Lessons From Bonhoeffer

There is plenty that we can learn from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially when it comes to challenging a sleeping, compromising and errant church. He was among the first to see the warning signs about the Nazis, and took a strong stance, which sadly many of his fellow Christians resisted.

Even some of his allies were a bit slow to see the dangers, including Martin Niemoller. Thus Bonhoeffer was acting in a prophetic capacity, sounding the alarm and warning the church not to get too cosy with this new and dangerous regime.

Back in the early 1930s he was sounding the alarm, when very few other believers were even aware of the dangerous path the nation was heading on. And even as believers did become aware of what the Nazis were on about, including their ugly anti-Semitism, too many Christians simply ignored the warning signs or were willing to compromise.

Image of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (Author) Amazon logo

All this is clearly spelled out in the newest and most comprehensive biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, (Bonhoeffer, Thomas Nelson, 2010). In 600 pages his life story is told in careful detail. It is an extremely valuable book and has plenty of relevance for Christians today.

For those not aware of Bonhoeffer, he was a German Lutheran pastor (1906-1945) who lived a short but significant life. He resisted the liberal theology he grew up with, and sided – for the most part – with Barth and his neo-orthodoxy, over against this theological liberalism.

A theologian as well as a pastor, he spent much of his later years resisting the German embrace of Hitler, and eventually joined in a movement plotting to kill Hitler. He was arrested in April 1943 and spent 2 years in prison before being executed.

The willingness of Christians to compromise and give in to Nazi thinking was a scandal, and Bonhoeffer fought this continuously, often to no avail. Far too many German Christians thought that they could just accommodate or placate the regime. They preferred being wishy-washy.

As Metaxas says, “As would happen so often in the future, he was deeply disappointed in the inability of his fellow Christians to take a definite stand. They always erred on the side of conceding too much, of trying too hard to ingratiate themselves with their opponents.”

He knew this was a dangerous path: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” He knew that the true follower of Christ would always be counter-cultural and go against the grain. As he famously said, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”

While many church folk did align themselves far too much with Hitler, the myth that he was a Christian is carefully laid to rest by Metaxas. Hitler was an opportunist who was quite happy to use the church for his own ends. As Metaxas puts it:

“What helped him aggrandize power, he approved of, and what prevented it, he did not. He was utterly pragmatic. In public he often made comments that made him sound pro-church or pro-Christian, but there can be no question that he said these things cynically, for political gain. In private, he possessed an unblemished record of statements against Christianity and Christians.”

Yet there were groups like the so-called “German Christians” who basically became apologists for the Nazis. Over against this was the “Confessing Church” which resisted the attempt to Nazify the Protestant churches. In May 1934 they issued the Barmen Declaration which declared the limits of the state.

But this group was sadly always in the minority, and theirs was an uphill battle. He and his allies were always on shaky ground as they spoke out, and far too many other German Christians were just too fearful or unwilling to speak out, especially when they had more of a chance earlier on.

Some of the key lessons for believers today that we get from his life should be rather obvious. The chief one is the willingness to stand up and be counted, even when it is not popular to do so. Indeed, when it is dangerous to do so is the real test of Christian conviction.

But sadly most Christians today would not dare to say boo to a fellow believer, Christian leader, or church – let alone to sin in the world – for fear of being labelled judgmental, intolerant and unloving. No matter how off the rails things may be going, far too many believers are just too fearful or indifferent to speak out.

‘Jesus would never judge anyone’ they will say with monotonous regularity. ‘We must love everyone and never speak ill of anyone’ they chirp. Their bumper sticker clichés roll off the tongue, but they do incredible damage. If this limp-wristed and spineless attitude had been found in Bonhoeffer and his colleagues, they never would have stood against Hitler.

Indeed, they had the same compromisers and appeasers in their day, saying you should not rock the boat, and maybe we can just get along with Hitler. Of course most of us would today recognise that such people were false sheep, not genuine born-again biblical Christians.

But every generation has these so-called believers who seek to silence any prophet and censure any Christian who is willing to stand against the tide. Early on Bonhoeffer preached on Jeremiah, and clearly felt in sync with the prophet. Like Jeremiah, he knew he must suffer and be rejected:

“[Jeremiah] was upbraided as a disturber of the peace, an enemy of the people, just like all those, throughout the ages until the present day, who have been possessed and seized by God, for whom God had become too strong . . . how gladly would he have shouted peace and Heil with the rest.”

All those who seek to live fully for Christ can expect to be treated like Christ, and the prophets of old. Rejection, hatred and persecution was their lot and will be our lot as well. Indeed, the real disciple of Christ can expect no less. In his important 1937 work on discipleship (which in English editions came out as The Cost of Discipleship) he offers much solid meat here.

Perhaps the most famous quote from the book is this one: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer knew this truth all too well, and that is exactly how his life went, resulting in an early martyrdom. He also spoke about the dangers of “cheap grace”.

“Cheap grace is the preaching of 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.”

Or as he also said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”. He knew full well that to be a true follower of Christ would always be costly, and could not come on the cheap. It seems that is a lesson that so few believers today in the very comfortable West have learned.

They are far too entrenched in, and happy with, the surrounding culture. They don’t want to cause any commotion or ruffle any feathers. Yet all around us ominous signs are emerging of great evil on all sides, and major anti-Christian crackdowns. But few see the dangers or are willing to stir themselves and act.

We simply want our life of comfort and ease, and hope things will not get too bad. But we are simply deceiving ourselves. We are setting ourselves up for a big fall. Indeed, by the time we finally wake up, it will be far too late. As Bonhoeffer’s companion Niemoller so powerfully put it:

“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

This German pastor spent eight years in prison for being willing to speak out, and narrowly missed execution. Bonhoeffer was of course not so fortunate. But both pastors became fearless advocates for Christian truth in an age of compromise, decadence, tyranny and violence.

The question is, where are the equivalents of these men today? Who will stand up today, and speak boldly against the sins of the surrounding culture, and seek to rouse a dead church from its imminent destruction? We vitally need such people today, or we will lose it all.

(The Metaxas biography is available in Australia at Koorong Books.)

[1471 words]

27 Replies to “Lessons From Bonhoeffer”

  1. I am about 50 pages from finishing his biography and it will go on the same shelf as my Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis and Tozer books, which is the first book in 30 years that has earned that position. It’s completely wonderful and deeply moving.

    Amy Bailey, US

  2. Bonhoeffer seems to have said it all Bill, and we all know what happened to him! Maybe we are actually a generation of cowards? Or is complacency the god of this age? We will reap what we sow, and reap it for eternity. What will it take for Christians/churches to wake up? Many would have thought the crucifixion of an innocent man of God would have been enough, but the evidence is that it was not.

    What hope is there? Only the living God who made heaven and earth knows the answer. He says it’s simple; repent, be baptized and live for Him! As Keith Green said, “no compromise”. But the path is narrow and few choose to walk on it.

    Proud to be walking with you Bill.

    Lynn Nerdal

  3. Many thanks Lynn

    Yes you are quite right – we have become a cowardly and compromising church, and repentance is the first order of the day. We need the prophetic voices like that of Keith Green. We need to pray earnestly that God will break the hard soil of our hearts and pour in some of His life-giving Spirit to renew us, revive us, refresh us, and restore us.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Great review – I’m going to look out for this book. It reminded me of my kind Lutheran teachers (lol).

    Dietrich Bonheoffer sounds like a victim of political correctness (although I’m also aware that Germany was probably the most secularised “Christian” nation in the world at the time, thanks in part to liberal theologians).

    To be frank, I’ve never understood Christians who judge people for judging (a contradiction in terms). They forget that Jesus never told His followers not to judge (He told them not to judge hypocritically – a massive difference).

    Curiously, they also “forget” all the times Jesus praised people for judging (John the Baptist being a standout).

    Ben-Peter Terpstra

  5. What an awesome life. There are Christians like this in the world today. You’ll find them in China, Nth Korea, Iraq, Indonesia and Pakistan and other places like these. I believe that we are going to see people rise up and be counted here in the West too. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes the worst of circumstances for people to realize it’s time to wake up.
    Dee Graf

  6. Thanks Dee

    Yes quite right – in the non-Western world we find such spiritual heavyweights. When will we find them in the so-called Christian West?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Thanks Amy. Bill, I found your article on Francis Schaeffer with a link to; The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview (5 Volume Set). These are $94.50, or I could buy this one on Bonhoeffer for $18. Hard choice. Maybe I’ll just get both – You and Amy are very influential!

    BTW, I thought the search bar on your website didn’t work, until my husband showed me that I needed to press enter, rather than click on the little magnifying glass.

    Annette Nestor, Perth

  8. Like Bonhoeffer, we Christians should be speaking out!!! Society is being swamped by ideologies of the devil, and there is an overt push to silence the truth and replace it with lies that are leading people to hell!
    We have been given the gift of Holy Spirit, to be witnesses to the world, of the truth that sets people free!!! We have been given God’s divine nature and thus are as bold as lions – so need to walk in it!!!
    Thanks Bill for your boldness and courage to speak out for Jesus, uncompromisingly!!
    Barb Hoc

  9. G’day Bill,

    I’m eagerly awaiting delivery of this book, having read everything on Bonhoeffer I could find for years. It was sad that a generation of liberal theologians claimed him as their own, so that I, with many Biblical Christians, was wary of him.

    But I was introduced to Bonhoeffer through one of his smaller works, ‘Life Together.’ Though it’s heavy going at times, there’s the practical godliness of his seven ministries that Christians owe to each other – the first is the ministry of, simply, holding our tongue …. And try this gem, applying the reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone to the issue of Christian community: ‘ “The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realise it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great general disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves … Only that fellowship with faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight … The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both …” (‘Life Together’ SCM Edition p. 15)

    Bonhoeffer is well worth reading

    Andrew Campbell

  10. Thanks Ewan. I have now listened to that interview. However, I have purchased a DVD on Bonhoeffer along with the book Bill recommended. The DVD has actors Eberhard Bethge and Klaus Maria Brandauer in it. From the interview, it seems that there has, in the past been some misinformation regarding Bonhoeffer. I don’t know much about the DVD and now I wonder if I should have bought it after all.

    Annette Nestor, Perth

  11. Like Andrew Campbell, I had noted the liberals claiming of Bonhoeffer and was saddened because I admired his courage in so many ways. I look forward to reading this book.
    Graeme Cumming

  12. Here is a first hand account of how many in the German church reacted to Nazism (quoted in ‘When a Nation Forgets God, by Erwin W. Lutzer).

    It was given to a pastor after he had preached against abortion – our own holocaust which we are living through today – and which many in the church also do nothing about.

    “I lived in Germany during the Nazi Holocaust. I considered myself a Christian. We heard stories of what was happening to the Jews, but we tried to distance ourselves from it, because, what could anyone do to stop it?

    A railroad track ran behind our small church and each Sunday morning we could hear the whistle in the distance and then the wheels coming over the tracks. We became disturbed when we heard the cries coming from the train as it passed by. We realized that it was carrying Jews like cattle in the cars!

    Week after week the whistle would blow. We dreaded to hear the sound of those wheels because we knew that we could hear the cries of the Jews en route to a death camp. Their screams tormented us.

    We knew the time the train was coming and when we heard the whistle blow we began singing hymns. By the time the train came past our church we were singing at the top of our voices. If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more.

    Years have passed and no one talks about it anymore. But I still hear that train whistle in my sleep. God forgive me; forgive all of us who called ourselves Christians yet did nothing to intervene.”

    Mansel Rogerson

  13. Thanks guys

    As to Bonhoeffer’s theological stance, that could also be the subject of another article, as things are not fully clear here. The same with Barth. One can speak of the early Barth, and the later Barth for example. While he did rail against the theological liberalism of his day, Barth was certainly not a paragon of conservative evangelical theology. His implicit universalism is one clear case in point.

    And Bonhoeffer too is a bit of an enigma. He wrote in tough circumstances, and of course he died quite young, so we may never know what his fully developed theology might have looked like. He too cannot be regarded as a hard core conservative, but neither can he be regarded as a full-blown theological liberal either.

    It is true that Metaxas does try to paint his theology in a more or less friendly evangelical fashion, but that is the subject of some debate as well. See for example these articles for starters:


    But whatever the specifics of his theological position, there is much his life can offer us, and this biography is well worth reading.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. I think Tim Challies sums it all up quite well in this statement from his review of the book: “I’ve often said that there are two kinds of biographies: those where you feel like you’ve learned about the subject and those where you feel like you’ve actually met the subject. It is the latter that are the great biographies and Bonhoeffer is among that number.”

    Source: http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/book-review-bonhoeffer

    What are we reading next, Bill?

    Amy Bailey, US

  15. Ah, Amy! That is one of the more difficult questions anyone can ask me – at least for me to answer briefly and easily! There are piles of books all over the place being read at the moment – just ask my wife! From time to time I will just write up a bunch of titles in an article, such as this recent one on theology: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/04/09/recent-readings-in-theology/

    So going to my “Book Reviews” section may be one easy way to keep tabs on some of my current reading. But I will keep you posted when I come across some especially important titles.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Bill, my son gave me it for Christmas 2010 and I loved it. Possibly the best – besides the biography of John Adams – I have read.

    Marion Isham

  17. Bonhoeffer was a prophet to the german people. I believe Fred Nile has been a prophet to the Australian people for many years and again, who is listening? He has called for a moratorium on muslim immigration for the last ten years and just recently Gary Humphries ACT has echoed that call. Who is listening?
    Mordechi said to Esther in the book of Esther that God would bring deliverance to His people, even if she did not take the risky step that only she could take, but that there was no guarantee of her deliverance if she kept silent. That should be a challenge and an encouragement to us.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *