Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In reading this book, an expanded version of the popular The Cost Of Discipleship given a more precise translation in line with Bonhoeffer’s original in German, one understands why this book is such a powerful book for many and why it has such an important place in Bonhoeffer’s overall body of work . This work is slap to the side of the face of those trapped in a mindset of cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer points out in no uncertain words the cost of the grace that has been extended to us through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus and the cost of grace to us in imitating His example to others. Not only does it make this timeless point in the face of contemporary ragamuffin gospels that seek to assuage guilt without encouraging obedience among professed believers, but the book also has a lot to say about the times in which this book was written in Hitler’s Germany of the mid 1930’s in the period of the 1936 Olympics and the run-up to Kristallnacht. Thus the book both manages to stand as part of its time and as a Christian classic for believers of all times.
The contents of this book are striking and pointed. A lengthy introduction and foreword sets the context of Bonhoeffer’s works and their publishing history, and there is a lengthy editor’s introduction to the English edition that points out the differences between this book and previously published volumes. Then, when Bonhoeffer’s text begins on page 37, the hits keep coming for about 250 pages or so of pointed material that examines such matters as costly grace, the call to discipleship, simple obedience, discipleship and the cross, and discipleship and the individual. To this point, in ways that seemed designed to poke at many of our contemporary attitudes towards religion, Bonhoeffer points out the need for Christians to be part of the larger body of Christ and that Christians are called to carry our cross and to suffer in like fashion as our Lord and Master and Savior. He also points out the need for us to proceed in obedience rather than looking for a way out of the commitment to obey, making this a strong pronomian work of great value against the siren song of easy believism. After this comes lengthy interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount that goes on for about 80 pages, examining Matthew 5-7 passage by passage with an eye for application and for the immense dilemma faced by believers, and with the context in which these passages were given in Jesus’ time to the early disciples. An interpretation of the messengers of Matthew 10 follows which demonstrates Jesus’ compassion to the brokenness of the world he found, a brokenness that remains today. At this point the first point of the book ends. The second part of the book contains questions and discussions on the Church of Jesus Christ and the process of discipleship, looking at the issues of baptism, the body of Christ, the visible community of the Church, the saints/believers, and closing with a pointed discussion of believers as the image bearers of Christ. Following this there is an editor’s afterword, a solid chronology of Bonhoeffer’s life and works, a bibliography of works divided into three sections, and indices of scriptural references, names, and subjects, before a short bio of the editors and translators closes out this powerful and pointed work.
Within the body of Lutheran writings, this has a powerful place for a variety of reasons. For one, this book points Lutherans back to Luther and to his fight against the corruption of the monkhood of his time, and also (even more importantly for the larger body of Christians) to the Gospels and to the Pauline epistles that form the basis of Christian practice. Over and over again, Bonhoeffer points out that our identity as Christians is not a matter of intellectual understanding or some sort of ideal, but as a commitment to be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and our simple obedience to the expressed commandments of God–including all ten of the Ten Commandments and a great deal else besides that . Likewise, this book has a great deal to say against the volkish (populist/nationalist) tendencies of the German church of his day, in ways that are highly relevant given the populist mood within much of the world at present, reminding us that all human beings are to be the recipients of our love and concern, even if that requires violating unjust and wicked laws, as Bonhoeffer did at the eventual cost of his life to the Nazi regime. Let us hope that we do not end up facing dungeons and executions for being godly and obedient disciples, but if it comes to that, we have the example as well as the sound and unsparingly honest writings of Bonhoeffer as some inspiration, and that is some consolation at least in these dark times.
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