This is the fourth blog in a series from Sunderland minister David Whiting, who is currently on sabbatical
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, SCM Press, 1959
So far all the books I have reviewed in connection with my sabbatical have been relatively new, none published before 2016. This review is of a book which is much older, the German edition was published in 1937 under the title ‘Nachfolge’ which literally means ‘following after’, the content of the book originated from the time when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a teacher and author in Finkenwalde at seminary of the Confessing Church. It originates from lectures he delivered in the seminary between 1935 and 1937.
There are a number of English language editions available including a recent edition published by SCM Press and an edition published by Fortress Press entitled ‘Discipleship’ which is a relatively new translation included among a collection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works.
I suspect most of you will be familiar with the book, many of you will have read it. Between 1974 and 1980 I was studying in the Chemistry Department at Imperial College in London. I used to read on the Piccadilly Line travelling between the family home and the College among the books I read were Bonhoeffer’s ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’ and ‘the Cost of Discipleship’. Since then I have dipped into the book a number of times, but it is only during this sabbatical that I have again read the book from beginning to end.
The book is divided into four parts. The first part is ‘Grace and Discipleship’, the second and longest part of the book is a prolonged interpretation of the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and it is arguably one of the finest commentaries of that part of Matthew’s Gospel ever written. The third part of the book is entitled ‘the Messengers’ and picks up on Matthew 10. The concluding part links the life of discipleship with the church of Jesus Christ.
From the very first chapter Bonhoeffer launches into his theme. He writes of ‘cheap grace’ and ‘costly grace’. ‘Cheap grace’ is ‘grace as a principle, a doctrine, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God’ (p.35). He goes on the write about the sin being justified rather than the sinner.
What about ‘costly grace’? ‘Costly grace; is about following Jesus Christ. It is grace because it calls someone to follow Christ and it is costly because is costs a person their life. He writes about it being costly because it condemns sin and it is grace because it justifies the sinner (P.37).
As far as Bonhoeffer is concerned ‘cheap grace’ is not grace at all whereas ‘costly grace’ is in face grace.
Later Bonhoeffer writes about the cross and implications of a person being called to follow Jesus Christ. When someone is called they are called to come and die. ‘It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world’ (p.79).
Bonhoeffer’s own discipleship led him to oppose the government and ultimately to his own death in a concentration camp in 1945.
The theology of Martin Luther has a significant influence upon Bonhoeffer as do the writings of the Danish Lutheran philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Bonhoeffer is also influenced by his contemporary Karl Barth who has himself a high opinion of Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cost of Discipleship’. He reckons it to be easily the best writing on the subject and is tempted to reproduce it in extended quotes.
Bonhoeffer of course writes at the time when Hitler and the National Socialists governed Germany. The Church faced a challenge who was really Lord of the Church. He writes:
‘We must…attempt to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship. The issue can no longer be evaded. It is becoming clearer every day that the most urgent and besetting problem besetting our Church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?’ (p.47).
For Bonhoeffer disciples don’t seek to imitate Christ they seek to follow Christ and are obedient to Christ. It is only by following Christ that we become imitators of Christ:
When someone ‘follows Jesus Christ and bears the image of the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord’. Then that person becomes the image of God and the imitator of God. ‘the follower of Jesus is the imitator of God’ (p.275).
‘Walking the Way’ is being introduced to the United Reformed Church. It is not a programme but an attempt to change the culture of the Church reminding us of the call to discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Call to Discipleship’ still provides for us deep insights into the nature of discipleship and its relationship to God’s grace. It is still worth reading or re-reading.