At age 39, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed — in a Nazi concentration camp — for his role in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
But Bonhoeffer wasn’t a soldier or a war hero. He wasn’t a brooding, intense Tom Cruise character from a Hollywood movie. He wasn’t a dark and troubled antihero. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor: a German pastor murdered by the Third Reich before he could reach middle age.
Faith in God — and God alone — is what compelled Bonhoeffer to fight against Hitler and the Nazi regime. His writings on faith boldly criticized Nazi power, and called out the German Christian church for silently and complacently allowing Hitler’s rise to power.
G. K. A. Bell, the late Bishop of Chichester, was a friend of the pastor’s from London. The two were close in the early days of the Nazi regime, and Bell begins his forward to Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, with:
“When Christ calls a man,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “he bids him come and die.” There are different kinds of dying, it’s true; but the essence of discipleship is contained in those words. And [this] book is a commentary on the cost. Dietrich himself was a martyr many times before he died.”
Theological writings are, by their nature, more complex and esoteric. So while Bonhoeffer is well known among theologically-inclined Protestant Christians, not everyone who has attempted to read books like Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship has made it very far. Without a doubt, Bonhoeffer’s writing is incredible. His works are revolutionary. But he’s not the easiest to understand. So Bell’s introduction paints a picture of the man behind the theological treatise: a fearless, joyful, and charismatic preacher committed to advocating for Christ (and the downfall of Nazism) at all costs.
“He was crystal clear in his convictions; and young as he was, and humble-minded as he was, he saw the truth, and spoke it with complete absence of fear … he was … completely candid, completely regardless of personal safety, while deeply moved by the shame of the country he loved.”
“Wherever he went … he was undaunted, detached from himself, devoted to his friends, to his home, to his country as God meant it to be.”
Young and brilliant, Bonhoeffer was well known in academia. But as Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer became increasingly vocal against him. He publicly called out German society for making Hitler into an idol and a god, most notably in a 1933 radio address just two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor. For this public activism, he was eventually expelled from his teaching position at the University of Berlin. That happened in 1936, and Bonhoeffer was officially labeled an “enemy of the state.”
In 1935, Bonhoeffer began directing an illegal training college for German church leaders, (which inspired his book Life Together) and was eventually closed down by the Gestapo in 1940. There, Bonhoeffer and the leaders-in-training lived out intentional community, focused on being a community of brothers, and actively seeking lives where following Christ was the only goal.
Arrested in 1943 for his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler, he wrote prolifically during his time in prison, and was executed on April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp, just a few days before it was liberated by the allies.
For Bonhoeffer, being a Christian wasn’t about looking the part or fitting in on Sunday morning. It was about dying to one’s own view of life, and living only to follow God, whatever the cost might be. He wrote, “When a man really gives up trying to make something out of himself — a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman … when in the fullness of tasks, questions … experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God … then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane.
This is faith, that is metanoia and it is thus that he becomes a man and a Christian. How can a man wax arrogant if in a this-sided life he shares the suffering of God?“
Bonhoeffer’s title, The Cost of Discipleship, isn’t a rhetorical question. To the Christian asking, “What is the cost of discipleship — of a life devoted to Christ?,” Bonhoeffer has a very clear answer.
The cost is death.
To truly follow Christ — and not get swept up in allegiance to the alluring, charismatic, earthy saviors of our world — a Christian must die to his or her self (to personal goals, plans, and desires). A Christian must be willing to live life fully and completely for Christ, not for self, even if the cost of this choice can feel impossibly high.
For Bonhoeffer, it was his death to self, and life for Christ, that allowed him to see through the smokescreen and charisma of Hilter. The Fuhrer rose to power because he expertly preyed on a nation suffering after their humiliating and economically devastating WWI defeat. Using the scapegoat of the other — in finding an enemy to blame for Germany’s suffering — Hitler achieved god-like power. He promised freedom, and eradication of those “inferior” people groups who were “to blame” for Germany’s suffering.
Combatting this groupthink was possible for Bonhoeffer because of his faith. Before starting his teaching career in Berlin, he studied in New York City — where he worshiped and taught Sunday school at an African American church.
Bonhoeffer’s search for Christ led him out of Germany, away from the German church, and to experiences with African American Christians who lived out their faith in God in powerful ways. So when German Christians looked for scapegoats to their pain, Bonhoeffer’s pursuit of Christ showed him the danger of his country’s confused and self-focused faith.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks against what the German church had become, and outlines what a life in service to God actually looks like. For Christians who take faith seriously — and don’t want to be misled or pulled off course by the trappings of our world — this book is a deeply important, and deeply convicting, place to start.
The Cost of Discipleship: