Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: can’t I just be a second-rate Christian?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was 39 years old when he was executed by the Nazis in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp in 1945.  He co-founded the Confessing Church in 1934 when the German   Church failed to resist Hitler, accepting his choice for Reich Bishop of the Evangelical Church.  In effect, the Protestant church became an arm of the Nazi regime, even as some individual pastors and churches resisted.  The church also accepted the Aryan paragraph, in which converted Christians were barred from the church.   For this Bonhoeffer was not murdered; he was murdered because he was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. 

His most well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, argues against cheap grace. 

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 47)

Cheap grace completely, and perhaps intentionally, misunderstands Martin Luther.

When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save.  His followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship.  (Discipleship, p 53)

The obligation of discipleship is complete.  God asks everything of us, including our lives.  Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached. 

Can’t I just give some of my money away?

In Bonhoeffer’s account, giving everything means just that.  In a well-known Biblical story, a rich man goes up to Jesus and says that he has fulfilled the Ten Commandments, what more can he do?

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:21-22)

The man went away sad, I imagine, because he knew he was not going to give his wealth away and follow Jesus.  The Ten Commandments are easy compared to that.

Bonhoeffer takes the Bible seriously.  If Christ says give all your money away to the poor, then that is what you do.  This is how religion remains relevant.

Letters from prison

In his letters from prison, written shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer goes even further.  The church itself should give away all its property (Letters, p 382).  The difference in tone between Discipleship and Letters is remarkable, and I will comment on “religionless Christianity” in my next post.  But the basic idea remains the same.  Don’t just pray.  Work at being a Christian; do something. 

But I don’t want to be perfect

When I read Christ’s response to the rich man I struggle for an out, an escape.  After all, Christ did say if you want to be perfect, give all your money away.  What if I don’t want to be a perfect Christian, then can’t I just give some of my money away, can’t I just tithe ten percent? 

I don’t think my response is in the spirit of Christ’s advice.  Sometimes I pray for forgiveness for not giving more of my money to the poor.  But then I realize that I can’t ask for forgiveness for something I’m not willing to change.  Perhaps if I had more money, but of course that’s a cop-out too.    

The United States is not a good country in which to be old and poor, and it’s getting worse.  I don’t want to spend my money on a Mercedes, or a thirty-foot boat, both of which I see frequently here on Cape Cod.  I just want to have financial security in my old age. 

Can’t I just will the money to charity after my wife and I are gone?  That’s possible, I suppose, though it doesn’t seem to be what Christ meant either.  And in any case, the obligation of the young man was not only to give away his wealth, but to abandon his previous life. 

Bonhoeffer took the Bible seriously, but he took Christ more seriously.  There is no distinction between faith and works.  Or if there is, works comes first, from which emerges faith.  One does works in order to have faith.  That tired distinction is not going to help me out either, as in “well, I don’t give much money to the poor, but I have great faith.”  Yet another cop-out.    

Bonhoeffer and Peter Singer

The issue can no longer be evaded. It is becoming clearer every day that the most urgent problem besetting our Church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?  (Discipleship, p 60)

At first, I say to myself that I have no idea how to live a Christian life in today’s world.  But if I am being honest with myself then I realize I have a pretty good idea, and Peter Singer is a good example.  Singer is a professor of ethics at Princeton University and the University of Melbourne.  He has nowhere said he is a Christian.  His parents were Austrian Jews who immigrated to Australia in 1938. 

Singer himself seems to give away about 20% of his income.  In arguing that you should give more (not more than Singer, just more than you do), Singer uses an analogy, a less cryptic version of Christ’s parables. 

Suppose you see a child drowning in a muddy pool.  You can rescue the child with no danger to yourself, but at the cost of ruining your expensive new suit (Singer, p 199).  Clearly you are morally obliged to rescue the child.  Your new suit hardly figures in the moral equation.  If you don’t donate 10-20% of your money to charities that feed, clothe, and shelter the poor, such as Oxfam or Care, then you are ignoring the drowning child.  In one way or another, hundreds of millions are drowning around the world, and it is your obligation to save as many as you can. What a difference in my life, and yours, that would make.     

By the way, it doesn’t count if you give to public radio, or the art museum, charities of, by, and for the middle-classes.  I’d say this raises a real problem for those who give their money to their church or synagogue, but I’ll not pursue it here. 


Singer’s is not a religious argument.  It is an argument about collective well-being.  Jesus is, in any case, more stringent.  Give all you have and follow Christ.  Bonhoeffer gave his life.  What have I given?  What should I give?  More I’m sure.  And you? 


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.  Macmillan, 1963.  [German original 1937]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged edition.  Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1971. 

Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3’d edition.  Cambridge University Press, 2011.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Verified by MonsterInsights