Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On Hitler, Grace, the Cross, Our Cross, Church and Life Together


1930s, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, England and the United States

"Cheap grace [false, unBiblical perversions of God's word translated "Grace"] is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.

"Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

"Costly grace, Biblical grace, is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer


"Bonhoeffer knew that twisting the Truth to sell it more effectively was inexcusable. For Bonhoeffer the challenge was to present the Truth as purely as possible without attempting to help it along or dress it up."

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer


"Bonhoeffer's church is a sect [a cult], in fact the worst sect to have ever set foot on the soil of German Protestantism"

June 1935 "Evangelical Theology Magazine"
-Hermann Sasse, prominent "religious leader" of the day


"Where the world despises other members of the Christian family, Christians will love and serve them. If the world does violence to them, Christians will help them and provide them relief. Where the world subjects them to dishonor and insult, Christians will sacrifice their own honor in exchange for their disgrace. Where the world seeks gain, Christians will renounce it; where it exploits, they will let go; where it oppresses, they will stoop down and lift up the oppressed. Where the world denies justice, Christians will practice compassion; where it hides behind lies, they will speak out for those who cannot speak, and testify for the truth. For the sake of brothers or sisters-be they Jew or Greek, slave or free, strong or weak, of noble or common birth-Christians will renounce all community with the world, for they serve the community of the body of Jesus Christ. Being a part of this community, Christians cannot remain hidden from the world. They have been called out of the world and follow Christ."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer


"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer


"Bonhoeffer knew that something of this unwillingness [of the "christian churches"] to speak out with boldness [against Hitler or anything controversial] -- had to do with... money. The state provided financial security for the pastors of Germany, and even pastors in the [more "fundamental" and somewhat dissenting] church would jeopardize their incomes only to a certain point."

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer


"The Nazis did their best to portray Germany as a Christian nation. The Reich church erected a huge tent near the Olympic stadium. Foreigners would have no idea of the internecine battle between the German State-approved "church" and the [more "fundamental" and somewhat dissenting] church; it looked like there was an abundance of Christianity in the midst of Hitler's Germany."

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer


On December 11, as with most of his sermons, Bonhoeffer began provocatively, putting forth the notion that Christ had been exiled from the lives of most Christians.

"Of course," he said, "we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses."

Religion had been exiled to Sunday morning, to a place "into which one gladly withdraws for a couple of hours, but only to get to one's place of work immediately afterward." He said that one cannot give him only a "small compartment in our spiritual life," but must give him everything or nothing. "The religion of Christ," he said, "is not a tidbit after one's bread; on the contrary, it is the bread or it is nothing. People should at least understand and concede this if they call themselves Christian."

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer


"Then what's the use of everyone's theology?" Bonhoeffer asked. There were now an urgency and a seriousness to Bonhoeffer that had not been there before. Somehow he sensed he must warn people of what lay ahead. It was as if he could see that a mighty oak tree, in whose shade families were picnicking, and from whose branches children were swinging, was rotten inside, was about to fall down and kill them all. Others observed the change in him. For one thing, his sermons became more severe.

His Bible texts provide a clue of what lay ahead. The first was from Revelation 2:4-5: "Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefor from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." People familiar with Bonhoeffer's preaching, upon hearing these verses, might well have slipped out the side exit. On the other hand, if they had been in the mood to be blasted backward and had chosen to stay, they would not have been disappointed.

Bonhoeffer opened with the bad news: the Protestant church was in its eleventh hour, he said, and it's "high time we realize this." The church, he said, is dying or is already dead. Then he directed his thunder at the people in the pews. He condemned the grotesque inappropriateness of having a celebration when they were all, in fact, attending a funeral: "A fanfare of trumpets is no comfort to a dying man." He then referred to the day's hero, Martin Luther, as a "dead man" whom they were propping up for their selfish purposes. It was as if he'd thrown a bucket of water on the congregation and had then thrown his shoes at them. He called it "unpardonable frivolity and arrogance" for them to blithely appropriate Luther's famous words, "Here I stand, I can do no other," for their own ends-- as if these words applied to them and the Lutheran church of their day. So it went.

Nor was it the only sermon of its kind that he would preach that year. But what exactly did Bonhoeffer see, and whense this urgency to communicate what he saw? He seemed to want to warn everyone to wake up and stop playing church. They were all sleepwalking toward a terrible precipice! But few took him seriously. For many, Bonhoeffer was only one of those bespectacled and over-serious academic types, with a good dose of religious fanaticism in the bargain. And he preached such depressing sermons!

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer


In a nutshell, he (Dietrich) saw a situation so bleak, by any historical measures, that he was rethinking some basic things and wondered whether modern man had moved beyond religion. What Bonhoeffer meant by "religion" was not true Christianity, but the ersatz (substitute) and abbreviated Christianity that he spent his life working against. This "religious" Christianity had failed Germany and the West during this great time of crisis, for one thing, and he wondered whether it wasn't finally time for the lordship of Jesus Christ to move past Sunday mornings and churches and into the whole world. But this was simply an extension of his previous theology, which was dedicatedly Bible centered and Christ centered.

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer


It is impossible to understand Bonhoeffer's "Nachfolge" without becoming acquainted with the shocking capitulation of the German church to Hitler in the 1930s. How could the "church of Luther," that great teacher of the gospel, have ever come to such a place? The answer is that the true gospel, summed up by Bonhoeffer as costly grace, had been lost. On the one hand, the church had become marked by compromise. That meant going to church and hearing that God just loves and forgives everyone, so it doesn't really matter much how you live. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace. On the other hand, there was legalism, or salvation by law and good works. Legalism meant that God loves you because you have pulled yourself together and are trying to live a good, disciplined life.

["Arbeit Macht Frei" as posted over the gate of Auschwitz accurately represents their culture, both religious and secular. Exalting such things as precision, work ethic, orderliness, speed of accomplishment, beauty and seamlessness of choreography, manipulated dramatic crescendo of emotion, work ethic and the like... are a form of "legalism." "Garnering God's pleasure" by "orderliness" and "precision" and "choreography" and "work ethic" played into Hitler's hands as a legalism and "salvation, deliverance, proof of God's involvement - by works."]

Both of these impulses made it possible for Hitler to come to power. The [compromisers] in Germany may have seen things that bothered them, but saw no need to sacrifice their safety to stand up to them. Legalists responded by having pharisaical attitudes towards other nations and races that approved of Hitler's policies. But as one, Germany lost hold of the brilliant balance of the gospel -- "We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith which is alone." That is, we are saved, not by anything we do, but by grace. Yet if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live.

By the time of Hitler's ascension, much of the 'church' understood grace only as abstract acceptance-- "God forgives; that's His job." But we know that true grace comes to us by costly sacrifice. And if God was willing to go to the cross and endure such pain and absorb such a cost in order to save us, then we must live sacrificially as we serve others. Anyone who truly understands how God's grace comes to us will have a changed life. That's the gospel, not salvation by law, or by cheap grace, but by costly grace. Costly grace changes you from the inside out. Neither law nor cheap grace can do that.

This lapse couldn't happen to us, today, surely, could it? Certainly it could. We still have a lot of legalism and moralism in our churches. In reaction to that, many Christians want to talk only about God's love and acceptance. They don't like talking about Jesus' death on the cross to satisfy divine wrath and justice. Some even call it "divine child abuse." Yet if they are not careful, they run the risk of falling into the belief in "cheap grace"-- a non-costly love for a non-holy God who just loves and accepts us as we are. That will never change anyone's life.

So it looks like we still need to listen to Bonhoeffer and others who go deep in discussing the nature of the gospel.

-Timothy J. Keller, Foreword, Bonhoeffer biography


Only the obedient believe. A concrete commandment has to be obeyed in order to come to believe. A first step of obedience has to be taken, so that faith does not become pious self-deception, cheap grace. The first step is crucial. It is qualitatively different from all others that follow. The first step of obedience has to lead Peter away from his nets and out of the boat; it has to lead the young man away from his wealth. Faith is possible only in this new state of existence created by obedience.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Jesus is the only significance. Grace and commandment in one: Christ calls, the disciple follows. Christianity without discipleship is Christianity without Christ! Discipleship without Jesus is devoid of promise and Jesus will surely reject it. "No man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom." Faith is only real when there is obedience and cannot act without it. Faith is the condition of obedience. Obedience is the condition of faith. Peter could not affect his own salvation, but he could leave his nets. Unless he obeys, a man cannot believe.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship


"When people complain, for instance, that they find it hard to believe, it is a sign of deliberate or unconscious disobedience... The outcome is usually that self-imparted absolution confirms the man in his disobedience, and makes him plead ignorance of the kindness as well as the commandment of God. He complains that God's commandment is uncertain, and susceptible of different interpretations. At first he was aware enough of his disobedience, but with his increasing hardness of heart that awareness grows ever fainter, and in the end he becomes so enmeshed that he loses all capacity for hearing the Word, and faith is quite impossible... It is time to take the bull by the horns, and say: 'Only those who obey believe.'... 'You are disobedient, you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control. That is what is preventing you from listening to Christ and believing in His Grace. You cannot hear Christ because you are willfully disobedient. Somewhere in your heart you are refusing to listen to his call. Your difficulty is your sins.' Christ now enters the lists again and comes to grips with the devil, who until now has been hiding."

"You do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but you lack love because you never attempted obedience."

"Only the Believer obeys, and only he who obeys, believes."

"Why must it so often be the bad people who make the revolutions?"

"Religion today is far more committed to so-called 'tolerance' -- than to the Truth."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Bonhoeffer's observations on American churches were closely related to his views on the seminary in New York:

"Things are not much different in the church. The sermons have been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I've been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in general I'm increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes). One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity. There's no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer


But then what becomes of Christianity per se?

The enlightened American, rather than viewing all this with skepticism, instead welcomes it as an example of progress. They preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.

In a homiletics seminar at Union taught by Fosdick, Fosdick gave out sermon topics. A few of them were on what he condescendingly called "traditional themes." Bonhoeffer was stunned that in this category was a sermon "on the forgiveness of sins and on the cross!" The heart of the gospel has been marginalized and quaintly labeled "traditional." He said:

"This is quite characteristic of most of the churches I saw. So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by faith in progress that -- who knows how-- claims the right to call itself 'Christian.' And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large American churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, anyone who has heard how they try to persuade a new resident to join the church, insisting that you'll get into society quite differently by doing so, anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership -- that person can well assess the character of such a church. All these things, of course, take place with varying degrees of tactfulness, taste, and seriousness; some churches are basically "charitable" churches; others have primarily a social identity. One cannot avoid the impression, however, that in both cases they have forgotten what the real point is."

-Metaxas, Bonhoeffer


"One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls Him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to His death as a heroic sacrifice for His ideas. Only one thing one doesn't do: one doesn't take Him seriously. That is, one doesn't bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be the revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman-- just as, after all, i can also live without Plato and Kant. Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God Himself speaks and if the Word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me.

"Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously His absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the 'Enlightenment.'

In this lecture, Bonhoeffer tipped one sacred cow after the other. Having dealt with the idea of Christ as no mere great ethicist, he proceeded to explain the similarity of the Christian religion to other religions. Then he came to his main point: the essence of Christianity is not about religion at all, but about the person of Christ. He expanded on the theme that religion was a dead, man-made thing, and at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely-- God Himself, alive.

-Metaxas, Bonhoeffer



"What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ, if delivered from his sin, and called to faith and eternal life. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.

"The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and His Work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity. That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more than life together around Christ. One who wants a mere superficial experience does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of social religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood. ln Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer


If we invoke the deadly dictum of Cain: "Am I my brother's keeper?" are we not then subject to the curse of God: "His blood will I require at thine hand" (Ezek. 3:18).

Where Christians live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare God's Word and will to another. It is inconceivable that the things that are of utmost importance to each individual should not be spoken by one to another. It is unchristian consciously to deprive another of the one decisive service we can render to him. If we cannot bring ourselves to utter it, we shall have to ask ourselves whether we are not still seeing our brother garbed in his human dignity which we are afraid to touch, and thus forgetting the most important thing, that he, too, is still a man like us, a sinner in crying need of God's grace. He has the same great necessities that we have, and needs help, encouragement, and forgiveness as we do.

The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a human. Though with all his dignity, each man is lonely and lost if he is not given help. This is not to make him contemptible nor to disparage him in any way. On the contrary, it is to accord him the one real dignity that man has, namely, that, though he is a sinner, he can share in God's grace and glory and be God's child. This recognition gives to our brotherly speech the freedom and candor that it needs.

We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need. We 'admonish one another' (Heb.3:12-13) to go the way that Christ bids us to go. We warn one another against the disobedience that is our common destruction. We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God's kindness and God's severity. Why should we be afraid of one another, since both of us have only God to fear? Why should we think that our brother would not understand us, when we understood very well what was meant when somebody spoke God's comfort or God's admonition to us, perhaps in words that were halting and unskilled? Or do we really think there is a single person in this world who does not need either encouragement or admonition? Why, then, has God bestowed Christian brotherhood upon us?

The more we learn to allow others to speak the Word to us, to accept humbly and gratefully even severe reproaches and admonitions, the more free and objective will we be in speaking ourselves. The person whose touchiness and vanity make him spurn a brother's earnest censure cannot speak the truth in humility to others; he is afraid of being rebuffed and of feeling that he has been aggrieved. The touchy person will always become a flatterer and very soon he will come to despise and slander his brother.

But the humble person will stick both to truth and to love. He will stick to the word of God and let it lead him to his brother. Because he seeks nothing for himself and has no fears for himself, he can help his brother through the Word. Nothing can be more compassionate than the personal admonition that calls a brother back from the path of sin. It is mercy, and ultimate offer of genuine fellowship, when we allow nothing but God's word to stand between us, both judging and succoring. Then it is not we who are judging (1Cor.5:9-6:3, John 12:47-48). We serve him even when we must speak the judging and dividing Word of God to him, even when, in obedience to God, we must break off fellowship with him.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Life Together"


He (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believeing theological notions or principles or rules or tenents. It had everything to do with living one's whole life in obedience to God's call through action. It did not merely require a mind, but a body too. It was God's call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny. It was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom - that was what it was to obey God.

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer


(Finkenwalde was the location of Bonhoeffer's daily intentional experience of "Life Together" with many other committed believers. Eventually shut down by the Nazi's, the relationships continued as long as they lived -- which for some was not to be very long at all.)

"No one at Finkenwalde could complain that there was no fun. Most afternoons and evenings a time was set aside for hiking or sports. Bonhoeffer was forever organizing games, just as his mother had done in their family. There was a lot of table tennis, and anyone looking for Bonhoeffer would try the table tennis room first. They also played soccer. Schönherr recalled that "Bonhoeffer was always at the head of the pack because he was such a fantastic runner. He had always been competitive, and Bethge remembered that "he hated to lose when we tried shot-putting-- or stone-putting-- down the beach."

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer


"We know not what to do, but our eyes are on You."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer
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