Preparing the Way: Engaging the imperfect world from the place of the Perfect in Christ

“If you were to die to today, where would you be?” No doubt those of us who have engaged in evangelism have asked this important question. Being saved from the punishment of hell and being reconciled to God are essential elements of the doctrine of salvation. There should be a desire in every believer to be reconciled with God. We can say with Paul that we “long to depart and be with Christ—which is far better” (Philippians 1:23). However, too often that is the only vision that we have; we do not hear Paul’s next thought, “but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” In our desire to be with God, have we forgotten the present context in which we live? Is our longing for heaven more of an escape from our present, sinful situations?

Too often our desire is for the hereafter (and sometimes not even on Jesus!), and it leaves us to have little concern for the present, temporal world around us. It is true that we should have a concern for the spiritual eternity of others in our world, but if there is to be an engagement with the present world, how do we do it? Many in church history and in our time have addressed this question; however, I would like to look briefly at an approach to this concern from the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Though many know Dietrich Bonhoeffer because of his involvement as a pastor in the resistance movement during World War II, he was a trained theologian and wrote on many topics, especially Christology, ecclesiology, and ethics. Toward the end of his life, he was working on a manuscript on the topic of ethics that has since been published in a variety of forms.[1] In these writings, he takes up the concept of the present society in a variety of places, most famously his Mandates. He also speaks of it in terms of that which is reconciled and that which is not. We can think of this in terms of that which is perfect and that which is imperfect, or we can use his language of distinguishing (and relating) that which is ultimate and that which is penultimate.

The ultimate is that which is found in justification. It is the reconciliation found in Jesus Christ. In Bonhoeffer’s theology, Christ is the center of reality and thus helps define what is the ultimate. Paul’s longing to be with Christ is an example of seeking and finding this ultimate. The penultimate is that which comes before the ultimate. It is imperfect and in need of reconciliation.

Bonhoeffer points out to us that, too often, we separate these two ideas. There is the perfect realm with God and the imperfect realm apart from God. In seeing these things as separate, one can run into danger and misapply God’s will. In the context of the church, this is especially the case. Too often Christians and churches mistake their understanding of the ultimate so that there is a disdain of the penultimate, meaning that there is a desire for being with God while having a dislike of the world around us. Bonhoeffer highlights this through what he calls radicalism:

When evil becomes powerful in the world, it simultaneously injects the Christian with the poison of radicalism. Reconciliation with the world as it is, which is given to the Christian by Christ, is then called betrayal and denial of Christ. In its place come bitterness, suspicion, and contempt for human beings and the world. Love that believes all things, bears all things, and hopes all things, love that loves the world in its very wickedness with the love of God (John 3:16), becomes—by limiting love to the closed circle of the pious—a pharisaical refusal of love for the wicked.[2]

In response to this, Bonhoeffer points to the centeredness of our reality in Jesus Christ, where the tension “between the ultimate and penultimate is resolved.”[3] This is seen through the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection wherein Christ comes as the ultimate to the penultimate to bring reconciliation of all. Bonhoeffer summarizes the type of Christianity that results from this understanding: “Christian life means being human in the power of Christ’s becoming human, being judged and pardoned in the power of the cross, living a new life in the power of the resurrection.”[4] This type of Christianity is such that it is not merely biding the time until Christ returns, nor does it practice a mere evangelism that sees little use for the fallen, yet created, world around them. It is a Christianity that engages not only others with the Gospel that leads to salvation, but it also engages the present, temporal reality of the penultimate in which we live.

Though there is much more to glean from Bonhoeffer’s work on the ultimate and penultimate (and his entire Ethics for that matter), allow me to offer four beginning thoughts about how to better engage the imperfect world around us.

First, find your centeredness in Christ. There is no way to live as Christians apart from the reconciling work of Jesus Christ. Individually, we are united to Him, and He has given us His Spirit. Corporately, we exist as the church, with Christ as our head and the Spirit in our midst. To understand our reality apart from Christ is not only wrongheaded, but a path to destruction.

Second, live in repentance. This repentance is not a mere apology, an “I’m sorry for _____.” Too often these are forced and hollow. Repentance is an act that leads to change. It is a direction from where we are in the penultimate to Christ in the ultimate. It is the persistent activity of the Christian, individually, and the church and churches, collectively, to orient themselves back to the centeredness in Christ. It can be humbling and even humiliating, but from here, healing occurs.

Third, preach the Gospel. The affirmation that we need to be concerned about the present, material world around us does not mean that we are moving toward a lessening of the Gospel and our evangelism. Too often we have an either/or mentality. Having a concern for the needs in the present is not mutually exclusive from having a concern for a person’s ultimate end. If we are living out from the center of Christ, we will be proclaiming His message, which is Himself and results in salvation.

Finally, take care of others. As the previous point makes, evangelism and concerns for the present, material world are not at odds with one another. We can do both. We should do both. As we received grace when we were low and destitute and in need, so we take care of others who are low and destitute and in need. This kindness bestowed upon us is not merely spiritual. We are not gnostic Christians. We should have a concern for all of creation. Bonhoeffer further states, “It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need. We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us.”

[1] The volume I will be engaging is from the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
[2] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 155-56.
[3] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 157.
[4] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 159.