Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Martyr Who is Still a Missionary to God’s Church

“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. In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, his American host, he shared the following reasons for returning to Germany.

“I have had the time to think and to pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified…. I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. My brethren in the Confessing Synod wanted me to go. They may have been right in urging me to do so, but I was wrong in going. Such a decision each man must make for himself. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and therefore destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.”2

Bonhoeffer continued his relationship with the Confessing Church and joined the German resistance movement. He was forbidden to speak or even write. History tells us that Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 for his participation in smuggling Jews into Switzerland. During the two remaining years of his life, Bonhoeffer continued his assault on “religionless Christianity” from prison. These notes were later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

On the day Bonhoeffer met his Master, one of the camp doctors described the sacred scene:

“Through the half open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”3

The dictionary defines the word, “saint,” as “a person of great holiness and virtue; a founder or sponsor, as of a movement or organization.” The Greek word, “hagios” refers to those who belong to God, who are set apart, holy ones.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was both a saint and a missionary to God’s Church who are called to be the light of the world. His words are as relevant to the global church of today as they were to the impotent German Church. The gospel of cheap grace is still alive and producing “Christians” who do not see or feel the need to follow Jesus in obedience as the way, the truth, and the life. Fortunately for us, this courageous young man has left us an alarming warning to heed;

“Christianity without discipleship is always a Christianity without Jesus Christ.”4

Bonhoeffer’s impact continues today. If you would like to join a disciple making movement patterned after Bonhoeffer’s Grand Experiment please check out our website at: thebonhoefferproject.com. The goal of the Bonhoeffer Project is to encourage each participant to become a disciple making leader and to provide the participant with the knowledge necessary to carry out a plan in their unique ministry context for making disciples who also will make disciples.

1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4, pp. 43, 44.
2. Combs, Rodney. Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, p.32.
3. Combs, Rodney. Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, p.35.
4. Discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p.59.

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Denny Heiberg and his wife, Cindy, are Mission Society missionaries. They are based in Gainesville, Florida, where Denny served as the lead pastor of Grace at Fort Clarke United Methodist Church for 18 years. Denny and Cindy joined The Mission Society in 2012 and serve in the Ministry Resource Group, providing member care and discipleship training globally for missionaries, pastors, and church leaders.

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