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Mar 01

Bonhoeffer: The Book

Whew.  I finally finished a borrowed copy of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, for which I waited weeks to secure from the local public library.  It was well worth the wait along with the late night reading.  It’s the fascinating story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian pastor in Nazi Germany during the rise to power of Adolf Hitler.  A pastor who actively worked to restore the church to biblical purity, while also working to remove the evil dictator from power and ultimately paying the ultimate price: a martyr’s death by hanging.

I first read Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship in college roughly thirty years ago. It’s a classic book based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which, along with Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Packer’s Knowing God should be required reading for every Christian as part of any starting point for any new believer seeking to learn the faith.  Yet remarkably these books are not even available in some of the church bookstores I’ve poked my head into. That’s tragic. But I digress.

Bonhoeffer wrote Cost of Discipleship with the rise of the Third Reich as the backdrop — far removed from the good life almost every American today enjoys and takes for granted.  It was Bonhoeffer who popularized the term “cheap grace,” which he defined as

the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.

Bonhoeffer had little use for churches and Christians whose stated or functional theology enabled one to think one could accept Jesus as savior but not Lord, that one could pray a prayer and continue to live however one liked and still expect forgiveness without any subsequent evidence of a changed heart and life.   If that brings to your mind some contemporary ministry mindsets, good:   You’re paying attention.

Bonhoeffer contrasts this cheap grace with “costly grace.”  Costly grace, or biblical grace, is different, wrote Bonhoeffer:

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. It 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.”

Bonhoeffer’s view of Christian discipleship wouldn’t land him many speaking engagements in today’s Christian landscape.  It’s hardly the stuff that makes one popular in the 21st century.  Listen as Bonhoeffer describes the state of churches in his day using words that many would argue could be equally applied to today’s modern American church:

The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organised church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.

So it was with that nearly forgotten history behind us that I eagerly read through Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer. Unlike some books, space does not permit regurgitating or even summarizing everything of value that was gleaned from these pages. Instead, I’ll simply point to a few thoughts that hit me as I read the book, in hopes that you’ll want to pick up the book and read further.

  • First, the magnitude of decisions Bonhoeffer had to grapple with is striking to me.  He was faced with decisions…very difficult decisions…that most of us have never had to make.  Initially possessing some inclinations of a pacifist, Bonhoeffer eventually became a double-agent and went so far–right or wrong–as to participate in plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
  • I was not aware that Bonhoeffer came from a prominent, well-connected family.  It would have been very easy for him to stay silent, for much like today’s influential pastors and leaders he had much to lose and could easily have justified staying silent regarding the politics of the National Socialists advocated by the emerging Nazi movement.
  • Bonhoeffer was 39 when executed.  Many people might assume he was a married, middle-aged man, but the majority of this book covers the issues faced by a single young man in his 20’s and 30’s.
  • Though he spent much of his life not planning to marry, he fell in love with a young woman and became engaged.  But he was imprisoned and executed before the wedding day could come, and the story of this relationship is portrayed via letters and correspondence.  Those of us who are married and recall the days leading up to our weddings can appreciate how hard this must have been for both of them while he was in prison with an uncertain future.
  • Unlike many ministry leaders today, Bonhoeffer had little patience for professing church leaders who taught only the easy and appealing parts of the Gospel.  When presented with the argument that Christians should work within a compromised church to lead change, Bonhoeffer declined, astutely observing “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.” Reading the book leaves one with the sense that he wasn’t terribly concerned about being viewed as judgmental, just biblical. 
  • Given that much of what Bonhoeffer wrote and experienced was a direct result of what was happening in Nazi Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler to power, Metaxas does a splendid job of providing a narrative of German history throughout Bonhoeffer’s life.  As a result, Bonhoeffer’s writing comes to life with more meaning and impact than it would otherwise.  The book might have been easier to write without the parallel history, in one sense, and non-lovers of history may find it secondary and burdensome to read—but I would argue that the history of Nazi Germany’s rise to power is as instructive to us as is the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and readers would do well to read of Bonhoeffer in this setting.  His writing was not committed to paper in a void, and Metaxas makes sure we understand that.  To have done anything less would have minimized the impact of Bonhoeffer’s life and writing, and it is worth the heavy lifting to absorb the world history along with the personal biography.
  • Personally, I found the account of Bonhoeffer’s time in the states interesting and was surprised to learn that while at seminary in NYC he was deeply influenced by Negro spirituals he learned at the African-American church where he taught Sunday School.  I was in the heart of Harlem a few months ago and had no idea Bonhoeffer had walked the same streets, much less taught in a church a few blocks away from where I had spent the day.  Had I been aware at the time I would have made it a point to walk down to the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church and take a look around.
  • I find it remarkable that Bonhoeffer seemed to have an acute sense of discernment, most likely due to his faithful immersion in and devotion to the Bible.  This is evidenced by his nearly immediate stance in opposition to Hitler when many other Christians either refused to get involved in opposition, or valued love of country over love of God and actively joined the Nazi cause, unable (or unwilling) to see what lay ahead in Hitler’s agenda.  Just days after Hitler assumed power Bonhoeffer went to the radio waves to warn Germans that there was a dark side of the “fuehrer” that had not yet been revealed and which others did not yet see.
  • The degree to which Bonhoeffer was a student of theology, of God, and of the Bible is convicting, to say the least.  Some have cherry-picked his writings and suggested he was not an orthodox evangelical believer, but I believe Metaxas proves otherwise with his research.  It was this thorough grounding in Bible study and theological understanding that prepared Bonhoeffer for the difficult decisions he would soon have to make.  It’s doubtful that I, and most American Christians, are anywhere near as prepared to make similar difficult decisions should we find ourselves in similar straits.  We might be, if we weren’t so busy watching television and tweeting trivia 40 times a day.  Bonhoeffer, like our earlier church fathers, had no such distractions.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the Bonhoeffer story for me personally was the lack of patience he had for those in the “Oxford movement” who refused to speak out against Hitler for fear of losing access to his administration and thereby losing the opportunity to save Hitler’s soul.  First, Metaxas quotes a letter from Bonhoeffer:

The entire education of the younger generation of theologians belongs today in church cloister-like schools, in which pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount and worship are taken seriously–as they never are (and in present circumstances couldn’t be) at the university.  It is also high time we broke with our theologically based restraint towards the state’s actions–which, after all, is only fear.  “Speak out for those who cannot speak”–who in the church today realizes that this is the very least that the Bible requires of us?

Metaxas explains:

Many in the Confessing Church still thought Hitler might be reasoned with.  The war and the death camps and the Final Solution were years in the future.  There was still hope that this madman might not be so mad after all or that his wildness might yet be domesticated.  Bonhoeffer had already seen through this, which was why he was already looking far past it for something else, something more pure and true.  He had long moved past thinking that anything currently being discussed might be the solution.  In his letter to Sutz, he referred to Barth’s idea:

“From now on, I believe, any discussion between Hitler and Barth would be quite pointless–indeed, no longer to be sanctioned.  Hitler has shown himself quite plainly for what he is, and the church ought to know with whom it has to reckon.  Isaiah didn’t go to Sennacherib either.  We have tried often enough–too often–to make Hitler aware of what is going on.  Maybe we’ve not yet gone about it in the right way, but then Barth won’t go about it the right way either.  Hitler is not in a position to listen to us; he is obdurate, and as such he must compel us to listen–it’s that way round.  The Oxford movement was naive enough to try and convert Hitler–a ridiculous failure to recognize what is going on. We are the ones to be converted, not Hitler.”

In an earlier letter to Sutz he had referred to Hitler as a Sennacherib figure.  He seemed to believe that the utter wickedness of Hitler, like that of Sennacherib, would cleanse the church, would blow away the chaff.  But why hadn’t others yet seen this?  Why had people like the evangelist Frank Buchman been taken in by Hitler, thinking they might be able to convert him?  Why didn’t others see that unless they first recognized evil, it would continue to have power and cause destruction?  In this letter, Bonhoeffer referred to Karl Brandt, who was Hitler’s personal physician, ad whom Sutz met on an Alpine tour.

What sort of man is Brandt?  I don’t understand how any man can stay on in Hitler’s entourage, unless he is either a Nathan or else shares the guilt for what happened on June 30 and July 25, and for the lie they served up on August 19–and shares guilt for the next war! Please forgive me, but for me these things are really so serious, I don’t feel like being witty about them anymore.

Bonhoeffer’s asking about Brandt helps us understand what life must have been like for Germans in the Third Reich, especially in the early days when most people were still completely in the dark about what lay ahead…Bonhoeffer wondered how someone could keep company with Adolf Hitler, whom he knew had given himself over to evil…

There is also a fascinating account of the moment Martin Niemoller, a pastor who had been an early supporter of the Third Reich and was used by Hitler to gain the approval and validation of church members, realized he had been duped.  Writes Metaxas:

In an attempt to put a better face on things, Niemoller declared truthfully, “But we are all enthusiastic about the Third Reich.”  Hitler exploded. “I’m the one who built the Third Reich!” he fumed.  “You just worry about your sermons!”  In that painful, sobering moment, Niemoller’s fantasy that the Third Reich was a legitimate movement–something that existed in the world of reality, apart from Hitler’s mind..was dashed.  He now saw that the only principles of the Third Reich were the desires and will of the man ranting in front of him.

Niemoller was eventually imprisoned and spent seven years in concentration camps.

Metaxas brings us an eyewitness account of his martyr’s death, along with the text of a sermon Bonhoeffer delivered in London before his execution.  He also records what may have been his last words when pulled from the prison to go to the scaffolds: “This is the end.  For me the beginning of life.”

This is a book you should make a point to include in your 2011 reading list.  The lessons learned from this part of history will help strengthen your spiritual life more than you might think. And when you’re done reading it, why not read Bonhoeffer himself.  Your heart will be the better for it.

The teachings of Jesus are hard.  They don’t lead to your best life now.  They teach that the best is yet to come, in eternity.  They teach that we’re in a war–not a culture war, but a spiritual war of worldviews that transcends culture.  Bonhoeffer knew that, and it cost him his best life now.  Rather than remain quiet, liked and accepted, he spoke out against an evil political figure, a corrupt government, and an increasingly compromising church.  He gave up a comfortable life as a pastor/theologian, lost out on being married to his sweetheart, went to prison and ultimately was executed by direct order of, most likely, Hitler himself.  He knew the best was yet to come, and for Bonhoeffer, it’s now his to enjoy for all eternity.

For those of us who know Christ and are reading this review, the best is still yet to come, and the now may well get worse before our time on this earth expires.  May we and our church leaders teach and exemplify costly grace as taught in the Bible.  And may we all be as bold and as biblical as Bonhoeffer.

Josh Riley

Husband, father, teacher, coach, business management consultant, real estate guy, program manager, children's discipleship leader, weatherbug, writer, speaker, workshop presenter, 176 other things and founder of

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