Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945)

By Andy Gutierrez

The Gate is Narrow and the Road is Hard

Pastor and spy. One who walked by faith and was part of a conspiracy. A theologian and a martyr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived during one of the darkest periods in history, was influential to many and is a world changer.
I first was introduced to Bonhoeffer in my “Jesus and the Gospels” class. One of the books used in that class was The Cost of Discipleship, written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A quote that I remember from that book still is, “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”[1]
I was intrigued with this book and once I found out more information about the author, I was blown away with this man and with his life. He could have chosen an easier path. He could have chosen to be safe instead of being involved in one of the biggest assassination plots on Hitler’s life. He could have not written about “What is the Church” but today we are indebted to Bonhoeffer’s testimony and words to encourage the body of believers.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Germany to a very prestigious family. He was raised, as most Germans were at the turn of the 20th century, in a Lutheran church. His family/siblings were all very successful in their given fields. His brother Karl worked with Albert Einstein in splitting the atom.
Dietrich, at the age of 13, wanted to be a theologian. He was criticized by his peers and siblings for this choice but he stuck with it. To demonstrate his intellect, he graduated with his PhD at the age of 21. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s emphasis for his doctorate, which really would be his life’s goal, is answering this question: what is the church?
At age 24, he ended up on a nine-month study abroad by going to New York to study at Union Theological Seminary. These nine months would probably be some of the most impactful in developing his definition of what the church is. He would go and be involved at Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he saw the congregation living church out. There, he saw the church alive, desiring to live out faith, not just in “religious practices.”
Bonhoeffer had a prophetic vision in regard to Hitler and the Nazi party, which were coming into power by January of 1933. Bonhoeffer gave a famous speech on the radio, in which he dissected the “Führer Principle.” He knew that this principle would infiltrate even the church. He saw, in the very beginning, that Hitler and the philosophy he represented would end tragically, and that Nazi ideology could not coexist with Christianity.[2]
This is what happened. Not only were Jews beginning to feel the racism from Nazism, but the church was being infiltrated with this philosophy. The doctrines of the Bible, the message and hope of the gospel, were being replaced by Hitler and his evil worldview. Because of the influence of Nazism, the way church was run by the state was limited and many, including Bonhoeffer, would not be part of it.
In 1935, Bonhoeffer led an illegal seminary called the Confessing Church. He taught others what it meant to be true and obedient disciples of Jesus Christ. This has been called the Golden Age of Bonhoeffer.[3] His classic book Life Together came from this season of his life. This illegal seminary was eventually shut down by the Gestapo.
In 1938–1939, Bonhoeffer knew Hitler’s direction; his conscience would not allow him to pick up a gun and fight in Hitler’s war. He understood that he would be, as a German, forced to fight for Hitler, which he stood against as a Christian. This was not a war of national defense; it was one of aggression. Trying to figure out what the Lord wanted him to do and how to do it as a believer, he found a way out. It would be to teach at Union Theological Seminary in America.
Bonhoeffer made his way to America, but once his feet hit land, he realized this was not where God wanted him. There was a need for him in Germany as many were being killed and a nation destroyed. He knew God wanted him there. He was only in America for 26 days until he headed back for Germany. One could have argued that this was an open safe door for Bonhoeffer—being in America, writing who knows what else that he could have contributed to Christianity. But, he listened to the Holy Spirit and headed back home. As war had broken out, Bonhoeffer returned, wondering how he could help.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship, which focuses on the Sermon on the Mount, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”[4] I wonder if he wrote those words as a prophetic voice of his own life—for one day he would be killed by the Nazis for being involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”

Yes, those words that Bonhoeffer used to talk about the cost of discipleship tell us that we are called to die. Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 ESV). These words are the surrendering of our agendas and our wills to the Father in obedience to Christ. This is exactly what Bonhoeffer did as he followed after Jesus. He took the hard road by returning to a war-torn country.
His brother-in-law, who was a leading figure in German intelligence and crucial in plotting to assassinate Hitler, hired Bonhoeffer. This is when Dietrich joined the conspiracy. He became a double agent as he traveled to neutral countries to let the Allies know that there were Germans who were working against Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was engaged to Maria Von Wedemeyer, but they never were married, as he was arrested shortly after their engagement. Bonhoeffer was taken to Tegel Prison and placed in Cell 92. The conditions here were not like the concentration camp that he would be taken to later in his life. He had the freedom to write, see friends and family, and receive gifts. He was arrested for being involved with helping Jews escape Germany.
On July 20,1944, the famous Valkyrie plot occurred and it was a failed attempt to kill Hitler. The conspiracy was exposed and Hitler went on a spree to find everyone who was connected to the conspiracy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s name was given and he was moved from Tegel Prison to an underground high-security prison.
In 1945, Bonhoeffer was taken to Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he would be executed by direct orders from Hitler.

Glory to Be Revealed to Us

The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18 ESV).” This would true of Bonhoeffer’s life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a proper understanding of what this life was about (God’s glory) and about the life to come (being in the presence of God). He once preached,

“No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God. No one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence . . . Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.”[5]

He was able to stare evil in its face and not sit back and do nothing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a world changer as he is still impacting the world through his words, but also through his example of courage. He could have chosen the safe path, but instead he knew that to not act would be to act. He needed to make a stand. What a great reminder for us, that we are placed where we are and when we are, according to God’s will, to be a light to this world. Do not waste it!
Recommended Reading:

  • Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxes
  • The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. PG. 59
[2] Metaxes, Eric. 7 Men and the Secrets of their Greatness. PG. 101
[3] IBID. PG. 104
[4] IBID. PG. 112
[5] Metaxes, Eric. Bonhoeffer Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. PG. 464

One Reply to “Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945)”

Leave a Reply

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