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On Grace, the Cross, Our Cross, and Life Together


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1930's, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, England, and the United States……

On Grace, the Cross, Our Cross, and Life Together

"Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. 

"Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 

"Costly grace, Biblical grace, is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him." 

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"Bonhoeffer knew that twisting the Truth to sell it more effectively was inexcusable. For Bonhoeffer the challenge was to present the Truth as purely as possible without attempting to help it along or dress it up."

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer

"Bonhoeffer's church is a sect [a cult], in fact the worst sect to have ever set foot on the soil of German Protestantism "

June 1935 "Evangelical Theology Magazine" -Hermann Sasse, prominent "religious leader" of the day

"Bonhoeffer knew that something of this unwillingness [of the "christian churches" who sided to speak out with boldness had to do with money. The state provided financial security for the pastors of Germany, and even pastors in the Confessing Church would jeopardize their incomes only to a certain point.

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer

"The Nazis did their best to portray Germany as a Christian nation. The Reich church erected a huge tent near the Olympic stadium. Foreigners would have no idea of the internecine battle between the German Christians and the Confessing Church; it looked like there was an abundance of Christianity in the midst of Hitler's Germany." 

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer

On December 11, as with most of his sermons, Bonhoeffer began provocatively, putting forth the notion that Christ had been exiled from the lives of most Christians. 

"Of course," he said, "we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses." 

Religion had been exiled to Sunday morning, to a place "into which one gladly withdraws for a couple of hours, but only to get to one's place of work immediately afterward." He said that one cannot give him only a "small compartment in out spiritual life," but must give him everything or nothing. "The religion of Christ," he said, "is not a tidbit after one's bread; on the contrary, it is the bread or it is nothing. People should at least understand and concede this if they call themselves Christian."

-Eric Metaxas, Biographer

"Then what's the use of everyone's theology?" Bonhoeffer asked. There were now an urgency and a seriousness to Bonhoeffer that had not been there before. Somehow he sensed he must warn people of what lay ahead. It was as if he could see that a mighty oak tree, in whose shade families were picnicking, and from whose branches children were swinging, was rotten inside, was about to fall down and kill them all. Others observed the change in him. For one thing, his sermons became more severe.

His Bible texts provide a clue of what lay ahead. The first was from Revelation 2:4-5: "Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefor from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." People familiar with Bonhoeffer's preaching, upon hearing these verses, might well have slipped out the side exit. On the other hand, if they had been in the mood to be blasted backward and had chosen to stay, they would not have been disappointed.

Bonhoeffer opened with the bad news: the Protestant church was in it's eleventh hour, he said, and it's "high time we realize this." The church, he said, is dying or is already dead. Then he directed his thunder at the people in the pews. He condemned the grotesque inappropriateness of having a celebration when they were all, in fact, attending a funeral: "A fanfare of trumpets is no comfort to a dying man." He then referred to the day's hero, Martin Luther, as a "dead man" whom they were propping up for their selfish purposes. It was as if he'd thrown a bucket of water of the congregation and had then thrown his shoes at them. He called it "unpardonable frivolity and arrogance" for them to blithely appropriate Luther's famous words, "Here I stand, I can do no other," for their own ends– as if these words applied to them and the Lutheran church of their day. So it went.

Nor was it the only sermon of its kind that he would preach that year. But what exactly did Bonhoeffer see, and whense this urgency to communicate what he saw? He seemed to want to warn everyone to wake up and stop playing church. They were all sleepwalking toward a terrible precipice! But few took him seriously. For many, Bonhoeffer was only one of those bespectacled and over-serious academic types, with a good dose of religious fanaticism in the bargain. And he preached such depressing sermons!
-Eric Metaxas, Biographer

It is impossible to understand Bonhoeffer's  "Nachfolge" without becoming acquainted with the shocking capitulation of the German church to Hitler in the 1930s. How could the "church of Luther," that great teacher of the gospel, have ever come to such a place? The answer is that the true gospel, summed up by Bonhoeffer as costly grace, had been lost. On the one hand, the church had become marked by compromise. That meant going to church and hearing that God just loves and forgives everyone, so it doesn't really matter much how you live. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace. On the other hand, there was legalism, or salvation by law and good works. Legalism meant that God loves you because you have pulled yourself together and are trying to live a good, disciplined life.

Both of these impulses made it possible for Hitler to come to power. The [compromisers] in Germany may have seen things that bothered them, but saw no need to sacrifice their safety to stand up to them. Legalists responded by having pharisaical attitudes towards other nations and races that approved of Hitler's policies. But as one, Germany lost hold of the brilliant balance of the gospel — "We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith which is alone." That is,  we are saved, not by anything we do, but by grace. Yet if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live.

By the time of Hitler's ascension, much of the 'church' understood grace only as abstract acceptance– "God forgives; that's His job." But we know that true grace comes to us by costly sacrifice. And if God was willing to go to the cross and endure such pain and absorb such a cost in order to save us, then we must live sacrificially as we serve others. Anyone who truly understands how God's grace comes to us will have a changed life. That's the gospel, not salvation by law, or by cheap grace, but by costly grace. Costly grace changes you from the inside out. Neither law nor cheap grace can do that.

This lapse couldn't happen to us, today, surely, could it? Certainly it could. We still have a lot of legalism and moralism in our churches. In reaction to that, many Christians want to talk only about God's love a acceptance. They don't like talking about Jesus' death on the cross to satisfy divine wrath and justice. Some even call it "divine child abuse." Yet if they are not careful, they run the risk of falling into the belief in "cheap grace"– a non-costly love for a non-holy God who just loves and accepts us as we are. That will never change anyone's life.

So it looks like we still need to listen to Bonhoeffer and others who go deep in discussing the nature of the gospel. 

-Timothy J. Keller, Foreword, Bonhoeffer biography

"Religion today is far more committed to so-called 'tolerance' — than to the Truth."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer's observations on American churches were closely related to his views on the seminary in New York:

"Things are not much different in the church. The sermons has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I've been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in general I'm increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes). One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity. There's no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

But then what becomes of Christianity per se?

The enlightened American, rather than viewing all this with skepticism, instead welcomes it as an example of progress. They preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.

In a homiletics seminar at Union taught by Fosdick, Fosdick gave out sermon topics. A few of them were on what he condescendingly called "traditional themes." Bonhoeffer was stunned that in this category was a sermon "on the forgiveness of sins and on the cross!" The heart of the gospel has been marginalized and quaintly labeled "traditional." He said:

"This is quite characteristic of most of the churches I saw. So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by faith in progress that — who knows how– claims the right to call itself 'Christian.' And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large American churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group, anyone who has heard how they try to persuade a new resident to join the church, insisting that you'll get into society quite differently by doing so, anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership — that person can well assess the character of such a church. All these things, of course, take place with varying degrees of tactfulness, taste, and seriousness; some churches are basically "charitable" churches; others have primarily a social identity. One cannot avoid the impression, however, that in both cases they have forgotten what the real point it."

-Metaxas, Bonhoeffer

"One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls Him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to His death as a heroic sacrifice for His ideas. Only one thing one doesn't do: one doesn't take Him seriously. That is, one doesn't bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be the revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman– just as, after all, i can also live without Plato and Kant. Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God Himself speaks and if the Word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me.

"Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously His absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the 'Enlightenment.'

In this lecture, Bonhoeffer tipped one sacred cow after the other. Having dealt with the idea of Christ as no mere great ethicist, he proceeded to explain the similarity of the Christian religion to other religions. Then he came to his main point: the essence of Christianity is not about religion at all, but about the person of Christ. He expanded on the theme that religion was a dead, man-made thing, and at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely– God Himself, alive.
-Metaxas, Bonhoeffer

"What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ, if delivered from his sin, and called to faith and eternal life. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. 

"The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will jesus Christ and His Work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity. That dismisses once and for all every clamorous desire for something more than life together around Christ. One who wants a mere superficial experience does not want Christian brotherhood. He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere; he is bringing muddled and impure desires into Christian brotherhood. Just at this point Christian brotherhood is threatened most often at the very start by the greatest danger of all, the danger of being poisoned at its root, the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of social religious fellowship, of confounding the natural desire of the devout heart for community with the spiritual reality of Christian brotherhood. ln Christian brotherhood everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

If we invoke the deadly dictum of Cain: “Am I my brother’s keeper?" are we not then subject to the curse of God: “His blood will I require at thine hand" (Ezek. 3218).

Where Christians live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare God’s Word and will to another. It is inconceivable that the things that are of utmost importance to each individual should not be spoken by one to another. It is unchristian consciously to deprive another of the one decisive service we can render to him. If we cannot bring ourselves to utter it, we shall have to ask ourselves whether we are not still seeing our brother garbed in his human dignity which we are afraid to touch, and thus forgetting the most important thing, that he, too, is still a man like us, a sinner in crying need of God’s grace. He has the same great necessities that we have, and needs help encouragement, and forgiveness as we do.  

The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another  is ythareach knows the other as a human. Thought with all his dignity, each man is lonely and lost if he is not given help. This is not to make him contemptible nor to disparage him  in any way. On the contrary, it is to accord him the one real dignity that man has, namely, that, though he is a sinner, he can share in God’s grace and glory and be God’s child. This recognition gives to our brotherly speech the freedom and candor that it needs. 

We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need. We 'admonish one another' (Heb.3:12-13) to go the way that Christ bids us to go. We warn one another against the disobedience that is our common destruction. We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s severity. Why should we be afraid of one another, since both of us have only God to fear? Why should we think that our brother would not understand us, when we understood very well what was meant when somebody spoke God’s comfort or God’s admonition to us, perhaps in words that were halting and unskilled? Or do we really think there is a single person in this world who does not need either encouragement or admonition? Why, then, has God bestowed Christian brotherhood upon us?

The more we learn to allow others to speak the Word to us, to accept humbly and gratefully even severe reproaches and admonitions, the more free and objective will we be in speaking ourselves. The person whose touchiness and vanity make him spurn a brother’s earnest censure cannot speak the truth in humility to others; he is afraid of being rebuffed and of feeling that he has been aggrieved. The touchy person will always become a flatterer and very soon he will come to despise and slander his brother. 

But the humble person will stick both to truth and to love. He will stick to the word of God and let it lead him to his brother. Because he seeks nothing for himself and has no fears for himself, he can help his brother through the Word. Nothing can be more compassionate than the personal admonition that calls a brother back from the path of sin. It is mercy, and ultimate offer of genuine fellowship, when we allow nothing but God's word to stand between us, both judging and succoring. Then it is not we who are judging (1Cor.5:9-6:3, John 12:47-48). We serve him even when we must speak the judging and dividing Word of God to him, even when, in obedience to God, we just break off fellowship with him. 

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Life Together"

(Finkenwalde was the location of Bonhoeffer's daily intentional experience "Life Together" with many other committed believers. Eventually shut down by the Nazi's, the relationships continued as long as they lived — which for some was not to be very long at all.)

"No one at Finkenwalde  could complain that there was no fun. Most afternoons and evenings a time was set aside for hiking or sports. Bonhoeffer was forever organizing games, just as his mother had done in their family. There was a lot of table tennis, and anyone looking for Bonhoeffer would try the table tennis room first. They also played soccer. Schönherr recalled that "Bonhoeffer was always at the head of the pack because he was such a fantastic runner. He had always been competitive, and Bethge remembered that "he hated to lose when we tried shot-putting– or stone-putting– down the beach."
-Eric Metaxas, Biographer


7 replies on “On Grace, the Cross, Our Cross, and Life Together”

Thanks, Steve. Good to know – I'll start with the first title.
Sounds like it was a great day.  What would a family portrait be without our beloved pets?  They bring us tremendous joy…(except for that horrid mess this morning;  I seriously wondered why we ever got them in the first place).  Thankfully, that thought quickly passed.


It was a great day. The weather here in central Indiana was about 58. My three daughters, who all live within a quarter mile, brought there dogs: two young German Shepherds, a Chocolate Lab, also young, a little yapper (don’t know what it is, but it is very territorial) and our Australian Shepherd. We dared not bring the cats, that would have been too much. They all get along good, except the yapper, he’s the oldest and it was at his house that the invasion took place. The photographer was challenged, to say the least. My oldest daughter wanted a non-traditional portrait, so she moved a lot of her antique furniture, old picture frames, a large mirror, rugs, etc., into here yard (we live in the country) with the trees and lots of fallen leaves, everyone dressed in earth tones and kids hanging from limbs; it was a production, but that is the way my daughter does things. It was fun, but tiring; then we ate and played ping-pong and planned our fishing trips for the Spring; some watched football, I think the Patriots beat our Colts.

Mondays are our regular family day at our place. My wife prepares a meal and the girls and the kids all arrive about noon. The day is spent sharing, shopping, studying the Word and Home schooling, music lessons, planning. I usually get home early on these days and the other guys come in as soon as work allows. It doesn’t always work out perfect, but we have managed to keep it going for about five years now. Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” has helped us stay on track, along with many others sources.

This is a little peek into our life. With the time getting short, keeping family close and safe is important. Monitoring every aspect of our life is critical, the enemy is out there waiting for the perimeter to weaken and the wall to fall. We can never stop fighting and watching, and waiting.

In His service,

Steve B.

I have yet to read any of Bonhoeffer's works, yet have admired his many quotes over the years.  I think I'll just have to go for it and stay put one cold and rainy weekend to start and finish one of them.  Perhaps I could start with "Life Together" since those particular quotes are poignantly profound (can you say that real fast 3 times? ๐Ÿ˜‰ )
One book I read more than a year ago falls within this category of the Church's compromise during the Nazi era called "Day of No Return".  It's a true story of a seminary student in Berlin who joined forces with Niemoller (the other man who, like Bonhoeffer, had the guts to stand against the false religion of the Nazis).  It really is a fascinating insight as to how Hitler was able to work through the churches and bend them to his will.   I first learned of it through Berit Kjos' ministry – they quoted from it extensively.  Definitely worth one's time, since we may very well face a similar situation in the near future.
Many thanks and take care, Steve.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!


Nice to hear from you again.

Bonhoeffer is well worth the effort to read and ponder, because , like you say, we may well see a replay in our own country. I cannot endorse all of his theology. The Emerging church claims him for their own, but I think they may have misread him on a few things: his attending a liberal university and his preaching on social justice. But, his story includes a rejecting of liberal theology for Barth’s more conservative dialectical theology. Anyway; Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost Of Discipleship” should be on every Christians bookshelf, because it throughly illustrates the “cost” that is involved in the claim of being a Christian, and he does more than preach a good sermon; he lived what he believed.

Our family celebrated an early Thanksgiving today and had a photographer come and take some great family pictures. The weather was great and the pictures were taken outside, and they included all our pets; it was a lot of fun.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving,

Steve B.


One more thing.

Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” is a good fast read, but not his best work. Our family has used a lot of what he writes in that book for the basis of our gatherings, but we stay away from anything concrete so as to give free rein to the Holy Spirit to guide us, but it is worth the reading.


Steve B.

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