Luther, Bonhoeffer, and the Paradox of Grace

The Apparent Contradiction

If you have read my previous two blog posts: The “Free Grace” of Martin Luther and The “Costly Grace” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer you may come to believe that the two men are teaching very contradicting views of God’s grace. You may ask the question, “Is not Luther’s “free grace” whereby God freely justifies sinners, the exact same thing as the “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer has argued is the mortal enemy of the church?” From the teaching of the two it would seem as if their views of God’s grace run in opposition to one another. How could Bonhoeffer continue in the Lutheran tradition when his teachings seem to be so at odd with Luther himself? One scholar argued that Bonhoeffer had to correct Luther’s dialectic of law and gospel which ultimately led to a “moral quietism and a narrow and overly individualistic moral vision.” However, is this correct? Was Bonhoeffer seeking to correct Luther on this matter, or was he merely seeking to correct a perversion of Luther’s doctrine?

Bonhoeffer’s Continuation of Luther’s Doctrine

It is clear from Bonhoeffer’s writings that he was not attempting to correct Luther’s teaching rather he sought to correct those who misused it. As Bonhoeffer’s context reveals, he was surrounded by “Christians” who were capitulating to the world, and were living any way they wanted, and were using Luther’s teaching of “free grace” as a justification for sinful living. One scholar notes, “Bonhoeffer was not questioning Luther’s hermeneutic rather he re-appropriated it in his own context.” Bonhoeffer treasured the free grace taught by Luther and abhorred the caricature of Luther’s teaching (cheap grace) that many during Bonhoeffer’s time had begun to hold. Bonhoeffer himself goes to great extents to ensure that his views of costly grace are in absolute alignment with the great reformer. He wrote, “During the Reformation, God reawakened the gospel of pure, costly grace through God’s servant Martin Luther…” Bonhoeffer knew the context of Luther and knew that Luther’s teaching of free grace was not the antinomianism espoused by the followers of cheap grace. He knew that Luther understood that though grace was freely bestowed upon the sinner by God, that that grace would cost the disciple everything. That it would require the totality of the believer’s life to be surrendered to the Lordship of Christ. This is best seen in Luther’s teaching on “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” The first kind of righteousness that Luther describes is an alien righteousness, i.e. Christ’s righteousness, which is “instilled in us without our works by grace alone.” This was the free grace of God which justifies the sinner. The second kind of righteousness was called “proper righteousness.” This righteousness was the fruit and consequence of the first kind of righteousness. Luther taught that this free grace from God would bring with it evident change and fruitfulness in the life of the believer. This was a pivotal point for Bonhoeffer as his understanding of costly grace was built on this notion of Luther that the free grace is most evidently seen in the total death to self and devotion to life in Christ. This was the great paradox which is biblical faith. Grace that is totally free, yet costs everything.  Bonhoeffer saw in Luther a beautiful and cogent understanding of the link between grace and action. There was no disconnect between the two other than the time and context that separated them. Bonhoeffer merely sought to protect against the perversion of Luther’s doctrine not divulge from it.


The teachings of Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer must be understood in light of the context by which the men lived. Luther sought to confront the notion that sinful men could merit the grace of God and entry into heaven, whereas Bonhoeffer was confronting the antinomian and easy-believism that had perpetuated his society. Many have tried to drive a wedge between the teachings of these two men, but as has been shown such could not be further from the truth. Like James in the Bible who sought to protect Paul’s doctrine of faith by explaining what saving faith looked like; Bonhoeffer sought to protect Luther’s doctrine of free grace by explaining what that faith looked like. From the teachings of these two great Christian thinkers, the Christian is evermore fascinated at the paradox of the free yet costly grace that God bestows upon His people. Luther was moved by what he found in Scripture regarding God’s grace and it drove him to action, and had it not been for the providence of God, it would have cost him his life. Bonhoeffer’s teaching of grace sought to protect the Reformational doctrine from the antinomial perversion of his day, and the capitulation of many German Christians to the desires of the state. Bonhoeffer would lose his life, but it would not be loss for Bonhoeffer. His final words were, “This is the end ~ for me the beginning of life.” Not only did these men teach the paradox of the free and costly grace of God, but their very lives epitomized it.


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