Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) was a Lutheran pastor and theologian living in Germany during World War II. He was one of the organizers of the Confessing Church in Germany, along with Karl Barth and others who actively opposed the regime of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi oppression of the Jews. Bonhoeffer spent time in America and the United Kingdom as a teacher but eventually felt called to return to the German church in its time of need. At one point, Bonhoeffer made the controversial decision to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and he was eventually executed for that offense and for helping Jews escape Nazism. He was hanged on April 9, 1945, just before the end of the war. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a symbol of hope to many Christians during the war, and his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), is still widely read by Christians.
As a teacher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer balanced a mix of theological rigor and compassion for his fellow man, especially the oppressed. His time in America gave him a new perspective on civil rights issues. He taught Sunday school at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and gained a love for African-American spirituals. He found the black perspective on Christ refreshing in its passion and clarity, and his experiences there changed him as a person and as a theologian and perhaps contributed to his later commitment to ecumenism. He also taught systematic theology at the University of Berlin. Eventually, Bonhoeffer took a ministry position in London and hoped to use ecumenical teachings to inspire English support for the Confessing Church in Germany. He was also offered an opportunity to study under Gandhi, but he decided instead to return home to Germany to teach in underground seminaries in support of the Confessing Church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and spent two years in prison, where he remained as active as he could in serving the Lord. After his execution, his writings in prison were collected and eventually published as Letters and Papers from Prison (1953).
Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship is a study on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and focuses on the concept of “cheap grace” versus “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer asserted that salvation will radically change a person’s life and that a faith without obedience is no faith at all (see James 2:17). Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is preaching 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, living and incarnate.” Bonhoeffer defined costly grace, in contrast, as “the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him” (quoted in Christianity Today, February 7, 1994, p. 39).
Bonhoeffer’s message sometimes causes controversy because of its emphasis on works and his perspective that it is Christ’s weakness and suffering, not His strength, that saves us. Of course, we are not justified by works (Galatians 3:10; Romans 3:28), and Christ is all-powerful (Colossians 1:17). But without the suffering of Christ there can be no salvation (2 Corinthians 13:4), and Jesus called for radical sacrifice from His disciples: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23–24).
Bonhoeffer definitely lived out his commitment to Christ and placed love for God above all other loves or worldly concerns. His life as a Christian was challenged deeply by one of the most frightening anti-Christ regimes in history, but he remained faithful to the end.