Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Nazi Religion versus "Religionless" Faith

By Berit Kjos - 2010

  See The Cost of Discipleship


Both sides of the church spectrum have focused on a phrase Bonhoeffer used in his personal letters: "religionless Christianity." Both sides claim that he pushed social action and frowned on "religion." Both misunderstood his message!

To Bonhoeffer, "religionless Christianity" meant pure, untarnished Biblical faith. It warned against "religious" distortions that clash with two essentials: (1) total reliance on God's Word and Spirit, and (2) God's call to sacrificial ministry. In other words, true Christianity involves costly grace!  As Bonhoeffer explained in The Cost of Discipleship,

"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church....An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.... In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required..."

"Costly costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son."

"As Christianity spread, and the Church became more secularized, this realization of the costliness of grace gradually faded."[1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into a caring, influential but unchurched German family in 1906. The sixth of eight children, he shocked his older brothers when, at age 14, he announced he wanted to study theology. It made no sense to them! Nineteen-year-old Klaus saw the church as nothing more than a "poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeoisie institution." And Karl-Friedrich, already a young, respected scientist, accused him of  "escaping into the fog of metaphysics."

But Dietrich stood his ground. "Even if you were to knock my head off, God would still exist," he replied.[2-p, 38]

Seven years later, at age 21, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Berlin. Even the well-known theologian Karl Barth (with whom Bonhoeffer often disagreed) praised his doctoral thesis, "Communion of Saints," as a "theological miracle."[3]

Still too young to pastor a German church, Bonhoeffer spent the next year (1928) in Spain as an assistant pastor. Before returning home, he shared his concerns in an inspiring lecture to high-school boys. Eric Metaxas summarized its main point in his biographical book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr,

"...the essence of Christianity is not about religion at all, but about the person of Christ.....

"He... attacked the idea of 'religion' and moral performance as the very enemies of Christianity and of Christ because they present the false ideas that somehow we can reach God through our moral efforts. This led to hubris and spiritual pride, the sworn enemies of Christianity....

"He differentiated between Christianity as a religion like all the others— which attempt but fail to make an ethical way for man to climb to heaven of his own accord—and following Christ, who demands everything, including our very lives....

"He identified 'the Greek spirit' or 'humanism' as 'the most severe enemy' that Christianity ever had....a challenge to the honor belonging to God alone."[2-p,

Before long, another "enemy" would rise in fierce opposition to God's honor. Its dark shadow was already visible on the horizon.


Hitler's rapid rise to power raised hope as well as fear. While the masses idolized him for restoring national pride and order, the Bonhoeffers and countless others sensed the horrors ahead.

In January 1933, Hitler became Reich Chancellor of Germany. A month later, the burning of the Reichstag building multiplied his power. Many suspect that this "convenient crisis" was merely the first of many planned "emergencies" used to justify repression, war, and mass murder.

In March that same year, Dachau, the first concentration camp opened its doors to Hitler's foes. Five years would still pass before the infamous Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) would trigger Hitler's monstrous massacre of Jews.

Hitler and his SS officers were fascinated by an occult blend of Theosophy, Nordic mythology and Aryan superiority. Yet, the reigning god in their pagan system was the Fuehrer himself, the "Savior" of Germany. Pretending at first to be a Christian, his hatred for the Bible would soon shake the church. As Metaxas points out,

"[Heinrich] Himmler was the head of the SS and was aggressively anti-Christian...For Himmler, the SS was itself a religion, and its members, postulants in its priesthood. Many SS rituals were occultic in nature....

"[Reinhard Heydrich said] 'You’ll see the day, ten years from now, when Adolf Hitler will occupy precisely the same position in Germany that Jesus Christ has now...

"Rosenberg was one of the Nazi leaders most active in creating this ‘new religion.'...[He] was an 'outspoken pagan' who, during the war, developed a thirty-point program for the 'National Reich Church.'... A few points of his program illustrate what Hitler...would move toward:

Hitler chose the corrupt Ludwig Muller to lead the new “united German church.” In line with Nazi ideology and social Darwinism, the new Reich Bishop announced that “love” among German Christians would have a “hard, warrior-like face. It hates everything soft and weak." [173]

Next, Muller began rewriting the Bible. His twisted theology was published in a pamphlet titled “German Words of God.” It opened with this introduction: “I have not translated the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) but Germanized it." For example:

"...since meekness was not, an acceptable 'German' attitude, Muller had given his comrades something more in keeping with the hearty Germanic image he wished to promote: 'Happy is he who always observes good comradeship. He will get on well in the world."[2-pp,290-291]


While most of the German Lutheran church was transformed into a Nazi puppet, Bonhoeffer helped establish the "Confessional Church." He encouraged pastors to resist the exclusion of Jewish-Christian pastors, to refuse to sign the obligatory loyalty oath to Hitler, to speak out for the persecuted Jews, and to yield to God's Truth rather than Nazi threats.

To most pastors this was too great a challenge. They knew well that compromise would secure their position and government wages. Resistance could be costly.

For Bonhoeffer, this was a time of conflict and discouragement. Few seemed to heed his call to a deeper, sacrificial faith:

"He felt that what was especially missing from the life of Christians in Germany was the day-to-day reality of dying to self, of following Christ with every ounce of one’s being in every moment, in every part of one’s life....

"’s faith must be shining and bright and pure and robust. It must be free of... mere religiosity, [otherwise] the Christ whom one was bringing into the world and the culture was not Christ at all, but a tawdry man-made counterfeit."[2-p.248]

Bonhoeffer called this shallow belief system a mere "religion," and he urged pastors to embrace a costly Christianity without religious trappings. For himself, the cost included criticism, rejection, slander and finally execution.

"...the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me." John 16:2-3


In April 1943, two years before the war ended, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned at Tegel Prison in Berlin. For the next 18 months he would have plenty of time to read his Bible, ponder church issues, write letters, and encourage guards and fellow prisoners with God's love and gospel. Among his sources of comfort were some precious hymns he had safely stored in his memory.


A "central part of Bonhoeffer's life and theology" was the Sermon on the Mount.[2-p.113]   In his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, he tells us what it meant to him. Notice how its first part (Matthew 5:3-12) clashes with shallow religiosity. [A brief statement by Bonhoeffer follows each verse below]:

It's humanly impossible for us to meet those high standards. Only when God works in and through us by His Spirit, can we claim those promises! 

Now compare His high calling with the following definition for "religion" found in Webster's Dictionary. Notice that it ignores Christ's redemptive grace and the actual work of the Holy Spirit -- the essence of true Christianity:

Warm feelings or human conformity to a set of precepts is not Biblical Christianity! As Bonhoeffer wrote,

"...the essence of Christianity is not about religion at all, but about the person of Christ. ...religion was a dead, man-made thing, and at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely -- God himself, alive."[2-p.83]

The key is knowing and following Jesus Christ -- bringing His life-changing Truth into a hurting world -- no matter what the cost.

Bonhoeffer did. In 1930, while studying in New York, he found relief from the painfully liberal atmosphere of Union Theological Seminary by teaching children's Sunday schools classes at a black Bible-centered church in Harlem. Two years later, he chose to live in one of the darkest parts of Berlin so that he could shine God's light into the hearts of its troubled boys.

During his two last years of earthly life, God used him to demonstrate His love to every prison guard and fellow prisoners that sought hope in the midst of Nazi terrors. Then, facing death, he said his last farewell: "This is the end...For me the beginning of life."[2-p.528]

"...none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God." Acts 20:24

THE FINAL WITNESS - April 9, 1945

The 39-year-old Bonhoeffer spent only two days at Flossenburg death camp. The day before his execution, he gave his last sermon and shared God's saving message with the other prisoners in his cell. The next day, he walked calmly to the gallows. The camp doctor who watched the execution would later write his observations:

"Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.

"At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."[2-p.532]

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (The Macmillan Co., 1949, German version: 1937), p.45-46, 49.

2. Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr (Thomas Nelson, 2010) Page numbers cited with quotes.


4. Dr. R. F. Burton Nelson, "Friends He Met in America," Christian History Magazine, Issue 32: "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian in Nazi Germany." 1991.

Bonhoeffer, Part 2: Tyranny brings tough choices: Submit, Compromise, Resist and Risk Death

Bonhoeffer, like other young men, was drafted into the German army. Refusal meant death. A temporary deferral bought him time but no clear answer. Must he, a Christian pacifist, obey and fight for Hitler against England and America?  Was there a better way?

Books and quotes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The Cost of Discipleship | Life Together

Answering critics with Bonhoeffer's quotes

Meditations on the Cross