Fifty years ago evangelicals in Germany formed what became known as the Confessing Church. They opposed the German Christian Church Movement sponsored by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. As Nazi dominance increased, the Confessing Church was forced underground. In 1935 the Confessing Church formed a preachers’ seminary near Zingst on the Baltic Sea, which soon moved to Finkenwalde. The principal and main teacher of the twenty-five students was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 29-year-old pastor and university professor from Berlin. Bonhoeffer led the students in a disciplined life together that included daily prayers, meditation, worship, study, recreation, and work. All the seminarians knew they lived on the edge of eternity in those frightening days.
In September 1937 the seminary was closed by the Nazi police, and in November the seminarians were put under arrest. That same year Bonhoeffer published a book entitled, The Cost of Discipleship, and in September of 1938 put in book form the lessons of Finkenwalde entitled, Life Together. Here we have insights into how to be Christians in a community when life is being lived on the brink. In March 1943 Bonhoeffer participated in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was arrested April 5, and two years later, April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Gestapo in the Flossenberg concentration camp at the age of 39.
One of his students in the Finkenwalde days recollected,
Bonhoeffer wanted a genuine, natural community in the Preacher’s Seminary, and this community was practiced in play, in walks through the richly wooded and beautiful district of Pomerania, during evenings spent in listening to someone reading, . . . in making music and singing, and last not least in worship together and holy communion. He kept entreating us to live together naturally and not to make worship an exception. He rejected all false and hollow sentiment. (I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 155)
The Testimony of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together
Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together, is a word for our times because we are plagued in America by a kind of laissez-faire Christianity that lacks the vigorous camaraderie and discipline that unites a kingdom in wartime. We don’t have a wartime mentality and therefore our young men and women do not gather late at night in basement rooms and plot their strategies to detonate Satan’s bridgehead and liberate some of his captives. We don’t see ourselves as insurgents in the alien territory of sin planting explosives of righteousness and truth at every fortified wall; and so our eyes don’t meet with a flame of eternal friendship on Nicollet Mall and say without a word amid a thousand aliens: “You and I will die for this cause and join hands in the resurrection.” We don’t feel like a fifth column devoted with all our strength to sabotage the rule of Satan in this world; and therefore our life together is not intense but petty. There are no coded handshakes of joy, or secret passwords. And there are few tearful embraces and songs of thanks because a squad of witnesses has returned safely even bringing some liberated captives home.
Bonhoeffer’s words about “life together” have the ring of authenticity for us because they were written not at the nerve center of comfort but on the brink. They have the taste of radical commitment that all of us dream about, many of us crave, and only a few pursue.
The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer . . . It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden underfoot by those who have the gift every day . . . Among earnest Christians in the Church today there is a growing desire to meet together with other Christians in the rest periods of their work for common life under the Word. Communal life is again being recognized by Christians today as the grace that it is, as the extraordinary, the “roses and lilies” of the Christian life. (Life Together 8–10)
Then Bonhoeffer comes to a very solemn point that I want to emphasize this morning. He writes,
If somebody asks [a Christian], Where is your salvation, your righteousness? he can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, which assures him of salvation and righteousness. He is as alert as possible to this Word. Because he daily hungers and thirsts for righteousness, he daily desires the redeeming Word . . .
But God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain; his brother’s is sure. (Life Together, 11–12)
The Means of Persevering to the End
Turn with me to Hebrews 3:12. I want to show you from Scripture how true and essential Bonhoeffer’s words are for us today at Bethlehem. The question to ask yourself as we read these verses is: How important is it to live with other Christians in such a way that I can give to them and receive from them the Word of God every day?
Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.
Three observations from this tremendously important text:
Sin wages a constant battle to deceive and harden the hearts of professing Christians. If it succeeds, a person slips into unbelief and falls away from the living God.
The evidence and confirmation of whether we have any share in Christ is whether we hold our first confidence firm to the end. Hebrews sees two possibilities for professing Christians: either they hold fast their first confidence to the end and show that they have really become sharers in the life of Christ, or they become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and fall away from God with a heart of unbelief and show that they did not have a share in Christ.
The means appointed by God to enable the saints to persevere to the end is daily exhortation from other saints. “Exhort one another every day as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
It is written that the saints will persevere to the end and be saved. Those who have become sharers in Christ by the new birth will hold their first confidence to the end and be saved. But one of the evidences that you are among that number is that when God reveals in his holy Word the means by which you will persevere, you take him very seriously, you thank him, and you pursue those means. This text makes it very clear that the means by which God intends to guard us for salvation (1 Peter 1:5) is Christian community. Eternal security is a community project. Not just prayer, not just worship, not just the sacraments, not just Bible reading, but daily exhortation from other believers is God’s appointed means to enable you to hold your first confidence firm to the end.
The Imperative of Meeting Together
One of the most important questions facing the leadership of this church is: What should we do to encourage and enable you to live together or meet together in smaller groups where you can obey this text and exhort each other with the promises and warnings and commands of Scripture? How can we make the priesthood of all believers a reality? How can we help you to form the kind of group life or community life that makes Hebrews 3:13 a fact and not a fairy tale? “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Part of the answer for us at Bethlehem is given in Hebrews 10:23–25. Here the writer is concerned not only how to help people hold fast their faith but also how to help them become ablaze with love. Faith toward God and love toward men — how shall they be stirred up and preserved?
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging (same word as in 3:13) one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The closer we get to the second coming of Christ, the more we ought to meet together to encourage each other to hold fast our hope and to pour ourselves into acts of love. The text envisions not just haphazard meetings on the street but planned gatherings for the purpose of exhortation. Bonhoeffer said, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” Hebrews says: “Meet together!” “Meet together!” Meet in homes. Meet at work. Meet in restaurants. Don’t neglect meeting. How else can we exhort each other to hold fast to our confidence? How else can we stir each other up to love and good works? And when you meet, don’t throw it away with glib conversation: Consecrate it with the Word of God and prayer.
Do you see the warning in this text? “Don’t neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.” Professing Christians are always in danger of forming the habit of not meeting with other Christians to encourage and be encouraged in faith and love. Have you fallen out of that habit? Are you a part of a regular gathering of Christians which is small enough so that you can give and receive personal exhortation from Scripture? Bonhoeffer was speaking biblical truth when he said, “A Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged.”
Three Relationships Every Believer Must Pursue
Let me try to put this ministry in a wider context. Over the past year the pastoral staff has worked through a philosophy of ministry that shapes what we do and how we plan. That philosophy says that there are three relationships of life which every maturing believer must pursue.
First, and most important, is your personal relationship with God, characterized by trust, devotion, worship, and obedience.
Second is your relationship with other believers in the body of Christ, characterized by mutual exhortation to strengthen each others’ faith and stir each other up to love.
Third, and flowing out from the first two, is your relationship to unbelievers and to Christ’s global purpose of redemption, characterized by witness in words of hope and deeds of love.
Now you can see the wider context of today’s message. Last Sunday provided the biblical foundation of priority number one: going hard after the holy God. Today provides the biblical foundation for priority number two: helping each other endure to the end as believers. Next Sunday, Lord willing, will provide the biblical foundation for priority three: extending to unbelievers the joy of salvation.
A radical, all out God-centeredness will remain priority number one under our leadership at Bethlehem — I don’t think you would have it any other way. That’s why we stress worship and seek to guard this one hour in the week from the ever-present encroachments of the horizontal. All our relationships with each other and with the world will be deepened and empowered and purified if in this hour we focus our minds’ attention and our hearts’ affection on God himself. Even when I preach, as I am today, about the horizontal dimension of life in Christ, I try to do it in such a way that it is not chatty or familiar, but rather has behind it the authority of God, the aroma of his sovereignty, and the tremendous seriousness of heaven and hell.
The Calling of Pastors-Teachers
From this philosophy of ministry and from Ephesians 4:12 we believe that we are called as pastor-teachers to study the Word of God and to pray and to equip you to do the work of the ministry — ministry toward God in worship, ministry toward each other in biblical exhortation, and ministry to the world in witness. Nothing will bring us more joy than to see our people growing to maturity in each of these priorities while the Lord adds many people to the church.
We will be praying and thinking and planning in this year how we can better help you to exhort each other every day lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief. We will be studying how we can successfully urge you all to be a part of a regular meeting of Christians small enough to allow you to give and receive personal biblical exhortation to help you fight the fight of faith and be fired up to love and good works.
We Are in Wartime
In the meantime, why don’t you go ahead and take the initiative to seek out some fellow-believers? If we knew that the Gestapo was closing in on us, if we knew that at any time some could disappear from our number never to be heard from again, we would gather often in our homes and in secret rendezvous to strengthen our hands in God. And love would cover a multitude of sins, and our handshakes and embraces and the meetings of our eyes would be like gifts of roses and lilies from the bottom of the heart. Well, we are in war time. We are in enemy territory. Thousands of lives hang in the balance. The danger of hard hearts and unbelief and cool love and American luxury lurks everywhere. Oh, how we need to exhort one another every day to have strong confidence of victory in Christ, and to dream of new strategies of love to sabotage the enemy’s concentration camps of unbelief!
Last Friday I called Daniel Fuller in Pasadena to ask if I could quote a letter he sent me a few weeks ago. He is a priceless friend and Professor of Hermeneutics at Fuller Seminary, and son of Charles Fuller. He is a mature Christian with more knowledge of Scripture than anyone in this room. Therefore what he says should inspire all of us to obey Hebrews 3:13. He wrote,
I believe you read my exhortation about the need for churches to build situations where people can carry out the commands of Hebrews 3:13f and 10:24f. If we are really supposed to exhort each other daily, then we must have small groups meeting to help each other fight the good fight of faith. Since you are a pastor and know what it’s like to be a pastor, tell me what you think can be done to carry out these imperatives of Hebrews. Do you see any way we could get people willing to meet regularly with a few others to help themselves with the fight of faith?
Your sermons help me and others much in fighting the good fight. But I need more, and I think others feel the same need . . . your ministry is extending to one fledgling cell group in Riverside. I am praying much that this group will not fall apart, for everybody needs to be in one. I’ve got to get into one somehow soon. I can’t fight the fight of faith alone even with the help of your very beneficial sermons. I have to have people exhorting me in a small group. Otherwise I am discarding one important ‘means of grace’ commanded by Scripture.
Your cohort to shepherd the multitudes distressed and scattered abroad, with much love,