Introduction:

The third reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer can impact is his emphasis on a non-compromising faith. This was known as “costly grace,” Bonhoeffer spoke against the “cheap” grace within the church. His classic statement is found in the Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[1] To Bonhoeffer, this was basic Christianity. It was impossible to be a follower of Jesus and not live a self-sacrificing life out of obedience and love to him.

John de Gruchy, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, writes that Bonhoeffer first began to explore Christ’s radical call to follow him while he was an “unpaid lecturer” at the University of Berlin[2]:

During his two years (1931-33) at the university he became a ‘minor sensation’, attracting a significant number of students to his lively seminars. Many of the insights which later found expression in The Cost of Discipleship were first explored in the informal discussions which Bonhoeffer had with the circle of students who gathered around him.[3]

Bonhoeffer’s chief concern in the The Cost of Discipleship is that “grace…has become so watered down that it no longer resembles the grace of the New Testament, the costly grace of the Gospels.”[4] Bonhoeffer called this a “cheap grace”[5] and it had “been the ruin of more Christians than any other commandment of works.”[6] Bonhoeffer defined “cheap grace” as:

…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.[7]

“Costly grace”, on the other hand, is:

…is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.[8]

Of all the works of Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship is certainly his “angriest book—possibly his one ‘angry’ book…none of Bonhoeffer’s early works reveal him inflamed and vehement, as this book does. The tone throughout the book is entirely serious, rarely speculative, often rhetorically powerful—but always angry.”[9] There is an idea of Bonhoeffer’s anger in the first chapter of the book:

We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcase of cheap grace, and there we have a drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ…To be “Lutheran” must mean that we leave the following of Christ to legalists. Calvinists and enthusiasts—and all this for the sake of grace.

We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship. The price it was called to pay was all too cheap. Cheap grace had won the day.[10]

There was urgency for Bonhoeffer to complete the book because he believed that true discipleship was the only hope for Germany:

The conditions Bonhoeffer faced are simple reason enough why. He wrote the book between 1935 and 1937, while directing the seminary at Finkenwalde. Hitler by now had roused the German people to a nationalistic furor and an utter blindness to social responsibility.

The imprisonment and terrorization of Jews raged through the large cities. Any outspoken criticisms of the Nazi regime, including those from the Confessing Church, were quickly squelched. Germany had been, not too long ago, a “Christian” nation; now men and women continued to attend church services, but the real spirit of Christianity had dimmed to a darkness.

At this time Bonhoeffer wrote his strongest book, a challenge to Christian discipleship, because he believed that only a real return to the Christian faith could save Germany.[11]

Biblical Foundation:

Jesus said in Luke 9:23-25: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”

Robert H. Stein comments that three conditions for following Jesus are laid out in this passage:

The first involves a need to deny oneself. This is much more radical than simply a denial of certain things. This mandates a rejection of a life based on self-interest and self fulfillment. Instead a disciple is to be one who seeks to fulfill the will and the teachings of Christ.

The second condition involves the need to take up one’s cross…Jesus’ own crucifixion reveals more fully to Luke’s readers that this call is a commitment unto death. There needs to be a willingness to suffer martyrdom if need be.

The final condition is the need to follow Jesus. In contrast to the other two conditions, indicating that following Jesus must be continual[12]

Jesus made it clear later in Luke chapter 9 that following him could actually mean sacrifice to the point of homelessness. In verse 57, a man came to Jesus and boldly declared: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Most people have a home to go to, but Jesus made it clear that some of his followers will be kicked out of their homes because of their commitment to him.

It was this commitment that Bonhoeffer wrote about. He wrote that “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church.”[13] To Bonhoeffer, grace should be “costly” because it cost Jesus Christ his very life. Grace is also costly because it costs people their very lives if they follow Jesus. Yet cheap grace had reduced discipleship to mere doctrine. Following Jesus has been cheapened by deemphasizing repentance, baptism, church discipline and the Lord’s Supper.

It is grace without biblical discipleship, that is, without the renouncing of personal ambition in order to follow and obey Jesus. The way of the cross means that we give up everything to be a Christ follower (Luke 14:25-35).

The Apostle Paul described it this way: But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that, I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). It was Paul’s desire to discard everything that was once important and meaningful so he could be a better follower of Jesus.

Gerald F. Hawthorne interprets Paul’s words: …were Paul to place the whole world with its wealth and power and advantages, its prestige and accolades and rewards in one scalepan of the balance and Christ in the other, Christ alone would overwhelmingly outweigh everything else in terms of real worth. Hence, from the standpoint of simple logic Paul cannot afford to gain the whole world if it means losing Jesus.”[14]

Bonhoeffer saw discipleship much like the Apostle Paul did. His own commitment to Jesus was tested in 1939, when professors Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Lehmann asked Bonhoeffer to come to New York City to assume a teaching position at Union Seminary and thus, escape the perilous situation in Germany. This would certainly keep Bonhoeffer out of harm’s way. With great hesitation, Bonhoeffer accepted the position. So in June of 1939, Bonhoeffer and his brother Karl-Friedrich made the voyage to the United States.

However, he quickly realized that it was a mistake. His time in America was short-lived. He explained his decision to return to Niebuhr:

It was a mistake for me to come to America…I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Germany after the war if I do not share the tribulation of this time with my people…Christians in Germany are faced with the alternatives either of willing their country’s defeat so that Christian civilization may survive, or of willing its victory and destroying our civilization. I know which of the alternatives I have chosen but I cannot make the choice from a position of safety[15]

To Bonhoeffer, true and biblical discipleship had to be costly and self-sacrificing. There really was no other way to follow Jesus. He returned to Germany because he was a “German and a Christian.”[16] As a Christian, he had to follow Jesus regardless of the cost to his own safety and position. If he had to suffer, then so be it in order to follow Jesus.

In the Cost of Discipleship, he wrote: “Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his Master…If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him.”[17]

Application:

While twenty-first century followers of Jesus are not threatened by Hitler and Nazism, they do face the possible threats of materialism, pride and cheap grace. Thus, preachers must make doubly sure that their own commitment to Jesus is non-compromising and that their preaching and teaching does not side-step the costly demands of Jesus.

Further, the New Testament is clear that suffering will be experienced by the followers of Jesus. James 1:2-4 assumes that Christians will suffer: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

J.A. Motyer writes that “trials of many kinds” is a “true picture of life!”[18] Trials often bring distress and discouragement. Yet, according to James, since they are interwoven into the very fabric of our lives, they should be seen as a reality of life. Motyer continues: (James) “appeals, therefore, not for the adoption of a superficial gaiety in the face of life’s adversities, but for a candid awareness of truth already known.”[19]

Life’s adversities will result in the development of a perseverance that can lead to mature Christian character. That is, the faith of the Christian will be refined through the “slow and painful” process of testing. This refining through testing will lead to a “new facet of the believer’s character that could not exist without testing.”[20]

Suffering, to James, can result in true joy when trials are seen as essential tests for our faith. Joy can be experienced even at the onset of “various trials” because they can lead to positive results. The trials will vary from believer to believer depending on one’s circumstances. Yet, there will always be a cost in following Jesus.

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Thank you for taking the time to explore some of the impact that Dietrich Bonhoeffer can have twenty-first century preachers and preaching. We are half way through now! If you have the time, I would appreciate your feedback. You can click the “Evaluation Form” above; or you can comment to this post; or you can e-mail me at bryan@harveyoaksbaptist.org. Thank you. Bryan


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 89.

[2] De Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, 13.

[3] Ibid., 13-14.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 43.

[6] Ibid., 55.

[7] Ibid., 44-45.

[8] Ibid., 45.

[9] Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 81.

[10] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 53.

[11] Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 81-82.

[12] Robert H. Stein, The New American Commentary: Luke, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 279.

[13] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 43.

[14] Gerald H. Hawthorne, Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 139.

[15] Quoted in Mark Devine, Bonhoeffer Speaks Today (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2005) 19-20.

[16] Ibid., 20.

[17] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 91

[18] J.A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of James (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 30.

[19] Ibid., 30.

[20] Peter Davids, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Commentary of James (Grand Rapids, 1982), 68, 69.