Dietrich Bonhoeffer

From our service on May 16, 2021, a story of the inspiring life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as recounted by Colin Mills.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God’s salvation is available to everyone, given freely by His grace. But is accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior sufficient? Or is salvation a call to take up your cross and live your faith? The UCR believes the latter, as Pastor Eric will discuss in his sermon. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who not only wrote about the cost of discipleship but lived it, actively opposing the evil of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis at the cost of his life.

Bonhoeffer explained his views on salvation in the book The Cost of Discipleship, published in 1937. He attacks “cheap grace,” which he defines as “preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession… grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” He calls cheap grace “the deadly enemy of our Church,” adding: “In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.”

Bonhoeffer argues instead for “costly grace,” which “compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.” He states that true discipleship is difficult but essential: “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life exemplified costly grace. He recognized and spoke out against the Nazi regime when it rose to power. Two days after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a speech denouncing him. That April, Bonhoeffer called on the church to resist the Nazis’ persecution of Jewish people, saying the church must do more than “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”

When the Nazi regime seized control of the German Evangelical Church and issued the doctrine that the church was subordinate to the state, Bonhoeffer led a dissenting group called the “Confessing Church.” In their signature statement, the Barmen Confession, they reasserted that Christ was Lord of the Church: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and must recognize yet other happenings and powers, personalities and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God.”

In 1935, Bonhoeffer organized and led an underground seminary at Finkenwald. When the Gestapo shut it down two years later, Bonhoeffer conducted “seminary on the run,” traveling between German villages to oversee and instruct his students in secret.

During this time, Bonhoeffer was introduced to the Resistance and their plans to overthrow Hitler. Troubled by the state of events, Bonhoeffer sought refuge in the United States. But two weeks later, he returned to Germany. As he wrote to his friend Reinhold Niebuhr: “I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

Bonhoeffer joined Abwehr, the military intelligence service, which was a hotbed of Resistance activity. Under cover of government duties, Bonhoeffer helped German Jews escape to safety, and informed religious leaders in other countries of the Resistance. He even conveyed a proposal for negotiated peace to Bishop George Bell, who informed the British government. The Allies rejected the proposal, insisting on unconditional surrender.

Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 and imprisoned for a year and a half without trial. During this time, he exchanged letters and prayers with his supporters, who later collected them into a book. One guard offered to help Bonhoeffer escape, but he declined.

After the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was foiled in the spring of 1944, an examination of Abwehr documents identified Bonhoeffer as a conspirator. As a result, he was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

On April 8, 1945, after leading a church service in camp, Bonhoeffer was taken by the Gestapo to the Flossenburg concentration camp, where he was sentenced to death in a trial without witnesses or the chance for defense. He was hanged the next day, along with his fellow conspirators.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer only lived to the age of 39, but his legacy is immortal. The Cost of Discipleship remains a widely-read classic. And Bonhoeffer’s example has inspired American civil rights leaders, the anti-communist democratic movement in Eastern Europe, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, and others who felt called to resist evil and injustice at any cost. As Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, the true disciple must respond “when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person[‘s] life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call.”

Watch this segment on video (starting at 3:23):