“This is the end – but for me, the beginning of life.”

Those were not the words of Pope John Paul II, but of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed 60 years ago today by the Nazis in the closing days of World War II.

I thought of these words this week as the world honored the Pope and I listened to commentators in every media try to put their political spin on what a life of faith should look like. And when I thought of their words in the context of this anniversary, I could only shake my head at the subtleties of God and offer a bitter smile. Bitter at the foolishness and presumption, but a smile nonetheless in order to share in the laugh God must have been having.

Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes. Supremely talented and perceptive, he saw spiritual truth in a clear light and threw himself into writing it down and vigorously living it out in total commitment to the lives of those around him, yet he was also capable of the loneliest touch of inner doubt. He was one of the earliest and most unyielding voices in opposition to Hitler as far back as 1933 and struggled to shine a light on Hitler’s co-opting of the German church and to reconstruct Christian ethics.

Fearing for Bonhoeffer’s life, his friends arranged a position for him in America ahead of the coming war, only to have him turn around and return to Germany almost immediately, saying:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.

A pacifist, he ultimately saw the need to try and throw a spoke into the wheel of the Nazi war machine and was arrested in 1943 and accused of being part of a plot to kill Hitler. Over the next two years Bonhoeffer wrote prodigiously and powerfully, cramming each paragraph with stunning clarity and revelation almost as if he sensed his time was short (he was 39 – younger than I am now – when he died). As he watched the German church crumble around him and embrace the unbiblical tenets of Nazism, he exhorted his followers and his country that obedience and belief were bound together, saying “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who obeys, believes.”

You can find out much more about his incredible and courageous story here on the pages hosted by the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, but let me return to the present and the spirit of our age so much in evidence the past few weeks, and what Bonhoeffer might wryly refer to as another example of

“the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price.”

What he meant was that we all too easily fall into iniquity by trying to determine for ourselves and by our own standards what pleases God. Today there is a lot of easy talk about spirituality as we boomers age and find that our first commandment – “Love thyself” – doesn’t sustain. Christian or otherwise we seek to set our own standards for what is “good enough,” forgetting what it cost those who came before us to raise God’s standard. Journalist David Brooks calls it “building a house of obligation on a foundation of choice,” or, “orthodoxy without obedience.”

You can be thought to be spiritual merely for acknowledging there is a need for spirituality without admitting that you have any responsibility to live up to it in any way. It is a spirituality that honors teachers but not a Messiah. It is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” and described as being the greatest threat to the Church. The threat, however, wasn’t from the world but rather from within the Church.

The complacency of cheap grace allowed Nazism to subvert the gospel in the German church, and the spiritual complacency of America in the 50s and 60s germinated the seeds that bear so much bitter fruit in our culture today. (Btw, you might find it an interesting study to compare the origins, thinking and actions of the original Nazis with the origins, thinking and actions of those who are the first to label others as Nazis today.) It is this “cheap grace” with which we try to cover a multitude of sins while projecting a rich aura of tolerance and enlightenment. As Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic, “The Cost of Discipleship”:

This is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

In what I have read of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and – though I am not a Catholic – what I have seen in the life of Pope John Paul II, I sense they both understood that their own lives were not too dear a price to pay for the sake of future generations. As Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his letters from prison:

“The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”

Notes: For anyone interested in gaining a deeper sense of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and vision I highly recommend “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Letters and Papers from Prison” as a start (don’t expect to rush right through these, however). “Ethics” and “Life Together” go further into what a thriving life in the spirit and in fellowship with others is about for those who want more. There are also two excellent DVDs available. Especially moving is “Hanged on a Twisted Cross,” surprisingly and effectively narrated by Ed Asner and Mike Farrell, and the very polished “Bonhoeffer” from Martin Doblmeier.

One thought on ““This is the end – but for me, the beginning of life.”

  1. On This Day

    April 9, 1865 The Amarican Civil War ends. At Appomattox, Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders his 28,000 troops to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War. Forced to abandon the Confederate capital of Richmond,

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