In my mind, one man epitomizes what one must pay, or give up, for the crucified life. That man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived under the shadow of the mad nihilist Adolf Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was in his thirties when the Nazis came to power. He was a brilliant scholar,
theologian and a leader in the confessional church in Germany, and his keen, perceptive mind told him that the political consequences of national socialism would be a bloody war for Germany and the world. His sensitive Christian heart recoiled from the unbelievable malignity of Hitler and his band of assassins. As a preacher of the gospel, Bonhoeffer went boldly to the airwaves and warned his nation of the inevitable consequences of a political system “which corrupted and grossly misled the nation that made the ‘Fuhrer’ its idol and God.”
As the war clouds formed over Europe, Bonhoeffer left Germany and carried on his work in England. It was not long before his Christian conscience would not allow him to be in a place of safety when his country was experiencing turmoil:
“I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Germany after the war,” he said, “if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. . . . 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 thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security.”
After returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer worked for the confessional church and with the political underground. He was soon arrested by the infamous Gestapo and clapped into jail, along with other members of his family. From then on, he was shuttled to different prisons and to different concentration camps. During this time, he served his fellow prisoners by witnessing, praying, comforting and assisting in every way possible. Those who knew him at the time tell of his “calmness and self-control . . . even in the most terrible situations.” He was, they said, “a giant before man . . . but a child before God.”
Bonhoeffer was the German Luther, a man of remarkable spiritual insight. He did all he could to preach Jesus Christ as the Savior of man and embraced what he called “costly grace.” He said that we shouldn’t try to get into heaven cheaply, for the grace of God would cost us everything we have. The grace of God is costly because it cost Christ His blood, and it will cost us everything—maybe even our lives.
At the beginning of the war, Bonhoeffer was engaged to a lovely young woman. His sister, father and other relatives were also still living at the time. The Nazis pulled the old totalitarian trick: “You better buckle down and shut up, because we’ve got your family as hostages. And if you don’t do what we ask you to do, it’s your family who will suffer.” That was their technique, so they told Bonhoeffer,“You surrender and shut up about costly grace and freedom in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Stop warning against Hitler and the Nazis, or we will kill your family.”
Those sorts of threats usually work, but the Nazis had never come up against a man like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With a calmness and serenity that only Christ can give, Bonhoeffer replied, “My family belongs to God, and you’ll never get me to surrender by threatening to kill my family.”
Years before, Bonhoeffer had written, “When God calls a man, he bids him come and die.”4 On April 9, 1945, at the Flossenbürg concentration camp, Bonhoeffer was called on to do just that. He refused to allow himself to be rescued, lest he endanger the lives of certain others, so “he went steadfastly on his way to be hanged, and died with admirable calmness and dignity.”
Too many of the German people had grown arrogant with national pride and angerously bloated with temporary success. So God in His mercy sent His man—a seeing man—to the country of the blind. But the nation of blind men hanged their prophet, cremated his body and scattered his ashes. It was only shortly after this that the blind men themselves faced national humiliation and final collapse.
No doubt, the greatest contribution of Bonhoeffer’s ministry is his book The Cost of Discipleship. Even before the war, this prophet saw clearly. He wrote, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”
Only the knowledge that truth is universal and that mankind is very much the same the world over enables us to understand how this young Lutheran minister, examining German Christianity in the mid- 1930s, could diagnose so skillfully the disease that threatens to destroy evangelicalism in America a generation later. What concerns me is that what Bonhoeffer said of conditions in Germany then is terribly, frighteningly true of American Christianity today. The parallel is alarming.