Biography of Faith: Bonhoeffer

The first sermon in a series of four that explore the lives of men and women who are models for us of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. For this sermon I relied in part on the biographical piece by Burton, in the Cambridge Companion to Bonhoeffer – particularly on the question of his conversion.


Let me ask a couple of questions as we begin this morning:

What does it look like when someone is following Jesus? 

What does a genuinely Christian life look like?

And then another question that flows from these – perhaps a more important question:

 How do we learn to really follow Jesus, to live a genuinely Christian life?

These are fundamental questions for us. They are fundamental questions for those who claim to be Christian. What does it look like when someone is following Jesus? What does a truly Christian life look like? And, does my life look that way?

There are different ways to answer these questions. They are not simple questions. But perhaps one helpful way to answer them is by considering the stories and lives of others. As we hold up the lives and experiences and faith of others who have followed Jesus, we can catch a glimpse of what it means to live in the fullness of Christian faith.

Ultimately, our account of the Christian life will be rooted in the life and story of Jesus himself. And we cannot understand who we are as the children of God without reference to the narratives and letters and poetry of scripture. But in considering the lives of other disciples, people who might even be our own contemporaries, we find a window onto the of discipleship to which we are invited.

BonhoefferOver the next four weeks then, I am going to do something just a little different for my sermons – over four weeks we will briefly explore the lives of four individuals. Individuals who in the circumstances of their lives have given expression to a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. We begin this morning with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, partly because, as we have announced, we will shortly begin a 7 week bible study based in part on his life and writings. We also begin with this person because for many years now his life has been seen as a compelling and dramatic example of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Where to begin? Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906, just a few minutes before the birth of his twin sister Sabine. And Bonhoeffer’s life came to an end in the grey dawn of April 9, 1945 as he was hanged by the Nazi regime. He was only thirty-nine years old when he was executed at the command of Hitler himself. But his thirty-nine years were full – remarkably full. It is impossible for us to do justice to his life and ministry and identity in a short sermon this morning. So where to begin?

Perhaps it is good to begin sometime around 1930-31 – a time when Bonhoeffer experienced a conversion. The language of conversion has a long and rich history in the Christian tradition – it signals a dramatic turning from one way of life to another – a decisive transformation in a person’s orientation toward God – a key moment in their self-understanding as a child of God. Think of Paul who went from persecuting the church, to membership in the church, after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.

But perhaps it’s curious to think of Bonhoeffer as having a conversion around 1931, when he was twenty-seven years old. You see, Bonhoeffer had been studying theology since he was 17. He studied theology first at the University of Tubingen and then at the University of Berlin. At the age of 22, he served as pastor to two German speaking congregations in Barcelona, Spain. At the age of 23 Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his first doctoral dissertation, which considered the church as the community of Christ’s people. At the age of 24 he became a lecturer in Christian theology at the University of Berlin.

Now it is true that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not come from a family of faithful church goers. They were Christian in a generic, non-church-going kind of way. Indeed, when Dietrich announced to his family, at the age of fourteen, his intention to study theology and become a pastor, his family looked at him slightly askance.

Nevertheless, by the age of 27 he had already been a theology student, a pastor, and a professor theology. We don’t normally think of those who are Christian ministers and theologians as needing to be converted to Christian faith – but that is exactly what happened to Bonhoeffer. You see,

            Bonhoeffer did not convert from atheism to Christianity.

            Bonhoeffer did not convert from paganism to Christianity.

Rather, Bonhoeffer converted from being a committed churchman, and from being a professional theologian, to being a Christian.

As one scholar has put it, this was not a superficial religious experience that would let him keep going as if nothing had changed. Bonhoeffer believed, rather, that this conversion saved him from being a godless church person – it saved him from being someone who lived with a merely intellectual idea of God; someone who had no sense of the importance of repentance; someone who could go to church without realizing that she or he must also become a disciple.

A few years after this conversion Bonhoeffer published what would become one of his most famous books – entitled The Cost of Discipleship. The German title of the book was actually just one word – Nachfolge – which means simply ‘following’. Following Jesus.

In that book Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives expression to his account of the Christian life – the life he found after his conversion from being a person of the church, someone who was part of the church, to being a Christian.

In the opening chapter of that book he speaks of this conversion in terms of cheap grace verse costly grace. Cheap grace represents the easy Christian life – his earlier life as churchman and theologian. Cheap grace represents life lived as if God has done everything to make things right, and there’s nothing left for us to do – we can continue on as if nothing needs to change for us. Bonhoeffer concludes: “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

On the other hand, Bonhoeffer speaks of costly grace. Let me read the quotation included on the insert in your bulletin:

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 cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God 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 live, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christianity had become too easy for those who were members of the church. Cheap grace had won the day in the church. But when Bonhoeffer read the words of Jesus from the sermon on the mount, especially, from which our New Testament reading came this morning, he saw that there wasn’t anything easy about. For Bonhoeffer, the gospel of Jesus Christ means, yes, that God has forgiven us, that God enters into communion with us, that God extends the gift of his love to us.

But for Bonhoeffer, the mercy and forgiveness and love of God correspond with discipleship on our part. Discipleship means acknowledging the wrongheadedness of our lives; discipleship involves seeking forgiveness from those we have hurt; discipleship means taking up our cross to follow Christ; discipleship means showing the servant love of Christ to all those we encounter; discipleship means a willingness even to be reviled for our service to Christ, our confession of him.

Bonhoeffer’s book Nachfolge (The Cost of Discipleship) was published in the year 1937, some six or seven years after his conversion to Christianity, his conversion to discipleship from mere theology and mere church attendance. And by the year 1937 when the book was published, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had walked through a variety of experiences that challenged his own integrity as a disciple of Jesus – his own willingness to live by the costly grace of which he spoke and wrote.

With the rise of the National Socialism in Bonhoeffer’s homeland, and with the rise of Adolf Hitler to the post of Chancellor in 1933, Germany entered a period of nationalism that would end with the horrors of the holocaust and of the second world. From the earliest days of Hitler’s prominence in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer as pastor and theologian spoke out against his policies and against his powerful, manipulative rhetoric. Two days after the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer took to the airwaves with a radio address. He presented a clear warning to his listeners against following Hitler. He reminded them “that leaders or offices that set themselves up as gods, they mock God.” In the middle of the radio address, the radio transmission was cut – the Nazis were already censoring radio broadcasts.

For the next years, Dietrich Bonhoeffer committed himself to what became known as the Confessing Church in Germany. The main Protestant denomination in Germany, the German Evangelical Church, fell under the sway of the Nazi regime. Those who were referred to as German Christians dominated in the church and all but abandoned Christian faith in their submission to Hitler. The German Christians saw in Hitler’s dream of a renewed and strong Germany the promise of God’s kingdom. The committed themselves to Hitler as Chancellor and then as Furher. They signed the Aryan Clause, which ejected all Christians of Jewish descent from the church. They incorporated the cross into the swastika and hung it from church rafters.

For years, Bonhoeffer supported the Confessing Church in Germany, that minority of Christians who resisted Hitler, who refused to sign the Aryan Clause, and who insisted on the lordship of Jesus Christ and refused the lordship of Adolf Hitler. With his every sermon preached against the evils of Nazism, and his every article written as an invitation to resist the evils of the state, Bonhoeffer put himself at risk.

When the Confessing Church was under threat from the Gestapo, the secret state police of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer lead secret seminaries, training student ministers. He travelled twice a week between two seminaries, instructing the candidates for pastoral ministry in prayer, in meditation, in preaching, and in the work of parish ministry. He put himself at risk of arrest and imprisonment through the simple task of training ministers for the Confessing Church, which resisted Hitler and the Third Reich – The Cost of Discipleship.

“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.”

In his later years, Bonhoeffer became also became secretly involved with a group that actively resisted the Nazi Regime – secretly removing vulnerable Jews from the country. He also became involved with a small group of prominent Germans – including Major General Hans Oster and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris – who orchestrated three separate attempts to assassinate Hitler.

In 1936 Bonhoeffer was forbidden to teach.

In 1940 he was forbidden to preach.

In 1941 he as forbidden to publish.

He continued to resist, and to speak of the grace and Lordship of Jesus Christ – he continued to walk the path of costly discipleship. On April 5, 1943 he was arrested. He spent many months in Tegel prison in Berlin. With the later discovery of his involvement in the plot against Hitler, Bonhoeffer was moved to a more secure SS prison in the same city. From there he was sent, in February 1945 to Buchenwald Concentration camp. On April 1, 1945 Easter day, shortly after Bonhoeffer had lead Easter worship with his fellow prisoners at Buchenwald. Shortly after, Prisoner Bonhoefferwas was ordered to go with two men – and everyone knew what this meant. As he went, Bonhoeffer said to a British prisoner: “This is the end – for me the beginning.” He was taken that day to Flossenburg concentration camp. And in the early morning of April 9th, 1945 the prisoners were taken from their cells and the verdicts were read aloud. At the command of Hitler himself, Bonhoeffer was executed.

The prison doctor watched as Dietrich Bonhoeffer knelt in prayer that morning, and later said: “I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.” Bonhoeffer prayed again as he approached the gallows, and then climbed the steps, ‘brave and composed.’

At a memorial service held for Dietrich Bonhoeffer in London that July, after the war had ended, his friend Bishop George Bell said of him:

Wherever he went and whoever he spoke with – whether young or old – he was fearless, regardless of himself, and with it all, devoted heart and soul to his parents, his friends, his country as God willed it to be, to his Church, and to his master.

This morning we come to the table of the Lord. There is grace here for each one of us – forgiveness, mercy, healing. But it is not cheap grace. It is a grace that cost our Lord his life. And it is a grace that invites us to follow him.


One thought on “Biography of Faith: Bonhoeffer

  1. Excellent work. I had not realized that he came to salvation following his studies and early work in the church and the academy. I recently read a short biography of Bonhoeffer in the book Courage by Gordon Brown. He offers an excellent treatment as well.

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