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Hitler's Cross

The Cost Of Discipleship In The Third Reich

Erwin W. Lutzer | November 6, 1994

Selected highlights from this sermon

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other Christian leaders tried to rally the church against the growing evil of Adolf Hitler’s reign. Bonhoeffer was often a lonely voice of objection, as others went their own way. 

He was a man familiar with death. He died to familial relationships, the love of money, and his own aspirations, and ultimately, Bonhoeffer’s physical death was ordered by Hitler. Are we dying to ourselves and seeking to do the will of God as he did?

“When Christ calls a man He bids him, ‘Come and die.’” Those are the words of a young theologian by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood against Nazism, who tried to get the church to be what it should be in the midst of the Nazi regime, and who gave that famous sermon that I told you about last week, “Confess, confess, confess!” And this man, with a life to back it up, did exactly what his words said. He followed Christ, and at the age of 39, he died.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany, born to a prominent family, but they were not church going. But at the age of 17 he wanted to become a theologian, but his brothers tried to talk him out of it, telling him quite frankly that the church was a lost cause, that the church was weak. It had been marginalized, that if Germany was to be strong he should give his life to something that would matter and not to the church. But nevertheless Dietrich said at the age of 17, “If the church is feeble I shall reform it.” And so it was that he left what could have been the quiet life of a scholar in other areas to study theology, and it was his book, The Cost of Discipleship, that made him so famous both in Europe as well as in America.

Listen to what he says. “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sins, the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut-rate prices. In such a church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins. No contrition is required. Still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. It is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living incarnate.” And on and on he goes. Excoriating the church for cheap grace!

Now, the Bonhoeffer family grew up during those difficult days in Germany, and in 1923 when inflation was so great that it took four billion marks to make a dollar, during that period of time Bonhoeffer Sr. had two $50,000 life insurance policies that came due. He promised his family that he would buy them some strawberries and a bottle of wine, but at the end of the day the hundred thousand marks bought only some strawberries.

But young Dietrich was in the University of Berlin where he was taught and schooled in liberalism. Jesus Christ was largely stripped of His uniqueness, and he was schooled in liberal theology. But for some reason, which can only be attributed to the grace of God, young Dietrich did not buy into all of the liberal ideas, but actually retained the belief that Jesus Christ was essentially as He was presented in the New Testament. And when he came to America to study at Union Theological Seminary, it is there, evidently in another liberal school, where he personally received Christ as his Savior and was a changed man.

The Bonhoeffer family did not participate in all of the things that were happening in Germany. In 1933 when there was a boycott of Jewish businesses and the Germans were told that they should not frequent Jewish stores, the Bonhoeffer family did it anyway. Dietrich had a 90-year old grandmother who walked through the SA troops, the storm troops, and went to the Jewish stores, and loaded her handbags with things purchased there, defying the troops to touch her.

Young Dietrich said that the responsibility of the church in the midst of such social disgrace was to (quote) jam the spokes of the wheel, and if all of the Christians would have risen up and said, “We will not obey the orders of the state” why indeed Germany would have been different.

We’ve already learned in this series of messages that there were many people who decided to go along with the state, and last time I told you about a synod in which the ministers themselves, dressed as storm troopers, and gave the Nazi salute, so Bonhoeffer was basically a lone man. Yes, there were others. I told you about some of them, and next week I will speak on martyrdom. He was a lonely voice in the wilderness.

Why was it he was able to die so successfully on April 9, 1945? The reason is because Bonhoeffer had died many times before then. He died to self-will. He died to self-rule. And that’s what I’m going to invite you to do with me today. Let us die together.

Would you take Matthew chapter 10 as our text? And we will be looking at several texts in the book of Matthew. In some instances, in this message I will be quoting Bonhoeffer. There is a mixture here of some of my own ideas and his, but when I quote him directly I will let you know that. But the text is Matthew chapter 10, verse 37. “He who loves his father or his mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and he who does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it and he who has lost his life for my sake shall find it.”

What I’d like to do today is to walk us through five deaths that Bonhoeffer died before he was hung at Flossenbürg. And I want us to be walking through those deaths and to die as well as he did. Now I have a feeling that I am going to enjoy this message a whole lot more than you, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because I knew it was coming. And because I knew it was coming, I spent some time this week dying in advance so that I could take you on this pilgrimage of death. But let us die together. Five deaths! God expects us to die if we follow Christ.

First of all, there is the death to natural relationships, even to our families. I read the text a moment ago. Jesus Christ said, “If you love your father or your mother or even your son or your daughter more than you love me (What does it say?), you are not worthy to be my disciple.” You see, many of the pastors in Bonhoeffer’s time said, “We are willing to die for the faith. We will go to the concentration camps, but we can’t leave our families behind.” And what Bonhoeffer was saying is that there is a commitment to God that is so encompassing, that is so great, that is so consuming, that even the natural affection of our families must be laid aside if God calls. What a statement.

He uses the illustration of Abraham who was asked to sacrifice Isaac. One day God said, “Abraham.” Abraham said, “Here I am, Lord, please give me something nice to do.” And God said, “Well, I have something for you to do but I don’t think it will be nice from your standpoint. Take your son, your only son, Isaac, to Mount Moriah and there sacrifice him.”

Abraham, I am sure, never told Sarah about it. How could he possibly share the dreaded secret with his own wife? But he takes his boy, and as he trudges up the hill he alone knows the awful truth of what God had asked him to do. Why was it that God asked Abraham to do such a thing? Well, what God was trying to see was whether or not this child whom Abraham loved so much, whether or not the boy had wormed his way into Abraham’s heart. Could it be he actually took the place of God there?

Now we know that God never allowed it to happen. We also know that when Abraham was going to do it, he believed that God would raise him from the dead because there was a promise that through Isaac posterity would arise. But when Abraham was about to do it, and then God intervened and he received his son back, and the ram that was caught in the thicket was sacrificed in the place of his boy, (chuckles) oh, the relationship that Abraham had with Isaac was never the same. Outwardly everything was the same, but within it was all brand new, because now he had received him back from the dead, the book of Hebrews says, because he had given Isaac to God, and God could have taken Isaac, but now God gives Isaac back to him, and in giving Isaac back to him it is as if death, the cross if you please, has intervened. God has now come between the old man and the boy. And the old man can never see the boy in the same light again. He must see him now as a unique special gift from God.

“Now,” says Bonhoeffer, “the reason for this incident is that the relationship that we have with God must be proven to be greater even than the relationship with flesh and blood.” Jesus said that if you love son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of me.” Now you think about that for just one moment. Bonhoeffer himself was dearly in love with a young woman by the name of Maria. They were engaged but they never married because of what happened to Bonhoeffer in his imprisonment and eventual death. But there is the need for all of us to bring to the cross those human relationships, the people whom we love, and when the cross intervenes, we can never love them directly. We now love them through the cross, and the Christ who gave them to us, and how differently we now perceive them. We must die to natural relationships in the sense of putting Christ first.

There’s a second death that we must die, and since the book, The Cost of Discipleship, which I hope you read by the way, is largely an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, I want you to turn to Matthew chapter 5, verse 3 for just a moment. This is death to success or prominence. Death to success or prominence.

Jesus, in the Beatitudes, says (verse 3), “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And He goes on to say, “Blessed are you when men revile you (this is verse 11) and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you, (That’s not very successful. That’s not the American dream.) but blessed are you if all that happens to you.” You know, here in America we often say, “Well, you know God wants us to be a success, and we can be a success for Him.” Strictly speaking that is true, but my, what kind of rationalizations often lurk behind that very pious slogan, where we think to ourselves that now the pursuit of success can go forward full-throttle because, after all, we can be a success for God. And we can be. But listen to me very carefully. No person can really be a success for God unless he is, in the final analysis, also willing to be a failure for God.

If you and I are not willing to be failures for God, we can have no right to say that we are a success for God. For Bonhoeffer he says, “The true Christian is not consumed with success or failure, but with the willing acceptance of God’s judgment, whatever God wills.

Let’s take our careers, and many of us enjoy our careers. Let us take the hidden desires that we have to be well thought of, the desire for somebody to salute and to say we made it. Until all of those dreams and visions and aspirations lie shattered at the foot of a crucified Savior, Christ is not first, and the text says we have no right to be called His disciple.

Oh, let us never love ambition, which Bonhoeffer by the way, says is the way to hell. Let us never love ambition directly. Let us always love it, if we do, through the cross of Christ, through the crucified Redeemer. That’s a second death that Bonhoeffer died, and Christ asks us to die to it too.

Let us look at a third, and that is lust. In chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus makes that penetrating statement in verse 27. “You have heard that you should not commit adultery, but I say to you that everyone who looks upon a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” And then He goes on to say, “If your right eye offends you, or makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to have one part of your body perish than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

I remember a pastor telling me that he was discussing the topic of lust with some men, and men struggle with this greatly, though we should not think that women don’t either. But he said that in this company, that as honesty began to reign in the security of their discussion, he discovered that some of them, though they were Christians, were saying, in effect, that even if God granted them victory over this, they are not sure whether they would want it because in a world that is so cruel and so harsh, they deserved this bit of pleasure.

Listen to Bonhoeffer on his exposition of this text. He says, “Every momentary desire is a barrier to following Jesus, and brings the whole body into hell, making us sell our heavenly birthright for a mess of pottage, and showing that we lack faith in Him.” Now this is a crucial statement. This, I think, gets to the heart of the matter, and certainly answers the response of those men I spoke about. Notice it says, “It shows a lack of faith in Him who will reward mortification (that’s an old word that means the putting to death of these desires) with joy a hundredfold.”

Then says Bonhoeffer, “Instead of trusting the unseen, we prefer the tangible fruit of desire. Thus we lose touch with Jesus. Lust is impure because it is unbelief. The gain of lust is trivial in comparison to the loss that it brings,” he says. And then I love this line. “When you have made your eye the instrument of impurity, you cannot see God with it.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

Now why is it that we have so many addictions in the world? Whether is it addiction or to alcoholism, or pornography, or the ravages of lust, many people have simply said, “We have given up. We have tried. We accepted believing that heaven will be all the sweeter when we are free of it.”

Bonhoeffer, I think, would agree with Tozer, another great writer who said, “It is that part of us that we rescue from the cross that becomes the seat of our problems.” We keep rescuing it from the cross. We make hidden provision to do it again because we do not have the faith to believe that God will reward us completely and totally if the break with it is clean and, from our standpoint and with God’s help, irrevocable. We snatch it back.

Years ago I was counseling a young man who struggled with pornography and he told me that in desperation he took a magazine and burned it in his sink. The idea of burning them, I’m sure, is a great idea, but the sink is probably not the place to do it. But he said interestingly that even as it was burning he still reached over and snatched some of it from the flames.

What Bonhoeffer is saying is that if God is going to put the axe to the root of the tree, we must have faith to believe that He will reward those who will say, “I will make the break clean and irrevocable, and make no hidden provision to rescue it from the cross.” It is a death that all of us helpless struggling sinners must die if we are to be worthy of Christ.

There’s a fourth death, and oh the beasts that we are talking about today, and that is love of money. Notice what Jesus said in the sixth chapter of Matthew. He says in verse 19, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust have corrupted and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt and where thieves do not break through and steal.”

Now, says Bonhoeffer, in explaining this text, and before I give you some quotes, I want to tell you that once again we Americans say things like this. “Well, you know we can earn money to the glory of God.” And that is true, but I’ll tell you that there are very few people who are very wealthy who are also poor in spirit. Now, there are some. We have some in the church, I believe, whom God had blessed financially and they are still poor in spirit, but that is a great struggle. I remember a friend of mine said of a certain businessman here in the city of Chicago... He said, “You know, even though this man is a Christian (this businessman), you know he really loves money. He loves money!” And I thought to myself, “You know, that is a very serious indictment.” I don’t know whether than man was right or not. It was his judgment.  But there is something within us that will not let go of this. The struggle to give our wealth to God and then to say, “Lord, it’s up to You now, because I offer it up as Isaac. And then you give it back to me and I recognize it from you, and I will use it.” Thank God that there are many, many people who can do that and who have done it, but let nobody say that that isn’t tough to do.

You know, there’s that old joke of two people discussing how much they decide to give to God, and somebody says, “Well, what I do is I take all my money. I throw it up. I draw a circle in the middle of the floor. Whatever lands in the circle is mine. Whatever is outside the circle goes to God.” The other guy says, “I’ve got a better idea. I take all my money in a room, and I throw it up, and whatever stays up is God’s, and whatever comes down is mine.” (laughter)

Oh! Oh! This is what Bonhoeffer says. He says, “God knows the human heart craves treasure.” He knows that it craves treasure, and God says we should have treasure. He says, “Only God says that the treasure should be in heaven.” And then he says, “Our hearts have room for only one all-embracing devotion, and we can cleave only to one Lord. To one Lord we can cleave.” And there’s a death that Bonhoeffer died and it was to the death to the love of money, a recognition that if indeed God was to give him some, he was to see it as coming not from hard work, not from his brilliance, or not because of an inheritance, but rather he saw it as Abraham saw Isaac, a gift given by God, which He also has the right to take from us. And that’s why giving is always, or at least almost always a real spiritual issue and not a financial issue. If you had a room with a hundred carnal Christians, you could give them one hundred and one reasons why you should give and still receive very little.

And then I think of the missionary I remember hearing say one time that out on the mission field they were having an offering for something, and it was a big offering and there were people who had nothing to give, and some of them took the rings from their fingers and they put them into the offering plate. Well, you say, “That’s silly.” Yeah, I think so. I think that is silly, but do you know something? When people are fanatically in love with Christ, they do silly things. They do silly things, or at least things that we consider to be silly because they love God. And Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth. Use those treasures to give to God’s work that they might be transmuted and that you might meet them again in heaven.” There’s a death that we need to die.

Well, there’s another death that we need to die and it, in effect, is the summary of all of them, and that is the death to one’s self, the root of the tree, the death even of the desire to live. For this we look again at Matthew chapter 10, verse 39, where Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life shall find it.” You hang on to it and you shall lose it. The final nail of the crucifixion is death to even the desire to live.

Let me tell you the rest of Bonhoeffer’s story. He made a switch in his life, and we can argue as to whether or not it was wise and whether it was good, but I’m just telling you what happened. He became disillusioned. Nazism began to continue its great strength throughout Europe and Germany. The church had basically been crushed as I explained in a previous message. He decided to become a part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. For that in 1943 he was put in prison, and while he was in the Tegel prison in Berlin, he wrote what is today a book, Letters and Papers from Prison. He made friends with the guards who actually helped him smuggle some of the stuff out. When the allied bombs were falling on the prison, and all the prisoners were screaming, Bonhoeffer was the one who gave consolation and hope and maintained some sense of sanity in the prison.

Later on he was taken from there to the Gestapo prison in Berlin, and when it was bombed, Himmler finally ordered that he be taken to Buchenwald where spent two months. And then the order came from Himmler that Bonhoeffer had to be put to death. But listen to one of his associates in Buchenwald. He says, “This man was different, just quite calm and normal, perfectly at ease. His soul shone in the darkness of our prison. He learned to throw himself completely into the arms of God, taking seriously his own suffering as well as the suffering of God in the world.”

And then finally, because of Himmler’s instructions, he was taken to Flossenbürg with a number of other people, and there he was martyred. His last words were to a friend: “Oh God this is the end, but it is also a beginning. Our victory is certain.”

Listen to the words of a doctor who was asked to see the execution, the hanging, as a testimony, as a witness I should say. This is what the doctor said, “Between five and six in the morning, the prisoners were let out of their cells, and their verdicts were read to them. I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling in fervent prayer. The Lord is God. The devotion and evident conviction in this prayer of this captivating man made a lasting impression and moved me to the depths.”

Now the prisoners were stripped of their clothing, led naked down a flight of stairs under some trees, and there under the scaffold in the sweet spring woods, Bonhoeffer knelt to pray for the last time. Five minutes later he was dead. April 9, 1945.

“When Christ calls a man, He bids him,” said Bonhoeffer, “come and die.” If we cannot die in those things that I have mentioned this morning—the five deaths, how shall we die when the persecution really comes? You know, Jeremiah asked this question. He said, “If you run with the footmen and they weary you, how are you going to compete with the horses?” He said, “If you are weak and defeated in a land of peace, how are you going to win in the day of battle?”

Rather than giving an invitation, what I’d like to do is to share with you in the next few minutes some instruction that I give to people who are interested in dying. And then afterwards we’re going to dismiss you all, and you can go home and die. (chuckles) Please don’t quote that out of context.

What would I say if I were helping a person to die? What is it that I have learned (to die)? Number one, crucifixion is painful. It is painful. The giving up of cherished sins, those resentments and jealousies and anger and lust that we have so carefully nurtured and rationalized and lived with and embraced, and those relationships that have become a part of us, however sinful they might be, we oftentimes have taken them and we will not let them go. And they scream to stay alive. People would rather volunteer for the mission field. They’ll say, “I’ll give, I’ll go, I’ll yield. I’ll do anything but I do not want to die.” Flesh does not die easily. Oh how painful it is. The alcoholic who looks at the very thought of living without his bottle, he cannot even think about it. The sex addict cannot even bear the thought of living a pure life, it is too fearful without all of the props he has used in his life. And the person who is angry and resentful and filled with bitterness, to give it all up is hard. It always hurts to die, but we want cheap grace, don’t we? We want a cross without nails. We want a Christ without the crushing, and it doesn’t come that way.

There’s a second thing about crucifixion, and that is somebody always has to do it to you. You cannot do it yourself. Now, you can commit suicide in many different ways, but nobody to my knowledge has ever committed suicide by crucifixion. At least he wouldn’t be able to do it completely. If he nailed one hand, he could not use the one hand to nail the other hand. Somebody has to do it. And I’m not preaching today that what we should do is by sheer self-will say, “Today is going to be different. I’m going to yield myself and I’m going to live differently.” No, my friends! Many of you have tried that and it does not work. It is not a matter of the human will. Crucifixion is something that Christ does for us. Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but even Christ lives in me.” Romans chapter 6 says very clearly that we have been crucified with Christ. The old man has been crucified. God says, “I have done it. I have broken the stranglehold, but what you must do is let me do a deep work in your heart that will cause you to be in amazement that those things over which you felt there was no possibility of victory are suddenly crushed, and freedom is brought to your soul. It is God who does it.

And next, crucifixion takes time. It takes time. Usually the people writhed on the cross for hours, and sometimes days before they died. You say, “Well, how long does it take to die to self-will? How long does it take?” Well, in a sense there are different answers that could be given. In one sense it may take a lifetime, but in another sense, there may be a crucial moment that you need to work through that may take an hour. For some people an hour and a half, or others it may be less, because what that means is that we come before God in quietness, inviting the Holy Spirit to search our heart and to deal with everything that comes to our mind, giving it wholly and totally to God with the same kind of commitment with which Abraham gave up Isaac, wholly and totally yielding it to God for all of its pain, for all of its hurt, for all of the ramifications that may come from it. But we are there until the deed has been done.

George Müller said there came a day when George Müller died. He died. Now that doesn’t mean that once you died you are dead for the rest of your life. We continue to struggle, and the death that we die has to be a daily death. It needs to be something that becomes a part of us as we learn the principles of saying time and time again, “We will die. We will break,” and as we are in the Word and disciplined in the Word, the death begins to work in us. The death begins to work in us, and as a result of the death, there is life. “Except a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and die,” Jesus said, “it abides alone,” but it is in relinquishing all that it is to the soil, the giving up of the outer shell that has become so hard and so encrusted. It is then that it begins to beget the life. The life breaks out.

My word to you today if you are not a Christian, is to remember that the grace of God in Christ is free to you today, to receive forgiveness and cleansing from the hand of the crucified Redeemer. But if you have fallen into that category and you are a believer in Christ, then I say to you, Jesus says that unless you take up your cross and follow Me... And the death of the cross is not illness. It’s not a bad bank account. It’s not being in debt. That may be a different kind of a cross. It is the cross that strikes at the very root of self-rule. And Jesus said, “If you do not take up that cross, you are not worthy to be My disciple.” I would encourage you to go home this afternoon and spend an unhurried hour with God alone, and say, “God, I’ll be there as long as I need to be until I die! Until I die!”

Bonhoeffer says, “He whom Christ calls He bids him ‘Come and die. Come and die.’” Let us die together.

And let us pray, would you please?

Our Father, today we want to thank You for the memory of a young man who, at the age of 39, died so successfully because he had died so many times before to self-rule. And Father, we pray today that everyone who has listened to this message, whether on the radio or cassette tape or here in this auditorium, that you will not let a one of us get by until we have finally, finally done what we in our heart know we must do. And that is to take up the cross which smashes everything that is precious, and gives back to us God. I pray that every one of us this afternoon and tomorrow may take as much time as is necessary to finally die.

And even now before I close in prayer, if God has talked to you today, would you right now say, “Lord Jesus, I promise by Your grace I am going to take as much time as needed to yield everything to Your sovereignty, to make the break clean, irrevocable so far as I am concerned, no going back, cold turkey, trust You.”

Father, the work that You’ve begun complete. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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