Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship

For as long as I can remember, evangelical Christians have had a fascination with the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He has been so much a part of my own environment that I couldn’t even say when I first heard about him. I can say that my own interest started when I read The Cost of Discipleship when I was 22. It came as a breath of fresh air to me at the time because it called Christians to a difficult, countercultural lifestyle. It didn’t try to take the edges off of Jesus’s call to follow him the way so many books and sermons have tried to do; it sharpened them.

Despite the fascination that his writings still exert, there are some ways in which they could stand to be adapted to the present day. We are not dealing with precisely the same issues in 21st-century America as he was in 1930s Germany. His best friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, said as much in an article he wrote in 1991:

I must now state… that the language, concepts, and thought paradigms of this man are a half century old and older. Their environment, motivations, and challenges are long past. Bonhoeffer was not even familiar with entire fields of language and experience that occupy our thinking today. We find in him no answers to many of our most pressing questions.

For this reason, I was interested in reading a new book by Jon Walker called Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. It is an attempt to hit contemporary Christians with the full force of both the simplicity and the cost of discipleship. It is made up of 28 chapters, most of which begin with the phrase “Becoming Like Jesus” – because discipleship isn’t about getting sins forgiven so that we can go out and sin some more. It is about becoming like Jesus in all areas of our lives.

Walker doesn’t pull his punches, and I was left several times pausing and mulling over a striking sentence like:

“The essence of discipleship… is to know Jesus at a level of intimacy that can only be sustained by his constant presence in our lives.” (21)

“Did Jesus die so we could follow a doctrine? Did he suffer a cruel and bloody crucifixion to give us a code of conduct?” (25)

“Jesus doesn’t want you to be a good person” (35).

“A non-choice means we still haven’t submitted to Jesus; that is, non-obedience is just another form of disobedience to Jesus” (53).

“The cost of discipleship, then, is this: The way we become like Jesus is through suffering and rejection” (61)

“Any relationship you have that jeopardizes your relationship with Jesus must be sacrificed” (68).

“The truth is, it takes a greater strength, one [reinforced] with obedient trust, to believe God will protect our rights than it does for us to make demands about our rights. But this is the shift to kingdom thinking Jesus requires: it takes more strength to conquer in love than it does to use force or violence” (81).

“By consistently and systematically telling people the goal is to be good rather than obedient, we have created a Christianity without Christ” (90).

“My unwillingness to reconcile with my brother is really my insistence on remaining independent from Jesus” (109).

“The cost of discipleship is that we must put an end to our spiritual pride. We must ruthlessly abandon any attempts to be good or appear good on our own” (143).

“Our security comes from God. Hoarding is idolatry” (165).
“If we do work for Jesus that he never asked us to do, it will be empty of the promises he provides for provision and success. We can do work for Jesus and still be faithless” (201).

“Fear is based on the false belief that terrible things will happen if we make a mistake. It is a fear that God is not big enough to handle the things in life that are bigger than us” (215).

If I have one small criticism of this book, it is that it could occasionally feel like drinking from a fire hose. Walker would sometimes pound a point so hard that I almost became tired and wanted to skip ahead. At times like those, I wished there had been a little less pounding and a little more illustration. What are some examples of how this would look in the real life of the 21st-century United States?

I hope that this book will get more people interested in Bonhoeffer (if you want to read a biography, a good new one is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy). But more importantly, I hope that this book will get more people committed to following Jesus with their whole lives.

June 2010: Books Read

1. Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’d had this book on my shelf for a while, and after reading Eric Metaxas’ excellent biography last month, I decided to stay in the mental world of Bonhoeffer for a little longer by reading this book. As the title indicates, this is a collection of letters and papers that Bonhoeffer wrote beginning in the spring of 1943, when he was arrested and held in Tegel Prison in Berlin. He was a prisoner until his death two years later.

For the first several months, he was only allowed to write to his family members, and each letter was read by a censor. In the fall of 1943, however, he was able to write smuggled letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, who was with the German army in Italy for much of this time. It is his letters to Bethge that really make this book a worthwhile read. In them, we find Bonhoeffer’s speculations on what “religionless Christianity” would look like, as well as his poems, the most famous being “Who am I?”

I found this book particularly interesting after having the background filled in by the Metaxas biography. I was already familiar with most of the names mentioned in the letters. If anything, the tragic end of Bonhoeffer’s life was made even more poignant in this book than in the biography. In the biography, how Bonhoeffer’s death came about was reconstructed. This book, however, ends with three letters from Bonhoeffer’s parents which were never answered. In fact, they did not find out that he had been killed until three months afterward.

2. Just How Married Do You Want to Be? by Jim and Sarah Sumner. This is a marriage book that I read out loud to my wife over several months. It is unique among marriage books mostly because of the couple who wrote it: she has a PhD in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and he is a former stripper who was only a Christian for a few years when they met. They have had a lot of struggles in learning how to relate to one another, and they share what they have learned in this book. It is well worth reading because of her insights into biblical passages that deal with marriage, as well as their honesty about their struggles and the wisdom they have gleaned from working out their differences in community with others.

3. Mind Your Own Mortgage by Robert Bernabe. Reviewed earlier here.

4. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. I’d been hearing good things about this novel for a long time, and I finally picked it up for $1 at a library book sale this spring. I usually don’t read many recently published novels, but the buzz about this one was so consistent that I decided to give it a read.

I was not disappointed. It is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy who lives in rural Minnesota with his father, an older brother and a younger sister. The father is a devout Christian man who works miracles at times, the older brother (Davy) is a 16-year-old who is strikingly independent and behaves like an adult, the narrator struggles with asthma, and the younger sister is a poet with an active imagination and an obsession with the Old West. The story is set in the early ’60s.

It is a literary novel, with rich (but not too florid) prose – and a plot(!) which mainly involves revenge (on the part of Davy) and love and forgiveness (exhibited by the father, and learned throughout the book by the narrator). Because of the miraculous elements, some might be tempted to label this a magic realist novel. However, in Christianity (and in the book), miracles are not magical, nor can they be manipulated. They are sheer gift, and part of the narrator’s journey is learning how to notice and accept them.

Book Review of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas, who is already familiar to aficionados of Christian biography through Amazing Grace, his biography of William Wilberforce, has written a fast-paced and informative portrait of Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who resisted the Nazis even unto his death in a concentration camp in April 1945. This book, while not nearly as long as Eberhard Bethge’s 1000-plus page authoritative biography, is still a substantial 542 pages, not including endnotes.

While Metaxas relies heavily on Bonhoeffer’s own words to tell his story, one way in which he keeps the pace fast is that he does not enter into a detailed discussion of Bonhoeffer’s written work, which one can get elsewhere. It seems that Metaxas is far more interested in showing the real-life consequences of Bonhoeffer’s theology, instead of giving a lengthy exposition of it.

This is a wonderful book, and a real page-turner, but there were a few problems that might have gone away with more vigilant editing. For example, it mentions that Bonhoeffer’s brother Karl-Friedrich studied with Alfred Einstein and Max Planck in the 1920s. Karl-Friedrich was a physical chemist. Alfred Einstein was a musicologist. I can only assume that Metaxas meant Albert, the more famous Einstein? Also, there is a quote from Matthew 10 that says it is from the Sermon on the Mount – but Matthew 10, while part of Jesus’ teaching, is not part of the Sermon on the Mount. These are minor errors, and didn’t seriously impede my enjoyment of the book.

This book will not replace Bethge’s biography; after all, it is hard to get closer to Bonhoeffer than his best friend. But what Metaxas does is introduce Bonhoeffer to a new generation that will greatly benefit from knowing that such a man existed – a man who was obedient to God (not merely to a set of principles), even when that obedience brought him into deadly conflict with his church and his country.

Archiving Bonhoeffer

I read this brief but interesting article on FaithWorld today, about how the German government wants to put archived materials relating to theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer online:

Germany is launching an appeal to save thousands of valuable letters and manuscripts which had belonged to Protestant theologian and Nazi resistance fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer by digitalising them.

The Berlin state library says it needs 40,000 euros to save the documents which it counts as one of its most prized collections. It wants to put about 6,200 pages of his work on the Internet to make them more widely available.

The papers include the farewell letter Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents before his execution in a concentration camp in 1945, just days before the end of World War Two, for opposing Hitler. He was 39.

Last summer, the library put the originals in non-corroding folders as the paper was in danger of falling apart and had been damaged by rusting paper clips. The collection also includes draft papers, sermons he held in Barcelona and New York as well as fragments from his book Ethics.