It is not simply enough to become a Christian, as marvelous as this work of grace is. One must also grow, mature, and thrive as a Christian.” Dr. Ken Collins, The Evangelical Moment
In my last post, I closed by saying I would write about a man who had become a personal hero of mine. And for the last two weeks, I have successfully avoided writing this post, because I have found it very hard to sum up why this person is so important to me. I’ve struggled because I really want to present this person as someone who you should all get to know too, and I was afraid I would make him just sound stuffy and boring. So here’s the deal: I’m going to share a little bit about him, and then I’m going to point you to the biography that I read which impacted me so much. The man is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The biography is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (Here is the link to the book on Amazon). And if I had only read his books without learning his story, I would have never understood the depth of his ideas, the conviction with which he wrote, or the struggles he went through to act on his faith and do the will of God. That’s why I loved this biography so much. I have never really like reading theology by itself, but when I read it mixed with the story of a great man’s life, I suddenly understood why costly grace was so important to Bonhoeffer. I understood that this man was desperately trying to live his life ENTIRELY according to Scripture and the will of God, and he was attempting to do so in one of the hardest and scariest settings in history.
You see, Bonhoeffer was no armchair theologian. He was pastoring and writing throughout the rule of the Third Reich in Germany, almost from beginning to end. He became a pastor at about the same time the Nazis came to power, and he was killed by the Nazis less than a month before they were defeated. In that time span, he was forced to look at Scripture and pray for answers from God to answer nearly impossible questions about how a Christian should respond to a government that claimed to have a Christian grounding but in reality was destroying the Gospel; about whether a person should serve in the military if they believe that the military’s cause goes against the cause of Christ; about whether or not it was right for a Christian to try to kill Hitler if it would save the lives of many others.
Bonhoeffer took a firm stand against the Reich church and government from the beginning. He taught at illegal, underground seminaries so he could train up pastors who weren’t poisoned by Nazi theology. He avoided military service by working for a Nazi spy organization, which he used as a means to work against his own government. He joined a plot to kill Hitler, a plot that Hitler survived only by pure luck, and Bonhoeffer was eventually killed for his involvement in the plot. Bonhoeffer’s strong convictions lead him to do every one of these dangerous acts, but they were all acts that he felt lead by God to do after hours and hours spent in prayer. Basically, you need to read the biography so you can know the amazing story too.
However, it’s Bonhoeffer’s writings about the Christian life that have endured. Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known for his book, The Cost of Discipleship, in which he talks about his two key terms: cheap grace and costly grace. Bonhoeffer’s life is the perfect example of living out costly grace, of giving all of his life in the same way that Christ gave his own life. He wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Then he explained costly grace, “Costly grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
Now, even before I read the biography, these lines from Discipleship would have been impactful for me. But after I saw them illustrated in Bonhoeffer’s own actions…wow! I was so much more convicted and inspired to follow Jesus with all my life. I am more determined now than ever to let no sin stand between me and my pursuit of Jesus. Bonhoeffer wrote to his closest friend, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” God wants us to do what Jesus did, not just avoid sin and call it good. Without being a Wesleyan, Bonhoeffer had completely embraced the pursuit of Christian perfection that Wesley preached about. This is no works righteousness; no, this is the transformation that takes place in each of us as we submit to the costly grace of God, and then cooperate with the costly grace of God. Those in Nazi Germany who were only worried about avoiding sin probably never were courageous enough, or even convicted enough, to oppose the Nazis. It took people like Bonhoeffer who were actively doing God’s will to stand strong and attempt to do what Jesus would do, to bring life to all.
And yes, in the end, Dietrich Bonhoeffer died because of his convictions and actions. But his take on suffering and death is the other most inspiring and heroic quality about him. He neither sought death nor feared it, but he was well aware of its possibility in his future and wrote about it often. His best lines about death are from a sermon he preached in London in 1935, “How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world? Death is hell and night and cold, if not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death!” Thus was the attitude of one who I consider to be a true hero, who followed Christ with all that he had, who stood taller than almost anyone else in Germany, who gave his life trying to save others, who transformed death.
Now, go read the biography. And if you ask me, I’ll probably let you borrow it.