Lutherans Making a World of Difference: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’” Matthew 16:24-25

This month we reflect on perhaps the most widely-known and admired Lutheran of the 20th century. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). This year the Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) will coincide with the commemoration of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis in Flossenburg Prison on April 9, 1945.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany on February 4, 1906, one of eight children in an aristocratic family known for its academic accomplishments. Although his parents assumed he would find a career in music, when he was only 13 he announced his intention to study theology.

Gifted Scholar

Young Dietrich began his higher education at the University of Tubingen and later at Humboldt University in Berlin, receiving his doctorate at the tender age of 21. He qualified as a university professor just two years later. During his university years young Bonhoeffer took advantage of opportunities to visit and study abroad—including Rome, northern Africa, England and the United States. Bonhoeffer’s cosmopolitan upbringing positioned him, later in his life, to cultivate connections in the global ecumenical movement.

While studying for a year at New York’s Union Theological Seminary he spent significant time among African-American folks in Harlem, exposing him to the harsh reality of racial segregation in the U.S. Bonhoeffer also became acquainted with the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) and engaged deeply with Barth’s biblical and doctrinal writings.

Committed Pastor

Although he could easily have focused on a career in teaching, Dietrich wrestled with a persistent tug toward pastoral ministry. Having served as a student pastor in a number of parishes, including a congregation of German ex-patriates in Spain for a year, he was ordained in 1931. For the rest of his life his identity as a Lutheran pastor was central to his vocation and self-understanding.

Bonhoeffer grew up during a tumultuous period in Germany’s history. Having witnessed his homeland’s humiliating defeat in World War I (1914-1918), he observed the rise of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and his National Socialist or Nazi party while still in his twenties.

Hitler and his Nazis targeted Jews and other minorities for persecution. They pressured the Christian churches in Germany to fall in line, triggering a Kirchenkampf (“church struggle”) in which young Bonhoeffer played an increasingly vocal role.

Part of Hitler’s strategy for achieving complete domination over German life was his establishment of a Protestant German state church aligned with Nazi principles and served by a bishop appointed by the Nazi government (Reichbischof). This takeover of the Protestant church in Germany spurred the emergence of a Confessing Church that resisted both the state church and its blatant racism, particularly against Jews.

Bold Witness

Dietrich recognized early in the church struggle that Nazism could never be “squared” with authentic Christianity. Just two days after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of the German Republic in 1933, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he warned that if a leader surrenders to the wishes of his followers, “then the image of the Leader [Fuhrer] will gradually become the image of the misleader [Verfuhrer.]”[1]

The resolve of the Confessing Christians produced in 1934 a stirring confession of faith that came to be known as the Barmen Declaration (named for the city in Germany, Barmen, where it was written). In unmistakable terms the Declaration made it clear that “In view of the errors of the ‘German Christians’ of the present Reich Church government which are devastating the Church and also therefore breaking up the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:….Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death….We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”[2]

Although the Confessing Church represented only a minority of Lutherans in Germany, it became the voice of Christian faithfulness throughout World War II and in the post-war recovery years. Bonhoeffer was tasked with forming and leading a seminary to train pastors for the Confessing Church. The seminary was established in Finkenwalde, in a remote area near the Baltic Sea, bordering Poland. Bonhoeffer viewed the seminary as an experiment in “a new kind of monasticism…a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount.”[3] Even after the Gestapo closed Finkenwalde seminary in 1937, Bonhoeffer continued to develop pastors by establishing ‘collective pastorates’ in which theological candidates were apprenticed to Confessing Church pastors to complete their ministerial training.

Faithful Martyr

As internal repression of Germans by the Nazis expanded, Hitler authorized a military invasion of Poland in September of 1939—a step that triggered the start of World War II. Earlier in 1939 Bonhoeffer had accepted an offer to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. But soon after he arrived in the U.S., he realized he could not remain: “I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian 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 people.”[4]

Upon returning to Germany he was recruited into the anti-Nazi Resistance while—ironically–employed for a time by German Military Intelligence (the Abwehr). In this period Bonhoeffer was effectively a double agent who, along with others employed by the Abwehr, entered into a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. When the plot against Hitler failed, Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators were arrested and imprisoned. In April 1945 he was sentenced to death by Hitler and was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945. Bonhoeffer was only 39 years old when he was martyred.

Beginning the early 1930s Bonhoeffer’s writings were published in Germany. After 1945 English translations of his works began to appear, including Letters and Papers from Prison, Ethics, the Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. Seventy-two years after his death Bonhoeffer remains one of our age’s major theologians and most widely-read spiritual writers.

For Further Reflection or Discussion: What strikes you in this passage?

“Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace….Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ….

Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have….It is costly because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly because it was costly to God, because it cost God the life of God’s Son–’you were bought with a price’—and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live….”[5]

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.



[1] Quoted in Stephen R. Haynes and Lori Brandt Hale, Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians (Westminster John Knox, 2009), p. 29.

[2] Accessed on March 27, 2017 at

[3] Quoted in Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, p. 41.

[4] Ibid., pp. 53-54.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, pp. 43-45.