Book Review: The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This is the first in a new series of book reviews Cornerstone is publishing on our WordPress site. This week’s review is on The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The idea is to encourage our readers to soak themselves in Gospel-centered literature this summer. Let the break from school not be a break from our Father in Heaven.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (p. 89).

What does the Christian life look like to you? Is it a carefree life devoid of sorrows and suffering, but rather, abundant in health, wealth and prosperity? If so, how then do you make sense of verses like Mark 8:34?

And (Jesus) summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. (NASB)

In his landmark book The Cost of Discipleship (alongside Life Together previously reviewed here), Dietrich Bonhoeffer seeks to answer those questions by expounding the call to sacrifice and ethics faced by all Christians. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian in the time of Nazi Germany, one of the few pastors who stood firmly against Nazi ideology. Having been linked to a conspirator’s assassination plot of Hitler, he was hanged in 1945. A true martyr of the faith, Bonhoeffer is unequaled among modern theologians in his experience of personally taking on the cost of discipleship.

The book is divided into four main sections. The first, titled “Grace and Discipleship,” explains Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” The former is defined as “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” (p. 45). While having been written almost eighty years ago, Bonhoeffer’s words still aptly diagnose the state of modern Christianity. How many of us actually seek cheap grace, the kind that promises no suffering and preaches a “once-saved-always-saved” doctrine only to be abused by our sinful hearts? On the other hand, costly grace is “the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell 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” (ibid). In other words, costly grace is biblical grace, the call to follow the Suffering Servant.

Bonhoeffer then moves to comment on the famous Sermon on the Mount, elucidating key aspects of Christian ethics that we often dismiss as too idealistic for us to achieve. Commentating on Matthew 5:38-42, he writes,

The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. (p. 141)

How we can do this is only because of the call of Christ, having left everything behind and to follow only Jesus. Similarly commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, Bonhoeffer writes,

True prayer does not depend either on the individual or the whole body of the faithful, but solely upon the knowledge that our heavenly Father knows our needs. That makes God the sole object of our prayers, and frees us from a false confidence in our own prayerful efforts. (p. 165)

Essentially, Bonhoeffer recognises the life of a Christian as “an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh” (p. 171). While the struggle is tough, Bonhoeffer recognises that the only reason why we are able to follow Him through it is His word and His call, and His alone.

The penultimate section, titled “The Messengers”, has Bonhoeffer commenting on Matthew 9:35-10:42, speaking mainly about our obligation to evangelism. He paints a sobering picture of the suffering we will face as evangelists, that we will be “hated to the end of time” and “called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace” (p. 215). In spite of that, Bonhoeffer warns us not to fear man, incisively claiming that “those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men” (p. 218). The whole section brings to mind not just our personal walks with God, sufferings and reward covered by the Sermon on the Mount, but “the goal of our labors, which is the salvation of the Church” (p. 221). As Jesus said in Matthew 9:37-39, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” We should daily ask ourselves how we can contribute as one of those laborers of this great harvest.

In the final section, Bonhoeffer speaks of the church and its function in the life of discipleship. By identifying the church as the visible manifestation of Christ in the modern world, he argues that “through Word and Sacrament the Body of Christ is no longer confined to a single place… (but) has penetrated into the heart of the world in the form of the Church” (p. 259). This high view of church leads him to hold on tightly to church discipline, where “the Church must have sufficient authority to bring formal disciplinary action against… a brother who falls into open sin in word or deed” (p. 290). Bonhoeffer’s envisioned church is a Biblical picture, one that our tolerant and afraid to offend modern incarnations would do well to learn from.

The Cost of Discipleship is a dense and powerful book about the true cost of being a disciple of Christ. Bonhoeffer’s words are compelling, convicting, and challenging for anyone who professes to be a Christian.

Editor-in-Chief,

Nicholas Chuan

The Cost of Discipleship is available in most Christian bookstores and online at https://www.amazon.com/Cost-Discipleship-Dietrich-Bonhoeffer/dp/0684815001

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