In this month’s Great Books series, Dr. Ken Boa turns his attention to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. The book’s greatness lies not only in the truths expressed, but also in the fact that the author lived those truths in his own life so powerfully.
In 1939, just two years after Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship, American friends arranged his passage from Germany to the United States. While others busily planned a speaking tour for Bonhoeffer, he grew increasingly unsettled.
He wrote a letter to Reinhold Neibuhr who had sponsored his trip explaining that leaving Germany had been a mistake. He knew that Christians in Germany would have to choose between desiring their nation’s defeat to preserve Christian civilization or desiring their nation’s victory and thereby destroying their civilization. “I know which of these alternatives I must choose,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “but I cannot make that choice in security.”
Bonhoeffer then returned to Germany knowing that following Jesus would have a tremendous cost, but also knowing that whatever that cost was it was worth it to remain near to his Lord. Imprisoned for two years for his part in the German resistance movement, just three weeks before the liberation of Berlin, Bonhoeffer was executed. It’s a story I’ve told in my newest book, The Faith.
It is against this backdrop that we read The Cost of Discipleship, perhaps Bonhoeffer’s greatest work and one of my all-time favorite books. As Dr. Ken Boa says in the Great Books Audio series, “Today we define discipleship at best as impartation of a certain… knowledge rather than life-changing approach to come and follow Jesus.”
Bonhoeffer begins the work by showing exactly how much we’ve reduced Christian discipleship by contrasting the notions of cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace he wrote, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. . . .” In short, no desire to change. In contrast, costly grace is a call to follow Jesus. “It is costly,” writes Bonhoeffer, “because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
Bonhoeffer was concerned that with the Christianization of the Western world had come a cheapening of grace, denying the very essence of Christianity. To take the name “Christian” and yet cling to what he called “bourgeois secular existence” disturbed him. And we saw the results clearly in the tragedy of Christians being silent in the face of the Holocaust. My concern today is that we learn this lesson and not become comfortable with cheap grace here in our own land.
We need to re-read this classic because somehow we’ve forgotten how radical it is to follow the call of Jesus. We’ve forgotten that the disciples left behind the security of their nets and boats, for the gracious uncertainty of a life of faith.
And we’ve forgotten that following Christ will lead us down a road likewise marked with suffering. As Bonhoeffer reminded us, “Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God.” For us, it may not mean martyrdom as it did for Bonhoeffer, but it will mean abandoning the attachments of this world for fellowship with Christ. That’s an understanding of discipleship we desperately need today.