The Cost of Discipleship
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Note: This book begins with a "Memoir" by G. Leibholz" which describes Bonhoeffer's faith and martyrdom. You can skip this section and go directly to the beginning of Bonhoeffer's own message.
Since everything that follows comes from Bonhoeffer's book (except for a few words in brackets), we have not used quotation marks. The numbers refer to pages in the 1963 paperback version published by Macmillan.
Because of today's controversy concerning Bonhoeffer's beliefs, I hope to add some key quotes from his prison letters. I believe his words have been misunderstood. Bonhoeffer dared to criticize the politicized cultural "Christianity" of Hitler's Germany (primarily the unbiblical "religious" legalism, fomalism, and Nazi compromise). He was not, as some have said, a liberal Christian opposing genuine Christianity. Unfortunately, some English-speaking interpreters of his German letters have unjustly distorted his prison-letters and taken certain phrases -- such as "religionless christianity" -- out of context. To see his genuine love for the whole, unabridged Word of God, please see Life Together by Bonhoeffer
Together with Martin Niemoller and other founders of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer actively opposed both Hitler's National Socialism and the Nazi subjugation of churches. Bonhoffer was first arrested for helping Jews escape to Switzerland. He was executed by hanging at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945 shortly before its liberation. (See Trapped in Hitler's Hell and Day of No Return)
"In his hearing before the Gestapo during his imprisonment, defenseless and powerless as he then was only fortified by the word of God in his heart, he stood erect and unbroken before his tormentors. He refused to recant, and defied the Gestapo machine by openly admitting that, as a Christian, he was an implacable enemy of National Socialism and its totalitarian demands toward the citizendefied it, although he was continually threatened with torture and with the arrest of his parents, his sisters and his fiancée In 1944, when friends made an attempt to liberate him and to take him to safety abroad, he decided to remain in prison in order not to endanger others.
"The last service which Dietrich Bonhoeffer held on the day before his death... 'moved all deeply....'
"Bonhoeffer, who was never tried, went steadfastly on his last way to be hanged, and died with admirable calmness and dignity. God heard his prayer and granted him the 'costly grace'that is, the privilege of taking the cross for others and of affirming his faith by martyrdom." 26
"How can a man wax arrogant if in this life he shares the suffering of God?" 24
"Both modern liberal theology and secular totalitarianism hold pretty much in common that the message of the Bible has to be adapted more or less, to the requirements of a secular world. No wonder, therefore, that the process of debasing Christianity as by liberal theology led, in the long run, to a complete perversion and falsification of the essence of Christianity...." 30
A Christian must be prepared, if necessary, to offer his life for this. Thus all kinds of secular totalitarianism which force man to cast aside his religious and moral obligations to God and subordinate the laws of justice and morality to the State are incompatible with his conception of life. " 31
"The life of the spirit is not that which shuns death and keeps clear of destruction: rather it endures death and in death it is sustained. It only achieves its truth in the midst of utter destruction." 33
"In a modern dictatorship, however, with its subterranean ubiquity and all-embracing instruments of oppression, a revolt means certain death to all who support it. ... The future in modern society depends much more on the quiet heroism of the very few who are inspired by God. These few will greatly enjoy the divine inspiration and will be prepared to stand for the dignity of man and true freedom and to keep the law of God, even if it means martyrdom or death--
" because they 'look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are unseen; for the things which are seen /are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal." [2 Cor. 4:17-18, 33-34]
"Jesus invites all those that labor and are heavy laden, and nothing could be so contrary to our best intentions, and so fatal to our proclamation as to drive men away from him by forcing upon them man-made dogmas. If we did so, we should make the love of Jesus Christ a laughing-stock to Christians and pagans alike." 39
The Cost of Discipleship
Grace and Discipleship
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.... 45
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.... 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 a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God. 45-46
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. 'All for sin could not atone.' Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the worlds standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under 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.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 47
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self 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.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and 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: “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.
Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
On two separate occasions Peter received the call, “Follow me.” It was the first and last word Jesus spoke to his disciple (Mark 1.17; John 21.22). A whole life lies between these two calls. The first occasion was by the lake of Gennesareth, when Peter left his nets and his craft and followed Jesus at his word. The second occasion is when the Risen Lord finds him back again at his old trade. Once again it is by the lake of Gennesareth, and once again the call is: “Follow me.” Between the two calls lay a whole life of discipleship in the following of Christ. Half-way between them comes Peter's confession, when he acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God....48
way did grace arrest him, the one grace proclaimed in
This grace was certainly not self-bestowed. It was the grace of Christ himself, now prevailing upon the disciple to leave all and follow him, now working in him that confession which to the world must sound like the ultimate blasphemy, now inviting Peter to the supreme fellowship of martyrdom for the Lord he had denied, and thereby forgiving him all his sins. In the life of Peter grace and discipleship are inseparable. He had received the grace which costs. 49
As Christianity spread, and the Church became more secularized, this realization of the costliness of grace gradually faded. The world was Christianized, and grace became its common property. It was to be had at low cost....49
The Call to Discipleship
"The call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. . It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reason for a mans religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ Himself." 61
"Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. There is trust in God, but no following of Christ." 64
"He wants to follow, but feels obliged to insist on his own terms to the level of human understanding. The disciple places himself at the Masters disposal, but at the same time retains the right to dictate his own terms. But then discipleship is no longer discipleship, but a program of our own to be arranged to suit ourselves, and to be judged in accordance with the standards of rational ethic." 66
"If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The first step places the disciple in the situation where faith is possible. If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe." 66-67
Discipleship and the Cross
Jesus Christ must suffer and be rejected. (Mark 8:31-38) This 'must' is inherent in the promise of Godthe Scripture must be fulfilled. Here there is a distinction between suffering and rejection. Had He only suffered, Jesus might still have been applauded as the Messiah. 95
Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory. It must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ. (Peter in Matthew 16)
That shows how the very notion of a suffering Messiah was scandal to the Church. Peters protest displays his own unwillingness to suffer and that means that Satan has gained entry into the Church, and is trying to tear it away from the cross of its Lord.
Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond all doubt that the "must" of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself. Discipleship mean adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross. 96 [See John 15:20-21]
When Jesus begins to unfold this inescapable truth to His disciples, He once more sets them free to choose or reject Him. "If any man would come after me," He says. For it is not a matter of course, not even among the disciples. Nobody can be forced, nobody can even be expected to come. He says rather, "If any man" is prepared to spurn all other offers which come his way in order to follow Him. Once again, everything is left for the individual to decide . 96-97
To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only Him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us. All that self-denial can say is: "He leads the way, keep close to Him."
" and take up his cross." Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for His sake. If in the end we know only Him, if we have ceased to notice the pain of our own cross, we are indeed looking only unto Him. If Jesus had not so graciously prepared us for this word, we should have found it unbearable. 97
To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life.
It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause of conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering.
The Psalmist was lamenting that he was despised and rejected of men, and that is an essential quality of the suffering of the cross. But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and life committed to Christ. The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest.
Only a man thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. The cross is there, right from he beginning, he has only got to pick it up there is no need for him to go out and look for a cross for himself Every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. 98
But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and given them the grace of martyrdom, while others He does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear .
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His deathwe give over our lives to death. When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man [or nature] at his call. Jesus summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact, every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die
The call to discipleship means both death and life [It] sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christs sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord. 99
But there is another kind of suffering and shame which the Christian is not spared. While only the sufferings of Christ are a means of atonement, yet the Christian also has to undergo temptation [and] bear the sins of others; he too must bear their shame and be driven like a scapegoat from the gates of the city. (Heb. 13:12-15) The passion of Christ strengthens him to overcome the sins of others by forgiving them. "Bear ye one anothers burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:2)
Suffering then is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church 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. But if we lose our lives in His service and carry out cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ. The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and His cross and all the offense which the cross brings in its train.
Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ It is a joy and token of His grace. Christ transfigures for His own [the early Christian martyrs] the hour of their moral agony by granting them the unspeakable assurance of His presence. In the hour of the cruelest torture they bear for His sake, they are made partakers in the perfect joy and bliss of fellowship with Him. To bear the cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering.
Jesus prays to His Father that the cup may pass from Him, and His Father hears His prayer; for the cup of suffering will indeed pass from Himbut only by His drinking it. 101
God speaking to Luther: "Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehendit must transcend all comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from His father not knowing whither he went. Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man but I myself, who instruct you by my Word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all you choose or contrive or desirethat is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple." 103-4
Discipleship and the Individual
"If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Through the call of God, men become individuals Every man is called separately, and must follow alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and try to protect themselves from it by merging themselves in the society of their fellow-men and in their material environment. They become suddenly aware of their responsibilities and duties, and are loath to part with them. But all this is only a cloak to protect them from having to make a decision. They are unwilling to stand alone before Jesus and to be compelled to decide with their eyes fixed on Him alone . It is Christs will that he should be thus isolated, and that he should fix his eyes solely upon him. 105
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Privation is the lot of the disciples in every sphere of their lives. They ... have no security, no possessions to call their own, not even a foot of earth to call their home, no earthly society to claim their absolute allegiance. ... For his sake they have lost all....
The Antichrist also calls the poor blessed, but not for the sake of the cross, which embraces all poverty and transforms it into a source of blessing. He fights the cross with political and sociological ideology. He may call it Christian, but that only makes him a still more dangerous enemy.... 120
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” With each beatitude the gulf is widened between the disciples and the people, their call to come forth from the people becomes increasingly manifest.... And so the disciples are strangers in the world, unwelcome guests and disturbers of the peace. No wonder the world rejects them! ... they bear their sorrow in the strength of him who bears them up, who bore the whole suffering of the world upon the cross.... The community of strangers find their comfort in the cross, they are comforted
by being cast upon the place where the Comforter of Israel awaits them. Thus do they find their true home with their crucified Lord, both here and in eternity. 121-122
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” This community of strangers possesses no inherent right of its own...nor do they claim such right for they are meek, the renounce every right of their own and live for the sake of Jesus Christ. When reproached, they hold their peace; when treated with violence they endure it patiently; when men drive them from their presence, they yield their ground. They will not go to law to defend their rights nor make a scene when they suffer injustice.
Their right is in the will of their Lord —that and no more. They show by every word and gesture that they do not belong to this earth.... But Jesus says: “they shall inherit the earth." 122-123
“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” Not only do the followers of Jesus renounce their rights, they renounce their own righteousness, too. They get no praise for their achievements or sacrifices.... [--for all the praise goes to our King!]
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God." Who is pure in heat? Only those who have surrendered their hearts completely to Jesus that He may reign in them alone. ...125
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” The followers of Jesus have been called to peace. When he called them they found their peace, for he is their peace.... But nowhere will that peace be more manifest than where they meet the wicked in peace and are ready to suffer at their hands. The peacemakers will carry the cross with their Lord, for it was on the cross that peace was made. Now that they are partners in Christ’s work of reconciliation, they are called the sons of God as he is the Son of God. 125-126
“Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." ...The world will be offended at them and so the disciples will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Not recognition, but rejection, is the reward they get from the world for their message and works....127
Rejoice and be exceeding glad for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. “For My sake” the disciples are reproached, but because it is for His sake, the reproach falls on Him.
...while Jesus calls them blessed, the world cries: “Away with them, away with them!”
Yes, but whither? To the kingdom of heaven. “Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.” There shall the poor be seen in the halls of joy.... God wipes away the tears from the eyes of those who had mourned upon earth. He feeds the hungry at his Banquet. There stand the scarred bodies of the martyrs, now glorified and clothed in the white robes of eternal righteousness instead of the rags of sin and repentance. The echoes of this joy reach the little flock below as it stands beneath the cross, and they hear Jesus saying: “Blessed are ye!” 128
The Enemy--the "Extraordinary"
There were those who cursed them for undermining the faith and transgressing the law. There were those who hated them of leaving all they had for Jesus sake.... There were those who persecuted them as prospective dangerous revolutionaries and sought to the destroy them. Some of their enemies were numbered among the champions of the popular religion, who resented the exclusive claim of Jesus. 162-163
The Hidden Righteousness
The life of discipleship can only be maintained as long as nothing is allowed to come between Christ and ourselves -- neither the law, nor personal piety, nor even the world. The discipline always look only to his master, never to Christ and the law, Christ and religion, Christ and the world. ... Only by following Christ alone can he preserve a single eye. ... Thus the heart of the disciple must be set upon Christ alone. 173-174
Note: God calls us to have fellowship with each other. But in a fallen world, His people are often separated from those who share their faith. Many today are standing alone in the midst of nominal "Christians" who neither know God nor desire to follow Him.
Bonhoeffer was surrounded by lukewarm pastors and cultural "Christians" who supported Hitler. To most people in the established German Lutheran church, security and wealth had become more important that Biblical truth and faithfulness to God.
When he was imprisoned, he was separated from those he who, like him, trusted God. Compromise was not an option, so He put all his trust in God. (Of course, so did Moses, Joseph, David, Paul and many others whose faith deepened when totally separated unto God alone)
Here are some Scriptures that speak to that side of life:
"If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.... If they persecuted Me they will persecute you... for they do not know the One who sent Me." John 15:19-2
"...do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." Romans 12:2
"...the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one." 1 John 5:19
"Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
"I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.' Therefore, 'come out from among them and be separate,' says the Lord. 'Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters.'" 2 Corinthians 6:12-1
"Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues." Revelation 18:4
"...the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me." John 16:2-3
"... they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you." 1 Peter 4:3-4
“Therefore prepare yourself and arise, and speak to them all that I command you.
Do not be dismayed before their faces, lest I dismay you before them.
For behold, I have made you this day a fortified city and an iron pillar,
And bronze walls against the whole land—
Against the kings... princes... priests, and against the people of the land.
They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you.
For I am with you,' says the Lord, 'to deliver you.'”
"Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evil. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn away from it and pass on." Proverbs 4:14
"... in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!
"...all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned..." 2 Timothy 3:1-14
See also Persecution News and Preparing for Persecution
True stories for children: Index
God's Word: What the Bible Tells Us About Persecution
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