Thomas Nelson Publishers
Published: May 5, 2015
A humble man of faith faced the greatest evil of the twentieth century and lost his life for it. This is a story of incredible moral courage, the story of a life crowned by a indomitable passion for truth and a moral commitment to justice on behalf of those who cannot speak out for themselves.
Peace returned to Europe. World War II was over. On July 27, 1945, in the Holy Trinity Church in London, a memorial service took place. In Berlin, Germany, an elderly couple listened to the BBC radio broadcast a memorial service from London. It was for their youngest son, Dietrich. They heard the heartbreaking news that he was dead.
A pastor and a theologian, his name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is his unique story. The materialistic world set the tough standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life. It made him bold, with a certainty of judgment and manner. It ignited the fire in his soul.
Dietrich decided to become a theologian and study about God. He decided to seek out the truth of the Bible. “The church is only the church when it exists for others….. The church must share in the…..problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others,” wrote Dietrich, from “Letters and Papers in Prison”.
Dietrich attended the world-renowned Berlin University. Karl Barth, a professor and a most important theologian, would become a mentor and a friend. Barth boldly declared that God does exist. This is called neo-orthodoxy. “Neo” means new, and “orthodoxy” is the traditional way of practicing the Christian faith. All Bible study believes that God exists and that the Bible is true. Bonhoeffer agreed wholeheartedly with Barth. He saw the Bible as God’s truth, and the rightful basis of our faith. Bonhoeffer respected Karl Barth as a great theologian. Barth’s words on theology are noteworthy: “Prayer without study would be empty. Study without prayer would be blind.” “Theology is a matter for the Church.” “In the Church of Jesus Christ, there can and should be no non-theologians.”
Bonhoeffer completed his doctoral degree and graduated with honors. He accepted a job with a German church in Barcelona, Spain for one year. His first sermon was about the difference between a faith based on what we do and one based on what God does for us — the gift of grace. One topic was important to him all his life: “God wants to see human beings,” he said, “not ghosts who shun the world.” He said that in “the whole of human history” only the present day is important. God’s people must live out their faith by serving others in the times in which they live.
At twenty-three, Dietrich was too young to become a pastor. He decided to become a teacher at Berlin University. Teaching in 1929, aged twenty-four, Bonhoeffer learnt to speak the truth out boldly and courageously. Truth is born in freedom. He became the selfless champion of truth and justice. Theology asks important questions and seek answers from God. What God is like? Who does He intend us to be? What are His plans for the world? How does He save us? Why does He love us? To understand theology, you need an open mind and a heart hungry for truth. The philosophy of religion is the study of ideas, truth, and meaning. Dietrich said, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.”
On a visit to America, in the African-American community of Harlem in the 1930s, Bonhoeffer heard the real gospel of Jesus Christ preached and clearly saw its amazing power. He saw people being truly joyful about Christ. The joyful power of the “negro spirituals”convinced him how important music is to worship God. These recordings became his most treasured possessions.
Returning to Berlin in June 1931, aged twenty-five, Dietrich was finally old enough to be ordained as a minister. Preaching on Reformation Sunday in 1932, Bonhoeffer’s sermon boldly stated that the Protestant church was on its last legs, and it’s “high time we realized this.” The German church was dying or was already dead. A living church was a place of love, joy and peace. The fiery, spirit-filled sermons and exuberant worship in Harlem opened Bonhoeffer’s eyes. He attended church regularly and took Communion often. Friends noticed a great change in him.
In 1933, Bonhoeffer became a teacher at Berlin University. In a lecture, he pointed out that the Church exists, God exists, and are we willing to serve God who needs us? In an exploration of questions, his students thought things through to the end. He also discipled them on how to live the true Christian life and how to serve God and follow His plans for their lives. It was a strong deepening of his beliefs. His faith was extremely difficult to argue with, like it or not. Real authority and leadership comes only from God. Governments are established by God for the protection of law and order.
Bonhoeffer preached at the Trinity Church in Berlin: “The church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty…..before which all creatures must kneel….. The church has only one pulpit, and from that pulpit, faith in God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will than the will of God, however well-intentioned.”
A Christian can help hurting people and try to stop harm. It takes bravery to do this. But one can be brave and stand up for people who are too helpless to stand up for themselves.
Bonhoeffer said: “If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Bonhoeffer gave his famous “Peace Speech”. “Peace means being right with God. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security….. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security….. [It is] laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes.”
“Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”
Bonhoeffer took preaching very seriously. A sermon was the very word of God, a time when God spoke to his people, an opportunity to hear from God and a holy privilege to speak for God. Bonhoeffer believed it was the preacher’s duty and the role of the church to speak out for those who could not speak up for themselves.
Bonhoeffer’s last sentences were memorable, never to be forgotten: “What are we waiting for? The time is late.”