A Personal Relationship With God: Obedience Is Central

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God? What is the role of obedience in this relationship?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains that a personal relationship with God is how discipleship works—and that obedience is at the center. A true disciple seeks to obey Jesus.

Keep reading to learn about obedience within a personal relationship with God.

Obedience Is the Essence of Discipleship

In general, the term ‘disciple’ means a student, follower, or apprentice. To Bonhoeffer, the key distinguishing quality of a disciple is obedience—personal, unconditional obedience to Christ that takes precedence over all other obligations, such as family, country, and career. This obedience is within the context of a personal relationship with God.

A Personal Relationship With God

Bonhoeffer insists that Jesus Christ is a living person, and obedience to a living person is different from obedience to an abstract doctrine or ritual. 

Adherence to a doctrine or ritual is uniform for everyone, but personal obedience to Jesus Christ is dynamic, because Jesus tells different people to do different things at different times. For example, in Luke’s gospel, Christ sent Peter and John to prepare the passover meal for the last supper. Similarly, he sent only two disciples to find a donkey for his entry into Jerusalem. 

Bonhoeffer asserts that Christ still gives personal instructions to his disciples today. He claims that as you read the Bible, the Holy Spirit gives you insight into how it applies to you today, not only in a general sense, but at a personal level. 

(Shortform note: Bonhoeffer doesn’t provide any illustrative examples, but in God’s Smuggler, Andrew van der Bijl recounts several instances of personal direction through the Bible. On one occasion, when Andrew read, “Strengthen what remains…” in Revelation 3:2, he understood it as a personal command to visit and encourage churches throughout the Soviet Union that felt oppressed under Soviet rule.)

By emphasizing that each disciple is individually accountable to Christ, Bonhoeffer also highlights how each disciple has individual access to Christ. You don’t need a priest or other mediator to speak to God on your behalf. (Shortform note: This doctrine of individual access has been attributed to Luther, and was already widely accepted by protestant churches in Bonhoeffer’s day. However, Bonhoeffer took it a step further. He argued that after you become a disciple, instead of needing a priest to act as a mediator between you and Christ, Christ becomes a mediator between you and everyone else, including the clergy, other fellow believers, unbelievers, the government, and so forth. Christ mediates your other relationships because, as a disciple, you can relate to others only in the ways that Christ tells you to.) 

Evolution of the Personal Relationship Doctrine

The idea that you need a personal relationship with God to receive salvation has become a core teaching of most evangelical churches. Bonhoeffer’s writings may have contributed to the rise of this doctrine, as The Cost of Discipleship was published about 10 years before the Rev. Billy Graham and his contemporaries began popularizing it.

However, there are subtle differences between Bonhoeffer’s idea of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and what has become the mainstream view. The biggest difference is Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on relating to Christ through suffering, which is largely absent from the mainstream view, and which we discuss more in this book guide.

How to Become a Disciple

Up to this point, we’ve been discussing what it means to be a disciple, but how do you become a disciple in the first place? Bonhoeffer argues that you become a disciple through baptism. He recounts how Christ called his first disciples: They became his disciples when they obeyed his call. He then asserts that the epistles of St. Paul speak of baptism in much the same way that the synoptic gospels speak of Christ’s call to follow Him. 

(Shortform note: Not all Christian churches agree with Bonhoeffer on this, and even those that do recognize certain exceptions. For example, the Catholic church teaches that baptism is generally essential for salvation, but grants certain exceptions, such as when people were killed while preparing to be baptized. Many Protestant churches teach that you can become a disciple of Christ by faith, without the need for baptism or any other ritual, and that obeying the command to be baptized comes later. Some churches, such as the Quakers, don’t practice baptism at all.)

A Personal Relationship With God: Obedience Is Central

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Cost of Discipleship summary:

  • Why Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed the church made discipleship too “easy”
  • Why getting into Heaven will cost you a lot more than you thought
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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