The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer — Book Review

by Katharine Armbrester

May we be enabled to say “No” to sin and “Yes” to the sinner.

The Cost of Discipleship is arguably the magnum opus of the legendary German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and concludes our series on Modern Prophets. Within the text, Bonhoeffer examines Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, breaking down the ancient words chapter by chapter and illustrating how they can still relevantly apply to the life of the modern Christian.

Bonhoeffer is most famously known for his death at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, and he is memorialized as a martyr on the west entrance to Westminster Abbey along with our previous series subjects Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King Jr. However, Bonhoeffer’s life is of even greater import than his death, for Bonhoeffer’s writings have much to offer our troubled times due to his unique perspectives on humanism, materialism and racial oppression which he explored in his writings.

In The Cost of Discipleship, one of the most famous portions of the book is Bonhoeffer’s comparison of “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer considered the profusion of “cheap grace” to be one of the most destructive elements of the modern Church, and the “costly grace” that Christ personified the only thing that could redeem the modern Church. “Cheap grace,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “is the grace we bestow on ourselves…grace without discipleship….Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again… 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 in the first chapter, “Costly Grace,” which is quite possibly the most clearly written and powerful portion of the book, that Bonhoeffer introduces his concepts of cheap and costly grace. His discussion of “cheap grace” and the harm that it has wrought—its enabling of hypocrisy among lukewarm Christians and the harm it wreaks on the soul—still packs a punch and needs to be read by every believer. Bonhoeffer, a witness to how German Protestant churches supported horrific Nazi and fascist policies, holds nothing back when he discusses the evils of “cheap grace” and its incompatibility with biblical truth:

It is under the influence of this kind of “grace” that the world has been made “Christian,” but at the cost of secularizing the Christian religion as never before. The antithesis between the Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability is at an end. The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world, in fact, in being prohibited from being different from the world for the sake of grace.

Throughout, Bonhoeffer emphasizes again and again that the Christian life has nothing to do with “bourgeois respectability” or what we might define today as “American family values”—the life of the Christian is meant to be one of discipleship, of honesty and sacrifice and pouring oneself out for one’s neighbor. If Christianity for us looks like only loving those who look or think exactly like ourselves, that is not true Christianity; it is cheap grace and is worth nothing in the eyes of God.

We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbour or not. We must get into action and obey—we must behave like a neighbour to him.

Contrary to what some contemporary Christians believe—that we should only hang out with other Christians who feel the exact same we do about everything, and who adamantly disdain everything the world has to offer—Bonhoeffer writes eloquently about the harms such separation causes Christians, and how the ethics of discipleship enable us to live “in the world” while still living out Christ’s commands.

Let the Christian remain in the world, not because of the good gifts of creation, nor because of his responsibility for the course of the world, but for the sake of the Body of the incarnate Christ and for the sake of the Church. Let him remain in the world to engage in a frontal assault on it, and let him live the life of his secular calling in order to show himself as a stranger in this world all the more. But that is only possible if we are visible members of the Church.

When we judge other people, we confront them in a spirit of detachment, observing and reflecting as it were from the outside. But love has neither time nor opportunity for this. If we love, we can never observe the other person with detachment, for he is always and at every moment a living claim to our love and service.

In a time and nation where, like in Bonhoeffer’s Germany, Christian identity has become linked with nationalism in some extremist circles with devastating results, Bonhoeffer reminds the reader again and again how Christ did not come to teach Christians how to gain power, but how to acquire humility. Christ wants us to serve and love, not to divide and conquer.

The right way to requite evil, according to Jesus, is not to resist it. This saying of Christ removes the Church from the sphere of politics and law. The Church is not to be a national community like the old Israel, but a community of believers without political or national ties. The old Israel had been both—the chosen people of God and a national community, and it was therefore his will that they should meet force with force. But with the Church it is different: it has abandoned political and national status, and therefore it must patiently endure aggression. Otherwise, evil will be heaped upon evil. Only thus can fellowship be established and maintained.

There is much to learn also from Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on truthfulness and honesty for the modern Christian. We live in a digital age where it is unfortunately very easy to present a glossy, perfected view of our lives on Facebook and other social media platforms, as if to say, “Look at what a successful, beautiful, etc. Christian I am, God has blessed me so much.” This has nothing to do with emulating Christ or becoming a disciple. Such posturing and dishonesty only lead us to heartbreak and deception and alienates those to whom we might be able to minister if only we were more honest with them about how, yes, this world does its best to tear us down, too.

The commandment of complete truthfulness is really only another name for the totality of discipleship. Only those who follow Jesus and cleave to him are living in complete truthfulness… There is no truth towards Jesus without truth towards man. Untruthfulness destroys fellowship, but truth cuts false fellowship to pieces and establishes genuine brotherhood. We cannot follow Christ unless we live in revealed truth before God and man.

Bonhoeffer’s writing style is extremely dense and not for the faint of heart—he lacked the lyricism, sense of humor, or ease of storytelling that was inherent in the writing of the aforementioned Oscar Romero and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bonhoeffer also appeared to have little to no understanding of neurological conditions such as anxiety and depression, which he flatly and falsely identifies as sinful behaviors, a toxic belief that remains to the present day in some Christian circles, but this is still a powerful work on Christian ethics which has deserves to be read with discretion.

In the light of recent revelations from the Southern Baptist Convention, with undoubtedly more heartbreaking revelations to follow from investigations into other denominations and systemic sexual abuse in American churches, Bonhoeffer’s uncompromising view of sin within the Church has pressing relevance now, eighty years after his words were first written.

If the Church refuses to face the stern reality of sin, it will gain no credence when it talks of forgiveness. Such a Church sins against its sacred trust and walks unworthily of the gospel. It is an unholy Church, squandering the precious reassure of the Lord’s forgiveness. Nor is it enough simply to deplore in general terms that the sinfulness of man infects even his good works. It is necessary to point out concrete sins, and to punish and condemn them.

For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Luke 8:17

Amen.


Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one. Katharine has been recently published in the Lucky Jefferson literary journal, the Birmingham Arts Journal, and the supernatural Twilight Zone-inspired anthology, Step Into the Fifth Dimension.

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