Chapter 3: Simple Obedience

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’


Bonhoeffer picks up the theme of obedience from the previous chapter and expands it in this chapter. The central idea is that Christians have taken a simple obedience to Jesus’ commands and have turned them into something highly complex but ultimately meaningless. We do this through a variety of justifications—that Jesus intended us to live “inwardly” in obedience to his laws rather that externally; that Jesus was instructing us on mindset we should have rather than actions we should take; or that true obedience would have us not “legalistically” follow his instructions, but simply believe. Whatever form these varied justifications take, they are all simple pretenses to the naked truth: “the deliberate avoidance of simple, literal obedience.”

Bonhoeffer believes that the root of these machinations towards meaninglessness is our tendency to approach scripture with the question the precipitated all sin, “Did God say…?” We bring various “hermeneutics” to scripture, and thus argue in a thousand different ways that Jesus meant something entirely different, or even exactly opposite, of what he said. Any attempt to read scripture in such a way that precludes a simple obedience to Jesus’ words is nothing more than a way for us to justify disobedience.

Finally, Bonhoeffer makes the subtle, but important distinction that the important part of obedience is not the deed that is done, but the faith in which it is done. If the deed were the important part of obedience, then we would find ourselves in the realm of works-righteousness. This does not mean that no deed was necessary, for that would be an interpretation that precluded simple obedience. It is just that the purpose, or the telos, of the deed is the faith that engendered it. To quote from chapter 2, “Only the believers obey,” and, “only the obedient believe.”

Contextual Clues

Bonhoeffer makes oblique references several times in this chapter to the writings of August Tholuck, a prominent German Theologian who had died some sixty years before the publication of “Discipleship.” Tholuck built much of his career around the work of fighting against German Rationalism, a school of thought that had shaped German theology in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. Put simplistically, rationalism in theology places reason, and therefore the human mind, as the ultimate arbiter of truth and authority in scripture. Ironically, though he was opposed to it, Tholuck’s work betrayed the influence of rationalism upon it. In Tholuck’s work, Bonhoeffer saw simple obedience to Jesus’ words subjugated to one’s belief and experience of Jesus’ words, “In this section [in reference to Matthew 5:21-48], as indeed everywhere, not the literal but the spiritual, interpretation is the true one.” -Tholuck, Commentary¸ p163.


Reflection Questions

Where have you witnessed the words of Jesus being contorted to mean something other than what they say?

Where in your own life have you caught yourself asking the question, “Did God say…?” when trying to understand a piece of scripture? What was it that you were trying to avoid?

Bonhoeffer wasn’t just concerned with how we avoid simple obedience in our own lives. As troubling, if not more troubling, were the ways he witnessed the church interpreting scripture to not only preclude simple obedience, but to also justify the actions of the state that were in direct opposition to Jesus’ words. Where in our own world have you seen Jesus’ words used justify an antithetical action?