As a Christian historian and blogger, I have recently been studying prominent individuals who we might consider to be ‘heroes of the faith’. These people can truly be considered as spiritual giants because of the impact that their life and witness for Christ has had across the world. Their legacy can often be found in the eternal truths which they professed, taught and promoted. Such unique individuals continue to instruct and inspire believers today.
Sadly there are few if any 21st century individuals of any prominence who measure up. The true spiritual giants of this era are those who while unrecognised by the comfortable media conscious western church, stand for Christ in the most difficult of circumstances in godless states such as North Korea, Iran and Pakistan.
The revolutionary turbulence and violence of the 20th century produced a number of individuals who could be considered to be ‘heroes of the faith’, not least the German Pastor who resisted the forces of Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Born into an aristocratic, academic family his parents were shocked and displeased when at the age of 14, Dietrich announced he intended to become a pastor and theologian. Graduating from the University of Berlin in 1927, he initially spent some months in Spain as an assistant pastor to a German congregation. Further study followed including some time in the USA before Bonhoeffer took up a post of theology lecturer at the University of Berlin.
When Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, the young Bonhoeffer along with a small number of evangelicals quickly came to realise the great evil of the anti-semitism being promoted by the Nazi Party and the pitiful capitulation of many German Christians to the Nazi view of the world. Alongside other pastors and theologians, Bonhoeffer involved himself in organising the Confessing Church. In making the Barmen Declaration of 1934, this church publically declared its allegiance to Jesus Christ first: "We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and must recognize yet other happenings and powers, personalities and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God."
In the late 1930s Bonhoeffer travelled to America to become a guest lecturer, but returned to his homeland within months, confessing to fellow theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, "I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in 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."
In April 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and incarcerated in Tegel prison as a result of his opposition to the Nazis. He spent two years in prison, writing to family and friends and pastoring fellow prisoners. Eventually he was transferred from Tegel to Buchenwald concentration camp and then to the extermination camp at Flossenbürg. On April 9, 1945, one month before Germany surrendered, he was hanged with six other resisters.
A true hero of the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to inspire and instruct Christians to this day. In 1937 he wrote a book entitled ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ in which he called for a more faithful, radical obedience to Christ. His timeless description of ‘cheap grace’ stands as a severe rebuke to the comfortable, sanitised faith being promoted by many 21st century Christians.
"Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer ‘walked the talk’ living with grace, courage and without compromise: a true believer who put his trust in these words from the Bible: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Now that’s the ‘real deal’.