Bonhoeffer and The Costly, Enjoyable Kingdom

by Steve Bezner May 9, 2015

In 1930, newly-minted Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer boarded a ship bound for New York City. At the time, Bonhoeffer was a promising young academic theologian who had completed two—yes, two—dissertations combining sociology, philosophy, and theology. He planned to enjoy a post-doctoral Sloan fellowship in New York City at Union Theological Seminary, studying systematic theology from an American perspective.

Academically, Bonhoeffer was disappointed. He found Americans did not believe in dogmatics or authority but preferred to craft a theology based upon their own preferences. In a letter back home he lamented, “There is no theology here.”

Spiritually, however, Bonhoeffer was surprisingly invigorated. He encountered two men—one Reformed and one Baptist—who challenged him immensely. Jean Lasserre, a French Reformed pastor, challenged Bonhoeffer’s Scriptural hermeneutic. Lasserre insisted upon a literal reading of the text, particularly within the Sermon on the Mount. Coming from a position of national pride, particularly one smarting over the World War I Treaty of Versailles, Bonhoeffer had not mingled politics and theology. Lasserre forced him to think of the church as a voice over against nationalism rather than a necessary supporter of it. 

The Baptist, Frank Fisher, was an African-American who introduced Bonhoeffer to the theology and energetic worship of those who had escaped slavery and embraced grace. Bonhoeffer noted, “I heard the gospel preached in the Negro churches.” Based on the context, one might deduce he felt it was the first time he had heard it.

Coupled with this new, direct reading of the Bible and the lively worship and thought of the Harlem churches, Bonhoeffer found himself changed.

He returned to Berlin a year later, making surprising statements and confusing students. In one letter to his closest friend, Eberhard Bethge, he wrote: 

“Then something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible . . . I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it—but I had not yet become a Christian. ... Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed.”

One of his students recounted a discussion between classes:

"There, before the church struggle, he said to us at the new Alexanderplatz, with a simplicity like old Tholuck might have once used, that we should not forget that every word of Holy Scripture was a love letter from God directed very personally to us, and he asked us whether we loved Jesus.”

The gospel, it appears, changed the trajectory of Bonhoeffer’s life. 

Prior to his American year, Bonhoeffer saw theology and the Bible as merely an academic exercise. He read the Bible as a text to be interpreted, perhaps, but not as a text under which one’s life might be submitted.

Soon his family, friends, and colleagues were alarmed. Wasn’t he taking this entire thing too seriously? 

If your experience is anything like mine, you’ve been asked that question, as well. My original trajectory late in high school was clear: military service followed by law school followed by a career in politics. But none of that ever transpired. The Lord called. And I answered. Concerned friends would ask: “Shouldn’t you choose a career where you can make more money?” “Don’t you think you could do something where you would be more successful?” Or my personal favorite: “It seems like you’re wasting your talents.”

Late in my teens I read a book that started me on a journey toward grace. It opened with a reminder of the “old confessions”: “The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever.” I had never once contemplated enjoying God. I had loved God. I had served God. I had preached about God. I had studied God.

But I had never enjoyed Him.

When I discovered the gospel of grace, everything changed. I worshipped out of sheer pleasure. I obeyed out of pleasure. I loved God out of pleasure. To be sure, there were plenty of failures and times of disobedience. But I had awakened to grace. And it changed me.

Suddenly every aspect of my life—family, politics, relationships, study, work—all of them became opportunities for me to live out my understanding of enjoying the grace of God.

But when you start to become a fanatic, you always alienate those more reserved in their zeal.

For a time, I reconsidered my position. Perhaps I was taking the matter too seriously. "There are plenty of Christians," I thought, "who live ordinary lives without being so passionate. Calm down."

One day, soon thereafter, I read of Bonhoeffer’s change of heart. I saw how he read the Bible differently. I saw how he took Jesus seriously. And I saw that he, too, was questioned.

Providentially, I also re-read the parable of the Pearl of Great Price: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matt. 13:45-46)

I was reminded: The Kingdom is worth…everything. There is nothing more valuable. It is worth giving up everything—family, possessions, and, yes, even respectability—in order to obtain it.

To put it simply: I am comfortable being alien to those around me. I have made a conscious decision: Jesus is worth it. And, thank God, Jesus decided I was worth it, as well. 

He pursued me. He chose me. He sacrificed for me. He conquered death for me.

How could I not be fanatical about such love?

Love so amazing, so divine—demands my life, my soul, my all.