Bonhoeffer and St. Peter, Radical Disciples

Dietrich Bonhoeffer“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
― Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship                     

I think I’ve mentioned previously that our theater company is presenting a play about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance work in Nazi Germany. So his life and words are on my mind a lot just now. One of his most famous quotes (cited above) was the topic of discussion at rehearsal recently.

Bonhoeffer felt that call. Forced to witness the travesty of twisted dogma which was promoted by the new German State Church under Hitler, he could not keep silent. 6,000 pastors formed a new movement called the Confessing Church.

But still, many others caved under the threat of persecution, imprisonment or death, and took an oath of fidelity to Hitler as part of their ministerial vows. Many Germans willingly turned a blind eye to the punishing new decrees against the Jews and others deemed unworthy to be a part of the “master race.”

Bonhoeffer, meanwhile, joined a resistance movement which worked for three years to subvert the government and ultimately to assassinate Adolf Hitler. They all knew what this would mean if they were caught. Many of them were detained, interrogated, tortured. And some were executed. Bonhoeffer, one of his brothers, and two brothers-in-law, were all killed just weeks before the end of the war. [For a more complete timeline, go here.]

Bonhoeffer, a brilliant intellect with a promising career, born in privilege, cast it all aside to follow his conscience and his God. The price he paid was his earthly life.


Bonhoeffer’s radical obedience reminded me today of another disciple who left everything to follow Jesus.  In a post last summer [“Ballast or Dead Weight?”, which you can read here], I shared a passage from Mark Buchanan’s book, Hidden in Plain Sight, about virtue in the life of a Christ-follower. It still haunts me, and I think it’s worth sharing again, so here’s an excerpt from that post:


At several points in the book, Buchanan has included a lovely piece of creative writing, a “sanctified imagination” kind of meditation on the life of the apostle Peter. The first one, written first person in the voice of the apostle James, describes one of the apostles’ earliest encounters with Jesus (see Luke 5:1-11).

Jesus and PeterIt was the day Jesus co-opted Peter’s boat for a pulpit, and then suggested a deep sea fishing trip. The fishermen had just spent a long, unproductive night on the water and in fact had just finished cleaning their nets. But Peter reluctantly agrees to go out again anyway. Buchanan’s beautiful prose continues through the miraculous catch, and Peter’s throwing himself at Jesus’ feet: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus tells him not to be afraid; from now on he will catch men.

And then the writer pulls the rug out from under my feet, because he describes something I have never pictured, in all the years I’ve read this story:

And as soon as He said it, we knew He meant right now. He meant for us to choose before we landed, no waiting, no talking. Just decide.

Peter stood up and started tossing fish in the lake. We watched for a moment, then joined him. They hit the water stiff as wood, but after a few seconds they shook their tails, and dove. Those fish sank down in blackness, like fistfuls of silver we had to jettison in a storm.

But afterward, we felt light. Peter stepped ashore and started running.” (page 74)

I had to go back to Luke, shaking my head in doubt, in order to make sense of this image. And there it was:

“So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” (Luke 5:11)

Would fishermen leave a boatful of perfectly good fish to rot? Of course not. So what did they do with that miracle catch? They threw it back.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent time in England, and in America, at the outbreak of WWII. In both countries, he was urged by friends not to return to Germany. He wrestled with his decision, especially on his final trip to American in 1939. He felt God calling him to turn his back on safety, and to suffer with his countrymen. Earlier he had eschewed careers as either a professional musician or a university professor–both logical and lucrative choices–to be a pastor and writer. His family had been shocked.

” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow in my footsteps he must give up all right to himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

Matthew 16:24, J.B. Phillips New Testament

“Come and die.”

How is it that I dare to call myself a Christ-follower?  Have I been called to give up something which seems to me like a lifeline, but which is in  truth a millstone around my neck? Is there something I’m called to do which flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but is an act of obedience all the same?

And what do I do when I hear that call? Do I drop everything and follow? Or do I decide to keep fishing?

12 responses to “Bonhoeffer and St. Peter, Radical Disciples

  1. Great post! I have been seriously asking myself what I’m willing to sacrifice in my life for God (the answer is everything) and what I’m willing to do for Him (the answer is anything). Much of this is due to recently re-reading “The Cost of Discipleship” and learning more about the life of Bonhoeffer. Then on top of it I just finished “Crazy Love” by Francis Chan which is a sort of “Cost of Discipleship” for modern Americans. The more I confront myself and feel challenged by the Bible the more I’m seeing other people dealing with the same things. Self-confrontation is essential, and dropping everything to follow Him is really our only choice. “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”-Matt. 7:14
    It is exciting to realize that God is working with His people and making us more useful.
    P.S. I think I’ll have to check out “Hidden in Plain Sight”. Thanks!

    • Amen, Ben! We really are ALL called to be radical disciples, aren’t we? …but so much of the Church has lost that truth. That was a lot of what Bonhoeffer was trying to correct with his writing. He was quite disillusioned by the Church’s reaction to the Third Reich. It’s been very challenging to all of us who are producing this play.
      Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you enjoy Buchanan–he is both a profound and a poetic writer.

  2. Thanks for this post. I’m currently reading Cost of Discipleship. One cannot read it without questioning how seriously we take our faith. It certainly challenges of lot of typical thinking. It makes us all ask, “What am I seriously doing for God?”

    • That’s the only book of Bonhoeffer’s that I’ve read entirely. Recently finished the Metaxas biography. Bonhoeffer’s life and writings should make us all think. I’m hoping for some great conversations after “The Beams are Creaking” opens on Friday!

  3. This man really loved God. This was a modern day man fighting against the evils of the world. He gave up everything to fight for others. I loved his book Pastor, Martyr and Spy. If we could all be so in love with God we could conquer this evil. If everything was so wonderful, would we take time to thank God or would we just let each day pass? We all need to develop a deeper faith!

  4. livinrightinpgh

    “Is there something I’m called to do which flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but is an act of obedience all the same?”

    The Scriptures are FULL of acts of obedience that defy conventional wisdom. To me, that’s where the beauty of FAITH is beheld.

    Consider the story of Namaan (2 Kings 5). He suffered with leprosy and went to the king of Israel begging to be cured. The king sends him to Elisha the Prophet who tells him by way of his messenger: “Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.’” (2 Kings 5:10, NIV). Namaan is furious, expecting to be cured by words, and we are told in verses 11 and 12: “But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.”

    It takes words from his own servants to set him straight: “Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.” 2 Kings 5:13, 14

    We all choose what voice we will follow, be it the voice of other men, the voice of conscience, the voice of reason (conventional wisdom), OR the Voice of God…

    • And we can agree, too, that so-called “conventional wisdom” doesn’t have a lot going for it these days…especially insofaras it’s related to “political correctness”… Thanks for the example of Naaman–that’s a good one. Sometimes obedience may seem TOO simply to us. We’d rather do something impressive, something that makes us feel we’re earning our salvation. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments.

      • livinrightinpgh

        You are most welcome, my sister (in Christ). Conventional wisdom, to me, is just another way of saying “Man’s Wisdom”, be it PC or not.

        And, I think you are VERY right in saying that “We’d rather do something impressive, something that makes us feel we’re earning our salvation.” Fortunately, and by the Grace of God, and the blood of our Lord and Savior, we don’t have to earn it…..simply ASK.

        Ephesians 2:4 – 10

        LOVE your posts!

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