can convert the hearts of sinners. Its strength is veiled in weakness, and will remain so until the judgement day. The great task of the disciples is to recognize the limits of their commission. But if they use the word amiss it will certainly turn against them.

What are the disciples to do when they encounter opposition and cannot penetrate the hearts of men? They must admit that in no circumstances do they possess any rights or powers over others, and that they have no direct access to them. The only way to reach others is through Him in whose hands they are themselves like all other men. We shall hear more about this as we proceed. The disciples are taught to pray, and so they learn that the only way to reach others is by praying to God. Judgement and forgiveness are always in the hands of God. He closes and He opens. But the disciples must ask, they must seek and knock, and then God will hear them. They have to learn that their anxiety and concern for others must drive them to their knees. The promise Christ gives to their prayer is the doughtiest weapon in their armoury.

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