Book Review: The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
First published in 1937 Germany during the pre-World War II Nazi Regime, the message of The Cost of Discipleship delivers a message that continues to be meaningful today. It is a radical statement about the meaning of Christianity as far more than simply intellectual assent to the concept of a divine Jesus or some generic idea of God. It adds far more potency to the message when the context of the writing is considered, however. It is easy to imagine that as he wrote, Bonhoeffer was imagining many around him who were claiming the Christian faith and yet were the majority of Hitler’s forces. It adds a particular added level of depth to remember his context when Bonhoeffer says things such as: “The forces which tried to interpose themselves between the word of Jesus and the response of obedience were as formidable then as they are today.” This message of Jesus which Bonhoeffer reiterates for us throughout the book is one for all Christians of all eras, and even his Nazi Germany situation is not enough to justify ignoring this central message of radical discipleship as “too hard” or “not meant for me.”
Central to the text is the idea of cheap grace. Throughout the first chapter, this idea is expounded in a few different ways, primarily in contrast to costly grace. This describes the distinction very well:
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 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.
This is a powerful theme throughout the remainder of the book as he critiques his fellow Christians, at times particularly in his own Lutheran tradition, accusing them of settling for this cheap grace. As per the central Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith, he complains that many have then concluded that we do not need obedience. On the contrary, he argues, there really is no faith without obedience.
In the second chapter he continues from this idea to talk about the centrality of the idea of the call to discipleship. It is notably not a call just to be saved or a call to cheap grace, but it is a call to discipleship in the footsteps of the master, the Son of God himself, which is costly grace. Bonhoeffer claims that many churches have come to accept that only those who already have belief can be obedient. He believes that is true but misses the fundamentally important other half: only those who obey can believe. Unlike so many in church history, Bonhoeffer is not willing to separate the concepts of faith and works; they are of their very nature intertwined. This does not mean that we are saved through obedience – we are still saved through faith – but discipleship is an essential part of faith.
Bonhoeffer even accuses some pastors of abusing the doctrine of predestination, which he still seems to fully accept himself, in order to set aside many parishioners as obviously not one of the elect. This is because those pastors believe that only those who believe can obey, and thus when somebody doesn’t obey than they must have not been given the gift of faith. This actually “deadens his [the questioning parishioner’s] ears to the Word of God.” No, says Bonhoeffer, the proper answer is to assure them that they also cannot believe unless they obey and so they should be encouraged to obey in order to be granted faith. This interconnection of faith and obedience is a powerful message.
Bonhoeffer begins the next chapter with a scathing attack on those who attempt to avoid taking this call to discipleship seriously. He provides one text after another and responds with how most Christians have avoided it. For example, when speaking of the rich young ruler and the call to abandon his wealth to follow Jesus, Bonhoeffer invents the conversation: “If Jesus challenged us with the command ‘Get out of it [the wealthy life]’, we should take him to mean: ‘stay where you are, but cultivate that inward detachment.’” Or “perhaps Jesus would say to us: ‘Whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ We should then suppose him to mean: ‘The way really to love your enemy is to fight him hard and hit him back.’” He concludes by asking, “How is such absurdity possible? What has happened that the word of Jesus can be thus degraded by this trifling, and thus left open to the mockery of the world?” It seems obvious to read, but he makes a very valid point: most Christians throughout history, even the theologians and ethicists (perhaps especially the theologians and ethicists), have found creative ways out of obeying the obvious meaning of the teachings of Jesus. This is not a matter of legalism or works over faith, but as works as a fundamental part of faith.
Bonhoeffer then takes up the issue of suffering for Christ. As with the simple case above of single-minded obedience to the teachings of Christ, he zeroes in on the specific example of the cross of Christ. When Jesus says that he must be not only killed but also rejected by the world on the cross, then says also that we are to bear the cross as well, we must also bear our suffering if we claim to be a follower of Christ. “To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ” and this is a cross that “is laid on every Christian.” Suffering for Christ should be assumed as part of our obedience to him.
This single-minded obedience also takes shape in terms of a separation from the world. This is not a separation from living in the world, but a separation from the ways of the world. As Christ was rejected from the world, we must accept rejection from the world as well. Using the language of Christ as Mediator, Bonhoeffer claims that Jesus is also the mediator between each human as well: “we can only get in touch with our neighbour through him.” We are called to be individuals for Christ, not just one more of the society which often stands in opposition to him.
The next significant section of the book works through the Sermon on the Mount, which gets into more specific ethical questions. This section is profound in an interesting and perhaps surprising way: it is all obvious from the clear readings of Jesus, but as Bonhoeffer complained about earlier in the book, the church as a whole has not tended to treat it seriously. Once you break out of that assumption that Jesus could not have really meant what he said, Bonhoeffer’s “insights” here are quite obvious. The obvious based on what is in the texts of Matthew 5-7 is very radical compared to the ways that we usually think, however, so Bonhoeffer’s exposition still has the power to take the reader by surprise.
Following through Chapter 5 of Matthew, Bonhoeffer begins with the Beatitudes. There is a lot of content packed into the Beatitudes and he goes through them in a whirlwind tour. Notably outside of normal Christian teaching is Bonhoeffer’s definition of the “mourning” who are blessed where mourning is “doing without what the world calls peace and prosperity… refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to its standards.” When he speaks of Christians being peacemakers, he allows no room for just violence, reasoning that the only way to stop the world’s violence is to be separate from and opposed to it. Christians are to be the lights of the world, standing out with their different lifestyles, which includes more within the Sermon on the Mount like not lusting, not swearing oaths even to your nation, not being angry but instead seeking forgiveness, and most importantly of all to love not just neighbour but also enemy. Even though these are again quite obvious in the biblical texts, they are things which are rarely said in most churches.
Although the church is to be a visible light of the world, Christians are to be secret in another sense even from ourselves. We are to be the light of the world, but we are to not let our right hand know what our left hand is doing. How Bonhoeffer explains this, as I think makes the most sense of the text, is that we are to set our goal on Christ, not on being visible. As we do that, we will become visible to the world, but not intentionally. Our basis of ethics is therefore not a goal to be seen in any way, but a goal to be following Jesus. As a matter of fact, if we do live to be seen, we are not any different than the rest of the world anyway. Overall, as the first section of the book said in general terms, being a disciple of Jesus is one of single-minded obedience which inevitably means separation from the ways of the world.
Bonhoeffer moves on to talk about the task of evangelism. This good news of Jesus, full of these practical implications of what it means to be a disciple and not just salvation by faith, is something that is not to be kept within those who have already become disciples. The disciples of Jesus had to learn that he was much bigger than they imagined, and could not be kept to themselves. The apostles are sent to spread this life, armed with the power of Jesus over the evils of the world. They are sent with the specific commands of their Lord, knowing that suffering will come with their work. They give the same teachings to those they meet, which fundamentally divides those they meet by the sword of the cross: those who decide to follow the cross-centred life and those who don’t.
In the final section, Bonhoeffer moves on to the present day, beginning the age of the church. This age of the church is begun with the same central command of Jesus: “follow me.” As Jesus was originally the Word of God in the flesh, now “the Church is the real presence of Christ.” The Church becomes the witnessing agent for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, “the witness to the physical event of God revealing himself in Christ.” As said at other times throughout the book, the work of following Christ was not something just given to the first disciples, but was meant for all disciples for all time.
In Conversation with Bonhoeffer
The goal of the book is a fairly obvious one. Bonhoeffer does not attempt to develop a complicated ethical system. On the contrary, he actually attempts to strip away the unnecessarily complicated ethical systems that so many other Christians have developed. The defining rule for Christian ethics for Bonhoeffer is simple: follow Jesus. The entire book could be summarized with just those two words. If Jesus’ example and teaching showed one thing, we have no excuse to believe we should be doing something else.
It succeeds admirably at this goal, to the point where I almost wanted to stop reading just because it was so repetitive. Yet I think it needs to be repetitive, particularly for those who didn’t already aim for this simple yet profound ethical framework, because while simple it is also so challenging that we tend to ignore it. Because he remained on this point, and never deviated to the more complicated ethical systems he was arguing against, Bonhoeffer made the point quite effectively. For some readers I acknowledge that this might still not even be enough repetition, as ridiculous as that sounds, as I suspect many Christians would still read it and say “yes, but that isn’t reasonable” or something similar to dismiss it. However, in those cases I don’t think there is much else he could have done.
The core of the book I greatly applaud, and its strengths come up repeatedly. I wish these lessons were more prevalent in our church today. I agree with Bonhoeffer that so many have settled for cheap grace and need to understand what costly grace means. The difference between the church as just another social club and becoming a force for great change in the world and in the lives of Christians themselves may lie in helping them see this distinction. I think that the biggest problem facing the church today is the exact same problem that was facing Bonhoeffer’s German church: a lackadaisical church that doesn’t take the discipleship teachings of Jesus seriously. Christianity is just a belief system for many, or just what their parents subscribed to for others, or just a cultural influence for still more. Somewhere in there, the message of discipleship has been watered down or completely eliminated.
I also agree with him on the idea that faith and works are fundamentally inseparable. The simplest way I’ve found that explained is through analogy. Suppose I am lost in the woods, and I see somebody who looks like they are experienced in the area. I logically ask him for help getting out. He gives me instructions. I say that I trust him and ask him to lead the way out. He begins to move and I stay there. We all accept that this is ridiculous; if I actually trust him, I’d follow him. Yet that is precisely what many Christians do, claiming that they have faith and thus don’t need to follow Jesus. Bonhoeffer explains this very well in his own way with his discussion of obedience leading to faith and not just faith leading to obedience.
I really liked the beginning of chapter 3 on single-minded obedience. It seemed very Anabaptist to me and aligned with a lot of my own perspective on what it means to be a Christian. This Anabaptist-like language continued into the discussion of picking up the cross of Jesus, which means being not just killed but also rejected. I agree that the ways of the world are fundamentally different than the ways of Jesus and by extension the ways that Christians are called to live. His emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount is also something that is often seen in Anabaptist traditions. As I read along, I found it no wonder that he is often treated as one of our own by Anabaptists even though he was a Lutheran.
Returning to the Sermon on the Mount, I noted above that his exposition was surprisingly obvious. The surprise that we experience at the simple teaching of Jesus should stand as a warning sign to us. To me this is nothing short of a tragic failure of the church. I have often heard it said that non-Christians often understand the simple teachings of Jesus more than Christians do because they do not attempt to bend them in the same way (because they also don’t try to follow them so there is no consequence to simply acknowledging them). For example, I’ve found most non-Christians I’ve talked to clearly think Jesus was non-violent, but many Christians find convoluted interpretative techniques to avoid that same conclusion. The fact that the Sermon on the Mount surprises us with its radical simplicity when we have those convoluted selfish techniques out of the way is a dangerous sign for the state of the ethical framework of the church throughout history and now.
The straight-forward and honest approach to the Sermon on the Mount as well as other teachings of Jesus was therefore very refreshing. Bonhoeffer was right in his critique of how the church usually rationalizes these away. It seems as if every reform movement throughout history has in one way or another been about getting back to the Bible and they often succeed to varying degrees. From my historical understandings, Bonhoeffer is willing to push it to a farther particularly radical level closer to that of the Anabaptists where it is not just getting back to the Bible in general but to the teachings of Jesus literally understood in particular. When Jesus says to turn the other cheek instead of striking back, then there is no valid hermeneutic for justifying hitting back. His rhetorical technique of Christians finding alternate meanings of the text is humorous, but it is also pretty close to the truth of those conversations, and his mocking-conversation technique is one that I have used myself sometimes to exhibit this same point. It is straight-forward, it is an honest reading of the text, and yet few Christians have treated it as being authoritative. This is nothing short of weakening the power of the Gospel, or cheapening grace as Bonhoeffer put it.
There was a pair of cautions that came to mind as I read, however. My biggest objection throughout the text came in the call to individualism. I can see its value in its context. Bonhoeffer was facing a world in which everybody, mostly Christians, were falling into a groupthink of the most dangerous kind: the kind that led to World War and Holocaust. Having some individualism to stand up to that was a desperate need. In our world however, one of the biggest problems of our culture is individualism itself. While Jesus’ commands to follow were given to individuals, the paradigm of the entire Bible – Old Testament in terms of Israel, and New Testament in terms of the church – is that the call to live a radical life is one to join a community of a radical life. Individual discipleship does not work, and many try that in our world and fail miserable, usually returning to complete agreement with culture. We are called to be a radical church family, not just a radical collection of individuals. This is somewhat dealt with in the later section, but I am still left with the assumption that the church is for recruiting individuals as opposed to be a radical disciple unit. I know his purpose from this section was meaning to stand out from culture, but his use of the language of individualism would cause me concern recommending that without a caution to the 21st Century North American reader.
There was another simple aspect in which I would caution this book for a 21st century audience: the language was gendered. This is not a point which causes me personally much caution since I have read enough other historical texts with this language to think little of it. I understand the language of Bonhoeffer’s day and I think it is fair to say that he clearly means for both men and women to follow Jesus. In the language of his day, however, this means speaking of “man” rather than “humanity” and women are not really spoken of explicitly except as the object of wrongful lust. It is generally respectful of women, which is why I think he must be assuming that both men and women can be disciples, and that is exhibited in that chapter on lust, but for the most part he speaks in terms of “man.” I could understand some reading the book if they had no knowledge of the language conventions of the time falsely asking the question of whether only men could be disciples, particularly if their church tradition has held similar ideas. If I were to recommend this text to others, as I likely will, then I would make sure they understand the historical language conventions to avoid this error. This isn’t in any way a complaint against the work, but it does provide an extra challenge when speaking of it as relevant for the 21st century Christian’s social ethic.
My response, then, was primarily one of great gratitude for his wisdom. I would very likely evaluate this book as an important read for any Christian, although with the main two cautions I mentioned above. Many in the emerging church, and many in the Anabaptist stream of Christianity, have more recent texts of the same core idea of the call to discipleship. The definition of costly grace is one that I don’t think I have encountered elsewhere, and it provided a strong basis for the rest of the book. So even though I’ve read other books saying similar things, there was something so simple and powerful in Bonhoeffer which made it seem to be able to carry more impact.
Bonhoeffer, D. (1963). The Cost of Discipleship (Revised Edition ed.). New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.,.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Revised Edition (New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., Inc., 1963), pg. 87
 Ibid., 47
 At times to me (as an open theist), this seemed at odds with the emphasis on personally choosing to become a disciple, but I leave aside that discussion knowing that many Christians do not see this as a contradiction
 Ibid., 77
 Ibid., 89-90
 Ibid., 98-99
 Ibid., 110
 Ibid., 105-114
 Ibid., 115-220
 Ibid., 121
 Ibid., 117-171
 Ibid., 172-220
 Ibid., 223-225
 Ibid., 226-227
 Ibid., 236-240
 Ibid., 241-244
 Ibid., 269
 Ibid., 279
 Ibid., 105-114 and see summary above
 Ibid., 147-150