Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dallas M. Roark
Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D. is Professor of Philosophy at Emporia State University. Two of his other books are The Christian Faith and Introduction to Philosophy. An online version of his Introduction to Philosophy can be found at http://www.emporia.edu/socsci/philos/text.htm. Published in 1972 by Word Incorporated. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 6: The Church’s Brand of Discipleship
Bonhoeffer’s most famous work published during his lifetime was The Cost of Discipleship (Nachfolge), which achieved a wide reputation for him. It is a serious work and in some ways a work of "hard sayings." It contains a profound interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount plus an exposition of Matthew 9:35-10:42, and sections on the "Church of Jesus Christ" and the "Life of Discipleship."
WHAT IS DISCIPLESHIP?
The important question is: What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ? Bonhoeffer fears that many do not follow for the wrong reasons; for instance, a human rather than the divine word is preached; offense is taken at the "superstructure of human, institutional, and doctrinal elements in our preaching"1 rather than at the Word of God. He calls for a return to Scripture and to Jesus Christ, and he therefore proposes "to tell how Jesus calls us to be his disciples."2 Discipleship is much easier than man-made rules and dogmas, but more important, what Jesus asks, he gives the grace to do. Discipleship may be hard, but it is not limited to a small spiritual elite. Discipleship is the road to Christian joy.
The background for the exposition of the Sermon on the Mount is the prevalence in the church of what Bonhoeffer calls "cheap grace." Cheap grace has brought chaos to the church.; It is defined in several ways: intellectual assent to a doctrine: or idea; justification of the sinner without a corresponding change in his ethic; but perhaps the greatest passage is the following:
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.3
Grace, on the other hand, is dear and costly. A man must give up his life to follow Christ. Grace is dear because it cost the Son of God his life, but it is grace because God did not count this too great a cost.
Cheap grace arose as the church became secularized and the world became Christianized. Costly grace did not die, as is evidenced in the rise of the monastic movement wherein the spiritual elite yet retained something of the demands of discipleship. But even the cloister was a corruption of grace. The life of a disciple is to be lived in the world against its hostility not in the favored atmosphere of a friendly monastery. Against the triumph of cheap grace in the church, Bonhoeffer calls for a return to obedience of Christ. Only in costly grace is there joy in Christian living.
How does one become a disciple? First, there is the call of Jesus to follow him. A doctrinal system, a church structure and other substitutes for the Living Christ render discipleship irrelevant.4 Second, in answering the call of Christ one must take the first concrete step. This step takes one out of his previous existence and places him where faith is possible. "Faith can no longer mean sitting still and waiting — they must arise and follow him."5
At this juncture Bonhoeffer introduces two propositions that must be held together always. Both are equally true: "Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes."6 There is no obedience without faith nor faith without obedience. In believing there is an act of obedience, such as Peter’s leaving his nets or Matthew’s walking away from his receipts. This act of obedience is never more than a "dead work of the law"7 but it must be done because Jesus commands it. Inability to believe is probably due to unwillingness to take the first step.
Bonhoeffer’s pastoral concern shows in the hypothetical instance of a man who says he wants to believe and cannot. The usual pastor is baffled about the next step in his presentation. The secret weapon is to continue the dialogue by saying, "‘Only those who obey, believe. . . . You are disobedient, you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control.’"8 If you give up your sins, your uncommitted world, and obey, you will believe.
Many of the questions raised about believing are "dodges" for obeying. Theoretical questions of reservations about the law and its application and interpretation are described by Bonhoeffer as devices to avoid obedience to Christ. The account of the rich young man (Matt. 19:16-22) or the lawyer of the Good Samaritan story are used as examples of people who asked questions in order to avoid the demands of discipleship.
Bonhoeffer’s insight into the rewards of discipleship are deep. In discipleship one is seemingly dragged into insecurity which in reality turns into the safety of Christ. Following Christ means leaving the world of the finite and being brought into the life of the Infinite.9 We are called to attach ourselves exclusively to his person. Jesus’ call is without qualification. There is only one way of understanding Jesus: he meant it as he said it. All subterfuges based on "reason and conscience, responsibility and piety" stand in the way of complete obedience.10 The usual type of rationalization of the commands of Christ are dealt with mercilessly. This refers to the reasoning whereby we reinterpret Jesus to mean that we need not leave all, but simply possess the wealth of the world as though we did not possess it. The command to follow is reduced to developing a spirit of inward detachment. Instead, nothing must stand in our way of fulfilling the command of Christ. Nor must we abandon the "single-minded understanding of the commandment."11 When single-mindedness is neglected, cheap grace sneaks back into the religious life. Likewise, when the principle of simple obedience is thrown out, an unevangelical interpretation of the Bible takes the place of the truly evangelical. Bonhoeffer defends the literal interpretation of the Bible,12 not in order to establish legalism or letterism, "but to proclaim Christ." At the same we cannot behave as though we were contemporary with the disciples. Merely giving up possessions is not to be confused with obedience to Jesus. Becoming a Franciscan bound to poverty may be the farthest from following Jesus.
Being a disciple is related to bearing the cross of Christ. Suffering and rejection go hand in hand with bearing the cross. Suffering alone could produce a martyr, but rejection prohibits it. To take up the cross is to deny oneself. "To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us."13 Every Christian must bear the cross. The cross means (1) that one must "abandon the attachments of this world," (2) that one must come after Christ and die to himself, and (3) perhaps undergo death completely. Suffering is one of the badges of discipleship. Yet in suffering there is triumph. When suffering is concluded there is nothing else it can do. It is a path to victory.
There is a paradox discovered in answering the call of Christ. In discipleship "men become individuals."14 Before this they stood under the facade of responsibilities, duties, and relationships to the world. But the call of Christ demands a break with the world as well as with the past. Christ’s call places a barrier between man and the world. Man must forsake the world, but in doing so he learns that he never really knew the world. In Christ he finds a new relation possible between himself and God, between himself and man, between himself and reality. All relationships now are to be mediated through Christ. Being in Christ, it becomes possible to see how isolated man is from man. It is impossible to know another person directly. Because Christ now stands between man and neighbor, the shortest and most direct way to the neighbor is through Christ. "That is why intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbours, and corporate prayer, offered in the name of Christ, the purest form of fellowship."15
As an example of this, Bonhoeffer uses the story of Abraham. To answer God’s call, Abraham turned his back upon his father’s house and became a pilgrim in hopes of a promised land. In the command to sacrifice his son, a barrier is placed between Abraham and Isaac. Isaac is given back but something is different. Abraham now has Isaac "through the Mediator and for the Mediator’s sake."16 The outward details are still the same, but a new relationship has arisen and the reality is different. Abraham also serves as an example of a man becoming an individual in the midst of his own people and with the enjoyment of wealth. This type of individuality is harder, for it is easier to return to the way of direct relationships with people and forfeit our discipleship in Christ.
However, only Christ can determine which path we will take, says Bonhoeffer. Christ not only makes new individuals but he calls to a new fellowship wherein he stands between the members. The fellowship of the church takes precedence over the house, father, mother, or brothers that are left behind. The reward is hundredfold over what is forsaken. But included in the reward is the promise "with persecutions."
The seriousness of the call of Christ is realistically set forth in all its hardness: deny yourself, accept persecutions, forsake all. But he who calls gives strength to endure. Surely Bonhoeffer’s life is a poignant example of this statement.
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
Bonhoeffer takes the beatitudes seriously. There is one place where the beatitudes are incarnate in one person — the crucified of Golgotha. Thus the disciples, following their Lord, are called blessed because they have obeyed the call of Jesus."17 The poor in spirit are those who have accepted the loss of all things including their own selves for his sake. Those who mourn are those who do "without what the world calls peace and prosperity."18 Mourning means to refuse to be in harmony with the standards of the world. The meek are those who give up claims to their own rights for the will of Christ. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those renouncing all claims to personal achievement, who wait for God’s reign of righteousness. The merciful, having given up claims to their own dignity, become "men for others," helping the needy, sick, castouts — all those who need any kind of ministry. The pure in heart become that way by giving their hearts completely to the reign of Jesus. Under his rule, he purifies their hearts with his Word. The peacemakers renounce all violence and "maintain fellowship where others would break it off."19 The persecuted for righteousness suffer for "any just cause"20 and will be rejected by the world, but God’s kingdom belongs to them. To this motley crew the world says "Away with them" and God agrees with the world. But he intends them for the kingdom of heaven, where their reward is great.
The disciples, the blessed ones, are not too good for the world, for they are thrust into its center as the salt of the earth. The kingdom of heaven is theirs only after they finish their earthly task. For the disciple there are only two options: being the salt of the earth or being annihilated and crushed. Similarly, as the lights of the world they receive energy from the light of the cross. The bushels that cover men’s light — whether fear, ulterior motives, or humane causes — go to the heart of determining whether one is Christian or not. If the light does not shine can there be oneness with Christ?
The close connection with Christ distinguishes the disciples from the Pharisees. Both stand under the obligation to keep the Old Testament law. The Pharisee tried and failed. Hence Jesus spoke of the need of a "better righteousness." The disciple begins his keeping of the law in reference to Jesus Christ who fulfilled it completely, both by living in complete communion with God and by dying a sinner’s death on the cross. He becomes thereby the righteousness of the disciples. Their fulfilling of the law which exceeds the Pharisees’s keeping of the law is not in terms of personal achievement. They can only exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by receiving the gift of righteousness, the fulfiller of the law, Christ himself.
Bonhoeffer declares it to be false to separate the law from the disciple. He is not free of it anymore than he is free of God because he is in Christ. He says, "There is no fulfilment of the law apart from communion with God, and no communion with God apart from fulfilment of the law."21 The Jews committed the first error and the disciples were tempted to the second. Discipleship is not to be confused with obeying the law, but disobeying the law removes one from being a disciple.22 As the Divine Lawgiver, Jesus corrected some of the erroneous usages of the law. A chief correction comes in the matter of legalism. The real meaning of the law is explained.
The commandment on killing relates not only to the overt act but to attitudes of anger and hate as well as insult. Bonhoeffer rejects the subtle distinction between "righteous indignation and unjustifiable anger."23 Rather freedom from anger is the command for the disciple. Anger hinders worship and prohibits service. The church fellowship must not copy the world in its ways of contempt and contumely. We cannot honor God and dishonor our brother. To honor God requires a reconciliation against all that have been offended. Being permitted to make this reconciliation is part of God’s grace. Over against our making up stands the court of judgment.
The commandment on adultery is related to desire where there is no love. Discipleship forbids a free rein of lust. If the disciple retains his gaze upon Christ his gaze will be pure even when looking at a woman. Bonhoeffer interprets Jesus as sanctifying marriage along with its indissolubility. The intent of both Jesus and the law was to safeguard marriage. Any violation of the law — in any sexual irregularity — is against the Body of Christ because the disciple is a member of his Body. To be dead to lust and desire is possible because in Christ the disciple was crucified, or put to death, and desire has no hold on a dead person.
The command prohibiting the use of oaths is accepted by Bonhoeffer without the Reformation exception of the state in a court of law. Discipleship means complete truthfulness. Discipleship supposes that one has been completely truthful with Jesus, else there is no forgiveness. Truthfulness is the basis of fellowship among believers. Without it the brotherhood is destroyed.
Bonhoeffer is most interesting when he treats the revenge passage of Matthew 5:38-42. He is dead serious about this part of the Sermon. His passive resistance views are evident. The Old Testament nation of Israel was a political as well as religious community, and retribution was necessary. But the new community is religious only. The way to conquer evil, then, is not politically but passively. If the disciple is meek, not counting his own rights, he will not seek redress when wronged. Resistance creates further resistance and solves nothing. Bonhoeffer knows of no exception at this point in his writing. "There is no deed on earth so outrageous as to justify a different attitude. The worse the evil, the readier must the Christian be to suffer. . . ."24 Bonhoeffer rejects the Reformation distinction between suffering as a Christian and suffering due to holding an office or performing a duty. He asks, "Am I ever acting only as a private person or only in an official capacity?"25 This must not be interpreted to make nonresistance a rule for secular life. For so interpreted, God’s ordinances for preserving the world would be rejected. Rather the civil order has its directions for life while the disciple has a different order. The strong pacifism here is remarkably in contrast to Bonhoeffer’s later involvement in the resistance to the Nazi regime as well as his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler. His later view did not come easily.
Following the rejection of the lex talionis 26 Bonhoeffer turns to the "extraordinary" feature in the disciple — the love of the enemy. This is the only way to overcome him. The Christian cannot return hostility for hostility; Jesus does not allow this. The greater the hatred, the greater the love must be for the hater. Loving the enemy is to serve him "in all things without hypocrisy and with utter sincerity. No sacrifice which a lover would make for his beloved is too great for us to make for our enemy."27 The extraordinary feature is that it goes beyond mere love of friend for friend. This is taken for granted. Jesus commands that love for the enemy be a hallmark of the disciple. This love is the fulfilling of the law and obedience to Christ.
Chapter five of Matthew relates to the openness of the disciple’s life. Chapter six speaks of the hiddenness of his spiritual existence. What is meant? The hiddenness is from ourselves.28 Discipleship means looking at and following Christ. When one begins to notice his own love and goodness, one ceases being a disciple. The disciple’s life includes prayer. Not a natural activity, prayer must be taught, and Jesus does not leave his disciples in ignorance. They pray because they are commanded, but always through a Mediator. Access to God is only through a mediator. Prayer is never an entreaty — for God knows our needs — nor is it a pious work. It has a hidden character, for in prayer men "have ceased to know themselves, and know only God whom they call upon."29 The place or time of prayer is not important, for even in a private room one may make a nice display of himself in prayer. The model prayer Jesus gave his disciples is the "quintessence of prayer."30 It serves to place boundaries around the disciple’s prayer.
A practice akin to prayer is fasting. Bonhoeffer follows Jesus’ warning against mere pious fasting to impress either others or oneself. Fasting has the motive of self-discipline for better service to Christ. The objections to fasting — the resistance of the flesh and "evangelical liberty" — must not deter one from fasting as a form of discipline.31 When the Christian has failed in obedience, is guilty of sin against others, has lost the joy of Christian grace, and has come to little or no prayer, he needs to fast and pray. There is the danger, however, of trying to "imitate the sufferings of Christ." This reduces itself to "a desire for ostentation" and hence must be rejected.32
Moving from fasting to "the simplicity of the carefree life," Bonhoeffer stresses the singleness of following Christ alone. It is never Christ and something else. Singleness of heart relates both to treasures on earth and to what master we serve. Treasures are a part of human nature. Rather than be denied them, the disciple is given "higher objects — the glory of God (John 5:44), the glorying in the cross (Gal. 6:14), and the treasure in heaven."33 Singleness of heart relates to the master we serve: God or Mammon. We must love God or hate him.
The first two chapters of the Sermon (Matt. 5 and 6) display the uniqueness of the disciple. Because of his extraordinary position, how is he to be related to the non-Christian? This subject receives treatment in Matthew 7, or the third section of the Sermon. No superior attitude is warranted, for the believer possesses his righteousness as gift, not by achievement. If he judges, God will judge him, for in his judgment he gives up the meaning of discipleship. There is no vantage point for the disciple. Rather he must come to the non-Christian with "an unconditional offer of fellowship, with the single-mindedness of the love of Jesus."34 If we are inclined to judge so that evil might be destroyed, we should look within ourselves.
As judgment is prohibited, so is coercion in making disciples of other people. Proselytizing is wrong for three reasons: (1)swine do not recognize costly pearls; (2) "it profanes the word of forgiveness"; (3) it does not recognize the weakness of the gospel.35 The disciple has no power over the other person except through Christ in prayer. This alone is a powerful hope. The church will not win the majority of mankind. Many are on the road to destruction. For the disciple the road is narrow and many are the ways of losing oneself. "But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray."36 The disciple’s separation from the world is not permanent. Discipleship must be renewed daily. Following is made all the harder because there are false prophets who look, act, and speak like Christians. Here one cannot judge but must wait for evil to show its colors.
The division of the true from the false will be done by God himself. The great final judgment involves all, and division will hinge on those who confess him and those who do not. Presently, there is possibility of a demonic confession devoid of love, without Christ, and without the Spirit of God. The important question is: "Who will pass the test and who will not?"37 Bonhoeffer’s answer is that "the word of the last judgment is foreshadowed in the call to discipleship. . .If we follow Christ, cling to his word, and let everything else go, it will see us through the day of judgment. His word is his grace."38
Following Bonhoeffer’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, he gives an exposition of Matthew 9:35-10:42.39 Short vignettes are drawn of the harvest (the people are without a shepherd, without relief, deliverance, and forgiveness) for which one must pray for laborers; the call of the apostles (who are given power stronger than Satan’s and are bound together only by their choice and call); the work (fulfilling their commission to preach, traveling as messengers of the King, living in "royal poverty," warning men of the urgency of the times); the suffering of the messengers (as Jesus was persecuted so the messengers will be, but they are forewarned; because Christ will return the disciples are not to fear man, or to be gullible in thinking that "there is good in every man"40); the decision (man’s eternal destiny is determined by his decision on earth for the devil or for Christ); and the fruit (the disciples are fellow workers having as their goal the "salvation of the Church").41
Part Four of The Cost of Discipleship is entitled, "The Church of Jesus Christ and the Life of Discipleship." Is there a difference between being a disciple when Jesus was alive and being one today? Are we moderns not in a more difficult situation when we do not have the personalized call to follow Jesus? How are we to decide what following Jesus may mean for us, or to know for sure that we are not following our own wishes?
Bonhoeffer rejects these questions and similar ones as being wrong. Jesus yet lives. The resurrection is a fact, and Jesus calls to the modern to follow him. Where is he to be found? "The preaching of the Church and the administration of the sacraments is the place where Jesus Christ is present."42 Jesus never calls to a one specific action, but to decisive discipleship — a decision for or against following him. How are we to discern which commands of his are related to us? This question is based upon a misunderstanding. "The object of Jesus’ command is always the same — to evoke whole-hearted faith, to make us love God and our neighbour with all our heart and soul. This is the unequivocal feature in his command."43
Moving from the Gospels to the epistles, Bonhoeffer maintains that the terminology is different but expresses the same concept. "Baptism" is the Pauline equivalent of "following Christ." "Baptism" is essentially passive — being baptized, suffering the call of Christ."44 Baptism involves the same breach with the world as following Christ. In baptism, one dies to the old world. In baptism, "Christ invades the realm of Satan, lays hands on his own and creates for himself his Church."45 The demand of Christ for a visible act of obedience is manifested in the public act of baptism. Although Bonhoeffer seems to admit the possibility of apostasy and hence a return to Christ, he professes a finality about baptism. It may not be repeated.46
These views seem to point up a sharp difficulty in Bonhoeffer. On the one hand, Christ calls for a decision which can only be related to responsiveness. On the other Bonhoeffer defends infant baptism47 which lacks a response and intimates a coercion which he had previously rejected. However Bonhoeffer insists that there must be a "firm faith present" (which "can only happen in a living Christian community") before the sacrament be administered. In this matter he makes no progress beyond Luther, who never successfully resolved this antinomy.
The first disciples lived in the presence of Jesus. Is there a Pauline counterpart? Decidedly so! To be a member of the Body of Christ by baptism is to have a better relation than the disciples, for it is the glorified Lord with whom we have to do. Bonhoeffer’s reasoning follows traditional forms here. Adam and Christ are individuals and representatives of man. In one the race fell into sin, in the second there is created a new humanity.48 All men are in one or the other or both. The Incarnate Word took to himself sinful flesh (which Bonhoeffer defines only as "human nature" or "our infirmities and. . . our sin"49) and thereby sought to create a community of followers. How is one incorporated into this community, this body? "The answer is through the two sacraments of his Body, baptism and the Lord’s Supper."50 Preaching alone will not do it; the sacraments are necessary.
The Body of Christ, the church, takes Christ’s place until he comes. Thus the church is not an institution, but a person.51 Bonhoeffer notes that there is unity between Christ and the church as his Body, but there can be no mystic fusion of the two because Christ is still the Head of the Body — a metaphor which speaks of his Lordship over the church. We do share in his sufferings — we may suffer for him and for his church. The church is the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. The temples at Jerusalem were not built by God nor did they endure. God’s true temple will endure forever and it finds its fullest meaning in the body of Christ which is the living temple of God.52
In a chapter on "The Visible Community" Bonhoeffer returns to a familiar theme developed in the Communion of Saints. The "Body of Christ" is visible on earth and has spatial relationships. An idea, a thought, a truth does not require space, but a body does. The church is made visible in the preaching of the Word of God and in the sacraments. The Word is shared with the community and the world, while the sacraments are restricted to the believers. There are other offices and services in the church, but the "uncorrupted ministry of the Word and Sacraments is of paramount importance."53 Because the church is visible it must have living space. Its daily life must be permitted to exist. When the church is continually circumscribed in its existence, then the end will be near.54
The church has obligations to society. Christians are not revolutionaries because "revolution would only obscure that divine New Order which Jesus has established. It would also hinder and delay the disruption of the existing world order in the coming of the kingdom of God."55 Rather they must be in subjection to the higher powers as Paul asserts (Rom. 13:l ff.). Bonhoeffer seems to prohibit high office to the Christian, because the Christian is a servant. The Christian must do good no matter what the world about him is doing. Should he suffer for it, he was warned of such by Christ. In his vocation, the Christian works within the framework of what is compatible to the Body of Christ. His livelihood, his way of life, his marriage is accepted only within the framework of being a pilgrim, not a resident of the world.
The people who make up the visible community are the saints. How does a holy God have a relation to a sinful people? The answer lies in his act of atonement and justification of the sinner. In the Incarnation God assumes sinful flesh and dies the death of all flesh.56 In turn the obedience and righteousness of Christ become that of the formerly alienated. This is the significance of the historical Incarnation. The present believer achieves this incorporation into Christ through baptism.57
Once within the fellowship of Christ, the saints must renew daily the meaning of their baptism. Sanctification is the concern of the justified. To be sanctified is to fulfill the command to be holy. Bonhoeffer treats sanctification in three aspects of the saints’ lives: (1) holy living will be achieved only by not being conformed to the world; (2) Christian living will be a result of walking with Christ; (3) "their sanctification will be hidden, and they must wait for the day of Jesus Christ."58
In his discussion of sanctification Bonhoeffer speaks of sin, church discipline, and good works. Sin may be of two kinds: moral and intellectual. Moral sin is headed by whoredom which is a form of idolatry.59 Intellectual, doctrinal sin is more serious for it corrupts the gospel. Moral sin leaves the gospel of forgiveness intact.60 Church discipline takes several forms: personal exhortation, pulpit warnings, and church action of exclusion. This is consistent with his overall theme of ridding the church of cheap grace. Good works are necessary, for God demands them. Yet "our good works are the works of God himself."61 It is the doers of the law who shall be justified in judgment. Thus Bonhoeffer does not draw a sharp distinction between faith and works. "It is evil works rather than good works which hinder and destroy faith."62
Bonhoeffer concludes The Cost of Discipleship with a return to God’s beginning point. God created man in his own image. Because of man’s sin this is effaced. Christ came to renew God’s work of his image in man. Man could not achieve renewal himself. Thus God effects it. The image will reach its final form in the resurrection where the transforming will be complete.
The Cost of Discipleship still stands as a much needed book. Its greatness must not be detracted from by criticisms which show its one-sidedness or weakness. A man must be appreciated for what he says positively, rather than censored for weaknesses. It is easy to focus on the disagreements one has with a writer. We hope we may be forgiven for doing that here.
In his books relating to the church, Bonhoeffer dissociates himself from "the fanatics and enthusiasts," a term equated with pietists and probably those of the Anabaptist tradition. "Fanatics and enthusiasts" often referred to those peoples and movements who made up the "radical reformation," that part of the reformation more extreme than the Lutheran and Calvinist movements. These people, along with the pietists of later times, stressed personal faith and experience over against a sacramental and liturgical view of the church. Bonhoeffer charges these people with perfectionism.63 This charge appears contradictory to his own position in some ways. In some instances he held positions similar to those of the fanatics (pietists or Anabaptists) — for instance, his attitude toward the holding of high office in government.64
It might be ventured that the Anabaptist or pietist had a better answer to certain aspects of the Christian life than Bonhoeffer. The issue of baptism may serve as an example. The cheap grace mentality that Bonhoeffer censored came in part from the long-held practice of baptizing infants. Infant baptism became a cultural rather than a religious event which glossed over personal faith and commitment. Religion that begins in the unconsciousness of infancy often remains unconscious. This is the cultural milieu out of which Bonhoeffer’s criticism arises.
While Bonhoeffer saw the lack of commitment, many of these "fanatics" saw infant baptism as breeding cheap grace. They stressed the importance of faith, of adult commitment; thus grace was "costly" to them. Following Christ meant forsaking the world. Their danger lay in the direction of legalism. Bonhoeffer denounced legalism, but "costly grace" may lead one in that direction.
There is a dilemma in the Christian life remaining to be negotiated as long as we have perception. On the one hand, there is slavish legalism, in which the commands of Scripture are adhered to with deep concern for fulfillment and obedience, even though obedience may be perfunctory. On the other hand, there is the freedom of Christ which delivers from punctiliousness but which may slide in the direction of disobedience to Christ’s commands. The Christian has to probe for the channel that will take him through life in the joyful freedom of Christ where the commands of God are found to be meaningful for his own welfare. I am not sure that Bonhoeffer escapes the problems he saw in the pietist tradition. It may be that he was nearer the pietists in terms of costly grace than he realized.
Again, his treatment of good works leaves something to he desired. He did not achieve a synthesis of good works and faith anymore than he did on baptism and faith. On the one hand, good works are not acceptable, but on the other, we are commanded to do good works. A preferable approach would show that God’s grace and love leads rue to share the same with others. Although he rejected an imitation of Christ (because Christ’s vocation is unique), he nevertheless concludes his work with the admonition, "be ye therefore imitators. . ."65
In summary, The Cost of Discipleship remains an important work. As Christendom heads into the turbulent 70s, the call for costly grace appears more needed than ever. The student rebellion is directed in part at the failure of the older generation to take seriously the values it presumably espouses. The contemporary criticism of the church is related to merchandising in cheap grace where the church has not loved all men equally, has not preached the need for repentance from all sin, and has not forsaken the world for the service of Christ. A decade or two from now The Cost of Discipleship may stand out as Bonhoeffer’s most important word to us.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1960), p. 30.
14. Ibid., p. 84.
26. Lex talionis is the law of retaliation or vengeance popularly known as "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. . .
27. The Cost of Discipleship, p. 133.
28. Ibid., p. 142.
29. Ibid., p. 146.
30. Ibid., p. 148.
31. Ibid., p. 152.
32. Ibid., p. 153.
33. Ibid., p. 156, footnote.
34. Ibid., p. 163.
35. Ibid., pp. 165-66. "If it [the Gospel] came in power that would mean that the day of judgment had arrived" (p. 166).
36. Ibid., p. 170.
47. Ibid., p. 210.
57. Ibid., p. 245. It is not fully clear how Bonhoeffer guards himself against universalism, for Christ took the flesh of all mankind. It seems that apocatastasis, or universal salvation, is a temptation to him all along.
58. Ibid., p. 252.
59. Ibid., p. 254.
60. Ibid., p. 264, footnote.
61. Ibid., p. 267.
62. Ibid., p. 266.
63. Ibid., p. 206, footnote; The Communion of Saints, p. 152.
64. Ibid., p. 235.
65. Ibid., p. 275.