Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Published 1937

It is one thing to read a book, but another to have to write about it.  I finished The Cost of Discipleship nights ago, and it has been sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for me to say something.

This book makes me feel like a baby Christian again - like I did not know anything about my faith.

Exaggeration aside, it was not completely out of my comprehension.  It is not a long read, or too academically complicated; but it is the weightiness of the content that tripped me up. Bonhoeffer writes in such minute, almost tedious detail about biblical matters, which is what overwhelmed me at times.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor and theologian, authored countless books on biblical theology.  The Cost of Discipleship begins with a short memoir of who he was (or you can read Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer, an amazing, longer read); but the critical objective of The Cost of Discipleship is to demonstrate what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Immediately, Bonhoeffer declares that cheap grace is "the deadly enemy of our Church." Cheap grace is "forgiveness without repentance," etc.; cheap grace is grace without discipleship, the cross, and Jesus Christ.  (I have witnessed cheap grace myself, but I always referred to it as "watered-down Christianity."  It is the easy way Christians tolerate Christianity without obediently following Christ. It is like saying, "I am forgiven; hence, I can continue living as I was before."  This is hypocritical.)

Cheap grace, he explains,
is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin.  Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.
Bonhoeffer compares cheap grace with costly grace, which is the gospel.  Here is how he describes it:
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 because it gives a man the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies a 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.
The result of cheapening grace provided a way for the world to become Christianized (or for Christianity to become secularized).   Bonhoeffer claims, "The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works."

That was only the first chapter.  For the remainder of his book, Bonhoeffer seeks to answer the question: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?  He says,
Happy are they who, knowing that grace , can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ, are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world.  Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship.
He explains the steps to discipleship: first, one must answer the call to discipleship with immediate obedience, which leads to faith alone through Christ; next, one must deny self in order to follow Jesus; in addition, following Christ involves trusting Him, even if you know not where you are going; and finally, a disciple must become an individual, to follow alone - that is, he must "break with his past" and never turn back - as he is called separately "and must follow alone."  However, fear not, "our reward is the fellowship of the Church."

For the bulk of The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer uses the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) to make his case for discipleship and how Christians obediently follow Christ.   In short, while following Christ is liberating, it is also costly, which may include opposition or even death. Nonetheless, one must give up his life to follow Christ, and Bonhoeffer explains how to do that.

Finally, there are shorter chapters that follow, covering other topics, such as examples of disciples and the Church.

Who should read this book: Theology students, for certain, but also Christians who appreciate biblically sound resources that follow God's Word.   The Bible is always best, but biblically supportive books are always insightful, enlightening, and encouraging.


  1. Wow, this sounds like a powerful book! I like how he explains cheap grace as grace we bestow on ourselves. People are drawn to cheap grace, I think, because it prevents them from doing a self-examination and seeing areas of their lives that need change, allowing them to carry on as before with a "feeling" of forgiveness. In many ways, I think we're all guilty of this. Bonhoeffer sounds like some of the saints I've been reading. It's very refreshing to have someone state their beliefs so strongly. I will definitely read this book at some point.

    1. Absolutely. I didn't want to get into it on a personal level - one can read it for herself - but what he is describing is how (and why) Christianity became worldly. More people may call themselves Christian, but they have no idea what it means to be Christian. Right, they have not done a self-examination b/c that would force one to admit how they are flawed, and that they need a Savior.

      Feeling forgiven permits man to continue in his sinfulness without guilt, which saves no one. Sadly, many people (many "Christians") are going to die in their sins.

      Once a Christian genuinely repents, turns toward God, and makes a decision to follow Christ, which requires trusting Him completely, that feeling of cheap grace doesn't even enter his mind. He knows in his heart the cost of that free grace, and he will live live like a biblical Christian, a Disciple of Christ.

  2. Thank you for an excellent discussion of this important book. As a fan of Bonhoeffer I have enjoyed reading his prose over the years. I would also agree that Eric Metaxas' biography of Bonhoeffer is "amazing".

    1. You're welcome.

      Metaxas' biography of Bonhoeffer was one of my favorite reads last year.

  3. Hi Ruth! This is one of my favorite books because its theme is so dear to my heart. Today in the States we are seeing an epidemic of cheap grace.

    Many churches are teaching that it is possible to be saved without fruit. I don't buy it. I got into a long conversation with a friend about this because her church teaches this. They are called "sterile Christians."

    They believe in justification but not sanctification which is the process of Jesus Christ completing a good work in us. (As you know, I'm sure)

    Another good friend of mine is convinced that her sister was saved because she professed her faith in Christ when a young girl. Later she left the church, got married several times, finally just lived with a guy and together they practiced witchcraft and Native American Spiritism. She became so desolate that when she developed cancer she refused treatment and soon died.

    But my friend believes that she cannot lose her salvation so her sister was saved. I know you can't lose your salvation but there's such a thing as evidence of salvation as well.

    Bonhoeffer saw this so clearly in his day. I hope that churches will rise to the occasion and stop worrying about losing members and call their congregation to a life of obedience in Christ.

    1. Wow! You've got a story. Most people in my family - no ALL of the people in my family and most in my husband's are Catholics in name only, and they really could care less about the truth. Don't even bring it up.

      I've not heard of the term "sterile Christian," but it certainly fits. "Watered down," "sterile" "cheap grace;" funny how it is all the same idea: Jesus forgives me, but I can make my own way (my own salvation). For some it is works, for others it is "being a good person," (which they cannot be), and others it may be practicing certain rituals, etc. But none of it recognizes what Jesus already did for us.

      I think we can go back to the early Christian period and see that it was always this way, even with gnosticism. Many man-made religions have their roots in it. They reject God incarnate and His sacrifice. But Christians know who is behind that lie.