February 2009 - Vol. 27

Heroes of Faith: The Witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Dieterich Bonhoeffer was born into a family of seven children in Breslau, Germany. He grew up in Berlin, where his father worked as a  prominent professor of psychiatry and neurology; his mother was one of the few women of her generation to obtain a university degree. At the age of 14 he decided he would become a Lutheran pastor and theologian. He was the first of the German theologians to speak out clearly against the persecution of the Jews. He was 39 years old when he was taken out of his prison and hanged as a Nazi traitor in 1945. As he left his cell he said to his companion, "This is the end but for me, the beginning of life."
The only way to overcome our enemy is by loving him. 
      – The Cost of Discipleship

Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison, summer of 1944 
source: Christian Kaiser Verlag

A Tribute by Donald Bloesch

In perhaps no other century has the church seen so many confessors and martyrs to the faith as in this one. Countless Christians have placed their lives on the line for the gospel. Most of these witnesses to the passion and victory of Christ are relatively unknown, but some have become public signs of God's kingdom. I have in mind a number of candidates for sainthood in the new religious situation in which we find ourselves – people who have refused to bow the knee to Baal and whose stories have increasing significance for our time.

[In the 1930s] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a then relatively unknown German Lutheran pastor and theologian, aroused the ire of the Nazis by his radio address attacking the Nazi leadership principle and also by his open support of the Confessing Church movement.  Having founded what soon became an underground seminary at Finkenwalde in Pomerania, he demonstrated in his own life what he had urged on others - that fidelity to the kingdom of God takes precedence over all other loyalties, including that which we owe to our nation. By the late 1930s, Bonhoeffer's activities were greatly restricted by the Gestapo. Two of his former professors at Union Theological Seminary in New York succeeded in bringing him safely to America but he could not allow himself to remain in refuge, detached from the sufferings of his people. Against his teachers' advice, he boldly decided to return to Germany, even though by this time he was a marked man.

After the war began, Bonhoeffer, despite his pacifist convictions, was led to participate in a resistance group that eventually plotted to assassinate Hitler. In April 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel in Berlin. While in prison, he had an opportunity to escape, but he called off the escape plans for fear of reprisals against his family. Although often tempted to despair, he radiated a joy and peace that were a constant source of inspiration to his fellow prisoners.  He was hanged on the gallows in the Flossenburg prison camp in April 1945.

Bonhoeffer was arrested because of his illegal activities in the resistance movement. Bonhoeffer has been hailed by secular and political theologians as an outstanding example of political involvement on behalf of the oppressed. What they have not sufficiently discerned is that Bonhoeffer's political acts were motivated by a deep religious faith in the God of the Bible, by an unequivocal commitment to the gospel of reconciliation and redemption. Bonhoeffer will come to be appreciated in this new age of persecution for his devotion to Jesus Christ and not simply for his political heroism.

Excerpted from the book, Crumbling Foundations, by Donald Bloesch (c) 1984 by The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Used with permission.

Donald Bloesch is a noted American evangelical theologian. He has written numerous books, including Wellsprings of Renewal: Promise in Christian Communal Life, Crumbling Foundations: Death and Rebirth in an Age of Upheaval, The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-language, A Theology Of Word & Spirit: Authority & Method In Theology. He was raised in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, in which his father and both his grandfathers were also ordained ministers. From 1957 until his retirement in 1992, he was a professor of theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, USA, where he continues as a professor-emeritus.

Bonhoeffer's cell in Tegel Prison

photo source:
Christian Kaiser Verlag

Costly Grace 

by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. 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. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. … Well, then let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. … That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap 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 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.

Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. 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. Above all, it is costly because it costs God the life of His Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but deliver him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Costly grace is the santuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and My burden is light.’

[excerpt from The Cost of Discipleship, by Dieterich Bonhoeffer. 2nd edition, revised and enlarged, SCM Press Ltd, 1959. pp 35-37.)

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