Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the Tegel military prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the Tegel military prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not able to sleep very well for nights.

Bonhoeffer had just arrived in New York in 1939. At the urging of
friends, the young German evangelical theologian was able to cross the
Atlantic ocean, giving him sanctuary from the impending doom that
would become World War 2, as instigated by Hitler and the German Nazi
movement. In the safety of good fellowship, Bonhoeffer would have
been spared the terrors of war and enjoy a life of relative ease.

Yet Bonhoeffer was troubled in his soul.

The difficulty was that Bonhoeffer knew that the lives of European
Jews were in dreadful danger. Two years earlier, he had written a book
entitled, The Cost of Discipleship. This book was an
extended exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5-7, part
of the focus of our sermon series for Lent. “Only the believer
obeys, and only the obedient believe
,” Bonhoeffer wrote. He knew
that Jesus taught that one must count the cost in order to follow
Christ, and the cost was one’s very life. Grace is indeed costly. But
by fleeing his native Germany for the comforts of America, was
Bonhoeffer going against Jesus by opting for a “cheap” version of

He told his friend Reinhold Niebuhr: “I made a mistake in coming
to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national
history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to
participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after
the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my

Having been in New York for less than a month, Bonhoeffer decided to
go back to Germany. His friends tried to dissuade him and talk some
sense into him. But his conscience was clear. Bonhoeffer boarded the
last steaming ship scheduled to sail back to Germany before the start
of the war.

Like other patriotic Germans, his family expected Bonhoeffer to serve
in Hitler’s military as part of his God determined duty. This he could
not do.

Hitler had to be stopped.

Bonhoeffer was able to finagle his way into becoming an active part of
the German resistance against Hitler. Bonhoeffer smuggled several Jews
out of the country. But most of Bonhoeffer’s contacts on the Allied
side of the war were skeptical and would not trust him.

The cost of discipleship was getting very expensive.

Eventually, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested for assisting in a plot
to assassinate the freely elected and popular leader (become
dictator!) of Nazi Germany, Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer sat incarcerated
in Tegel prison for several years, and then finally taken to the
Flossenburg concentration camp and executed on April 9, 1945. The camp
was liberated by the Allies only two weeks later.

I am not sure I would have the courage that Bonhoeffer did. But
Bonhoeffer understood the cost of discipleship, and once he did, he
was able to sleep very soundly at night.

How well are you sleeping?


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Veracity and commented:
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood what it was to take up the cross and follow Jesus, even if it meant stepping out of the norm of what Christians were expected to do. As a young pastor and seminary professor in Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer knew that Hitler’s regime was setting up an idol to be worshipped, realizing that the German Christian community was getting hookwinked by the Nazis. Why did this Christian pacifist turn into a co-conspirator attempting to assassinate Hitler?

    The following blog post from our church’s Lenten series reflects on the cost of discipleship that Bonhoeffer had to calculate. Granted, I am painting the standard portrait of part of Bonhoeffer’s life. Questions still abound: Was Bonhoeffer right in what he did in trying to assassinate Hitler? (One of my theological heroes, T.F. Torrance, says “NO”, biographer Eric Metaxas says “YES”). At least one historian disputes that Bonhoeffer ever gave up his pacifist beliefs at all! Did he abandon his evangelical faith in the Tegel prison, accusing the evangelical church with being complicit with genocide? Or was he strengthened in his faith through his ordeal for the sake of the Gospel? The definitive answers to these questions remain buried in some unmarked grave at the Flossenburg concentration camp.

    As an introduction, author Jim Belcher gives us a glimpse of a trip he took with his family to visit the concentration camp at Flossenburg, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his final twelve hours…

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