Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World

Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World


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An accessible tour of the life and work of Germany’s famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book explores the nature of fellowship, the costliness of grace, and the necessity of obedience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433511882
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 06/30/2013
Series: Theologians on the Christian Life Series
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He has written over twenty books and is an editor of the Theologians on the Christian Life series. He also hosts the weekly podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.

Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He has written over twenty books and is an editor of the Theologians on the Christian Life series. He also hosts the weekly podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.

Justin Taylor (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher at Crossway. He has edited and contributed to several books, including A God-Entranced Vision of All Things and Reclaiming the Center, and he blogs at Between Two Worlds—hosted by the Gospel Coalition.

Read an Excerpt



I believe that nothing meaningless has happened to me and also that it is good for us when things run counter to our desires. I see a purpose in my present existence and only hope that I fulfill it.


On a hot summer's day in July 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stepped off the steamship Bremen and onto the docks of New York City's harbor. The harbor was busy that year. New York City was playing host to the World's Fair, an event altogether eclipsed by the tensions of the pending world war. By September, a United States Navy fleet had moved in to protect the harbor, and mines had been placed along the coast in fear of a German submarine attack. Bonhoeffer knew all too well the tension. He had lived with much worse for some time and was now on his way to America to escape.

Bonhoeffer had been to the United States before. His first trip had come nine years earlier. Already with a doctorate in hand, Bonhoeffer thought he might benefit from studying American theological developments firsthand before settling in to his faculty position at Berlin. So off he went to spend a year at Union Seminary in New York. During that first stay, he had forged deep friendships. One of those friends, Reinhold Niebuhr of Union's faculty, now led the way in arranging for Bonhoeffer's second trip to America. Niebuhr hurriedly posted letters to his academic colleagues throughout America to cobble together a lecture tour for Bonhoeffer, in part to fund his stay and in part to shake out a more substantial and permanent teaching offer. At thirty-three years of age and with an impressive list of accomplishments already, Bonhoeffer had a bright career ahead of him.

Bonhoeffer, though, would elude Niebuhr's efforts. The moment Bonhoeffer stepped off the ship, he knew that he had made a mistake. He belonged back in Germany. His diary bears the record, "The decision has been made." "I have made a mistake in coming to America," he wrote to Niebuhr. "I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany." To their mutual friend Paul Lehmann, Bonhoeffer wrote, "I must be with my brothers when things become serious."

Bonhoeffer anticipated that Germany would survive the war. He also realized that the German church, like the nation itself, would need to be rebuilt. After all, how could he play a role in rebuilding the church if he abandoned it during its hour of deepest need? No, he could not stay in America.

Writing to Lehmann, Niebuhr could only say of Bonhoeffer's decision, "I do not understand it all." Who can understand Bonhoeffer's decision? What kind of person would be more at ease in facing down a totalitarian regime on the brink of destruction than conducting a college lecture tour in a free and democratic society an ocean away from the tumult and wreckage of war? What's more, this was no isolated decision, no adrenaline-charged heroism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's willingness to return to Germany, his willingness to face Hitler and the Nazi regime, ultimately his willingness to die, all stemmed from a deeply honed reflex. He could no more walk away from Germany in 1939 — when he had opportunity to do so — than you or I can stop our hearts from beating. To understand Bonhoeffer's decision in the dog days of a New York summer of 1939, you need to understand Bonhoeffer.

We should not take this episode as evidence of Bonhoeffer's heroism. The impulse is understandable, even tempting, but would be a misunderstanding. The letters and his diary point in an entirely different direction. This was no act of blazoned courage. Rather, his decision reveals a brash faith. See him as humble, not heroic. See him as dependent upon God. As he writes in his diary, "God certainly sees how much personal concern, how much fear is contained in today's decision, as courageous as it may appear. ... At the end of the day, I can only pray that God may hold merciful judgment over this day and all decisions. It is now in God's hands." If we flip back a few pages to earlier in his American diary, we see that being in God's hands means being a recipient of God's mercy through and in Christ. The opening pages of his American diary bear the testimony, "Only when we ourselves live and speak entirely from the mercy of Christ and no longer at all out of our own particular knowledge and experience, then we will not be sanctimonious."

To understand Bonhoeffer, we must understand, on the one hand, the limits of oneself and, on the other hand, the utter absence of limits of God. Bonhoeffer saw himself as limited in his understanding, limited in his experience, limited in his resolve, limited in his strength. To trust in himself would be purely — and merely — sanctimony, the religion of Pharisees. But to trust in God would be altogether different. To understand Bonhoeffer, we must first and foremost understand living by faith.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that to live by faith (he would say to live truly) means "living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities." He wrote of the great cost of cheap grace to the church and its disciples in the modern world. He saw far too many examples of a culturally accommodated and culturally captive Christianity. He longed for a costly discipleship. So he compelled the church and its disciples to consider costly grace, to consider the cost of discipleship. Costly discipleship is held captive to Christ; it is Christ-centered. He might have even coined a German word to express this, Christuswirklichkeit, a living in the one realm of the Christ reality. Bonhoeffer also wrote persuasively of how this Christ-centered or Christ-reality living is the "life together," the life of community, centered on our common union with Christ. No, we are not individual heroes achieving greatness — an unfortunate but prevalent model of living the Christian life in our day. Instead, we live together in Christ by faith.

Understanding Bonhoeffer, however, entails more than seeing this life of faith in Christ theologically. It also involves seeing how this theological center manifests itself in his life, in his daily comings and goings. Bonhoeffer was a theologian and a churchman, but he was also a person.

Bonhoeffer wrote poems, for example:

Distant or near,
He tried his hand at a novel. He had a twin sister. He was, for a time, a youth pastor who could play the guitar. He frequented the theater, knew his way around an art gallery. He had opinions on art, music, and architecture. "You're quite right," he wrote from his prison cell, "about the rarity of landscape painting in the South generally. Is the south of France an exception — and Gauguin?" He was a professor of theology at the University of Berlin. He took on a rather rough band of youth on a different side of the tracks from which he had come of age. He prepared them for their first communion and, when the time had come for it, bought them all new suits for the occasion.

Bonhoeffer led an underground seminary, often looking out the window during his early afternoon lectures. On more than one day, with sun shining and a cool breeze gently bending tree limbs, he would grab a soccer ball on his way out the door and his students would fall in behind.

He was a spy. He helped Jews escape from the Nazis. He became part of a ring of conspirators in plots to assassinate Hitler.

He became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer in January 1943, and three months later he was imprisoned at Tegel. During the fall months of 1944, he was transferred to the Gestapo prison in Berlin. He spent the final weeks of his life listening to sirens signaling the incessant dropping of bombs while cut off from his books, paper, pens, and ink.

He was a martyr.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both in his life and in his writings, draws us in. He demands our attention — not like the tantrums of a two-year-old, but like the quiet, trusted voice of a wise friend. That voice of Bonhoeffer's, though quiet, has never been silent. A century after his birth, it resounds with clarity and grace. Historian and biographer David McCullough has said, "We are shaped by those we never met." That's quite true — or at least it should be.

* * *

Perhaps Bonhoeffer shapes us best by showing us in word and in deed, as a theologian and in his life, how to live the Christian life, how to be a disciple of Christ, how to live in the Christuswirklichkeit. His book The Cost of Discipleship gets all of the attention on this score, and rightfully so. The Cost of Discipleship would be a legacy in and of itself. But Bonhoeffer offers us more. We owe it to ourselves, as well as to the honor of his memory, to widen our attention. This present book on Bonhoeffer on the Christian life proposes to do just that.

From The Cost of Discipleship we learn of the difference between a Christianity that asks nothing of us and one that requires a 180-degree turn from all that comes naturally. We learn of the difference between cheap grace and costly grace.

From Life Together and from his doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of Saints), written as he was not yet twenty-one, we learn that the Christian life is lived both alone and together. It is the together part that can be a challenge for us. It is also the together part that has become in our day the buzzword of community.

For Bonhoeffer, community was more than a trendy word; it was his life. In Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge and published posthumously, Bonhoeffer teaches us that "it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith," words he wrote while living in a six-by-nine-foot prison cell. We also learn from his unfinished and unpublished novel, written during his imprisonment, about the true nature and task and mission of the church. Academic books, like his unfinished magnum opus Ethics, as well as his numerous essays, lectures, sermons, and even his diaries and scribbled-down rough thoughts from his imprisonment, round out what Bonhoeffer has to offer us in words.

As for what Bonhoeffer offers us in deeds, both in his life and in his death he shows us how to love and serve God. Like Paul, Bonhoeffer knew firsthand both extremes of plenty and of want (Phil. 4:12). Growing up he enjoyed the life of moderate wealth. Childhood was punctuated with long vacations at the summer home, governesses, and family oratorios performed in their very own conservatory, which doubled as the family parlor. He started his academic career at the prestigious University of Berlin. But along came Hitler. Bonhoeffer lost his license to teach, and he traded in Berlin for Finkenwalde. Yes, Finkenwalde was an estate, but better to think run-down monastery than paneled walls and luxurious rooms. And then he was sent to prison. While in prison he once wrote of his longing to hear birds and see color. He knew all too well what it meant to be in want.

Or am I only what I know of myself,
And, like Paul, these experiences of plenty and want led Bonhoeffer to contentment. He expressed this in a poem marking the occasion of the New Year in 1945. Bonhoeffer had spent the whole of 1944 in Nazi prisons. "The old year," he writes of 1944, "still torments our hearts." By December he was in Berlin, and his precious flow of letters and books in and out had been cut to a mere trickle.

In one of those rare letters, allowed to be sent to his mother on her birthday, he tucked in his New Year's poem entitled "The Powers of Good."

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
But should it be thy will once more to release us to life's enjoyment and its good sunshine,
It was Christ who gave us the ultimate paradox of life: in the keeping of our life we lose it, but in the giving of our life we find it (Matt. 10:39). Christ spoke these words immediately on the heels of telling his disciples to take up their cross (10:38). From the very beginning that has been the call to discipleship, the call to live the Christian life. Bonhoeffer, as well as or if not better than any other person in the twentieth century, understood this and lived it, both in darkest night and in the full light of the sun. He understood what it meant to be unreservedly dedicated to Christ, to live by faith.

Consequently, Bonhoeffer deserves a place among theologians of the past who can serve as guides for us in the present for living the Christian life. He literally wrote the book on discipleship, but he also, as mentioned above, has more to offer than his classic text The Cost of Discipleship.

He lived discipleship. An old Carter family song croons, "It takes a worried man to sing a worried song." I think that means authenticity matters. And the stakes regarding authenticity could not be higher than when it comes to discipleship. This lyric from the Carter song also means you can spot a fake. And Bonhoeffer was no imposter. He was a disciple, so he could well sing — and preach and write — of discipleship.

In our current day we have more material on living the Christian life — in the form of books, seminars, conferences, and DVDs — than at any other time in the history of the church. Much of that material focuses on the individual, on our personal prayer life and our private devotional time. Much of that material also focuses on duty — the roll-up-your-sleeves, get-it-done-by-grit-and-determination approach. Further still, much of this talk of spirituality also sounds rather otherworldly, disconnected from the twists and turns of daily life. Rodney Clapp writes of this otherworldly emphasis as resulting in a spirituality for angels, not for flesh-and-blood humans. Especially in the context of North American evangelicalism, we tend to define living the Christian life and spirituality along these individualistic, works- or performance-oriented, and detached/otherworldly lines. More often than not, following these kinds of approaches to discipleship leaves us defeated and discouraged. Humans have a hard time performing on the level of angels.

While Bonhoeffer does speak of the personal spiritual disciplines, the "life alone" as he calls it, he also speaks of the "life together," reminding us of our union with Christ and the common union we share with one another in the body of Christ, the church. While Bonhoeffer does speak of duty, he also heralds grace. He is, after all, a Lutheran, so he knows a thing or two about grace. Finally, while Bonhoeffer does speak of the life to come, his is a "worldly discipleship," deeply connected to the ups and downs of life in this fallen world. This voice from the past can help us avoid missteps on our walk with Christ in the present. We owe it to ourselves to meet him and to listen to what he has to say — both in word and in deed.

* * *

We will begin our explorations of all that Bonhoeffer has to offer fellow disciples by looking at the foundations of the Christian life. He commends to us the cross-centered life. Bonhoeffer scholars speak of "Christo-ecclesiology" as the center of Bonhoeffer's thought, which is to say that Bonhoeffer has both christology (the doctrine of Christ) and ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) at the center of his theology, like the hub of a wheel. It might even be better to say that Bonhoeffer's ecclesiology flows from, naturally and necessarily, his christology. So we start with Bonhoeffer's christology (chap. 2) and then move to Bonhoeffer's ecclesiology (chap. 3).

Bonhoeffer takes a page from his favorite theologian, Martin Luther. For Luther, too, Christ is at the center. And at the center of the center is Christ on the cross. Early on and then throughout his life Luther spoke of a theology of the cross, as does Bonhoeffer. So theology, Christian living — all of reality — flows from the cross.

This life from the cross (Bonhoeffer's christology) and life in the church (his ecclesiology) together lead to the disciplines of the Christian life. We will explore three of them: reading and obeying Scripture, prayer, and the practice of theology. I have chosen these three because Bonhoeffer, speaking in the context of the underground seminary he led in the late 1930s, saw this trilogy of disciplines as the essential ingredients for a ministerial education. He desired only that his students knew how to read and did read the Bible, that they knew how to and did pray, and that they both thought and lived theologically. For him seminary was about imparting knowledge (referred to as scientia by the ancients) and about spiritual formation and life (referred to as formation by the ancients). And this illustrates that what's good for the goose is indeed good for the gander. In other words, what's good for ministers is good for all of us. These three are the essential practices of the Christian life, and all of them constitute worship.


Excerpted from "Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Stephen J. Nichols.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Series Preface 11

Acknowledgments 13

Abbreviations 15

Part 1 Introduction

1 Meeting Bonhoeffer 19

Part 2 Foundations

2 In Christ: Life from the Cross 31

3 In Community: Life in the Church 57

Part 3 Disciplines

4 Word 79

5 Prayer 99

6 Confession 113

Part 4 Life

7 Worldliness 129

8 Freedom 151

9 Love 167

Part 5 Literature

10 Reading Bonhoeffer 185

Appendix A A Time Line of Bonhoeffer's Life 191

Appendix B Summary of Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life 193

General Index 195

Scripture Index 203

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“How I rejoice to see thinkers of Stephen Nichols's caliber applying their fine minds to the life and thought of the inimitable Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There’s so much yet to be written about this great man. A hungry readership awaits!”
Eric Metaxas, New York Times best-selling author, Miracles and Bonhoeffer

“This book will quicken your pulse as you are drawn into the story and the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Stephen Nichols brings a long and complex life to a point of ongoing personal application. This book prompted me to pray for the kind of courage that comes only after intense communion with the living God. Read and be strengthened.”
Russell D. Moore, president, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention

“‘Human weakness paves the way for God’s grace.’ So writes Stephen Nichols, using Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a guide to the Christian life. But how could a man who stood up to Hitler be considered weak? That’s what makes Bonhoeffer so fascinating, and why he deserves your attention. Nichols helpfully brings Bonhoeffer’s Christ-centered insights to bear on issues where we need to grow in grace, such as confession, freedom, and love.”
Collin Hansen, Editorial Director, The Gospel Coalition; author, Blind Spots

“Bonhoeffer was a unique man who understood the power of both conviction and compassion, clarity and ambiguity, narrative and poetry. Through this man the church is powerfully reminded that all theology is lived theology. In this book, Steve Nichols takes us into Bonhoeffer’s complex world and offers a rich set of reflections on such crucial themes as cross, community, and the living Word. Here the reader discovers a wonderful mixture of fair-minded historical reconstruction and wise pastoral counsel.”
Kelly M. Kapic, professor of theological studies, Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life illustrates the truth that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. His courageous stand against the Nazi regime is a powerful testament to his cross-centered theology and belief that weakness is the starting point for Christian spirituality. With insight, clarity, and wisdom, Stephen Nichols guides us through the life and work of this humble yet heroic pastor, whose example shows that all Christian living flows from God’s grace in the cross of Christ.”
Justin S. Holcomb, Episcopal Priest; Professor of Christian Thought, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; coauthor, Rid of My Disgrace and Is It My Fault?

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