Sweet or Bitter Christ

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Sweet or Bitter Christ, a well-coined phrase set into circulation by Thomas Müntzer, which caught the imagination of his contemporaries. The idea of the phrase is that divine grace must not be looked at as something to be gained cheaply (Bonhöffer's term) but as precious and costly. In other words, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not to be interpreted in such a way that man receives this gift without any further personal obligation on his part. "No one is able to believe in Christ," said Müntzer, "unless he tries beforehand to become like Him" (Brandt, 130). In all his writings Müntzer speaks exclusively of the "crucified Christ" and never of the "glorified" one. Such an outlook is usually described as the theology of the cross, for which Müntzer is an outstanding representative if not the originator. It is to be distinguished from the traditional Anabaptist position which might preferably be called "Märtyrertheologie" (see Martyrdom, Theology of), in which the idea of a suffering church is central. Nevertheless, the phrase "sweet and bitter Christ" was accepted also by the Anabaptists and became widely used in their polemics against the state churches.

The best references for the use of the idea are to be found in Müntzer's tract of 1524, Vom gedichteten Glauben (Brandt, 126 and following). Item 10 of this tract reads: "Sheep are being poisoned by evil pastures but are fed by salt. To preach to a carnal world a sweet Christ is the greatest poison which has been given to Christ's lambs. For by accepting such a gift, man no longer desires to become like Christ (christförmig)" (Brandt, 129). And Item 11 (Brandt): "Whoever does not want to accept the bitter Christ will eat himself to death with honey. For whoever does not die with Christ cannot rise with Him either." Obviously behind these words lies an entire theology not completely in agreement with the sola fide idea of the official churches.

In the 16th century this idea was accepted primarily by the Anabaptists, and many examples are found in the sources. Thus, for instance, says Hans Schlaffer, "Everyone wants to have but the sweetest from Christ, but wants to reject the suffering" (Wiswedel, II, 197). Ludwig Haetzer's stanza is likewise well known: "Yes, says the world, there is no need that I should suffer with Christ; since Christ suffered death for me, I may just sin on this account. . . . O brethren mine, it is a sham, the devil has contrived it" (see Mennonite Quarterly Review 1954: 35 n). Still clearer is the word of Hans Haffner in his tract Concerning a true soldier of Christ (circa 1535): "The world accepts Christ as a gift but does not know Him as a suffering Christ" (Mennonite Quarterly Review 1931: 92). Pilgram Marpeck's polemic against Schwenckfeld is likewise oriented at least in part to this point. "The crown of thorns precedes the halo of glory," comments Loserth in this connection (Loserth, 160). Elsewhere Marpeck speaks of the lowliness of Christ in contrast to the glorified Redeemer as taught by his opponent.

In our own times Dietrich Bonhöffer knows the same conflict, which he now calls the difference between "cheap grace" and "costly grace." It certainly strikes a central point of theology with practical consequences in life.


Bonhöffer, D. Cost of Discipleship. New York; 1952.

Brandt, Otto H. Thomas Müntzer, sein Leben und seine Schriften. Jena; 1933.

Marpeck, Pilgram. Verantwortung . . . Vienna; 1929.

Wiswedel, Wilhelm. Bilder and Führergestalten aus dem Täufertum. 3 v. Kassel: J.G. Oncken Verlag, 1928-1952: v. II.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1959

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MLA style

Friedmann, Robert. "Sweet or Bitter Christ." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 23 Sep 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sweet_or_Bitter_Christ&oldid=162915.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert. (1959). Sweet or Bitter Christ. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 September 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Sweet_or_Bitter_Christ&oldid=162915.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 668-669. All rights reserved.

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