Book Review: Discipleship

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey. Translated by Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss. Vol. 4. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001. 367 pp. $18.14

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian, pastor, and, some would say, spy. He lived between 1906 and 1945, dying at the hands of the Nazi regime. Authoring Discipleship under the Nazi regime in 1937, Bonhoeffer spoke out against the secularized church, especially the official Nazified state church. Discipleship is an exposition of Matthew centered on Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” discussing what it means to be a true disciple instead of adhering to an ever growing secularized church. This review will focus on chapters 1-6 concluding with Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Mathew 5.

Summary

Bonhoeffer begins Discipleship with discussing the cost of grace. He is most famously quoted for his comparison between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” To him, cheap grace boils down to the justification of the sin instead of the sinner. To be a Christian did not require much from the person. Everyone is considered a member of the church without any requirement of addressing their own sins and what scripture dictates. In contrast, costly grace is the call to true discipleship of Jesus Christ. This means addressing one’s own sins and aspiring to live as Christ did. It is the repentance of sin and justification of the sinner. Cheap grace allows people to continue living in sin because “grace alone does everything” and no action of man can compare or take away that grace (43). According to Bonhoeffer, grace is costly because “it forces people under the yoke of following Jesus Christ” (45).  Bonhoeffer compares costly grace to the hidden treasure that people sell everything they have to obtain it (45). This grace is more worthy than cheap grace because it means more. Costly grace brings someone into true discipleship of Christ allowing them to truly experience the grace of God and finding true joy.

This grace cannot be attained unless one is called by Christ into discipleship. Bonhoeffer looks at the call of the original 12 disciples to show how modern disciples are needed to be called by Christ into true discipleship. When Jesus called them, they were able to follow him. By using the conversation between Jesus and three separate people recorded in Luke 9:57-62, Bonhoeffer shows the importance of this distinction.  The first and third person took the initiative to follow Jesus, but, as Bonhoeffer explains, they could not follow Jesus because they were not called (60). The cost of following Christ is high, and no one can willingly follow him without being called by Jesus himself.

When Jesus called the original 12, they immediately stopped what they were doing to follow Jesus. Bonhoeffer quotes Mark 2:14, the call of Levi, to show the immanent need for obedience to the call from Christ (57). He also brings up the story of the rich young man when Jesus calls him to sell all of his possessions and to follow Jesus (Matt. 19:16-22). The man ends up walking away sorrowful because he could not obey Christ out of his selfishness. When one is called by Christ, the only reasonable response is to obey. Bonhoeffer explains that when people hear this same calling through scripture, they will argue that Christ did not mean this literally (78). He argues that people should take Christ’s words plainly as they are intended. There is no secret meaning behind what Christ commands. One must simply hear the calling and obey.

The mark of a true disciple is suffering as Christ once suffered for the sins of man (89). Mark 8:34 quotes Jesus telling anyone that wants to follow him should deny themselves and take up his cross. This taking up of the cross, Bonhoeffer argues, is suffering for Christ. Being called by Christ and denying oneself allows one to become an actual individual (94). Christ calls people individually, because people fear solitude and seek the comfort of others. It is up to the individual to answer the call. The disciple finds their identity in Christ, and through Christ, the disciple can relate to others. The beatitudes are for the disciples of Christ. They are blessed because they have forsaken all and suffered for Christ (101). The Sermon on the Mount can be summed up with one word: “love” (137). It is for this love that Christ suffered for man, and this is the love that the disciple lives for. The costly grace, the call, and the self-denial all lead to this love.

Critical Evaluation

Hearing that Bonhoeffer was a theologian, one would expect difficult theological jargon throughout the book. This is not the case with this book. Bonhoeffer speaks plainly like a passionate pastor in this book instead of an ivory tower theological piece. The reader can expect sentences like “Yes, the commandment is clear and has to be obeyed” throughout the book (72). As this reviewer is a seminary student and pastor studying theology, the easy language of Discipleship is a nice respite from more difficult theology readings. Bonhoeffer speaks plainly and to the point so that anyone wanting to know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ can read this book.

As stated before, this book is basically an exposition of Matthew. Bonhoeffer quotes scripture often to make his arguments. Chapters 2,4, and 5 begin by quoting scripture. Bonhoeffer does not quote scripture to merely quote it and claim authority in his argument. His argument is based off of scripture. Chapter 2, for example, begins by quoting Mark 2:14, and Bonhoeffer goes on to explain the meaning and usefulness of the passage (57). When discussing the idea of taking up one’s cross, he quotes Jesus telling his disciples to do this exact thing (84). Bonhoeffer recognizes that carrying one’s cross is not some menial task or jewelry to wear around a person’s neck. The cross represents suffering, and every disciple must suffer as Christ. He takes scripture as it is instead of bending it to his own argument. His argument then naturally flows from scripture. He essentially is showing that if someone desires to be a disciple, then they need to read scripture. He, of course, elaborates and helps explain what scripture tells the reader about discipleship.

Bonhoeffer does use a lot of rhetorical questions and speaks semi-facetiously when discussing points he is arguing against. This is first seen in when he discusses cheap grace. He begins explaining cheap grace and talks passionately as one arguing for it (44). He makes statements such as, “The Christian better not rage against grace or defile that glorious cheap grace by proclaiming anew a servitude to the letter of the Bible in an attempt to live an obedient life under the commandments of Jesus Christ!” (44). Obviously, this is not what Bonhoeffer believes, but this way of speaking can be distracting from his real argument. While this may only be a minor setback for some readers, it might have been more beneficial for Bonhoeffer to state his points and argument more plainly.

Conclusion

Bonhoeffer argues that discipleship comes at the price of costly grace, denying oneself, and suffering in the name of Christ. The disciple is blessed because of this. All of this is done for the sake of love. Bonhoeffer’s plain language makes this book accessible to any reader and not just theologians and pastors, despite his facetious language. Bonhoeffer presents his arguments with expositional use of scripture. His arguments are based off scripture allowing the reader to glean an understanding of discipleship not just from Bonhoeffer’s own writings, but from scripture itself. Although this review only addressed the first half of the book, this book would be an excellent read for any believer.

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