The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Chuck Colson

Half a century ago a young Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved in a failed plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler–and he was executed by the Nazis for treason.

Astonishingly, not long ago Bonhoeffer’s reputation was resurrected when he was officially exonerated by a court in Berlin.

Just what did Bonhoeffer do to provoke the ire of the Nazi regime?

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer paints a vivid picture of what it was like to be true to the Christian faith under a hostile regime. Under persecution, Bonhoeffer discovered that, even though God’s grace is freely given, it also extracts a high cost.

It was costly grace that led Bonhoeffer to return to Germany and suffer with his fellow Germans when he could have stayed safely in America.

It was costly grace that led Bonhoeffer to continue teaching and preaching the Word of God even though the Nazis tried to suppress his work.

Costly grace led Bonhoeffer to stand against a turncoat church that mixed Nazi doctrine with Christian truth. Along with other faithful believers, Bonhoeffer signed the Barmen Declaration, which boldly declared their independence from both the state and a co-opted church.

Costly grace led Bonhoeffer to attempt to smuggle Jews out of Germany, even though it led to his arrest.

Costly grace led the young pastor to set aside his commitment to pacifism and join in the assassination plot against Hitler–which was what finally led to his execution by the Nazis.

But even in prison, Bonhoeffer’s life shone with divine grace. He comforted other prisoners, who looked upon him as their chaplain. He wrote many moving letters that were later collected into a volume called Letters and Papers from Prison–a book I read during my own stay behind bars, in which I found great strength and encouragement.

On the morning of April 9, 1945–less than a month before Hitler was defeated–Bonhoeffer knelt and prayed, and then followed his captors to the gallows, where he was hanged as a traitor.

Now Bonhoeffer is finally receiving the official recognition to match the spiritual veneration he has inspired in so many believers.

The late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a tribute to Bonhoeffer in his book The Third Testament. Muggeridge, writing about World War II said: “Looking back now across the years… what lives on is the memory of a man who died, not on behalf of freedom or democracy or a steadily rising gross national product, nor for any of the twentieth century’s counterfeit hopes or desires, but on behalf of a cross on which another man died 2,000 years before.

“As on that previous occasion on Golgotha,” Muggeridge goes on,” so amidst the rubble of ‘liberated’ Europe, the only victor is the man who died. As the only hope for the future lies in his triumph over death. There can never be any other victory or any other hope.”

The lesson of Bonhoeffer’s life and death is that God’s grace is never cheap. It demands from us everything–even our lives. But in return it gives us a new life that transcends even the most oppressive political conditions.


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