“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Few people have had the transforming influence upon the spiritual lives of multitudes of people around the world as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Most of those lives, mine included, never had the opportunity to see him in person or hear his voice. History records that his courageous life was taken from him on April 9, 1945 by the Nazis in their Flossenbürg concentration camp, just two months after his thirty-ninth birthday. But a closer look at this bold professor, pastor, theologian, author, and central figure of the Confessing Church’s ecumenical movement reveals that no one took his life from him. Dietrich Bonheoffer willingly laid down his life from the moment he responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow him as his disciple.
Bonhoeffer was a man on mission. He was proactively engaged in a battle against two pandemic forces. The loudest enemy was Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. After Hitler came to power in 1933, he began to inject his poison into every sector of German life. Nazism was more than a political party; it was an extreme racist philosophy. Only the Aryan race was acceptable to the Nazis and history has recorded the tragic results of their beliefs. However, the Jews and other non-Aryans were not the only target of the Nazis, they also sought to bring the German Church under its rule as well. Unfortunately, due to the eroding spiritual condition of the Lutheran Church, the gates of hell overtook them.
The quiet enemy Bonhoeffer faced was also a toxic foe. In his defining book, Discipleship (later published as The Cost of Discipleship), Bonhoeffer referred to this plague as “Cheap Grace.” Bonhoeffer describes this enemy in his own words:
“Cheap Grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. It is said that the essence of grace is that the bill for it is paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free, courtesy of that paid bill. The price paid is infinitely great and, therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely great…. Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways.… Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.”1
In 1935 Bonhoeffer chose to return from pastoring two German congregations in London and head back to Germany to become the director of an “illegal” seminary in Pomerania. As Bonhoeffer poured his heart and soul into this community of twenty-five vicars, his curriculum focused on the kingdom gospel that included discipleship as essential to a believer’s life. No cheap grace allowed here. He spent five years training and modeling among these young pastors the biblical mandate of disciple making until the Gestapo permanently closed the seminary in 1940. It was during those years in Christian community that Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together and Discipleship.
For a brief period, Bonhoeffer returned to the United States in 1939. And while his friends urged him to stay and impact Germany from afar, he resolutely set his face toward his homeland and boarded one of the last ships leaving the States.