Monday, April 13, 2015

The Cost of Discipleship

In Christianity, the many Protestant sects have been debating, studying and contemplating what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ since Martin Luther was a monk in Erfurt. The questions of Grace, Discipleship, Forgiveness, Good Works, and what it means to be a Christian have been topics of deep meditation for many of those who profess faith in Christ. These questions were reflected by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, a book he wrote during the rise of Nazi regime in 1937 Germany. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Theologian with the Confessing Church that opposed Hitler during World War II. Bonhoeffer stuck by his faith until he faced the gallows on April 9, 1945 for conspiracy and treason against Hitler. In Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer walks the reader through the Sermon on the Mount[1], which describes the meaning of being a follower of Jesus Christ. He spelled out his description in different categories: Grace and Discipleship; the Call to Discipleship; the Beatitudes; the Enemy; and the Body of Christ.

When it comes to Grace and Discipleship, Bonhoeffer talks about cheap grace and costly grace. He starts off by bluntly describing cheap grace as “the deadly enemy of [the] Church” (Bonhoeffer). He defined cheap grace as the justification of the sin, but not the sinner. He goes even further by arguing that it is the grace one bestows on oneself by preaching forgiveness without repentance. Today’s Christians would recognize this as the charge that Christians believe that because they are saved through the blood of Christ, they have a free pass to sin. Bonhoeffer harshly condemns this belief because of the practitioners modeling themselves after the world’s standards.

Costly grace, on the other hand, Bonhoeffer describes as the “pearl of great price” (Bonhoeffer). “Such grace is costly” Bonhoeffer contends “because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives man the only true life” (Bonhoeffer). In other words, man’s salvation and grace came at the great expense; the life of the Son of Man. When Jesus commands for believers to follow Him, He is offering them grace. Bonhoeffer points out that in order to follow Christ, the believer has to be willing to not only act like a faithful member of Christianity, but be willing to lay everything down for Him.

When Jesus said to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:18-19). He was extending the invitation to discipleship. Bonhoeffer termed “discipleship” as “adherence to Christ because Christ is the object of that adherence (Bonhoeffer). Not only does the believer follow Christ, he or she must also surrender themselves to the disposal of their Master. If they try to follow according to their own term, Bonhoeffer argues that it is no longer a discipleship because costly grace does not work that way. Simon and Andrew literally dropped everything, including their futures when they answered the call of discipleship from Jesus, they didn’t give condition to their being disciples, they submitted to their Master’s will.

The call of discipleship means life and death, according to Bonhoeffer. Through self-denial and suffering, the believer takes upon them the cross of Jesus as well as having to face temptation and shame. The believer is not above Christ, the believer must suffer because it is the badge of true discipleship. Bonhoeffer acknowledged that this also includes suffering torture and death for faith in Jesus Christ.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the reader is introduced to what is called The Beatitudes. Bonhoeffer speaks of the plight of the twelve disciples as being “the poorest of the poor, the sorest afflicted and the hungriest of the hungry” (Bonhoeffer). These are the men that gave up everything for Jesus and Jesus publically calls them “blessed” as He describes what it means to be a disciple. As the reader reads each section, they will see things like “blessed are the poor in the spirit…”; “blessed are they that hunger…”; “blessed are the pure in heart…”;“blessed are the Peacemakers…”; and even “blessed are they that have been persecuted…” These are the virtues of being a disciple. A follower must walk the walk if they’re going to talk the talk. Bonhoeffer mentions that while these virtues distinguish a disciple, the world will hate them for it. “Not recognition, but rejection, is the reward they get from the world for their message and works” (Bonhoeffer). This isn’t the promise of peace and plenty, but of trial and tribulation. Given what Bonhoeffer was about to suffer, the Beatitudes would have reminded him down the road what being a disciple is.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer also speaks of how a disciple of Jesus should treat their enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). According to Bonhoeffer, “Love is defined in uncompromising terms as the love of our enemies” (Bonhoeffer). Bonhoeffer would later demonstrate this while being incarcerated at Flossenb├╝rg. He ministered to the other inmates and the guards with love and compassion to where his execution affected even those who were part of the execution. The reader would agree that praying for those who persecute this is far from being easy, in fact it’s one of the hardest things imaginable, but Jesus commanded it and Bonhoeffer reminds the reader that it is part of being a Disciple of Christ.

Bonhoeffer also spoke about the Body of Christ, both in faith and His corporeal form. He points out that the first disciples lived in communion and fellowship with Jesus. They witnessed His miracles, broke bread with him, learned from him and in the case of the most beloved disciple, possibly John, watched him die on the cross. While modern day Christians, will not have that same kind of fellowship, they are still part of the general body of Christ and are still required to live as a disciple. When Bonhoeffer was watching Nazi Germany rise into power, many of his colleagues and lukewarm pastors waffled in fundamental doctrines in order to appease Hitler. This didn’t sit well with Bonhoeffer because it was cheap grace that those individuals were after. He condemned such a practice when he declared, “A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities. They are heard, learnt and apprehended, and that is all. But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears, or heart, but living men who will follow him” (Bonhoeffer). To Bonhoeffer, the fact that these individuals were bending their values and beliefs to mollify the Fuhrer showed that while they talked the talk, they were unwilling to walk the walk.

When the reader wonders what it means for he or she to be a Christian, Bonhoeffer tells them through The Cost of Discipleship that they have to be willing to lay down everything, including their very lives for Jesus Christ. Because God showed humanity mercy by sending His Son, Christians have to show mercy to others, including their enemies. Costly grace was given because Jesus did just that. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is little to ask for the same in professing believers to do the same in return.


[1] Matthew 5-7, ESV Holy Bible


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