Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Theologian, Conspirator, Spy.

These are four words you wouldn't expect to find in the same epitaph. But the author of The Cost of Discipleship was ready to lay down his life for his convictions. 

Seventy-five years ago next week, Pastor and Doctor of Theology Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested for his involvement in conspiracies to overthrow Hitler. He was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before U.S. soldiers liberated it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer--pastor, theologian, and brilliant man of letters--died
for his involvement in conspiracies to overthrow Hitler

"There are things for which an uncompromising stand is worthwhile."

"The only fight which is lost is that which we give up."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer


The sixth child (and fourth son) of one of Berlin’s leading psychologists and neurologists, Dietrich surprised everyone when he announced at fourteen that he wished to become a theologian. The institution called “the church” had had very little part in his upbringing, although Christ certainly did. His mother, Paula, a granddaughter of noted theologian Karl von Hase, took responsibility for the religious education of her eight children. While the family did not attend church, their home life was filled with Bible reading, prayer, and hymns. Dietrich himself was such a gifted pianist that he aspired for a time to pursue it as a career.

No one quite knows what drove his decision about his calling, but his older brother Walter’s death in World War I had a profound impact on the family. Dietrich and his twin sister, Sabine, were twelve at the time. Sabine remembered long talks speculating about eternal life and the nature of death.

Wunderkind Dietrich was only twenty-one when he received his Doctor of Theology degree summa cum laude from Berlin University—too young to be ordained. At twenty-four he accepted a teaching fellowship at New York City's Union Theological Seminary. He was unimpressed with the seminary (“One [subject] is never handled,… the gospel of Jesus Christ, of the cross, of sin and forgiveness…”). But he did experience something during his year in the United States that left a life-long impression. Fellow seminarian Frank Fisher introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Dietrich taught Sunday school and a women’s Bible study. "Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God...the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision," he said.

Bonhoeffer credited his experiences abroad with turning his faith “from phraseology to reality,” and with teaching him to see things "from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated.” (Fun fact: the classical pianist also became an avid fan of black spirituals during his Harlem stint.)


Dietrich returned to Germany in 1931 and was finally ordained at the age of 25. The Nazi ascension to power on January 30, 1933, put his convictions to immediate test. A scant two days later, Bonhoeffer was cut off the air in the middle of a radio address in which he sounded the alarm against an idolatrous cult of the Führer.

A battle for control of the German church ensued. Nazi sympathizers won key positions in the synods of the major denominations. In late 1933, Dietrich’s national church synod passed a resolution barring any pastors or church officials of Jewish descent. A rally of 20,000 members of the so-called Deutsche Christen movement demanded the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible.

Bonhoeffer helped establish an organization called the “Pastors’ Emergency League,” which fought these moves—but the church’s bishops remained silent. In 1934, a successor group Bonhoeffer also helped found affirmed a confession that included this language.

“We repudiate the false teaching that there are areas of our life in which we belong not to Jesus Christ, but to other lords…”

Shockingly, only about 20% of German pastors supported this move.

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” 

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, April 1933. 

Dietrich briefly took a pastoral post in London in protest, but felt the Lord calling him back to the fight in Germany in 1935. He organized an underground seminary. In August 1937, Himmler shut it down and 27 pastors and former students were arrested. Bonhoeffer spent the next two years traveling to encourage his students who were pastoring illegally in villages. During that time he wrote his best-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, as well as Life Together.

"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.”

"Costly grace… is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life." 

- The Cost of Discipleship, 1937

Bonhoeffer with a confirmation class in 1932.
The boys were from "about the worst area of Berlin."
Bonhoeffer moved there to have more impact on them.
(Photo attribution)


Barred from teaching in 1936. Banned from Berlin and forbidden to speak in public, to print or to publish in 1940. Things took an even more serious turn when Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi, recruited him into the Abwehr. The Abwehr, a military intelligence agency established in 1921, was actually the center of the German military resistance to Hitler. Bonhoeffer began work as a double agent, using his Abwehr role as a cover while he served as a liaison for the German resistance.


Through his Abwehr connections, Dietrich learned the full scale of Nazi atrocities. He took an active role in “Operation 7,” which smuggled German Jews to Switzerland and was responsible for two attempts on Hitler’s life. The noted pacifist didn't come to the point of conspiring on a man's life without torment of 
soul. But he concluded Hitler was like a man “driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders.” (Prescient...) A person like that had to be stopped. 

Nazi suspicions were aroused. They arrested Bonhoeffer on vague charges, including "conspiring to rescue Jews," and held him for eighteen months in a spartan six-by-nine-foot cell. He kept busy with outreach to everyone he encountered and with a vigorous smuggled correspondence (Letters and Papers from Prison).

"The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ."

- Martin Luther, quoted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together

In September 1944, Abwehr documents were discovered that linked him to the failed 20 July Plot on Hitler's life. On April 9, 1945, Nazis marched him naked onto the execution ground of Flossenbürg concentration camp and hanged him, along with six co-conspirators. His brother Klaus and brothers-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher and Hans von Dohnányi also paid with their lives for their involvement.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

- The Cost of Discipleship, 1937

Powerful words. The conviction with which Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived them was even more so.

I stepped away from a marketing career that spanned continents to write what I love: stories of reckless faith that showcase God's hand in history. I'm so excited that my debut novel, The Plum Blooms in Winter, will launch this October from Mountain Brook Ink! Inspired by a remarkable true story from World War II's pivotal Doolittle Raid, The Plum Blooms in Winter is an American Christian Fiction Writers' Genesis Contest winner. The novel follows a captured American pilot and a bereaved Japanese prostitute who targets him for ritual revenge. For updates and related goodies, I'd like to warmly invite you to subscribe to my newsletter HERE. Please also feel free to check out my blog, Five Stones and a Sling, which hovers in the region where history meets Bible prophecy meets current events. It's rich ground--we live in a day when prophecies are leaping from the Bible's pages into the headlines!

I live outside Phoenix with my husband, a third-generation airline pilot who doubles as my Chief Military Research Officer. We share our home with two all-grown-up kids and a small platoon of housecats.


  1. Great article about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What a gifted individual!

    1. Thanks, Connie! Yes, truly an impressive and inspiring man. Looking forward to meeting him in heaven!

  2. Great post! My children have read a book about or written by Bonhoeffer, and have seen a movie about him. His books are on my must-read list!

  3. Thank you very much for the kind words, Becky! The Cost of Discipleship is on my list now, too. Amazing man! God bless, Linda

  4. Wonderful post about a great man. We need men like him today. Men today need to read books by Bonhoeffer.

  5. I apologize for the slow response, Paula!! You are so right. God gave him an amazing talent. I believe there are men and women of conviction in our day as well, but they're not necessarily the ones in the limelight! Many have been willing to go to death or jail for their convictions in closed countries. I try to always remember to pray for them!