The next three books I will review are my favorite works by Bonhoeffer. All of them are prophetic works as opposed to his academic books. These were written and spoken in the midst of the Confessing Church’s struggle with Nazism.
Discipleship, 1937 (later published as The Cost of Discipleship).
Discipleship is DB’s best known and most influential book.
Faithful Christians in Germany were facing persecution and possible martyrdom as Hitler attempted to take over the Church. In these circumstances DB boldly declared that “when Christ calls a man he calls him to come and die.”
In this book, DB gives us the overall shape of Christian practice. That overall shape is discipleship/obedience to Jesus Christ and something virtually forgotten today in the Christian faith . . . cross-bearing. What stands in the way of radical discipleship to Jesus? Social conformity, nationalism, and separating the teachings of Jesus as a set of moral principles to follow that are detached from the Person of Jesus. The latter is something that Len Sweet and I address at length in our book Jesus Manifesto.
DB slaughters the concept of “cheap grace” which is a prevalent teaching today. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” (A friend of DB’s, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., coined the term “cheap grace.”)
(Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the origin of cheap grace and what it has produced.)
DB’s approach can be summed up this way: Jesus Christ summons us to follow Him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God.
His understanding of the Sermon on the Mount is built on this foundation. The so-called “sermon on the Mount” doesn’t set forth general moral principles for a social utopia. It names the particular shape of following Jesus. For example, “Blessed are the poor” is not a reference to the empirical social phenomenon of poverty; it refers to the poverty that arises out of the following of Christ.
In the last section of the book DB shows us that Paul’s teaching did not depart from Jesus’ teachings on these matters. They instead were the same truths restated for the time when, Jesus having ascended into heaven, He is no longer present in a single visible body located in one place. Instead, He is now present through the Holy Spirit who is with us wherever we are.
For example, Jesus called people to literally leave all of their families and possessions in order to follow Him because since His presence was limited to one place at a time, one would have to travel from place to place with Him. Today we obey the same command by being baptized. And baptism means death to self, to the world, to the old order and union with the Lord of this world and His kingdom which is embodied in the church, the new creation. In baptism we leave behind not only our families and possessions, but our former lives in order to be become parts of Christ’s body. Baptism is a break from this world system and from the old creation.
While the entire work is thought-provoking, the last chapters are worth the price of the book. Baptism, The Body of Christ, The Visible Church-Community, The Saints, and The Image of Christ . . . all are superb.
Here’s a choice quote from the Chapter entitled, The Visible Church-Community:
Where the world despises other members of the Christian family, Christians will love and serve them. If the world does violence to them, Christians will help them and provide them relief. Where the world subjects them to dishonor and insult, Christians will sacrifice their own honor in exchange for their disgrace. Where the world seeks gain, Christians will renounce it; where it exploits, they will let go; where it oppresses, they will stoop down and lift up the oppressed. Where the world denies justice, Christians will practice compassion; where it hides behind lies, they will speak out for those who cannot speak, and testify for the truth. For the sake of brothers or sisters—be they Jew or Greek, slave or free, strong or weak, of noble or common birth—Christians will renounce all community with the world, for they serve the community of the body of Jesus Christ. Being a part of this community, Christians cannot remain hidden from the world. They have been called out of the world and follow Christ.
I will treat the next two books in the next post.