When I First Met Bonhoeffer

When I First Met Bonhoeffer

At this time of year, when we remember God’s incarnation into the world, we also remember those who lived that gift of God in and to the world. One such person was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp 60 years ago this past April.

When I first met Dietrich Bonhoeffer through reading his books, he explained the world of faith to me and helped me understand the difficult religious experiences I had known in America. The evangelical Christian world I had grown up in talked incessantly about Christ but never paid much attention to the things that Jesus taught. Salvation became an intellectual assent to a concept, rather than any radical turnabout in one’s life direction.

Then I read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, which relied heavily on the beatitudes and the idea that our treatment of the oppressed was a test of faith. To believe in Jesus meant to follow him, Bonhoeffer said. Believing in Jesus was not enough; we were called to obey his words, to live by what Jesus said, to show our allegiance to the kingdom of God which had broken into the world in Christ. What a radical idea! And such an obvious one, yet almost entirely missed by the American churches of the 20th century. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned of the “cheap grace” that promotes belief without obedience, and I knew exactly what that meant. He spoke of “costly discipleship” and asked, how could the grace that came at the tremendous cost of the cross require so little of us?

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Sojourners Magazine December 2005
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