Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). $29.99, 591 pages.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote those words in The Cost of Discipleship, which was first published in 1937. Eight years later, on April 9, 1945, he answered Christ’s bidding and was executed by the Nazis at the Flossenburg concentration camp for conspiring to assassinate Adolf Hitler the previous year. Bonhoeffer’s last words, appropriate to a Christian facing death, were hopeful. “This is the end…For me the beginning of life.”

In Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas sets out to narrate Bonhoeffer’s life for a new generation of Christians, who are  unacquainted with the 1967 biography written by Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend. Metaxas is the author of Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (2007), which was subsequently turned into a movie. His biography of Bonhoeffer is well written, well paced, and very insightful, especially regarding the theological, spiritual, and ethical evolution Bonhoeffer experienced in his conflict with the Nazis, which consumed the latter third of his short life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of eight children born to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, and the youngest of five boys. He was the scion of illustrious families on both his paternal and maternal sides. His father Karl’s ancestors included prominent politicians and scientists. Karl himself was chair of the department of psychology at the University of Berlin—in effect, the leading psychologist of Germany. His mother Paula’s family included military leaders and theologians, including her grandfather, the prominent liberal church historian Karl August von Hase, and her father Karl Alfred, the erstwhile chaplain to Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Bonhoeffer followed in the footsteps of his von Hase ancestors, studying at Tubingen before achieving a double doctorate in theology at Berlin. Following his studies in Berlin, Bonhoeffer did a year of postgraduate work at Union Theological Seminary of New York, where he attended and taught Sunday school at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, then under the able leadership of Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Bonhoeffer was unimpressed by Union’s scholarship, but his involvement with Abyssinian gave him a deep love for “Negro spirituals” and important insights into how segregation damages both minorities and the majorities who oppress them.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, when Bonhoeffer was just 27 years old. From the get-go, the Nazis attempted to subvert and control every traditional institution in Germany, including the German Evangelical (or Lutheran) Church. This attempted subversion drew Bonhoeffer into the opposition to Hitler that would eventually cost him his life. The struggle would also radicalize him in numerous ways. He increasingly realized that being a good German and being a good Christian were not coterminous. He increasingly began to practice a free-church ecclesiology in the midst of a state-church nation. And he increasingly realized that passivity in the face of evil was complicity with evil.

Most of Bonhoeffer’s work in the 1930s and 40s was professorial and pastoral. He helped found the Confessing Church, which was formed to oppose the Nazification of the state church. He helped found and lead the Confessing Church’s underground seminary at Finkenwalde. And throughout this time, he wrote what have become classics in theology and spiritual formation: Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship, and Ethics (which he completed toward the end of his life).

But all along, he was drawn increasingly into the conspiracy against Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s social class and family were deeply involved in this struggle. His older brother and two brothers-in-law were also executed for their involvement in the conspiracy against Hitler. Interestingly, they undertook this conspiracy from within the government and military, not outside of it. At one point, when Bonhoeffer was about to be drafted into the Army, his family friends arranged for him to work for the Abwehr, or Military Intelligence. To many of his Confessing Church comrades, it appeared that Bonhoeffer had sold out. In reality, this position saved Bonhoeffer from military service and allowed him to continue pastoral work under the guise of doing assignments for the Abwehr.

On July 20, 1944, General Claus von Stauffenberg placed an explosive device under a table at a meeting with Hitler. The explosion killed several people, although Hitler lived, scathed but otherwise unharmed. Bonhoeffer was already in prison, although his role in this conspiracy wouldn’t become known for some time. Indeed, at one point, his uncle, General Paul von Hase, was able to get him special accommodations in the military prison just outside of Berlin. With the failure of Stauffenberg’s bomb, however, the plot unraveled. Several thousand people were arrested, often because they were family members of conspirators, and several hundred were executed. The conspirators were aristocrats, military leaders, and civil servants—the traditional leaders of pre-war Germany. Why had they tolerated Hitler for so long? They had been working against him from the beginning, Metaxas makes clear, but Hitler’s foreign policy and military successes made him very popular, and thus very difficult to work against.

Bonhoeffer had seen this difficulty nearly from the beginning. In a sense, he was a prophet who foresaw where Hitler’s regime would lead Germany, and counseled more radical action than conservative German’s traditional leaders—religious, military, or civil—could tolerate, until of course it was still late. He, and they, paid for their dereliction with their lives.

If I have made much of Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the plot against Hitler, it is only because this is the most well-known thing about him. But Metaxas reveals the layers of theology, spirituality, politics, and commitment that characterized Bonhoeffer’s life. His biography is well written and highly recommended.


P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my home page.

Honor God With Your Body (1 Corinthians 6:18-20)


In a recent post on, John Stossel makes “the case for legalizing drugs, prostitution, organ sales, and other consensual acts.” He titles his piece, “Keep Your Laws Off My Body.” He concedes that these behaviors may be immoral, but even so, he denies that legal prohibition of them is the right response. Instead, he argues that shaming drug users, prostitutes, and organ sellers is a more appropriate response than prohibition.

Stossel’s argument is libertarian. There is some truth to this position. Not every sin requires the government to pass a law in response. On the other hand, from a libertarian point of view, why stop with laws? If two people consent to a given act, who is anyone to judge their choice? Maybe you wouldn’t do it, but they’re not you. So mind your own business! A more consistent libertarianism would argue, “Keep your laws off my body and your shame to yourself!” This seems to have been John Stuart Mill’s position in his influential libertarian essay, On Liberty.

From a biblical point of view, what’s wrong with this type of argument is two things: It fails to take into account sins against self, and it mistakenly believes that you own your own body. The biblical point of view finds expression in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

First, Paul reminds us that it’s possible to sin against one’s self. “He who sins sexually sins against his own body.” A man who consorts with prostitutes not only sins against God and his spouse, he also harms himself. How so? He may contract a sexually transmitted disease. He may feel disgusted by his own behavior. He may become addicted to increasingly perverse forms of sex and pornography. Ironically, in the exercise of a false freedom, a person may actually enslave himself to behaviors and desires that harm himself.

Second, your body is not your body. It belongs to your Creator and Redeemer, and you are beholden to him for how you use it. Your body is (or can be) “a temple of the Holy Spirit,” Paul writes. “You were bought at a price,” he continues—or can be through faith in Jesus Christ. “Therefore,” he concludes,” honor God with your body.” How you answer the question, “Who owns my body?” makes a huge difference in how you behave.

Libertarians view themselves as the owners of their bodies. Christians view themselves as the stewards of God’s body. Libertarians want the state to keep its laws off their bodies and society to keep its opinions to itself, sometimes rightly. But a Christian welcomes God’s law and guidance.

Who You Are Shapes How You Act, and Vice Versa (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)


Who you are shapes how you act. How you act shapes who you are. Identity and behavior are mutually reinforcing.

For example, a generous person gives liberally to those in need. But how did she become generous in the first place? By giving liberally. An alcoholic drinks too much alcohol. How did he become an alcoholic? By drinking too much in the first place. A loving married couple takes delight in serving one another. How did they become so loving? By serving one another.

To become the people God created us to be, Christ saved us to be, and the Spirit empowers us to be, we must pay attention to who we are and how we act.

In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul rebukes the Corinthians—some of them, anyway—for consorting with prostitutes. In verses 12-14, he counters their false theology of freedom. In verses 15-17, he points out the crucial connection between who we are and how we act.

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”  But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

Paul describes Christian identity in terms of spiritual union with Christ. “Your bodies,” he writes, “are members of Christ himself.” Further, “he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” One of the most common expressions in Paul’s letters is the two-word phrase, “in Christ.” If you are in Christ—that is, if you are one with him in spirit—you will act in certain ways but not others because Christ would act in those ways but not others. Obviously, Christ would not consort with prostitutes. Ergo, if you are in Christ, you will not either. Your identity in Christ shapes your behavior.

Unfortunately, the Corinthians’ behavior was deforming their identity. “Do you not know,” Paul asks, “that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?” God created sex to weave the physical, emotional, and spiritual lives of two human beings into a harmonious whole. “The two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Rather than being formed in the character of Christ or into the harmonious whole of a Christian marriage, the Corinthians’ sexual immorality was forming them in the character of a prostitute.

We live in a day and age of “casual sex” and “hooking up” without commitment. In Christ, there’s no such thing as casual and commitment-less sex. Christ himself remained celibate, but he blessed marriage for others. If our character is Christ’s, then our rule is fidelity within marriage and chastity without it. To the extent that we, like the Corinthians, don’t follow this rule, we need to repent.

Who you are shapes how you act, and vice versa.

A False Theology of Freedom (1 Corinthians 6:12-14)


We sometimes think of the New Testament era as the golden age of the church compared to which our own era is more than a bit rusty. Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians should help perish any such thought, for few New Testament-era congregations were as spiritually malformed and morally degenerate as theirs. Few modern congregations are.

Remember, the Corinthian congregation was divided by a pride that was embarrassed of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1:10-4:21). This congregation tolerated the incestuous relationship of one of its members (5:1-12), sued one another in pagan law courts (6:1-11), and thought little against utilizing the services of prostitutes (6:12-20, esp. 15-17). Pride, division, and sexual immorality: In the trifecta of vice, the Corinthians were runaway winners. And that’s only a partial listing of their immoral behaviors!

In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Paul offered a three-pronged argument against the Corinthians’ use of prostitutes.  He corrected their false theology of Christian freedom (verses 12-14), he reminded them of the purpose of marital and spiritual union (verses 15-17), and he warned them that sexual immorality damages the self (verses 18-20).

Let’s take a look at the first prong of Paul’s argument in verses 12-14:

“Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”—but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.

Verses 12 and 13 offer two Corinthian slogans that encapsulate their false theology of Christian freedom: “Everything is permissible for me” and “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.” The first slogan expresses the false theology and the second slogan justifies it. “Everything is permissible” is seductive, and wrong. It is seductive because it lets our desires get the upper hand over us. It is wrong because, among other things, not every desire is good for us, and some are downright addictive.

The rationalization for this false freedom is “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.” In other words, if you feel a desire and you have a body part to meet that desire, go ahead and use it. Some commentators believe (with the NIV translators) that “God will destroy them both” is Paul’s answer to the Corinthian rationalization. But perhaps it is better to understand it as part of the rationalization. In other words: “If you feel a desire, use your body to fulfill the desire, for God’s going to destroy the body eventually.”

The problem with this rationalization is its bad theology. “The body is meant…for the Lord.” He created it. He judges it. He is, through the death and resurrection of the embodied Son of God, redeeming it. You can’t follow Jesus and do whatever your body wants. It must do what honors him (6:20).

Inheriting the Kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)


In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul writes about the reality of hell, the variety of sin, the possibility of change, and the necessity of grace.

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

First, the reality of judgment: In the New Testament, salvation is sometimes portrayed as an inheritance. In Titus 3:7, for example, Paul speaks of Christians “having been justified by his grace, [so that they] might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” By the same token, divine judgment is sometimes portrayed as disinheritance, as here in 1 Corinthians 6:9a. If we preach the reality of salvation, we must also preach the reality of judgment. Untouched by grace leading to repentance, sin results in judgment. This is the flip side of the good news.

Second, the variety of sin: What kind of sin leads to judgment? In verses 9b-10, Paul offers a list of sins that lead to judgment. The list is illustrative not exhaustive, based in part on the Corinthian struggles. Many Christians focus on the sexual sins, as if these are somehow particularly abominable. But notice that Paul classifies greed, drunkenness, slander, and swindling alongside sexual immorality. All sins, we might say, are equal in meriting divine judgment.

Third, the possibility of change: One of the most beautiful phrases in the New Testament is found in verse 11a: “And that is what some of you were.” Sin merits judgment. It deforms our souls. But sin does need not have the final word on our life. Change is possible. Paul uses three images to describe salvation: washing, justifying, and making holy. These are three ways at looking at the same reality. God cleans us up, makes us right, and makes us useful for his holy purposes. The before/after life of the Corinthians is evidence, as far as Paul is concerned, of the gospel’s power.

Fourth, the necessity of God’s grace: Change is a big deal in our culture. Unfortunately, most people seek change based on the exercise of their own willpower. This is unfortunate because the will is the problem, not the solution. If your will is broken, it cannot fix itself. The solution must come from outside yourself. Verse 11b points to the work of the Holy Trinity in effecting change in our loves. The Father washes, justifies, and sanctifies through the death and resurrection of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. They graciously work together to change us from the inside out.

So, by God’s grace, don’t be what you were! Be what he saved you to be!

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: