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Monday, April 11, 2011

The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I recently read The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is the most challenging book I have ever read. Why so? Well, first, I know something of the story of the author. Bonhoeffer was a young theologian, with a superior intellect. He stood up for traditional Christianity against the influence of Nazism in Germany, and, in fact, was one of the leaders of the Confessing Church there. He was well received in Britain and the U. S., and could have stayed in either place, until the end of World War II, but he chose to return to Germany, saying that he would have no right to be a spiritual leader among the Germans, after the war, if he had not experienced what they were experiencing. He was imprisoned and eventually executed in a concentration camp.

Bonhoeffer's life was a challenge, but the contents of the book are, if anything, more so. What are the contents?

The book begins with a biography of Bonhoeffer. Then, there's what is probably Bonhoeffer's best-known chapter, a chapter on costly grace. He also writes about cheap grace:

Cheap grace is 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. (44-45)

. . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly 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 becaus it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. (Translated from the German Nachfolge, 1937, by R. H. Fuller. Some revision by Irmgard Booth.) Copyright 1959 by SCM Press Ltd.45)

There are five chapters on Discipleship.

Then, Bonhoeffer expounds on the Sermon on the Mount, in 15 chapters, each one about a short section of Matthew 5-7. He writes about such matters as love, hiding your gifts, and the role of Christians in politics. These chapters would make great short devotionals, and did so for me.

I had my only disagreement with the late Bonhoeffer in this section. It wasn't over a critical doctrine. On p. 147, Bonhoeffer claims that the Old Testament "tells us more than once that we must love [our enemies]" He says that Ex. 23:4-5, Prov 25:21-22, Gen 45, 1 Sam 24:7, II Kings 6:22 teach this. I checked, and I don't think so. They do teach to be fair and generous to enemies, but I don't think these passages require and teach love of enemies. The New Testament certainly does, whether Bonhoeffer is correct or not.

Bonhoeffer closes with two sections, six chapters each, on "The Messengers," and one on the church.

The entire book, covering so many topics, but yet only one, namely the Christian life, is well written, challenging -- do I measure up? -- and doctrinally sound. It's a great read for the Christian. I commend it to you.

Thanks for reading. A couple of days ago, this blog used a quote from Bonhoeffer as the basis of a poster.

Added August 2, 2013: I have now posted on a biography of Bonhoeffer, here

Added June 10, 2014: See here for a chart, based on Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship


abijah said...

Bonhoeffer's "Discipleship" is an exercise intellectual and spiritual. It is a work that you will re-read, dogear, underscore, and make copious notes in the margins many times over the years. It is best read, in my opinion, in digestible portions to avoid being overwhelmed.

Dr.Bonhoeffer showed by example that the walk of a sincere follower of Christ, even through Hell on earth, will be victorious when his eyes are fixed on Jesus and never vary to the right or the left. As our nation and world descends into that Hell in the 21st Century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic "Discipleship" (and "Ethics"), never neglecting Holy Scripture, will encourage faint hearts: we can be, we will be faithful by grace through faith even unto death, if so called by our Lord.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, abijah!