Dietrich Bonhoeffer

28 May

In continuing with my study of bygone Christian heroes, I chose this weekend to read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, and one of my favorite Christian authors. Bonhoeffer was also a strong force in the German Resistance movement against Nazism. At the first sight of National Socialism in Germany, he rejected it on both moral and theological principles. He was unable to reconcile the Nazi state’s claim to total control over the person with such ultimate sovereignty that He believed belonged only to God.

Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address attacking him, in which he warned Germany against slipping into the idolatrous cult of the Fuhrer. Unfortunately, he was cut off the air in the middle of his sentence.

In further resistance to the Nazification of the German Protestant church, Bonhoeffer became a founding member of the Confessing Church, a church vehemently opposed to Nazi interference in church affairs (such as: their attempt to remove the Old Testament from the Bible, their forbidding of taking up offerings, and the renouncing that Jesus Christ was in fact Jewish) and the adoption of the Aryan Paragraph (the official clause legalizing the persecution of non-Aryans, particularly those of Jewish descent) by the church. Bonhoeffer insisted that Christ, not the Fuhrer, was the only rightful head of the church.

Bonhoeffer traveled around studying and then teaching at various seminaries, churches, and universities until his authorization to teach at the University of Berlin was revoked in August of 1936 for being a “pacifist and enemy of the state.” The Gestapo continued to close thousands of seminaries and churches, arresting teachers, pastors, and even church members for fighting for the sovereignty of the one true God. Through the persecution, Bonhoeffer continued to live courageously, starting underground seminaries and churches across Germany. It was also around this time that he published his best-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, where he criticized “cheap grace,” a plague he considered life-threatening to the church. Bonhoeffer defined cheap grace as:

“…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, he taught, is a grace that costs a man his very life. This self-sacrificing grace defines the life of the true believer, not a doctrinal system of the church with lists of behavioral codes. Bonhoeffer taught that we must be willing to lay down out rights, suffer persecution, and even die for the sake of the Kingdom come.

And he practiced what he preached.

Disgusted by the poisoning of the German church and the atrocities committed against the Jewish people, Bonhoeffer was moved to action, and joined the German military intelligence force, Abwehr, in their attempt to overthrow Hitler. As a double agent, he advocated for Hitler’s assassination and aided in the evacuation of dozens of Jews.

On April 6, 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested because of his involvement in an operation that helped 14 Jews escape to Switzerland, leaving his beautiful fiancee of only three months. He was imprisoned at Tegel Military Prison for a year and a half awaiting trial, where, like Paul of the New Testament, he continued his work in religious outreach among his fellow prisoners and guards. He was eventually secretly moved to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and finally to Flossenburg Concentration Camp where he was condemned to death on April 8, 1945.

His execution was particularly brutal. He was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard, where he was hanged with thin wire for strangulation. Through everything Bonhoeffer remained faithful. The camp doctor who witnessed the execution later wrote:

“I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Bonhoeffer’s life has been of great influence and inspiration for Christians across broad denominations and ideologies. His Christ-centered approach appealed to conservative, confession-minded Protestants, while his commitment to social justice as a cardinal responsibility of Christianity appealed to those on the more liberal end of the spectrum.

I am most inspired by his courage as a young man to relentlessly pursue God and to passionately make Him known in the face of violence, persecution, and even death. Great men and women of God did not only exist in Bible times. They have always existed, wherever and whenever a person chooses to lay down their rights for the sake of His Kingdom come.


6 Responses to “Dietrich Bonhoeffer”

  1. Nate Uttley May 30, 2010 at 9:10 pm #

    This is truly inspirational. Not just the life that this man lived in response to the radical sacrifice of our Lord and best buddy Jesus, but also your awesome study skills that are totally getting used for the glory of God!

  2. erikaearl May 31, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    Thanks Nate!

  3. Cassandra June 2, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    Hello Erika!

    I just finished reading a new biography on Bonhoeffer. I rarely gush about a book, but I cannot say enough about this one. Very inspirational and intriguing. It’s called “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” and is written by Eric Metaxas. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.



  4. erikaearl June 2, 2010 at 10:30 pm #

    Hi Cassandra!

    Thank you so much for your recommendation. I have not read that one yet. I will add it to my neverending book list. 🙂

    God bless you!

  5. Colin October 11, 2010 at 7:44 pm #


    You don’t sound as young as it appears you may be. I was trying to find some Bonhoeffer images and I fell into your blog. Your insight into Bonhoeffer is succinctly expressed and spiritually measured; did you happen to read the new book on this martyr of the faith by author Metaxas?

    By the way I sense you attend a sound Bible believing church – any suggestions for a middle-aged man? And by the way I have a nephew who is graduating from Mater Dei and I would like to direct him to a sound Christian college here in the OC – one that emphasizes the Christian walk (first) and then the academics. Plus, it appears you attend a young persons worship one where true Christians attend – any suggestions here for my 18 year-old nephew. We are all Christian Catholics and solid spirit-filled outlets are a bit limited – can you help a concerned uncle?

    Thanks and God Bless you – it’s nice to see and hear of young women in this society that love their Jesus and that seek Him first and foremost.



    • erikaearl October 12, 2010 at 12:28 am #


      Thanks for the compliment! I’m 21… pretty young, if I do say so myself. No, I have not yet read the new book by Metaxas. I will definitely look into it.

      I do attend a fabulous church! Actually, I attend more than one on a regular basis, but my home church is Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. I attend their college-aged service called “Crave” on Thursday nights. They offer two services, one at 7PM and one at 9PM. I hop back and forth between the two, depending on my plans for the evening. I would highly recommend this service to your nephew. He would love it. Send him my e-mail address if you would like and I would be more than happy to introduce him to some people.

      As for a service for you, both of my parents attend the 11:15 Sunday morning service at Saddleback and they absolutely LOVE it. There are plenty of other services offered at Saddleback, though, if 11:15 isn’t a good time for you.

      As far as good Christian colleges for your son… Honestly, I have no idea. I am a college-dropout. I started my own wedding and portrait photography business, and transitioned out of college since I didn’t feel called to be there. I have friends that attend Biola and Vanguard and have heard great things about both. In my opinion, I hear of lots of “unChristian” kinds of activities happening at both institutions so I can’t really speak on whether or not they actually disciple students in their Christian walk. It’s one thing to speak on Gospel issues in class, and another thing to actually mentor and disciple students. If you are seeking a discipleship experience for your son, I would strongly recommend a Discipleship Training School through YWAM (the program I just completed.)

      Anyhow, this is a lot of info. Sorry for the long-winded response. If you have any more questions, please just let me know. I’m always interested in helping people on their quest for intimacy with the Lord. God bless you and your family as you pursue Christ.

      In Him,

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