Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was executed in 1945 by the Nazis for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. In 1937, the same year that the Nazis closed Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde seminary, Bonhoeffer published The Cost of Discipleship, a book of meditations on the Sermon on the Mount, the nature of grace, and Paul’s teachings on justification and sanctification.
Probably the most famous teaching to come out of this book is the idea of “cheap grace” versus “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer writes that “cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.” He goes on to say that
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.
In sum, cheap grace is grace that doesn’t change a person’s life. It allows us to just keep doing what we want to do without thinking about what God would have us do. In contrast,
costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him: It is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
By looking at the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer describes just what that burden might look like for the Christian and what kind of life Jesus calls his followers to live. The key is to focus entirely on Jesus, with a single-minded devotion that puts obedience to Christ over and above our loyalties to family, friends, nation, possessions, even our own selves. The teachings are difficult, not so much because they’re difficult to understand (although Bonhoeffer’s prose can be circular and repetitive), but because these ideas are difficult to accept.
The Cost of Discipleship is one of the classics of 20th-century Christian thought, but I find myself torn about a lot of it, partly because I can see how Bonhoeffer’s concept of cheap grace and single-minded devotion can be turned into a hammer with which to beat down other Christians who aren’t living up to our particular standard of obedience. (Indeed, I’ve seen that done over such disputable matters as how long one needs to spend in prayer daily or how “holy” one’s choice of entertainment must be.) Yet Bonhoeffer himself says that Christ is the only one who calls and that each person’s call to obedience might look different. So those who measure others by their own calling are getting Bonhoeffer wrong.
Still, even keeping that in mind, I found it difficult at times to see just how salvation by grace fits into Bonhoeffer’s thought here. The idea is not absent, however. Bonhoeffer talks about Luther’s idea of sinning boldly and makes the excellent point that this idea should not be taken as license to do whatever we please but as reassurance that God still loves us when we do sin, that we don’t have to hide from God but can come boldly to him, confess, and receive forgiveness. The problem is that this idea gets lost amid all the talk about obedience, so it’s easy to miss it.
I also think that Bonhoeffer frequently underestimates how difficult it is to discern just what God is calling us to do. He treats such questioning as little more than an excuse or a sign of hidden sin, but I think that it can be genuinely difficult at times, and his attitude would be supremely unhelpful to someone struggling with genuine questions about how to live the Christian life. However, when I remember that Bonhoeffer was writing at a time and place when many in the church had chosen to align themselves with the Nazis, then it becomes easier to see that the choices are sometimes very clear and we refuse to see them. In that respect, this book is an important wake-up call to the church and to Christians who choose to collude with evil, and that’s a problem that isn’t confined to Bonhoeffer’s time.
There was a lot in this book that I found convicting and inspiring. It was an ideal pre-Lenten read and would perhaps have been an even better Lenten one. It would certainly put just about anyone who reads it in a mood of self-examination. Bonhoeffer’s teachings about holding possessions loosely, loving both our neighbors and our enemies, and not judging others are profound and important. His teachings about the church emphasize the importance of the Incarnation, and I was moved by the thought of the church itself as a person, as the very Body of Christ.
I think it’s also important to remember that Bonhoeffer wrote this book early in his life. He was only 31 years old when it was published, and he’d been working on it for several years. The chapter on Bonhoeffer in James C. Livingston and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza’s Modern Christian Thought states that Bonhoeffer later expressed doubts about some of what he had written. From what I remember of his Letters and Papers from Prison, which I read years ago, he doesn’t come across as quite the absolutist there as he does here, so his thinking probably did evolve over time. In this 1941 letter to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer remarked that he had come to see that The Cost of Discipleship was a dangerous book, although he stood by what he had written. And despite some of my qualms, I do think the crux of his argument, that obedience to Christ takes precedence over all other loyalties for the Christian, is important. It’s just that it can be difficult to know just what such obedience looks like.