I was a young adult when I was first introduced to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at a weekly breakfast book club. I was fascinated by Bonhoeffer’s story, his wisdom, and his boldness. A few years later, in my freshman year of college, I had the opportunity to take a course that focused on his life and his theology. During this course, we read Eric Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer, as well as much of what he wrote in his books, sermons and letters.
There is a single statement that I would confidently say sums up an underlying theme of Bonhoeffer’s life. He spoke these words on December 11, 1928, during a sermon in a German church in Barcelona, where he was serving in his first pastorate at the age of 22.
We understand Christ only if we commit ourselves to him in a stark “Either-Or.” He did not go to the cross to ornament and embellish our life. If we wish to have him, then he demands the right to say something decisive about our entire life.
If you know nothing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, here is a quick summary of his life: He was born in Germany in 1906, and was raised by a no-nonsense, well-educated and successful father. He had seven siblings including a twin sister. From an early age, Dietrich was drawn to theology, much to the dismay of his father. Dietrich excelled in his studies, completing his Doctor of Theology from Berlin University at the age of 21. Shortly thereafter, he entered the pastorate, and over the next several years, travelled to America for further studies, taught in university, and moved around Europe as he became increasingly opposed to the Nazification of the church.
Eventually, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his opposition to the Nazi government and was condemned to death, being accused of taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. While in prison, he continued to carry out his calling as pastor and theologian. He was a spiritual leader within the prison, and wrote letters regularly to his friends, colleagues, family, his fiancée Maria, and many others. After two years of imprisonment, he was executed on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before American soldiers liberated the camp in which he was imprisoned.
Bonhoeffer lived the gospel. He was not content to merely believe in the idea of Christ and to participate in religious duties. He was convinced, in a time of extreme difficulty and uncertainty, that the gospel was nothing if not livable. His life and his teachings have been preserved, I believe by the grace of God, to challenge future followers of Jesus, even to this day. If you are looking for a good book to read this fall, I highly recommend Eric Metaxas’ biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
In his doctoral dissertation, published with the English title of The Communion of Saints, Bonhoeffer writes, “The social significance of Christ is decisive. He is only present in the church… the church is the presence of Christ, just as Christ is the presence of God.” (from pp. 98-100)
In a time when nearly all social conventions, including the way we “do” church, are being challenged on a daily and weekly basis, we can take heart in this truth: the church is still and forever will be, the very presence of Christ in this world. It weighed heavily on Bonhoeffer’s heart that the church remains true to the call of Christ to carry forward the mission given to him by our Heavenly Father.
I have read in a few different places, a quote that I believe is attributed to Eugene Peterson: “The gospel is nothing if it is not liveable.” It is not enough to simply agree with the idea of the gospel. If it is not lived in a person, it is not alive. Therefore, you and I are called to be the very presence of Jesus, the living gospel, in our unique time and place. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?