Throughout my life as a Christian I would see Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books, and books about him, in Christian bookstores. Everyone can easily observe how popular he is. I wondered why, but never read any of his writings. He is considered one of the most popular teachers of our age, even among evangelicals.
It is amazing to realize just how much Bonhoeffer has influenced Evangelical Christians, particularly regarding discipleship. Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship is counted his most widely read book.
I am amazed that so many evangelicals love this man. I am amazed because when I thought I would have look at this man’s teaching I found within only half an hour that he advocated doctrines that are clearly against Evangelical Christianity. Some evangelicals are beginning to admit that this is the case. Nevertheless, his impact upon bible believing Christians has had lasting harmful effects. While some may ignore his denial of a literal creation, of the inerrancy of Scripture, and of personal conversion, they love what he has to say about the cost of discipleship.
Bonhoeffer is complicated in his arguments and this helps him to disguise his false position.
Jesus said to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees [Matt 16:6,11,12]. If there was ever anyone to whom we should apply Jesus’ warning, it is Bonhoeffer. Sure enough, many men like Bonhoeffer have had a harmful influence upon Evangelical Christians, but few as many as Bonhoeffer. As his writing is academic, it is particularly his influence upon Evangelical Christian leaders that his errors have had the most impact, which unfortunately has necessarily impacted those under their ministry.
Of particular importance is the costly impact of his book The Cost of Discipleship, in which he advocates a works-orientated view of Jesus’ teaching that we must deny ourselves and take up our cross.
Underlying Bonhoeffer’s approach to discipleship is the fundamental denial of the conversion experience among Evagelical Christians. He loathed the idea that by faith in the gospel message a person could have a conversion experience that then made that person a disciple of Christ.
There is constantly repeated in The Cost of Discipleship a different way of being a disciple, in contrast to a conversion by faith in Jesus Christ.
Some Quotes from Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship
- The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus. [p. 57]
- It is only the call of Jesus which makes it a situation where faith is possible. [p. 63]
- …only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes. [p. 63]
- For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience. [p. 64]
- In the one case faith is the condition of obedience, and in the other obedience the condition of faith. In exactly the same way in which obedience is called the consequence of faith, it must also be called the presupposition of faith. Only the obedient believe. [p. 64]
- …we must boldly assert that the step of obedience must be taken before faith can be possible. Unless he obeys, a man cannot believe. [p. 66]
- The gracious call of Jesus now becomes a stern command: Do this! Give up that! Leave the ship and come to me! When a man says he cannot obey the call of Jesus because he believes, or because he does not believe, Jesus says: “First obey, perform the external work, renounce your attachments, give up the obstacles which separate you from the will of God. Do not say you have not got faith. You will not have it so long as you persist in disobedience and refuse to take the first step. [p. 67]
- No one wants to know about your faith or unbelief, your orders are to perform the act of obedience on the spot. Then you will find yourself in the situation where faith becomes possible and where faith exists in the true sense of the word. [p. 67]
- The actual call of Jesus and the response of single-minded obedience have an irrevocable significance. By means of them Jesus calls people into an actual situation where faith is possible….it is only through actual obedience that a man can become liberated to believe. [p. 83]
- If our exegesis is truly evangelical, we shall realise that we cannot identify ourselves altogether with those whom Jesus called, for they themselves are part and parcel of the Word of God in the Scriptures, and therefore part of the message….It would be a false exegesis if we tried to behave in our discipleship as though we were the immediate contempories of the men whom Jesus called….It is neither possible nor right for us to try to get behind the Word of the Scriptures to the events as they actually occurred. [p. 84]
- We must not do violence to the Scriptures by interpreting them in terms of an abstract principle, even if that principle be a doctrine of grace. [p. 84]
Bonhoeffer advocates a discipleship based upon a mystical call that creates a situation in which faith becomes possible. He says that we are not to obtain our own discipleship from the Word of God, not from a principle according to a doctrine of grace, but only through some unique experience of our own, as we are obedient to that call. In order to be counted a true disciple we must be obedient to our unique call. It is a perfection based upon a faith in response to circumstances in our lives, rather than a perfection based solely upon faith in Jesus.
In short, Bonhoeffer teaches that one is a Christian because of how good we practice our discipleship. He rejects a conversion that then becomes the only basis of being a disciple.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an enemy of Christ.
In another work Bonhoeffer said, ‘It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.’ He wrote this in his Letters and Papers from Prison. He was contrasting mere high church ritual to what he saw as a matter of practice upon the field of this world. Yes, it is true that religious acts do not make us Christians, but neither does participation in suffering.
So where does Bonhoeffer go wrong with Jesus’ teaching on taking up our cross and how has this adversely impacted Evangelical Christians?
Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
Bonhoeffer is fundamentally and seriously wrong regarding what Jesus meant by our denial and by our taking up of our cross and this has significantly influenced Evangelical Christians.
Bonhoeffer on Denial
He wrote, ‘To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.’
There is a reason why Bonhoeffer is so popular. There is a delusion or a spell he crafts upon the reader. One must be careful and discerning in reading Bonhoeffer. Evangelicals do not usually read Roman Catholics and Lutherans who write beautiful images of spiritual devotion that are nothing more than beautiful gardens of death. It all sounds so spiritual and on the surface seems to be something that could not possibly have anything wrong with it.
The problem with Bonhoeffer’s teaching about denial is that it fails to deny what needs to be denied. Ironically, Bonhoeffer is actually promoting a view that is the very thing that we should be denying. Notice that it is impossible to not see our self as he says. It is an imaginary concept of self-denial that is vague and mystical.
Satan would have everyone imbibe this “self-denial” in which we conveniently fail to focus on what we are to deny about ourselves. Again, it sounds so spiritual to ‘be aware only of Christ’ and to not see ourself or to not be aware of self. Bonhoeffer is putting a delusion upon evangelicals (though he has another target audience). Never are we to have some sort of out-of-body experience in which we are no longer aware of self. On the contrary, we are to deny a self that we have a clear and full view of.
In order to fulfill Jesus’ teaching what is required is not a lack of awareness of self, but rather, a profound awareness of self and what we are to deny.
Paul the apostle teaches us a denial that is specific and concrete. Paul is very clear about what he is denying.
Philippians 3:7-9 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith….
Paul understood Jesus to be saying that if we wish to come after Him we must have this denial of self. A profound denial of any trust in ourselves as that which gives us a basis of a right standing before God. Paul was once like Bonhoeffer, trusting in a perfect discipleship according to the flesh, but then Paul renounced all of that as loss for the sake of his conversion in Christ and a resting alone in the righteous standing that he obtained by being in Christ.
Like Paul we need a denial that is a biblical view of ourselves, as being without any merit, so that we can by faith rightly take hold of a true discipleship. The very thing we need to specifically deny is what is according to the flesh, a salvation by works, and all that is mere self-righteousness.
On the one hand, Bonhoeffer would have us merely become oblivious of the self that we are to deny. He wrote, ‘Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake.’ This is not only impossible, but unbiblical. Consider that the Lord commanded us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves [Lev 19:18]. We are to love others with the awareness of how we love ourselves, not with a lack of awareness of how we love ourselves.
On the other hand, Bonhoeffer’s spiritualized denial of self, by means of an assumed ability to be oblivious of self, is the blindness of hypocrisy. This supra spiritual state that Bonhoeffer promotes is really an infatuation with a sense of merit that comes from making such a “denial” of self. “Oh, how spiritual my self is because I am oblivious of self and am aware only of Christ.”
Philippians 3:18-19 For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things.
Paul is talking about men like Bonhoeffer. Men who walk in the name of Christ but promote doctrines that are against Him. As Paul said at the beginning of Philippians 3, ‘Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh….’
The word ‘appetite’ is literally belly. Meaning, that these men are fleshly in their doctrine. The same word is used in the passage just below.
Romans 16:17-18 Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.
Bonhoeffer on Taking Up Our Cross
How then is Bonhoeffer an enemy of Christ regarding Jesus’ teaching that we are to take up our cross?
Bonhoeffer wrote,’The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. Only a man thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross.’
How can any evangelical read this and not be alarmed? Are those who promote Bonhoeffer without any sense at all?
Any true Christian knows that it is not our experiences that make us Christians, but Jesus Christ alone. Bonhoeffer would have us esteem the pitiful experiences of our life as that which transports us into true discipleship.
Bonhoeffer goes on, ‘The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death–we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’
If this doesn’t sound like error to you, then please let me explain. He is saying that by means of a discipleship under Christ, in which we continually experience various crosses, we fulfill Jesus’ words. By means of discipleship we become saved. By means of repeating over and over again all those little crosses in our life can we say that we have begun in our discipleship and in the same we maintain our discipleship. This is works righteousness and will necessarily burden us. When will we ever fulfill a sufficient taking up of our cross to say that we are truly disciples of Christ under this sort of teaching?
Galatians 6:14 But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
Paul has only one cross in which he boasts, not lots of little insignificant crosses that Bonhoeffer would have us boast in. It is no wonder that Bonhoeffer denies personal conversion for this sort of Christianity. It is about a way of being a Christian that is built upon our own man made cross. Paul provides for us the true means of being separated from the world and its ways. Paul boasts only in the cross of Christ!
The serious error of Bonhoeffer is that he takes Jesus’ teaching and makes it a way to be counted a Christian by equating suffering in our life to taking up our cross. He writes, ‘But how is the disciple to know what kind of cross is meant for him? He will find out as soon as he begins to follow his Lord to share his life. Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship.’
Where does it say that suffering is the badge of true discipelship anywhere in the bible?
Dwight L. Moody wrote, ‘Love is the badge that Christ gave His disciples. Some put on one sort of badge and some another. Some put on a strange kind of dress, that they may be known as Christians, and some put on a crucifix, or something else, that they may be known as Christians. But Love is the only badge by which the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ are known. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).’
Bonhoeffer does put on a strange dress. He then wrote, ‘If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him.’ While it is most certainly true that our profession of faith will result in suffering at the hands of those who reject Jesus, what Bonhoeffer is doing is to equate ‘taking up our cross’ to our experience of suffering. He is saying that we can say we are taking up our cross as we experience suffering. This creates bondage and confusion. His vague application of what this means necessarily burdens the people of God.
Jesus said that in order to be saved we must take up our cross. So in order to be saved, according to Bonhoeffer, we must suffer. If you are not suffering you are not taking up your cross and cannot be counted a disciple of Jesus. Again, he is rejecting the conversion experience in which a person becomes a Christian because of faith in Jesus. Bonhoeffer is wrong. When a person believes in Jesus they are born again. They have become saved and now they are to walk by the same means in which they became a Christian [Gal. 5:25; Col. 2:6]. They are not to see their discipleship as something that saves them, but rather, that because they are saved they now have a discipleship that can be lived out, in the power that is in Jesus.
Bonhoeffer has made the common experience of Christians, namely suffering, to be a thing that determines whether or not we are a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is serious error and is to be absolutely rejected. Many suffer because of doing wrong [2 Peter 2:13]. Others wrongly think that because they suffer persecution that this proves that they are God’s chosen people, such as the Mormons and other cults. Furthermore, what then can we say of ourselves if we are not suffering at some particular time? Christians go through all sorts of experiences and yet we must understand that our experiences, whether good or bad, do not in themselves say if we are truly saved.
Instead of Bonhoeffer’s view of a vague denial of self and a never fulfilled taking up of our cross, we should hear Paul the apostle. Paul understood that Jesus’ teaching about denying ourselves and taking up our cross was about our conversion, not our ongoing discipleship. In other words, it is about denying what Bonhoeffer would have us make an idol of, ourselves, and it is about being crucified with Christ, which alone puts to death our sinful self.
If you would like more information about what Jesus meant when He taught that we must deny ourselves and take up our cross in order to be saved, then please read my book: Take Up Your Cross: Our Only Power to Live and Walk by the Spirit.
November 15, 2020 – Romans 8:1-17
November 22, 2020 – Romans 8:1-17, 2
February 6, 2022 – Colossians 2:6,7
October 16, 2022 – John 12:25 – God Wants You to Hate and Lose Your Life