Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Poland and was ordained at the age of twenty-five as a Lutheran pastor. A little over a year later, the Nazis came to power on January 30, 1933. Bonhoeffer, still only twenty-six-years-old, delivered a radio address two days later, where he warned the German people they were being seduced by the Fuhrer and that their worship of him would lead to idolatry. His broadcast was cut off in mid-sentence.
In 1939, Bonhoeffer moved to New York City to teach at Union Theological Seminary, but almost immediately regretted his decision. Returning to Germany, he joined the Abwehr, a branch of Germany’s military intelligence, but also the center for the resistance movement in Germany. For instance, the Abwehr worked to undermine Nazi policy toward the Jews and Bonhoeffer, in the sense of a double agent, used his position as cover to travel freely and speak to other believers, something he would not otherwise be allowed to do.
Although Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, he struggled with the moral obligations a believer faces when confronted with a systemic evil that saturates an entire society and, in this sense, he began fighting for the moral survival of the German people by opposing the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was not only aware of various plots against Hitler, he eventually saw the Fuhrer’s assassination as a necessary part of restoring the soul of Germany.
His arrest in April 1943 was not for involvement in these plots, but because the Gestapo suspected him of using the Abwehr as a way to cover Bonhoeffer’s continuing work with the Confessing Church. While awaiting trial, Bonhoeffer continued his ministry from prison, secretly writing material that was eventually published posthumously as Letters and Papers from Prison.
After the July 20 plot (“Valkyrie”) to assassinate Hitler failed, the Gestapo discovered Bonhoeffer’s involvement and his death was ordered by Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was executed April 8, 1945 by hanging at Flossenburg concentration camp—about three weeks before Hitler committed suicide and the Allies pushed into Berlin.
Bonhoeffer died as he lived, focused exclusively on Christ and humbly submitting to the ultimate cost of discipleship. Offered an opportunity to escape, he declined, not wanting to put his family in danger. He was led to the gallows after concluding a Sunday morning service, saying: “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life was one of risk, where he faced constant choices that required him to take a stand, often putting everything he had—even his life—on the line for what he believed. It’s easy to marvel at the way he faced off against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, but in books such as “The Cost of Discipleship” Bonhoeffer teaches that a life of such extraordinary risk is the expectation, not the exception, for any disciples of Jesus.
Introduction to Costly Grace
Most of us would like to live a life of extraordinary quality that is not only fulfilling but also carries significance beyond ourselves. That’s most likely one of the reasons you became a Christian, and is exactly the kind of life Jesus promises if we will follow him.
- Is this happening in your life?
For many Christians, instead of the abundant life, we end up living lives of quiet desperation. We go to church; we read the Bible; we pray; we try to be good people and to serve other people; yet, for many of us, our life with Jesus doesn’t seem to be much more than an add-on to our increasingly complex lives, where we are over-stretched and now seem to be facing a tsunami of uncertainty in many areas that for too long have seemed relatively secure—our finances, our jobs, our homes, and even our fundamental safety.
So we try harder, work harder, pray harder, study harder, and try to figure out what we’re doing wrong because that’s what we think Jesus wants us to do. And, all the while, he keeps asking, in a sense, “Are you tired of this yet?” “Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
Trying harder doesn’t work. This being so, what we should do is trust more.
Bonhoeffer’s concern when he wrote The Cost of Discipleship was that the church had lost its focus on Jesus and, therefore, had lost the meaning of discipleship.
- How would you define discipleship?
(Many would define discipleship as the act of Christian living. It’s more than that though. Discipleship means we are inseparably bonded to Jesus.)
Without Jesus, there can be no discipleship: he is the curriculum we study; he is the Word we believe; and he is the Way we live.
Bonhoeffer saw the church abandoning Christ in two ways and both are as prevalent today as they were in his generation:
- The church has reduced the gospel to a set of burdensome rules. We’ve loaded the gospel down with so many extra-biblical routines and regulations—a real Christian ought to, has to, must do—that it is difficult for anyone to find the real Jesus.
- We’ve wrapped the gospel is a sense of false hopes. We’ve taken “I am a sinner saved by grace” and turned it into “I can sin because of grace.”
As we follow Jesus, we find he consistently moves us toward a choice—and then he commands us to make the choice. Will you believe I am adequate to meet your needs or not? Will you let me be myself in and through you or not? In a sense, he often frames the choice as: Will you follow me into the kingdom of heaven, or will you remain a citizen of this world? Will you set your minds to things above or keep it on earthly things?
Bonhoeffer argues that when we live as a citizen of this world, we seek easy choices that lead to an easy life. However, when Jesus brings us to a choice, the choice itself is easy, it is our decision that is hard because to follow Jesus means to abandon the life of apparent convenience.
Grace and Discipleship
Bonhoeffer declared cheap grace the deadly enemy of our church. What we’re fighting for is costly grace.
By cheap grace, he means the arrogant presumption that we can receive forgiveness for our sins, yet never abandon our lives to Jesus. We assume, since grace is free, there is no cost associated with the free gift. We assume we can go on living the way we have been because our sins are forgiven.
The gift is free, but Jesus paid a bloody price to offer us this gift; the gift is free, but that doesn’t mean there is no cost to following Jesus once we step into his grace.
Costly grace justifies the sinner: Go and sin no more. Cheap grace justifies the sin: Everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20
Costly grace comes when we come to an end of ourselves, ready to abandon our current lives in order to give our lives whole-heartedly to Jesus. It comes when it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me. It comes when we submit ourselves to the will of Jesus, doing what he tells us to do day-in and day-out, altering our lives in obedience to him. Costly grace means we change our habits, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and relationships according to the will of Jesus.
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.
- Does grace mean we can keep sinning?
So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? I should hope not! If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land! That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. Romans 6:1-3 (MSG)
We’re glad to follow Jesus. His yoke does seem easy: a few hours each week in worship, a Bible study, a small group, a bit of service at the church and perhaps a mission trip each year. We try to be good people, to help others, and to thank God for our blessings. When things are going well, we don’t want to bother God and, when things are going badly, we can camp out with God and say a holy “Amen” that he’s always there in our darkest times.
Unfortunately, we’ve settled for cheap grace for so long that we’ve allowed it to become the norm for Christian living. We know there must be something more but life just gets in the way. We’ve taught people to live disconnected from Jesus and we wonder why they struggle in the Christian walk, why they are so tired all the time. This being so, it’s becoming clearer every day that the most urgent problem besetting our church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?
When it comes to our sin, most of us, if we were gut honest, function as if God were stingy with his grace. We fear his punishment, in the sense that we think he’s the high school principal walking the halls, taking down names. Who did what and who’s to blame?
But God already knows who did what and who’s to blame, and he still loves us anyway. His interest is in redeeming us, not in keeping us on the hook for our sins.
Becoming Like Jesus Through His Call
As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. Mark 2:14
- Can you remember when Jesus first called you? If not, can you recall a time more recently when you know Jesus was calling you to do something? How did you respond?
Jesus doesn’t want you to be a good person. When he calls you to follow him, he isn’t asking you to become nice and do your best at helping others. He didn’t die so you could feel good about the things you’ve screwed-up or so you could carry a sentimental hope of being re-united beyond the grave with people you love but who have died.
You have to let go of the illusion that following Jesus is about becoming a good person. Otherwise, you’re just going to keep trying to make yourself good by following a list of Sunday school rules that are self-righteous attempts to enter the kingdom of heaven on your own power, somewhere separate and away from the Jesus gate.
This simply sets you up on a cycle of failure and condemnation, where you keep thinking you have to try harder and do better to please god. By following your list, you’re doing well, but then you stumble. So you try harder and you actually do do better, but then you fail again and feel condemned for your failure. So you try harder and do better, but then you fail again.
Jesus wants to infuse you with his standards, his righteousness, but you must follow him wholeheartedly. You must transfer the faith you have in your own understanding to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. The sooner you understand this and stop trying to impress Jesus, the sooner you can follow him into the realm of costly grace.
Bonhoeffer says we’ve been lulled into believing there are two tiers to discipleship—sort of like cable plans, with basic channels and a premium package for the more pious. We delude ourselves, thinking there are but a few among us—monks, missionaries, and ministers—who are called to be more saintly while the rest of us settle comfortably into a mediocre, part-time discipleship.
The truth of the matter is that true disciples commit to Jesus. He says, “Follow me,” and we follow the person of Jesus. Where we have been loyal to many things, now we must be loyal to one thing: the person, Jesus Christ.
- Why do you think it’s important to remember that we follow a person?
(In the Gospel of Mark, we’re told Levi immediately followed Jesus. Bonhoeffer argues that this isn’t because of a prior relationship, but because Levi recognized who Jesus was, the Incarnate Son of God, the Word become flesh. Levi doesn’t leave everything to follow a doctrine, or a concept, or an ideal. He follows Jesus in order to have a relationship with him. Jesus calls us to a level of intimacy that can only be sustained by his constant presence in our lives. If we say we trust in God but do not follow Jesus, we’ve created a religion that omits Christ as the living Son. We are simply following a philosophy and not the person of Jesus.)
- How much of your service to Jesus is based upon what is convenient for you and how much of it is based upon you doing what Jesus tells you to do?
Can you imagine the apostle Paul deciding where to go next based on the cost of living in a particular town? Why should we be any different? We serve the same Lord; we’re infused with the same Holy Spirit. Are the standards of discipleship different now than they were in the first century? Are we called to a lesser (second-tiered) discipleship? Do we serve a lesser Lord?
The cost of discipleship will likely be the scorn of a world that sees you throwing away your future to help people who can give you nothing in return. Discipleship may mean sacrificing for others who will have no appreciation for what you have done. We are to do it anyway. Why? Because Jesus calls you to. It’s also what Jesus did! When we come up with excuses as to why we can’t or won’t do what Jesus calls us to do, it is the creature putting the Creator on hold.
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” Matthew 14:25-31
Peter’s step from the boat—the moment he put all his weight on the water—was a moment of no return. He would either sink or walk with Jesus. But note that Peter didn’t just jump out of the boat; he waited for Jesus to call him out of the boat. And then his obedience put him in a place where faith became real.
- When Peter stepped out of the storm-tossed boat onto the water, where was the safest place to be? In the boat or in the arms of Jesus?
(The answer, of course, is Jesus, and for a brief time Peter saw that. Right then he got a glimpse of what it is like to intimately trust Jesus and what it is like to operate within the realm of costly grace as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.)
It is a paradox of faith: Our first step of faith places us in a position where faith becomes possible. By our obedience, we learn to be faithful. If we refuse to follow, we never learn how to obediently believe. We stay stuck in the shallow end of faith, trusting in ourselves, living by sight and not by faith.
So the question becomes: Will you follow Jesus into a new life or will you continue to try to attach Jesus to your current life?
Becoming Like Jesus in Obedience
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Matthew 19:16-22
The choice Jesus requires isn’t about the man’s possessions; it’s about the things that possess him. He is a good man, but his tight grip on things keeps him from becoming God’s man.
The question for all of us is: Do you agree to follow Jesus or not? If we want to be his disciples, we must learn to obey immediately and without reservation. Jesus commands we drop our speculations and become single-minded in our obedience to him. Part of our obedient trust in Jesus is that he will work everything out.
- What are some of the biggest things in your life that hold your loyalty?
For the rich man, the thing that held his loyalty more than anything else was his wealth. The thing that holds our loyalty may be different. For us, it may be prestige or reputation, promotion or influence, friends or family. It may be an insistence that we must earn our way into God’s good graces or it may be a deeply rooted delusion that following Jesus simply means we become nice people. It may be a loyalty to cheap grace, where we think forgiveness of our sins is de facto permission to keep on living the way we always have. After all, Jesus forgives us. No matter what it is, if we give it greater loyalty than we give Jesus, it is an idol and we are engaged in idolatry.
Here is the way of cheap grace: Like Peter, we want to walk on water; yet, we insist on the right to focus on whatever we want—sometimes Jesus, sometimes the wind and the waves; sometimes Jesus, sometimes our careers and casual pursuits; sometimes Jesus, sometimes our sins.
When we choose to focus on our cares and worries, taking our focus off Jesus, we cheapen the miracle of walking on water by elevating our anxieties to the same status as the miracle. In other words, which is more important, which should demand our greater attention—the ability of Jesus to care for us or the concerns we have about our circumstances? If we want to live within grace, we must hear the voice of Jesus directing, “Don’t look at the waves; look at me.”
When we draw back from this threshold of faith, we are assuming Jesus will not or cannot deliver. Bonhoeffer says this is where most of us stumble in our walk of faith. We agree in our head that something needs to change in our lives. We agree, in principle, to follow Jesus. But that is not faith; in truth, it creates the kind of faithless Christianity that is prevalent in so many congregations. We end up being relatively good people trying to live good lives; but that has nothing to do with following Jesus.
Think of grace as an orchestra you are invited to join. Your membership is free. It is a gift from the maestro who sees talent in you no one else sees. But joining the orchestra will cost you everything because you have to leave other things behind as you focus on following the maestro and becoming the musician God made you to be.
The maestro will demand you give up anything that distracts, anything that hinders your progress, any habit or attitude that simply isn’t fitting for the grand performance to come. The maestro will not compromise in his standards of excellence; yet, every day he will be by your side, encouraging you in your development as a musician.
Something to ponder until our next lesson: What in your life is distracting or hindering you from fully obeying Jesus’ call and resting in his grace and protection?
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