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Book Review: Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

February 8, 2012

Bonheoffer, Eric Metaxas

This was an intricate look at this World War II hero, at least in my opinion he is a hero. He stood courageously for his convictions that were based in what he believed about God. The author did an enormous amount of research for this book. The lengthy book is full of family history, personal letters, accounts from those who knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer personally, and quotations from newspapers and other documents of the time.  I can only imagine the volumes that Mr. Metaxas sifted through to yield his biography.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor. He was involved in the resistance movement from its begining. He claimed that those in the church who were apathetic to changes that Hitler and his regime in Germany were making were believing in a “cheap grace.” He spoke loudly and clearly against the church leaders who would rather follow a political leader than God.

Dietrich worked to get England to recognize the resistance movement so that all German people would not be lumped together with Hitler should the coup attempt work. but that was unsuccessful. Here is where the rubber meets the road for Bonhoeffer and we see his goal to live life in complete submission to God borne out in his actions.

He is arrested because of an investigation by the Gestapo into the Abwehr.  It was through this agency that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was working as a double agent. If the Gestapo knew of his involvement in the conspiracy, he would have been executed as a traitor, but they did not know.

Ultimately he is hanged in the week before the Allies invade and Hitler commits suicide. His execution appears to have more to do with removing people with knowledge of war crimes committed by high-ranking German officials.

I enjoyed the family history part of the book, but the book really takes off (as one would expect)when Adolf Hitler comes  to power in Germany. The section of the book covering Dietrich’s late teens and through his 20’s is probably the most fundamental in understanding his beliefs. This was a hard section for me to stay engaged in, but it reveals his intense devotion to a Christianity that was worth any sacrifice.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had no qualms with killing Hitler in order to save Germany. He was willing to “pull the trigger” himself. The taking of Hitler’s life (murder) didn’t make him think twice because he was so assured that this was what God wanted.

This book made me think. Am I willing to suffer for the cause of Christ? Why did he stay in the Lutheran church? Was He just a moral man who believed in God and the Bible or had he experienced salvation?

The Bible is very clear that the things we do have nothing to do with our salvation, but that those things reveal our relationship with Christ.  It is very possible to be a great and moral person, even a hero standing up for right things, but if you are trusting in anything you do to save you, it is not enough.

I am not making any judgement about Bonhoeffer’s salvation. It is not for me to know or decide. These questions just made me think.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2012 12:51 pm

    Thanks for your review! Glad you made it through. It really was such an interesting…but sometimes heavy book.

    You bring up a really good point about his emphasis on works. You are definitely right and it seems like he was in a time and place where people would express pious sounding ideas that may have even been grounded in truth but when it came to application to a very real issue in front of them they were missing it. So he over-corrects to make sure they see the mistake. The book really did make me think about a lot of things concerning how faith and politics come together.

    In an interesting and somewhat connected story – Eric Metaxas I guess just spoke at a National Prayer Breakfast and gave the address just before President Obama. In his speech he addressed some issues that were in a very real way connected to what Bonhoeffer was confronting in Nazi Germany – namely what people are able to do once they convince themselves that some group is non-human. This article was really interesting to me. http://bit.ly/zAHbSF

    • February 8, 2012 2:01 pm

      Thanks for the link. The story the article told was amazing. I enjoyed it and linked it to my FB page. I could almost feel the President squirming in his seat, but do you think he got the message? Or was he like the kings of Israel – hearing the pronounced judgement, but not understanding.
      I have wondered so much about Bonhoeffer’s salvation. For a man who wrote so much and obviously had such a high respect for the Word of God, you would think there would be a personal testimony recorded….. not that that would prove his salvation true (or false).

  2. February 11, 2012 9:44 pm

    Could the anecdote about this visit to the church in Harlem be somewhat what you’re looking for?

    • February 13, 2012 8:12 am

      Excellent comment! He did find something refreshing and different from the liberal and pious churches he previously visited when he attended the church in Harlem. He found something “real” and not religious.

      If I had to decide a person’s salvation by looking at the outside appearance, I would say that Bonhoeffer was an amazing specimen of a Christian. But I am reminded that there are people doing right and good, even religious things, that Christ, at the judgement, will reject and say to them that He never knew them. That is because salvation is all about what we can’t do and what Jesus Christ did for us, in living a sinless life and sacraficially dying to pay the penalty for our sin.
      Only God can look on a heart and He knows us better than we know ourselves. I will comment that there are probably many who have walked and aisle or said some prayer looking to those works as an evidence of a salvation experience.
      Salvation is about God’s grace to us. It is humblily believing that He provided what we can not do for ourselves. It is accepting His gift of salvation, sealed with the Holy Spirit’s indwelling that brings life to us. We are redeemed and are no longer slaves to our sinful desires, but living for His glory.
      The good works a Christian does flow from that faith and love of our Savior.
      Good works as a way to atone for ones sins are ineffective and do not lead to salvation.

      • February 15, 2012 6:02 am

        So apparently identifying when Bonhoeffer’s conversion took place is actually a somewhat controversial subject. You are right that it is not really explicitly stated in the book. It seems though that by words and actions he would be a genuine follower of Christ.
        I went back through some of my highlights from the book (not one you can just re-read real quick!) and found some quotes that really stood out to me and relate to his understanding of true Christianity or following Christ.

        He is very much against the idea that works are how you get to God this was opposite to how he understood Christianity was to be.

        “He then aggressively attacked the idea of “religion” and moral performance as the very enemies of Christianity and of Christ because they present the false idea that somehow we can reach God through our moral efforts.” (loc 1878)

        “He differentiated between Christianity as a religion like all the others – which attempt but fail to make an ethical way for man to climb to heaven of his own accord – and following Christ, who demands everything, including our very lives.” (loc 1889)

        So in no way does he seem to think that works are what saves us or brings us to heaven. That is false and empty. Yet, he also talks in extremely strong ways about works and actions. He did not buy into the idea that you could just “believe something” but not act on it.

        “…rousing others to action, away from mere theologizing. His thoughts on this would be expressed in his book Discipleship, in which anything short of obedience to God smacked of “cheap grace.” Actions must follow what one believed, else one could not claim to believe it. (loc 4806)

        At different times and places he seems to deal with two separate issues or abuses: legalism and license. Legalism – that works are what really matters and my standing with God is based on what I do (to which he would say no that is just dead religion and man trying to climb to heaven) and License – that because of grace my works don’t really matter (to which he would say to be a follower of Christ or a Disciple means obedience and your life is defined by that)

        One final quote came from the very end of the book and the sermon given at his funeral reflects in someway this paradox.

        “The unrest of the quest ends in the discipleship of Christ, the theme of his last book, now carried into practice in his own life. Law and Gospel, command and promise point to the one clear certain way which he had sought: “only the believer is obedient, and only he who obeys believes.” (loc 10624)

        I’m not sure how helpful this is but I wanted to at least share some of my thoughts. I found much (most) of what I read extremely challenging and also biblical. It in someways reflects the idea of a tension between faith and works in James and Romans. When in reality there is not a tension the works are the fruit of salvation. They aren’t the cause but the evidence. If there is no evidence then you need to examine if you are connected to the source (ahh…too many references to tie together John 15, 1 John, Psalm 1, Galatians 5…the Bible :-P)

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