Understanding Righteousness and Lent with Bonhoeffer

Reading Time: 6 mins

As disciples of Jesus, our righteousness cannot be performed before others, because our righteousness was already performed by Jesus.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others…” (Matt. 5:14-16a)

 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1) 

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:16-18).

If we have been following the instruction of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount the past few Sundays, we will be struck with a contradiction when we come to the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading. Jesus has said, “Let your light shine before others,” and now Jesus says, “Don’t practice your righteousness before others.”

Jesus has told his followers to “let their light shine” for all to see, like a city set on a hill can be seen for miles around. Jesus has instructed his disciples not to hide their light. So why does Jesus now say that his disciples should not practice their righteousness openly? Why does Jesus say that they should hide their righteousness?

As we enter into Lent this year, which is it? Should we, as the disciples of Jesus, shine our light or hide our practice of righteousness? 

During the somber season of Lent, many Christians fast in one way or another. And on Ash Wednesday, many of us will receive ashes on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. 

If we go to church on Ash Wednesday and receive ashes on our foreheads, is this disfiguring our faces and so practicing the phony righteousness Jesus warns against? Do we need to make sure we wash the cross of ashes off our heads before we leave church? Can we stop at the store on the way home still wearing it? How can we engage in Lent without performing our righteousness to be seen by others? The twentieth-century German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer can help us answer these questions. 

Bonhoeffer was an anti-Nazi Lutheran living under Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror in Germany. Together with other believers, Bonhoeffer stood bravely against Hitler’s takeover of the German churches, against the Nazi’s euthanasia program, and against their hatred of the Jews. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer lost his life for his participation in several plots to overthrow Hitler and the Nazi regime. 

During the 1930’s Bonhoeffer was active in a group known as the Confessing Church. This group was made up of Lutherans and other Protestants who would not yield to Hitler’s takeover of Christianity and left the state churches of Germany, banding together around the confession that Christ alone commanded the faith of his followers and not any political leader. During this time, Bonhoeffer wrote a book on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in a hostile world. Known to some in English as The Cost of Discipleship, the title was originally just, Discipleship.

Bonhoeffer begins the book by contrasting what he calls “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He describes cheap grace as a kind of non-committal cultural Christianity that requires no great reflection on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and no great exertion to follow the Savior. The practitioner of cheap grace can do pretty much whatever they want and have their mindset formed by the ways of this world, so long as it is all stamped with the all-forgiving power of grace at the end of the day. Costly grace on the other hand requires one to follow Christ in every aspect of their lives. Costly grace is a radical grace that begins with the free forgiveness of God’s grace in Christ given in baptism and that then transforms a person into a radical follower of Jesus Christ. 

Some readers have incorrectly seen a denial of the gospel in Bonhoeffer’s dichotomy between cheap and costly grace. Some have criticized Bonhoeffer as teaching works righteousness. This is not the case. Bonhoeffer unambiguously affirms the reformational understanding of the gospel as God’s free justification of sinners for the sake of Jesus Christ, because of his sacrificial death on the cross. [1] What Bonhoeffer was writing against in Discipleship wasn’t the gospel. It was the perversion of the gospel by anti-Christian worldview that came into the church from the outside. We have to remember, Bonhoeffer was writing in a nation where a totalitarian and racist faction had taken over the leadership of the church. He was writing in the Third Reich!

After contrasting the fake discipleship of cheap grace, Bonhoeffer begins to unpack what it really means to follow Christ as a genuine disciple by walking through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. After a detailed exploration of the Beatitudes—not without a few shots at the Nazified version of theses sayings rewritten by the “German Christians” [2]—Bonhoeffer addresses the seemingly contradictory words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine…; don’t practice your righteousness in public.” 

In order to understand this paradox, says Bonhoeffer, we have to look carefully at what Jesus says here. Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…” [3] Jesus is saying: “Don’t display your righteousness, so that people will notice and will praise you for it.” [4]

It's not as if Jesus is saying that the world shouldn’t notice that we are the followers of Jesus. That’s not even possible, says Bonhoeffer. There is no such thing as an invisible Christian. True, people cannot see our faith in Jesus, but sooner or later, says Bonhoeffer, that faith is going to become visible in how we live our Christian lives. [5]

There is no such thing as an invisible Christian.

If we confess Christ as our Savior and follow him in our daily lives, the world cannot help but notice. We know this. If they spend enough time around us, someone who is not a Christian is going to notice that there is something different about us. Maybe we don’t join in their dirty jokes. Maybe we speak up for someone who is being bullied. Maybe it’s just that we go to church on Sundays. Whatever it may be, sooner or later, each of us will be recognized as a Christian by someone who isn’t.

That, says Bonhoeffer, is what it means to let our light shine. It means that we follow Jesus unashamed of the grace and love that he has shown us by his birth, life, death, and resurrection for us. Our righteousness is something given to us that we should keep hidden, says Bonhoeffer. Yet we shouldn’t say, “Hey, look at me, ain’t I such a good person? I go to church. I give money to the poor. I live a good life. I, I, I.”

That’s the problem: “I.” 

If it’s all about me, then I can be sure that I am falling into the kind of righteousness that Jesus is warning against. It’s a righteousness that is my righteousness. It’s my righteousness, because it is all about me, because I want to be seen, get noticed, and become known as a good, holy, and pious person. It is my righteousness, because I am the content and center of it. The righteousness that our Lord warns against is one that wants to display itself openly rather than remain hidden, and thus it is truly self-righteousness. [6]

Bonhoeffer warns that this is not righteousness at all. It’s actually the manifestation of the old sinful nature, dressed up in pious clothing. It looks righteous on the outside, but in reality, it is death, because it relies on the self and parades the self instead of clinging to Christ alone. [7]

Lenten piety can certainly take on this kind of phony, self-righteousness that Bonhoeffer warns against. When we ask one another about what we are doing for a “Lenten discipline” or freely share with others what we are “giving up for lent,” we are engaging in self-righteousness. We are “practicing our righteousness in order to be seen by others.” We are trusting in, placing our faith in, a righteousness that comes from our own intentions, choices, and actions and that likes to be public rather than hidden.

True righteousness is a hidden righteousness, says Bonhoeffer, because it hides the sinner behind the cross. [8] True righteousness that comes as a pure gift from Jesus alone hides our sins, our shortcomings, and even our phony piety behind the death of the Son of God who suffered and died for us. This true righteousness is the real focus of Lent too. The true meaning of Lent is not fasting, giving things up, or doing things to be seen by others. The true meaning of Lent is that God the Son hangs on the cross for you, to take away your sins, and to hide you in His very own righteousness.

As disciples of Jesus, our righteousness cannot be performed before others, because our righteousness was already performed by Jesus. Our righteousness is the act of being hidden in the love of the crucified Christ: it is only ours to receive as a gift by faith. This is a central truth of Lent. 

But we still can and are called to “let our light shine before others.” That’s because, shining our light isn’t really even something we do per se. It’s something that just happens naturally because Christ has hidden us in the righteousness of his cross. Letting our let shine happens because Jesus has lit us with his very own light, the one, true light, which enlightens the world. [9] Notice, says Bonhoeffer, Jesus doesn’t say, “You should be light,” or “You must become light.” He says, “You are light.” It’s already true. You are the light of the world; you are shining with the light of Christ. [10]

But there are two important factors to being light that keep the shining of the Christian from being the kind of phony, performance righteousness Jesus warns against. First, says Bonhoeffer, the light isn’t your light; it’s Jesus. Second, you aren’t doing it “in order to be seen by others.” You’re just shining your light because that is what Christians do. [11]

In this context, go to church this Lenten season, receive the sign of the cross with ashes on your forehead. Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. But also remember that you are sheltered in life and death behind the righteousness of the One crucified with you. Go ahead and wear those ashes after you leave the service. Then, if anyone asks why you have them, share with them the righteousness of Christ who died for you and who died for them.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 46-51.

[2] The German Christians were a group of Nazis who claimed also to be Christians. They wanted to fully Nazify the German Protestant churches and bring them in line with the official doctrines, policies, and governance of National Socialism. Their leaders, Ludwig Müller, was appointed Reichsbishop by Hitler after losing an election to a more qualified candidate. Müller unabashedly changed the Bible and Christian teachings to fit with Nazi beliefs. On of the most audacious examples of this was Müller’s nationalistic and racist reformulation of the Beatitudes. This monstrosity can be read in Mary Solberg’s collection of the writings of the German Christians, entitled A Church Undone (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 383, ff.

[3] Matthew 6:1a (ESV).

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 149.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 149.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 150.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 150.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 150.

[9] John 1:9.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 112.

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 149-150.