The Cost of Discipleship: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Classic

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Why is The Cost of Discipleship so widely read? What is the book’s main argument? What does Bonhoeffer mean by the “cost of discipleship”?

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a classic of Christian thought. Bonhoeffer wrote the book as a challenge to Christians to take their faith more seriously and realize its true requirements.

Here’s a brief overview of the key themes discussed in the book.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

How much does eternal life cost? According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it will cost you a lot: It entails self-denial, suffering, and voluntary forfeiture of your civil rights.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and seminary professor before and during World War II. With The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer placed a wake-up call to Christians. He expressed concern that, by trying to make Christianity easier for people to practice, churches had actually made it meaningless. As a remedy, he challenged Christians to adopt a rigorous lifestyle of “discipleship,” which involved self-denial, suffering, and renouncing your civil rights.

[Shortform note: The Cost of Discipleship, which was published in 1937, did not directly discuss political events of the time or Bonhoeffer’s own experiences, but his arrest (in 1943) and execution (in 1945) by the Nazis contributed to his fame and the subsequent popularity of his book. Although he doesn’t discuss the Nazi ideology specifically in this book, Bonhoeffer was openly critical of it, leading the Nazi Party to regard him as an enemy of the state.]

The Cost of Discipleship opens with a chapter on “cheap grace” and “costly grace,” in which Bonhoeffer introduces his criticism of the modern Christian church. To show that his concept of discipleship is biblical, he then spends the next 25 chapters presenting a commentary on many passages in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Finally, in the last six chapters of the book, he lays out what modern Christianity should look like in his view, revisiting themes from his gospel commentary and fleshing them out.

Cheap Grace

Bonhoeffer is probably best known for criticizing what he called “cheap grace,” and contrasting it with what he called “costly grace.” On the one hand, Bonhoeffer expresses concern that some churches turn people away from Christianity by making it seem too difficult with their rituals and dogma. Yet, on the other hand, he expresses concern that in trying to make Christianity easier, other churches have lost the truth about salvation. These churches give people a false sense of security, because they administer sacraments and assure people of their salvation without teaching them to be disciples of Christ.

Obedience Is the Essence of Discipleship

To Bonhoeffer, the key distinguishing quality of a disciple is obedience—personal, unconditional obedience to Christ. 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.

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.

The Lifestyle of a Disciple

Bonhoeffer draws a blueprint for the general lifestyle of a disciple, based on what Christ taught his original 12 disciples. Four key aspects of a disciple’s life that he discusses are humility, self-denial, suffering, and pacifism.

Humility

Bonhoeffer says that you should keep your good works secret from yourself, not from others: You obey Christ publicly, but in your own mind, you never take credit for the good that you’ve done.

Self-Denial

Bonhoeffer asserts that discipleship will cost you your comfort, because denying yourself earthly luxuries is a key part of discipleship. In particular, he addresses the relationship between fasting and self-discipline and the virtues of voluntary poverty.

Suffering

Since Christ’s earthly life was characterized by suffering, it is only natural that the more we become like Christ, the more we will share in the same kind of suffering that he experienced. Bonhoeffer clarifies that when he speaks of “suffering” he is not referring to the “natural suffering” that is common to everyone. Instead, he insists that disciples will suffer gratuitous persecution because of their allegiance to Christ.

Pacifism

Bonhoeffer affirms that we can love people unreservedly without condoning their sin. In fact, he says that non-resistance is the only response that truly condemns sin, because sin reproduces through retaliation: If someone hurts you, and you respond by hurting them, it will likely provoke them to hurt you again, and so on. However, if you let someone hurt you and forgive them instead of retaliating, then the sin they committed against you dies instead of multiplying.

The Cost of Discipleship: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Classic

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  • Why Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed the church made discipleship too “easy”
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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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