Context of the Lutheran Church during Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Day and its Influence on His Teachings on Cheap and Costly Grace


 Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of 20th century Europe. His firm conviction in the Christian faith motived him to become a leading puritanical voice in Germany where he made it his life’s work to instruct synods on their role in a rapidly transforming secular society. A native of Breslau, Bonhoeffer was born to a respectable and influential family of academics known across the wider region for their unmatched piety.  In keeping with this long family tradition, Bonhoeffer soon earned his Staatsexamen from the Protestant Faculty of Theology at the University of Tübingen where he graduated summa cum laude.  He later traveled to the United States in the summer of 1930 for further studies.  Bonhoeffer enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary where his Lutheran ideals burgeoned after frequent interactions with seminarians from diverse backgrounds. It was also in New York City that he had his first brush with the so-called “Gospel of Social Justice” which had a profound effect on his world view (Wüstenberg 5).

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By this time, Bonhoeffer also underwent a personal conversion that pushed him to the intellectual study of Christian ideals as per Lutheran models. Bonhoeffer’s subsequent appointment to head the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde offered a unique opportunity to lead example. It is also during this period that he authored his critically acclaimed 1937 Nachfolge (The Cost of Discipleship) where he famously contrasted cheap and costly grace (Bethge 366). In Part I of the book, Bonhoeffer openly explore this rabble-rousing topic with the aim of introducing change in an ethically lax society. A discussion of the influence of the Lutheran Church of his day on his teaching is, therefore, fundamental when seeking to understand Bonhoeffer’s stance on cheap and costly grace.

Context and Ideals of the Lutheran Church during Bonhoeffer’s Day

 At the core of the Lutheran dogma was the doctrine of two kingdoms which had a profound influence on Bonhoeffer and his stance during the first half of the 20th century. During this period, the Lutheran Church fervently espoused a clear boundary between temporary and spiritual authority. The doctrine essentially accentuated created a loophole for secularism, even when it was acutely apparent that Luther’s original intention was to prevent worldly powers from controlling the realm of conscience. This distinction also made it possible for the Church to stake its claim as the originator of any earthly power since temporal authority originates from the spiritual kingdom. According to Lutheran doctrine, the temporary authority also existed to maintain Law and order in an increasingly violent world.  Nevertheless, it is fundamental to acknowledge that Lutheran doctrine regarded God as ruler in both realms. It was from this premise that Christians were expected to administer society while strictly adhering to the tenets of the Sermon on the Mount (Bethge 369).

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Luther’s opinions also meant that political life and machinations had to be subservient to God’s will. A secularized society also posed a threat to the autonomy of Christian life since it was bound to interfere with the freedom to preach and adhere to God’s ordinances. In addition to this, Luther also affirmed that there were circumstances that called for a revolution in society. During such instances, it was incumbent upon Christians to revolt uncompromisingly against despotism, even if it cost them their lives. In such a case, God’s divine command took antecedence over temporal authorities whose acts of injustice were an affront on the dignity of human life. The view that secularists rarely considered the future was widely held by Lutheran Christians who regarded them as persons whose primary concern was the present. Lutheran thought, therefore, held the State responsible for its citizens while still being expected to respect a feignedly Christian concept.

 Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s rich theological legacy also doubles as a part of the broader Lutheran tradition. The Gospel and sanctification are critical tenets of the Lutheran Church that had to be respected by all. God’s word was regarded as the Law. Christians were expected to show their devotion through loving God with their heart, mind, and soul. The Church also underscored the aspect of forgiveness. Any human failure came about as a result of our human failure, the word of God.  Nevertheless, these failings could be forgiven by God’s ever present grace at any given moment.  By following the stipulations listed in the Bible, outward sin could now be restrained paving the way for an opportunity to seek forgiveness and redemption in the eyes of God.  Additionally, the Lutheran Church justified the development of human faith through righteousness. God was then responsible for sanctifying individuals to the point of wholeness (Dahill 23). It was thus the duty of every Lutheran Christian to obey God’s Law and become the vine that produces good fruits even when faced with adversity. Forgiveness for any transgression committed by any individual would only be forgiven if they took responsibility for their actions, repented, and dedicated their life to Christ.  Lutheran ideals required baptism through the Church and an absolution that could only be made possible after personal confession (Schlingensiepen). During Bonhoeffer’s time, it was paramount that all believers acknowledge their sinful nature as a precondition for receiving the Gospel in a secular society. An acknowledgment of the price of forgiveness was a fundamental part of the Lutheran ideology, one that had to be done before being re-born in Christ. Individuals had to die and rise as an act of repentance. Likewise, communion with Christ could only be done at the altar, where one had to confess their sins before seeking reconciliation. Lutheran Christians were thus expected to conduct themselves in a fashion pleasing to the Heavenly Father, live in Christ and persevere in the face of imminent persecution.

Bonhoeffer’s Contrast of Cheap and Costly Grace

 The first part of The Cost of Discipleship aspires to keep founding epitomes of the Lutheran Church alive. Bonhoeffer does this by penning a scathing attack on what he refers to as “cheap grace” promoted by Protestant churches. He makes it abundantly clear that an unconditional offer for one to receive forgiveness is not practical and concealment for the ethical laxity pervasive in German society. Bonhoeffer’s conviction on this sensitive issue was among one of the primary reasons why he founded the Confessing Church. The Nazi’s rise to authority in 1933 upset the balance that had long held the country, an event which Bonhoeffer followed keenly (Hendrix 87). Bonhoeffer’s outright criticism of this new regime was also because it represented an immediate threat to the Lutheran Church and Christian traditions that held Germany together. Bonhoeffer regarded the political fervor that supported Hitler’s rise to as a threat to the unity and his idolatrous cult movement retrogressive. The first official test to his faith came when the Nazi regime removed all church leaders of Jewish descent from their posts. Anti-Semitic sentiments were on the rise during this tumultuous period in German history where various attempts were made to arrive at a lasting solution to “the Jewish question” (Gruchy). Bonhoeffer insisted that Jewish converts were to be treated with respect while relishing the rights enjoyed by fellow Christians. It was also during this period that Bonhoeffer heeded the Lutheran call of action and became actively involved in politics. His main objective was to introduce change to a society that was slowly descending into the abyss. The overthrow of Adolf Hitler was thus top on his agenda. Hitler’s influence was slowly entering the ranks of the Protestant Church, threatening to reconstruct Christian life and the concept of grace (Plant 94). Bonhoeffer was also quick to note that the Church had remained eerily silent when the Nazi regime massacred innocent Germans. Costly grace had a colossal impact on his consequent actions as an operative for the underground resistance movement.

 Bonhoeffer was firm in his belief that cheap grace was a threat to longstanding Lutheran traditions. Mere principles and doctrines constituted cheap grace which was linked to the secular world. Bonhoeffer advocated for a radical approach which suggested the reintroduction of costly grace into the Christian life (Bethge 373). Individuals were expected to make the ultimate sacrifice, even their lives, and endeavor to follow Christ. Bonhoeffer saw this as the best example of authentic Christian demeanor since salvation also cost God his only Son (Dietrich 45). The life of the common monastic served as an example of costly grace. These were individuals who gave up secular pleasures and every other thing to follow Christ. In the same light, some also used this example to discredit the possibility of everyone attain a state of costly grace. The secular world viewed monks as a select few with the ability to strive for a costly life and, therefore, being in favor of cheap grace.   Martin Luther was aware of this little-known fact. He believed that the Scriptures were a manual that would lead one to Christ and salvation (Dietrich 47). Additionally, Luther regarded grace as an essential part of the Christian faith, for it was capable of saving. Bonhoeffer also adds that obligatory discipleship also goes hand in hand with costly grace (Dietrich 49). He also blamed the rapid decline of the organized Church on the low cost of grace. Pastors were willing to give their word, sacraments, and baptism rights away without first providing a specific set of conditions. Apart from contrasting cheap and costly grace, the first chapter was also a warning to the Church. It was cheap grace that ultimately led to the introduction of the brutal national socialist ideology. Even though one may liken Bonhoeffer’s outlook to fundamentalism, he had the welfare of the German people at heart and one of the main reasons why he returned to Germany after criticizing Hitler. He understood that by doing so he was signing his death sentence but did so to preserve the idea of costly grace in the Christian Church.


Bonhoeffer remains one of the most vocal pastors and anti-Nazi dissident whose contribution in society is still being felt today. He was heavily influenced by the teachings of the Lutheran Church which informed his teachings on cheap and costly grace. His attack on “cheap grace” also served as a wakeup call for Germans who had been complacent enough to allow a tyrant to lead them.  Moral laxity in society could only be avoided by embracing costly grace and discipleship as instructed by Martin Luther.

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