Thoughts on Bonhoeffer and The Cost of Discipleship

It would not be an exaggeration to say that The Cost of Discipleship has made a larger impact on my life than any other book save the Bible itself.  Although the concept of radical discipleship is in vogue in our contemporary setting, when Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship, this was certainly not the case.  His characterization of genuine discipleship over against “cheap grace” should be challenging to all who desire to genuinely follow Christ.  When I first read the book years ago I was delighted by the way he articulated the ideas and suspicions that had already begun to form in my mind and it affected me in many ways, beginning with my understanding of the gospel itself.

Having spent much of my life in various faith traditions that clung to the “Four Spiritual Laws” as the quintessential presentation of the gospel, I became concerned with the fact that this formulation could not be found in the pages of Scripture.  Moreover, some of the verses that undergirded it were improperly exegeted (e.g., Rev 3:20 is misinterpreted as a promise to unbelievers when the words are actually spoken to the members of an established church; not to mention its anthropocentric rather than Christocentric focus in general).  I discovered not only that this formulation was fundamentally flawed, but that the mechanical “repeat this prayer after me” nature of it smacked of cheap grace.  As Bonhoeffer explained, it was the “preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate” (Cost 47).  Not only is the gospel of cheap grace a false one, it is devoid of the power of the genuine article and can only yield nominal, cultural Christians; Christians in name only (let me here hasten to add that I intend no disrespect to those who offer to lead others in prayer, nor to those who have been moved to pray in response to the gospel, however, such prayer is always a response to the message of salvation offered in the faithful proclamation of the gospel, not its catalyst).

In contrast to the gospel of cheap grace, the true gospel never leaves a man or woman unchanged.  It dismantles one’s life, disorients one’s worldview and perception of reality itself, and in that sense it is devastating.  But it is a necessary devastation; one that clears the way to raise a new edifice built on the unshakable foundation of Jesus Christ.  Bonhoeffer knew this devastation and preached of it.  In his sermon on Psalm 63:3 he writes,

At some point in our psalmist’s life something quite decisive happened: God came into his life.  From that moment his life was changed.  I don’t mean that suddenly he became good and pious – it may well be that he was that before God came.  But now none other than God had come and had drawn near to him.  What made his life remarkable was simply that God was always there with him and he could no longer get away from God.  It completely tore his life apart (Testament 195).

Once the gospel has deconstructed the old edifice and the rubble has been cleared, the new edifice built on the foundation of Christ begins with a new understanding of reality, viz., Jesus Christ Himself.

This reality reorients one’s worldview and results in the realization that “What is of ultimate importance is now no longer that I should become good, or that the condition of the world should be made better by my action, but that the reality of God should show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality” (Ethics 186).  This concept presents a serious challenge to the Aristotelian framework that so often undergirds so-called Christian ethics.  This makes me wonder if it is at all appropriate to speak of Christian ethics.  Indeed, I am not at all convinced that “moral formation” or “character formation” should be a primary focus for the church or that the language of secular ethics should be utilized as the church reflects on complex social issues as Bonhoeffer was wont to do (e.g., in his appropriation of “just war” rationale as a means to justify tyranicide).  In fact, it seems that “spiritual formation” is a more appropriate focus and it seems more biblically precise for a Christian community to talk in terms of holiness rather than in terms of ethics or morality.  While this may seem like hair splitting, I think the distinction is an important one to make.  Ethics (a la Kant) can be “emancipated” from Scriptural moorings; holiness is inextricably theological in essence.  Holiness is the reflection of the character of God and thus bears witness of transcendent reality to a world whose gaze is perpetually inward in its focus and egocentric in its ethical reflection.

Bonhoeffer has also challenged me to consider how exactly a Christian, especially one who is committed to non-violence should work through the complexities of determining the best course of action when confronted with great evil.  Is there ever a time when a Christian should resort to violence, especially when confronted with a corrupt state, one which has abdicated its responsibility to bear the sword in service to good (Rom 13:4)?  This is not an easy question to answer, even for one who adheres to the Anabaptist tradition of non-violence.  It would be far too simplistic to dismiss Bonhoeffer’s actions as a violation of a categorical prohibition of violence.  In fact, I have not yet reached a level of commitment to pacifism that would prevent me from defending my family from one who would seek their physical harm.  But if one is willing to use violence in defense of his family, shouldn’t that naturally be extended to a willingness to use violence to defend his neighbor, and if the neighbor, why not the defense of the state through warfare or defense against a rogue state through assassination, tyranicide, etc.?  This line of reasoning would seem to justify Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in the assassination plot against Hitler.

Nonetheless, both the New Testament and the first 300 years of church history seem to mitigate against such a conclusion.  Jesus refused to engage in insurrection against the pagan state and, much to the dismay of His disciples, chose to suffer execution rather than take up arms against Rome.  Of course, it had to be this way.  Jesus’ death fulfilled prophecy and provided atonement for sin.  Yet, all of the Apostles, save John, were also martyred and their deaths were neither prophesied nor propitiatory.  Moreover, at the time when Jesus told His disciples to take up their crosses (Lk 9:23), the cross had no spiritual or theological content; it was simply an instrument of capital punishment (Yoder, Politics 38). When Jesus bids us come and die, it seems that He has a literal physical death in view rather than a hyper-spiritualized self-denial.  Additionally, up until the time that Constantine co-opted the church, Christians suffered severe, systematic persecution at the hands of the state yet did not resort to a violent defense.  Indeed, the church grew exponentially in spite of (or perhaps because of?) persecution.  Tertullian’s famous maxim that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” was well founded in historical data.  Consequently, while it may be a feasible basis for the contemplation of armed conflict conducted by the state, the “just-war” theory produced by Augustine is in actuality nothing more than salve for the conscience of a church that has abandoned 300 years of pacifist martyrdom and exchanged the teaching of the New Testament for the power, sword, and false security of the state.

Could not a distinction be made between defending one’s family against brigands on the one hand, and violent resistance against the state on the other?  Romans 13 seems to support such a distinction, however Jesus’ instruction to “not resist an evil person” (Mt 5:39) may very well negate such a difference.  Does that exhortation to non-resistance apply only to the individual or does it apply to the defense of one’s family as well?  The latter is very likely the case and perhaps I have simply not reached a level of spiritual maturity to be able to honestly say that I would obey that command when it comes to the defense of my loved ones.  In such a circumstance, I can certainly sympathize with Bonhoeffer’s dilemma.

Bonhoeffer’s commitment to the priority of preaching also deeply impressed me.  It has been said that the center of the Roman Catholic mass is the Eucharist, while the center of a Protestant worship service is the homily.  However, after spending the past three decades attending various Protestant denominations (including Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Anabaptist) I have to wonder how central the sermon actually is in our worship.  In an age when the sermon has been reduced to 25 minutes of surface-slush with more pop-psychology than theological content, it seems that the typical sermon is crafted to deliver the highest entertainment value in the shortest amount of time rather than being an exposition of God’s word wherein we have a genuine encounter with the living Christ.

The church today is in desperate need of a renewed commitment to the exposition of the Word and pastors who are biblically literate.  Likewise, since the only church growth strategy visible in Scripture is the faithful proclamation of the gospel, the modern obsession with church growth schemes and programming needs to meet with a swift and sudden death.  It is my prayer that God will empower me in my ministry to resist the temptation to be overly concerned with attendance and to rest in the organic nature of the church, confident that Christ will meet us in the proclamation of the Word and the congregation will either grow or decline, however God sees fit.

Finally, Bonhoeffer’s unwavering commitment that his theology and ministry be thoroughly Christocentric is refreshing.  It is an ever-present temptation to become overly enamored with the great figures of our various traditions (whether Menno Simons, Luther, Calvin, or Wesley) to the point that their names cross our lips more frequently than the name of Jesus, and thus we allow the shadow of mortal men to eclipse God Himself.  But for Bonhoeffer, it was first, last, and always Christ.  I can do no better than to join Pastor Bonhoeffer in the prayer he offered for the students of the underground seminary at Finkenwalde and extend that prayer to all who have faith and hope in Jesus, “To die in Christ, that this be granted us, that our last hour not be a weak hour, that we die as confessors of Christ, whether old or young, whether quickly or after long suffering, whether seized and laid hold of by the Lord of Babylon or quietly and gently – that is our prayer today, that our last word might only be: Christ” (Testament 252).  Amen and amen.


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.,


—. Ethics. New York: McMillan Publishing Co., 1955.

—. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972.

—. Life Together. New York: HarperCollins, 1954.

de Gruchy, John. The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: Cambridge

University Press, 1999.

Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 25th Anniversary ed.

San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998.

Kelly, Geffrey B. and F. Burton Nelson, eds. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings

of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Yoder, John Howard. The Christian Witness to the State. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock

Publishers, 1998.

—. The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

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