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.