I shall never forget the first impression my twelve-year-old self had of a yellowed, tattered paperback copy of Bonhoeffer’s well-known Cost of Discipleship. We were in the Bible school library, and when I flipped the book open and my eye fell on the first place I felt immediately that here in this book was something beautiful. I felt something. This feeling was like a seed planted in my heart.
This book has remained by my side for many years. I had read it slowly, pondered it long. Many parts are etched in my memory, yet I have actually never read it fully cover to cover. It’s something you slowly digest. It’s something you don’t fully grasp at twelve or sixteen or eighteen, or even twenty-eight. Yet, somehow, God used it to speak to me at different points in my journey especially in the midst of spiritual turmoil and upheaval.
The simple idea that Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow Him has been a constant drumbeat echoing, even, faintly, during the times in which I felt furthest from God. I heard it, felt the call. I think God used this book to turn my attention to what the core of our faith should be: cruciform discipleship, or in simple terms, hearing Jesus’s gentle call, listening to Him, following Him, obeying Him and being His messengers in this world.
The foreword begins with setting the stage for a “determined quest for Him who is the sole object of it all, for Jesus Christ Himself.” Bonhoeffer echoes the heart of many struggling Christians who simply want to hear “What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is His will for us today?”. He identities with many of us who are dealing with “human ballast” that has burdened us, that drives us again with forced, “man-made dogmas”.
Instead, Bonhoeffer suggests that Christ calls us to a discipleship that frees us from burden, from oppression, from anxiety and torture. It is not a hard, cruel yoke but one with “perfect liberty and fellowship”. It is a road of joy, of love.
The first chapter then immediately considers the problem of cheap grace and its defenders. Cheap grace is an incomplete gospel that stops short of genuine justification and transformation of the sinner. It is the failure to realize the full costliness of God’s gift of salvation and everything it entails. Bonhoeffer offers critique of the world of Christendom and the theology of the Reformation. He identifies where these fell short, not as an outsider but as a Lutheran himself. He then proceeds to meditate on Christ’s call to His disciples and the role of obedience in relation to faith. He argues for simple obedience as a interpretive key. Then, Bonhoeffer expounds on the question of allegiance to Christ in relation to the world. In my opinion, these introductory chapters are incredibly helpful in “setting the stage” for an approach to the “Christian life” where concerns our relationship with Jesus and His words.
Bonhoeffer eloquently and pointedly directs our focus away from the many distractions and theologizings the church has historically been prone to, and simply suggests, more than anything else, that we truly listen to Jesus and take Him seriously.
Part II of the book is an exposition and exegesis of discipleship as described in the Sermon on the Mount, Part III covers what it means to be His messengers and Part IV consider what it means to be the visible church, Christ’s body. While these sections flow one to the other, they are also topical and offer valuable insight and exposition. Bonhoeffer has a way with words despite the limitations of the German-to-English translation that invites us into a passionate and energetic vision, well-rooted in Scripture.
It is just not true that every word of criticism directed against contemporary preaching is a deliberate rejection of Christ and proceeds from the spirit of Antichrist.(pp.35-36).
The greatest value that I believe Bonhoeffer’s book offers in 2022 is its potential as a basis for re-framing Christianity. For those of us who grew up especially in the Protestant-evangelical tradition, this is probably very relevant. For example, Bonhoeffer decries a “fear” and “reluctance” towards good works out of the mistaken idea that it somehow jeopardizes “faith alone” and the “free gift of grace”. This is particularly apt in a world crying out for justice, accountability, and righteousness while Christians fuss over “correct theology” and creedal litmus-tests.
The evangelical world today struggles when it comes to dealing with criticism and with “deconstruction” movements. Bonhoeffer would later see the church in his land go into extreme compromise and he would also see a small and faithful number hold fast to faith in the midst of severe, oppressive evil. There is some relevance to his voice with regards to a general “disruption” to the status quo. This has the potential to arrest us by the Holy Spirit’s convictions, stopping us in our tracks so that we can be reoriented on the “solid rock” rather than sinking sand and our faith can be constructed with gold, silver and precious stones rather than wood, hay and stubble.
I propose that going back to the kind of discipleship that Bonhoeffer sets out to discover and live from the teachings of Jesus is the exact thing that is lacking and just the thing we need right now. We hear “Scripture alone” as a creed, but that doesn’t tell us where and how to start with regards to the Christian life. It is not that we absolutely need Bonhoeffer to tell us these things, but from personal experience I find that he had his finger on the heartbeat of things that the church continues to wrestle with today.
Discipleship is the expression of the Kingdom vision.
The earthly form of Christ is the form that died on the cross. The image of God is the image of Christ crucified. It is to this image that the life of the disciples must be conformed:(p.302)