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The Cost of Discipleship (1937)

by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7,78648973 (4.32)43
What can the call to discipleship, the adherence to the word of Jesus, mean today to the businessman, the soldier, the laborer, or the aristocrat? What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today? Drawing on the Sermon on the Mount, Dietrich Bonhoeffer answers these timeless questions by providing a seminal reading of the dichotomy between "cheap grace" and "costly grace."… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
“We create admirers. We don’t create followers,” says the painter Ohlendorf in Terrence Malick’s 2019 film, A Hidden Life. The film tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector who refuses to fight for the Nazis in World War II. His opposition is mainly informed by his Christian faith and bolstered by his love for his home and family. In one scene, Franz visits Ohlendorf who is busy adding another masterpiece to the church walls. The old painter laments that, yet again, his work only depicts “the comfortable Christ.” It is not the suffering Christ– “the true Christ” --who humbly submits to the cross.

“A darker time is approaching,” Ohlendorf warns Franz when the truth will be ignored. People who should know better will do terrible things because they refuse to see “Christ’s life is a demand.” They do not know the cost of discipleship.

It was this cost of discipleship which pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew so well. Also a dissident of the Nazi regime and also a Christian, Bonhoeffer urgently sought to persuade his fellow citizens to follow the path of Christ, even when it led to suffering. Indeed, resisting Hitler came at a terrible price, one which Bonhoeffer paid with his life. But his testimony proves the counterintuitive nature of Christian faith: “discipleship means joy.”

In his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer painstakingly commends joyful suffering through the lens of Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount. Paramount is the differentiation of “costly grace” from “cheap grace.” Being a good Lutheran, Bonhoeffer assumes his tradition’s dialectic between a theology of glory and theology of the cross. The former relies on cheap grace; a grace that does not make demands and leaves the human person free to earn his salvation. But if we are to truly hear Christ’s words to his disciples, Bonhoeffer argues, we will see the reality of costly grace.

The term is something of a paradox. How can something that is freely given be costly? Grace is costly, says Bonhoeffer, because it requires a whole life of obedience. But it is grace because it is wholly alien to us. The Lord imputes Christ’s righteousness without any merit on our part. In response, we give God our whole selves, living according to faith and total obedience to his ways.

Bonhoeffer further illustrates his point with a helpful metaphor. Justification by faith alone, the traditional Reformed confession, is much like a formula. The question is this: is grace “the answer” or “the data”? If we should say grace is only the data, we reveal ourselves to be antinomians, much like those whom the Apostle Paul answers in Romans 6: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” But since grace is the answer, we must radically alter our life from the world’s standards. We must commit our entire life to Christ.

Bonhoeffer demonstrates this idea further by looking at the story of the rich, young ruler in Matthew 19. The young man asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ responds by asking him if he has kept the law. The lad answers that he has, perfectly in fact. Christ then tells him to give everything he has to the poor and follow him. The young man leaves unsatisfied and unwilling to comply with Christ’s demanding call. What does this story have to do with costly grace?

For one, Bonhoeffer sees in it our proclivity for “pseudo-theology,” or a tendency to so nuance Jesus’ words as to dilute any real meaning. Bonhoeffer provides an example. Pseudo-theology is like a young boy, after hearing his father’s instructions to go to bed, instead argues “what my father really means is I’m tired and need to rest, so I will go play outside because that helps me rest all the same.” We see that the child has re-interpreted his father’s clear instructions in such a way as to assure himself that his disobedience is really obedience. How dangerous!

Still, Bonhoeffer argues, there is an element of truth in the child’s rationale. When Jesus commands the rich, young ruler to sell all he has, he is not endorsing works-righteousness. The act of selling all he has will not save the rich young ruler. Indeed, Christ only wants his faith. But Christ is the one who issues the call, and he is free to create the situation in which the young man can have faith in him. So far as Christ is making the call, we are not free to disobey. The point of the story, Jesus later explains to his disciples, is that man is not capable of obeying God without first being called. He is completely dead in his trespasses. He needs the Lord to save him. “Who then can be saved?” ask the disciples, the full weight of Christ’s words dawning on them.” “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” answers Jesus. This is the costly grace that Bonhoeffer assumes when he says, “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”

Having proven that Christ’s life is indeed a demand on his followers, Bonhoeffer turns to the uncomfortable task of demonstrating exactly what that discipleship looks like. In a word, says Bonhoeffer, it is a life of suffering. This begins as soon as we first confess Christ as Lord. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Notice how this expectation of suffering and death comes at the beginning of discipleship. It is not some distant future. All Christians immediately die to their old self and put on the new man. While sin corrupted the old man, Christ restores the new, imputes his righteousness to us, and issues a new ethic for a new life.

Sometimes this ethic is radically at odds with the world’s, something Bonhoeffer himself knew all too well. The disciple of Christ gives up those rights he possessed in his old life. They no longer belong to him. Where revenge was not only permissible, but expected, the Christian relinquishes his claim and makes peace. Whereas he could once hate his enemies, Christ now demands that he love them. Moreover, he is to pray for his enemies and hope for the best for them.

Many today take issue with Bonhoeffer’s description of Christ’s kingdom ethics. They either dismiss him as naive or passive to the very real evil in our world. However, it is strange to level such a charge against a man who actively participated in assassination attempts against Hitler. Either Bonhoeffer is a hypocrite, or his opponents misunderstand him. Assuming the best, how might we understand Bonhoeffer’s apparent contradictions and what might his case for costly grace mean for us today?

First, we must never divorce Bonhoeffer’s words in Cost of Discipleship from his other works; works in which he passionately defends Christian life within the Church. The final chapters of Cost of Discipleship reveal Bonhoeffer’s high doctrine of the Church as one, indivisible body of Christ. While it is admittedly difficult at times, the reader must discern when Bonhoeffer applies certain ethics to individual believers or the church as a body politic. We must also remember that Bonhoeffer is not a modern American evangelical. He is a Continental Lutheran, existing squarely within his own tradition; one that assumes such doctrines as a two kingdoms theology which is regularly rejected in American evangelicalism. When Bonhoeffer speaks of giving up rights, he is not thinking of our inalienable rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. He only means to speak of worldly rights, like the right to revenge and the right of the strong against the weak. These are the world’s rights which the Church, as an alternate polis, rejects.

Bonhoeffer–a freedom fighter in his own right–also rejects passivity to evil. Christians ought to oppose evil in this life (sometimes with violence) but never at the cost of disobedience. We must obey Christ in all circumstances regardless of how difficult they may be. Part of discipleship is accepting suffering, even death, if it be the Lord’s will. Not out of quietism or defeat, but with faith that evil is ultimately undone in the cross.

These are important lessons no less applicable to our own time. The Church in America faces many threats, including political persecution. The measure of our obedience will not be counted in how many court cases we win or lose, but in our love for God and neighbor. There is no honor in adopting our own pseudo-theology or cleverly finding ways to keep our jobs, wealth, and status at the cost of our discipleship. A darker day is approaching when Christians will have to decide between gender pronouns and financial security or full obedience. Let us pray then that on that day the Lord will bless us with enough strength to be followers and not just admirers. ( )
  rdhasler | Nov 1, 2022 |
After the Bible, the next book to read in understanding discipleship.
  JourneyPC | Sep 26, 2022 |
The Cost of Discipleship is a compelling statement of the demands of sacrifice and ethical consistency from a man whose life and thought were exemplary articulations of a new type of leadership inspired by the Gospel, and imbued with the spirit of Christian humanism and a creative sense of civic duty.
  StFrancisofAssisi | Jul 27, 2022 |
Bonhoeffer, who takes his inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, makes what I would call the ultimate challenge for Christians. Nobody can live up to this, just like no one can ever achieve Christ's perfection, but Bohoeffer challenges us to get as close as we can get.

The book can be kind of a downer at times since we all can see how short we come of the goal. Bonhoeffer would have (did?) freely admit his own shortcomings, but that's not the point here. If we do evaluate ourselves then we are seeking out of our own ego, not Christ's, so the effort is pointless. By keeping your eye constantly on Christ you will achieve the most you can, as long as you do freely repent of those times when you did not keep your focus there.

Dense in theology and philosophy the book is not an easy read on an intellectual level. I wouldn't recommend for novice Christians but only for so-called "mature" Christians. ( )
  Gumbywan | Jun 24, 2022 |
Dense. I will need to read this again, slower. I picked up enough to know that this will be beneficial to anybody who puts in the effort and the time to read it properly. ( )
  Michael_J | Jun 2, 2022 |
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» Add other authors (51 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dietrich Bonhoefferprimary authorall editionscalculated
Booth, IrmgardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Eggehorn, YlvaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fuller, Reginald HoraceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Green, BarbaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Metaxas, EricForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Michael, PaulNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Niebuhr, ReinholdForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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[Bonhoefer, Introduction:] "Revival of church life always brings in its train a richer understanding of the Scriptures. Behind all the slogans and catchwords of ecclesiastical controversy, necessary though they are, there arises a more determined quest for him who is the sole object of it all, for Jesus Christ himself."
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"When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die."
“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
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What can the call to discipleship, the adherence to the word of Jesus, mean today to the businessman, the soldier, the laborer, or the aristocrat? What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today? Drawing on the Sermon on the Mount, Dietrich Bonhoeffer answers these timeless questions by providing a seminal reading of the dichotomy between "cheap grace" and "costly grace."

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What does obedience to the words of Jesus mean for each of us today? What did he actually say to us, call us to? Drawing on the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer answers timeless questions in a classic that illuminates the relationship between our daily lives and the teachings of Jesus".Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves...grace without...
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