In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, he seeks to infuse the biblical concept of grace as a dichotomy between cheap and costly that becomes the fundamental anthesis of the Christians life. Born in Breslau to a family of professionals, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would begin his theological journey at the age of 13, deciding to choose theology as study and praxis. It wasn’t until an antiwar novel entitled, All Quiet on the Western Front, that later made it to a film that brought tears to eyes of this theologian and would eventually make him a pacifist. The Sermon on the Mount informed his theology and became a central part of his life moving forward that eventually lead him to write his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship.
The book is divided into four distinctive parts, but this analytical paper will cover primarily the first section that deals with the content of grace and discipleship. The main crux of this portion defines the meaning behind costly and cheap grace as it relates to who we are in Christ and what our discipleship must look like as a result. The response of discipleship is an act of obedience that adheres to the person of Christ and Bonhoeffer provides the reader with some examples of how and what this should entail. The first two subchapters make up the majority of his writing that sets the tone for the remaining chapters. The call to discipleship is obedience which is measured by faith even if suffering and unwanted conditions follow. We are encouraged by the author to first obey with single-mindedness that relies on Christ’s word and to forsake our own preconceived ideas of obedience.
Discipleship and the cross are synonymous that embraces suffering and rejection as part of the Christians process. The law of Christ and the cross mark our exclusivity and allegiance in our relationship with God and to remain in this communion. The individual is then called into this eternal dance through Christ the mediator who intercedes on our behalf as people under the cross (Discipleship, 101). This lays out the overarching theme that Bonhoeffer desires his readers to grasp and understand that grace is costly when it stands on grace alone. Cheap grace stands on presuppositions, doctrinal statements and generalized truth that is considered a deadly enemy to the church.
The biblical view of grace and discipleship are woven into the fabric of Bonhoeffer’s theological underpinning and his argumentation is for the church body to stop the practice of secularizing Christianity and cheapening grace. What he considers cheap grace is the justification of the sin without the justification of the sinner (Discipleship, 44). Cheap grace is that unforgiveness that harbors within our soul and doesn’t engage in the discipleship of the believer, negating all other confessional creeds and doctrines. This, however, is followed by costly grace that is the kingly rule of Christ that we must follow. The example of the disciple Peter (Mark 1:17) is illustrated during two separate occasions when Jesus called him to follow. For Peter, discipleship was extended when he left everything to follow Christ the first time, but grace was presented the second time through the fellowship of martyrdom for the Lord he had denied.
The call to restoring the Gospel is made costly when the Protestant Reformation came into existence with the Catholic monk Martin Luther and his following the costliness of grace. Bonhoeffer expounds on how Luther’s view of scripture was not a work-based salvation but was made possible by grace through faith. In each instance of Christ calling, Peter and Luther would still have to be obedient in their vocation of life in the world and live in the fellowship of his suffering. For Bonhoeffer, “It was grace because it cost so much and it cost so much because it was grace” (Discipleship, 49). This point is well articulated and forms a true recovery of mutual understanding between the relationship of grace and discipleship.
The theme of obedience is a constant reminder to the call of discipleship and not just a mere confession of faith in Christ. It is only in the obedience of the call of Jesus that our relationship can experience the full meaning of the gospel that transcends the law. Bonhoeffer explains that, “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ” (Discipleship, 59). He maps out three occurrences when the disciples were called in scripture (Luke 9:57-62) that provides firm steps in how we are to follow on the means of activating obedience through faith. Bonhoeffer saw that the Lutheran’s theological understanding of gratitude towards God’s grace was being cheapened and lack the proper discipleship that encompasses the Christian life. It was a surrender of one’s freedom in corporation with external works that were the necessary steps to an obedient life. Bonhoeffer’s theological point is clear as he mentions that it is not the work, we do but our reliance on the word in which Christ calls us to do that’s of supreme importance. Unbelief thrives on cheap grace and is the result of a disobedient life (Discipleship, 68).
“Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”
Bonhoeffer gets to the core issues of what practical obedience looks like through the parable of the rich young ruler. He navigates three points that assist the reader in trying to live out this fellowship with Christ and the command to follow. Bonhoeffer wanted to show that this could only be achieved through single-minded obedience and not on any part of our own volition. The obedient life of the Christian and the cost of discipleship comes from faith alone and is cultivated from what he calls an inward detachment (Discipleship, 81). Apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know how to live an obedient life and the grace of God mustn’t be removed from the picture. This should be interwoven in our actual call to obedience that liberates the believer through faith. Bonhoeffer makes the arguement that if we eliminate this type of obedience out of the equation of faith, that we have drifted away from a true sense of a biblical interpretation of the scripture. Exegesis and discipleship go hand in hand according to Bonhoeffer and if we interpret through abstract principles rather than on the doctrine of grace than we are setting ourselves up for double minded obedience. He states that “Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power” (Discipleship, 84). This is a valid articulation towards the demand for obedience and the reliance on faith as it relates to how the believer in Christ is called.
The call to discipleship constitutes that one must carry the burden of their own cross, even if suffering and rejection are the end result. The endurance of the cross becomes the means by which suffering is the fruit in our allegiance to Christ (Discipleship, 88). It becomes a necessity in the eyes of this German martyr that everyone who claims to be in Christ must first experience the suffering of worldly detachment. The cross and compromise are not identical in our calling but must be distinguished from each other. Every encounter with Christ is to embark on the discipleship of surrender and establishes us with the union of his death. The cross and discipleship thus become a synonymous entity that bids a man to come and die. The connection that Bonhoeffer makes follows the exact command issued to the disciples (Mark 8:34) that self-denial must be the prerequisite in allowing Him to lead the way.
Bonhoeffer continues describing the agony and purpose of the cross as it connects who we are in Christ and relates what our character should embody. This way of living is not without its cost. The everyday temptation of sin hinges on the life of the follower and must also bear the shame of the sins of others. Bearing the burden of others (Gal 6:2) is enacted in how we take up our cross in displaying forgiveness and suffering for Christ sake. He then explains this paradoxical life with the scene of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. Grace drinks the cup of suffering, even if that means being cut off from God (Discipleship, 92). This type of communion with the Father is what the grace of discipleship must maintain with Christ in order to endure.
The final segment of Bonhoeffer’s manuscripte approaches discipleship with that of the individual and Christ as the mediator. Jesus is our mediator, not only between the Father and humanity, but between us as a community of individuals. As the sole mediator of creation, the call of Christ brings us as individuals face to face with the Mediator (Discipleship, 96). Bonhoeffer’s stresses the point of our kinship and relationship with Christ whereby faith and obedience can’t function without. We are bound to the grace that claims our inheritance in the Son and helps us to carry on the responsibilities we boldly profess. This breach of the world, as Bonhoeffer exclaims, can’t serve two masters as if in a love triangle with God and the world. It’s a misinterpretation of the grace of our God-given reality that we must acknowledge and choose to serve even if this breach is inescapable. Bonhoeffer gives an example of Abraham’s commission to the promised land and the sacrifice of his only son Isaac. What I admire about Bonhoeffer is his pastoral leading whenever he begins to develop a central theme, which is followed by a parable or biblical reference. He teaches in this narrative to find one’s individualism apart from the world but to become reliant only on God alone.
“It was grace because it cost so much and it cost so much because it was grace”
As people who are under the cross, we have to leave the immediacy of the world, becoming individuals, even if that means leaving people and places behind. The apostle Peter was a proponent of this model that decided to become an individual and follow after Christ. Our reward for this type of self-abandonment is found in the fellowship of the church, according to Bonhoeffer, and a visible brotherhood and sisterhood to share in. The calling is one of grace and discipleship that we must come to an agreement in deciding to follow the pattern presented to us through Christ. This is the apex of Bonhoeffer’s argumentation and can in no way be misappropriated with cheap grace that minimalizes the salvific work of Christ on the cross.
The contemporary relevance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work challenges the modern church to reexamine their own faith as it relates to Christian humanism. If the spirit of man is supposed to be the lamp of the Lord (Prov.20:27) than our motives and agendas must be in accordance with the suffering of the cross. This was the methodology that Bonhoeffer took with him on the road towards freedom as he faced the gallows. His willingness to embrace death signifies how our Christian walk must be in total submission to the will of God. The Christians reasonable service has the internal call, a work of God’s grace, that bids us follow and an external call which commissions us to a grace that is costly. A grace that doesn’t place individuals according to class, race or economic status but a grace that loves and is the standard of Christian obedience. This attitude should be demonstrated within the lives of its congregants and testified throughout the uttermost parts of the world. It will cost us worldly privileges, comfortability, possessions, and even close friends and family.
The pastoral implication that this document reverberates can be summed up in the words of Christ himself. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus redefines the true meaning of costly grace when He says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It’s this human yoke of obedience that each must harness as people under the cross in service to God. This yoke of burden that we carry is easy in comparison to the law and can only be achieved through the cost of grace. Discipleship of subordination and servitude is the price of this grace where we will find rest for our souls.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 2012.