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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship

Updated Jan 14, 2022
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship

Childhood Questions

"Don't forget to say your prayers, Dietrich. You too, Sabine."

"Yes, Mama," answered the five-year-old twins in one voice. After final kisses and tuck-ins, Mrs. Bonhoeffer moved on to the beds of the other five children.

"I wish we didn't have to go back to the city tomorrow," whispered Dietrich when their mother was out of earshot. "I want to just live here in our vacation house!"

"Yes, I know. But if we lived here, we might get bored even if there's lots to do."

As Sabine began to drift off to sleep, Dietrich's mind burned with a question. "Sabine, do you think heaven is like vacation?"

"I think so! I mean, everyone wants to go there!"

"But Sabine, we'll be there forever – won't it get boring just like vacations could?"

"I don't know, Dietrich, but I know I want to go there! I hope God hears my prayers."

"Me too, Sabine. Me too."

A Strange Announcement

"Dietrich is practicing his vocabulary again! He doesn't even know what a 'theologian' is. Of course, he doesn't really want to become one."

Fourteen-year-old Dietrich became angry at his older brother's mocking words. "Yes, I do know what a theologian is and yes, I do want to become one! It's someone who studies all about God and the Bible and then teaches others. I've already been reading my Bible, and I want to learn all I can!"

"But Dietrich, you don't even go to church! And besides, the church is selfish and corrupt."

Dietrich had an answer for that argument. "In that case, I'll reform it!"

He worked hard and eventually graduated as a teacher and pastor. As a real "theologian," Dietrich even started attending church! But when he was given the chance to study in America for a year, he didn't realize how much more he had to learn.

"What Happened in America?"

Dietrich watched in confusion as the New York City waiter left the table without taking Frank's order.

"It's just like I told you. They ignore me because I'm black. I'm sure you'll get great service here, but they won't even give me a glass of water," explained Frank Fisher.

Dietrich's confusion changed to action. "Frank, if they won't serve you because of the color of your skin, then none of us will ever eat here again!" With that, the entire group left the restaurant in protest.

Walking home that evening, Dietrich was deep in thought. America was great, but why were people so prejudiced against blacks? Blacks were even attacked on the street for no reason. It was so unfair! God looked at a person's heart, not the color of his skin!

Experiences like this taught Dietrich things he hadn't learned in all his years of study. Living out his faith meant more than just attending church, reading books and teaching about God. Dietrich wanted to truly live out Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount, "God blesses those who work for peace." He returned to Germany determined to treat all people as equals and teach them that peace was always better than violence.

"What is different about you? What happened in America?" asked Dietrich's friends when he returned to Germany.

His answer was simple. He told them, "I became a Christian in America."

Little did he know that his decision to promote peace and equality would soon be put to the test.

Assassination Plot!

"Dietrich, we need your help. We're going to do it-- we're going to assassinate Hitler!"

Dietrich was shocked speechless. He looked at his brother-in-law, Hans, as his mind raced. As a pacifist, Deitrich believed in peace, not violence. How could he consider killing someone, even a monster like Hitler?

Adolph Hitler was Germany's leader. Hitler hated Jewish people so much that he wanted to get rid of them all. At first Jews lost their jobs, then their homes and businesses were destroyed. Eventually, many were crowded into filthy concentration camps and forced to work without enough food or warm clothes. Many Jews were sent to extermination camps, where they were killed just because they were Jews.

But Hitler and his Nazi party didn't stop there. Anyone who opposed their evil plans would be treated like a Jew. Dietrich did all he could to show other Christians that they needed to stand up for the Jews, but many refused to listen. Now he was being asked to help kill Adolph Hitler.

"Hans, you know my beliefs! I hate what Hitler is doing, but I could never plot to kill somebody. I would be just like him! We've helped Jews escape and called the church to stand firm-- surely that is the most we can do."

"No, Dietrich. It's not enough. Thousands of Jews are dying each week and Germany is being destroyed. Hitler must be stopped!"

Dietrich remembered the verse that had challenged him back in America: "God blesses those who work for peace." He finally decided that removing the leader who was killing so many defenseless people would be the best way to work for peace. But the assassination attempt did not succeed. Dietrich, Hans and several other members of their family were arrested. He spent the last two years of his life in prison and concentration camps. Even under those awful conditions, Dietrich continued to challenge other Christians through his powerful writing. Those who were imprisoned with him looked to him as a pastor as they faced those dark days.

One Last Sermon

After five long days in the back of the transport truck, the weary prisoners were locked in a small schoolhouse for the night. The next morning was Sunday, so Dietrich led them in a church service. Following worship and prayer, Dietrich comforted the other prisoners with words from the book of Isaiah, "With his wounds we are healed." As Dietrich finished his last prayer, the door to the schoolhouse burst open. Two evil-looking men entered and pointed at Dietrich.

"Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us." Just a few words, but everyone in the room knew what they meant. A hush fell over the little group as the room filled with a sudden tension.

As the prisoners said goodbye to Dietrich, he had time to whisper a last message. "Please don't worry about me. This may be the end of my life, but it's really just the beginning for me."

Dietrich was executed on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before Hitler committed suicide and one month before the end of World War II. Dietrich's most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, continues to inspire and challenge Christians today, partly because Dietrich's life showed that he knew and lived the cost of discipleship.

Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.

  1. How did Dietrich's faith change through his time in America? What experiences have you had that have deepened your faith?
  2. Why do you think many Germans, even Christians, did not protest the Nazi persecution of the Jews?
  3. Have you ever needed to stand up for someone who wasn't being treated fairly? What happened?
  4. Dietrich committed himself to work for peace, but eventually decided that it would be better to help kill one man than to allow that one man to kill many people. Do you think that was a good decision?
  • Suggested reading:
    • Hero Tales Volume II by Dave and Neta Jackson, (Bethany House Publishers)
    • Heroes of the Faith: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Barbour Books)

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archives


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About Church History For Kids

While he didn't live a long life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a shining example of living for one's faith