Bonhoeffer on Preaching

Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer contains a one-page description of the German pastor and theologian’s outlook and practice of preaching. It is well worth reading by anyone who preaches, who hopes to preach, or who is instructed by preaching on a regular basis:

Bonhoeffer on Preaching the Word

Bonhoeffer took preaching seriously. For him a sermon was nothing less than the very word of God, a place where God would speak to his people. Bonhoeffer wanted to impress this idea on his ordinands, to help them see that preaching was not merely an intellectual exercise. Like prayer or meditation on a scriptural text, it was an opportunity to hear from heaven, and for the preacher, it was a holy privilege to be the vessel through whom God would speak. Like the incarnation, it was a place of revelation, where Christ came into this world from outside it.

But as with so much else, Bonhoeffer knew that the best way to communicate what he thought an felt about homiletics was by doing it. Delivering a real sermon during an actual service was infinitely better than giving a lecture on homiletics. The ordinands must see in him someone who lived what he meant to teach them, just as Jesus did. The teaching and the living must be two parts of the same thing.

Yet even when he was not preaching, but merely talking about sermons, he wanted to communicate practical things to his ordinands. Bethge remembered some of Bonhoeffer’s advice: “Write your sermon in daylight; do not write it all at once; ‘in Christ’ there is no room for conditional clauses; the first minutes of the pulpit are the most favorable, so do not waste them with generalities but confront the congregation right off with the core of the matter; extemporaneous preaching can be done by anyone who really knows the Bible.”

In 1932 Bonhoeffer told Hildebrandt: “A truly evangelical sermon must be like offering a child a fine red apple or offering a thirsty man a cool glass of water and then saying: Do you want it?” At Finkenwalde he effectively said the same thing: “We must be able to speak about our faith so that hands will be stretched out toward us faster than we can fill them … Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic … Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it. … Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity.”

He wished to impress upon his ordinands that when one truly presented the Word of God, it would undo people because it had the innate power to help them see their own need and would give the answer to that need in a way that way not larded over with “religion” or false piety. The grace of God, without filters or explanation, would touch people.

(From Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas, p. 272)

About Shawn Thomas

My blog,, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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