Dietrich Bonhoeffer and The Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich BonhoefferWhen I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer last week, five people told me they’d like to hear about him. I’m glad to oblige, in this blog and the next.

I first read The Cost of Discipleship in the summer of 1971 (I wrote the date in the front of the book). I was a teenager who’d known Christ less than two years. It made a great impression on me.

Three weeks ago I picked up my original copy (Nanci located it for me on one of my bookshelves, since being a man I can’t find things). Two weeks later I finished it, underlining heavily. Interesting to see what I had underlined—and hadn’t—thirty six years ago. Reading it again touched me deeply.

Here was a naturally reserved man who stood up against the Nazis, criticized Hitler publicly and called upon Germany’s state church to repent of its anti-semitism and to refuse to allow itself to be used by the Nazis.

After being presented with detailed information and pictures of the atrocities against the Jews, this pastor, theologian and man of peace joined a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was sent to Tegel prison, then the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Flossenburg. Shortly before the war ended he was hung. More about that next week. Today I’ll give a short Bonhoeffer history, then quote from The Cost of Discipleship and comment.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A BiographyThe definitive Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Revised was written by his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, one of his seminary students. When I ordered it, I’d heard it was 900 pages. What arrived was an expanded version, with 1048 pages. I was relieved I didn’t get stuck with that 900 page Reader’s Digest Version!

Though it makes my novel Dominion look small, it’s a fascinating biography, and I wouldn’t want it a page shorter. Next week I’ll recommend two Bonhoeffer documentaries, a radio drama and a movie.

Bonhoeffer’s father Karl was a leading psychiatrist in Berlin. When Dietrich was twelve years old, his brother Walter was killed in World War I. Dietrich announced that he wanted to study for the ministry. His parents were disappointed because they had high hopes for him and considered the pastorate a boring and underachieving life. Still, they tried not to discourage him, and gave Dietrich his brother Walter’s confirmation Bible.

When he went through Confirmation at age twelve, he challenged the pastor—sometimes to his annoyance—as to how the church’s teaching squared with Scripture he’d been reading.

A passionate student of Scripture, Dietrich became a brilliant theologian, interacting with leading thinkers, including Karl Barth. He was granted his PhD at the University of Berlin as a 21 year old. His books and letters are full of truth and doctrine. He loved the Psalms, Job, and the gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Even in the concentration camps, he managed to hold onto his Bible and studied it daily, as reflected in his Letters & Papers from Prison  (a classic, well worth reading). Executed by the Nazis at age 39, I can only imagine the books he might have written in his forties, fifties and sixties.

After earning his doctorate, since he couldn’t be ordained until age 25, Bonhoeffer traveled to New York City, where he spent a year at Union Theological Seminary. He was unimpressed by its dead liberalism, but overall his year was very rich.

The highlight of his time in America was frequently attending, with a black friend, Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. He loved the robust singing and the passionate preaching. There he became aware of the ugliness and injustice of bigotry, which quietly caused him to reflect on racism in Germany.

The Cost of DiscipleshipDietrich took back to Germany a number of black gospel record albums, which, according to Eberhard Bethge, he regularly played for his seminary students.

When Bonhoeffer returned home in 1931, he lectured on theology in Berlin, and started writing. In opposition to the state Lutheran church, which capitulated to the Nazis, Bonhoeffer joined Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth and others in forming the Confessing Church.

Bonhoeffer directed a Confessing Church seminary where he poured himself into mentoring his students. After two years the school was ransacked and closed by the Nazis. In 1936, Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship was released. (The English edition wasn’t published until 1959.)

The following is an early excerpt from this great book, which contains much he taught his students:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost!

The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. …Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under the grace from his old life under sin.

….Let [the Christian] be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace—for grace alone does everything. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace!

That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace 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.

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.

Costly grace 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 which 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.

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 because 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: “you 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.

Final Thoughts from Randy:

Bonhoeffer accuses Christians of discounting the gospel, putting a sale price on it that cheapens the priceless.

What is it, after all, that ends on the bargain table? Whatever isn’t selling, because it isn’t valuable. If we mark down the gospel enough, we figure people might buy it. But is what they’re now buying the true gospel? Or does moving it to the bargain table devalue it and make it a false gospel?

The King of Kings doesn’t belong on eBay. He will not be sold to the lowest bidder. He is too precious to be sold at all.

Grace is free, Bonhoeffer tells us, but it’s not cheap. Clearly, God’s grace was costly for Father and Son. But Bonhoeffer is saying God’s grace is costly for us too. What does he mean, since grace, by definition, cannot be bought?

He means we are called to seek Jesus with all our hearts, knock on God’s door, and, like the man who finds treasure in the field, we are to give up all we have to obtain Him. Jesus says, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). It is the losing of our lives, surrendering everything, that Bonhoeffer’s talking about when he says grace is costly.

But here’s the key, and if we grasp it, we undergo the ultimate paradigm shift: the “everything” that it costs us to follow Christ is, without Him, nothing. We are miserable without Jesus. Nothing we have can satisfy us. And even if it did, we couldn’t hold on to it.

Bonhoeffer says, “The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.”

Well, isn’t that the gospel? No. Following Jesus is more than nodding a head, raising a hand, signing a card or repeating a prayer, though someone coming to Christ can do any of those. Following Jesus is not returning to life as usual, the only difference being that we’re now going to Heaven. Following Jesus is abandoning trust in ourselves, surrendering all we are and have to Him. This, and nothing less, is discipleship.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about what cheap grace looked like in Germany, and how the German church was compromised by its undiscerning loyalty to the German state. And how the American church can be likewise compromised. I’ll tell more of Bonhoeffer’s story, including his death.

I thank God for this brother, and look forward to meeting him. In a day when words are notoriously cheap, among not only politicians but some church leaders, his radical Jesus-centered book about discipleship’s costs is authenticated through his life and death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has the right to speak to us unflinchingly. He earned that right at the end of a Nazi noose.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries