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

Bonhoeffer was a Christian pastor and seminary professor living in Germany in the 1930s. He wrote The Cost of Discipleship as a wake-up call for the church, which he felt had rendered Christianity somewhat meaningless by making discipleship too “easy.” He lived as he preached—his Christian beliefs compelled him to speak out against Hitler’s regime and ultimately led to his execution in 1945. (He doesn’t discuss the Nazi ideology in this book, but he was openly critical of it, leading the Nazi Party to regard him as an enemy of the state.)

In this guide, we’ll discuss Bonhoeffer’s teachings on discipleship, with additional historical and religious background and context to make them more accessible, even if you don’t have a strong background in Christian theology.


Comparing Traditions of Sainthood

Different churches define and administer sainthood differently. Like Bonhoeffer, most Protestant churches regard all true Christians as saints. As such, many of them rarely apply the word “saint,” to anyone as a title or description, because it is simply synonymous with “Christian.” What makes Bonhoeffer’s position somewhat unique is that he argues that it is reasonable to hold every saint (that is, every Christian) to a higher standard of moral conduct than people who do not identify as saints.

By contrast, the Catholic church regards only certain Christians as saints, whom they hold up as examples for the rest of us. Furthermore, the Catholic Church prescribes a rigorous process for declaring someone a saint: First, the candidate must live a life of exemplary moral character, such that, upon her death, the local bishop nominates her for sainthood. Then a committee of church officials conducts an investigation to verify that her conduct and beliefs were truly correct and even exemplary. They must also prove that either she was martyred (killed for her faith) or performed at least one miracle during her lifetime. After this, they must also prove that, since her death, her ongoing intercession in heaven has resulted in at least one miracle. Only after this investigation has been completed will the church declare the person a saint.

Thus, the Catholic view is consistent with Bonhoeffer’s expectation of exemplary conduct, but not with his expectation that every disciple should live up to it. Moreover, the formality of the process runs contrary to Bonhoeffer’s view of sainthood. In his view, Christ himself makes you a saint as soon as you obey his command to be baptized.

Bonhoeffer might also disagree with the performance of miracles as a criterion for sainthood, since he makes no mention of it (beyond his observation that the original twelve disciples performed miracles at Christ’s command). We infer that, to Bonhoeffer, miracles were a matter of obedience (letting God use you as he pleases), not a matter of intercession (convincing God to perform a miracle).

The Orthodox Church takes an intermediate position on sainthood. Like the Catholic church, they regard saints as exemplary Christians, who reflect Christ’s character in the way they live, and they are particularly good at intercessory prayer. However, unlike the Catholic church, the Orthodox Church recognizes saints by a relatively informal process: After the candidate passes away, the local church meets to commemorate his life. People who knew him testify to his exemplary conduct, and then the congregation formally recognizes him as a saint by singing or chanting certain liturgy. The orthodox church emphasizes that this ceremony does not make anyone a saint, it simply recognizes people who were already saints because they reflected Christ’s character during their lifetimes.

In some ways, this view is much like Bonhoeffer’s, but the crucial difference is that in the Orthodox view, sainthood is a lofty ideal to aspire to, while in Bonhoeffer’s view, it is the minimum wage for salvation.


Bonhoeffer insists that as a disciple of Christ, you must be humble, so that you can serve Christ without ulterior motives. Following Christ will cost you your pride.

Bonhoeffer notes that Christ may command you to do extraordinary good works, such as selling your possessions to help the poor. But if you become proud of yourself for doing so much good, then, in Bonhoeffer’s view, you are no longer serving Christ. Instead, you are now serving your own ego: You are doing good works because it makes you feel good about yourself, not because you are obeying Christ.

Thus, Bonhoeffer warns that to be a true disciple, you must not let yourself become proud—not even proud of the good works you do in obedience to Christ.

Did Bonhoeffer Influence CS Lewis’s View of Humility?

In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis argues that humility is only a virtue insofar as it turns your attention away from yourself and toward God and other people: As you become more humble, you become less self-serving, enabling you to serve God and help other people. Lewis cautions that as soon as you recognize humility as a virtue and begin to cultivate it, you are in danger of becoming proud of your humility, which defeats the purpose of cultivating humility in the first place.

Given the striking similarity between Lewis’s perspective on humility and Bonhoeffer’s, and the fact that The Screwtape Letters was published about five years after The Cost of Discipleship, it is possible that Lewis was influenced by Bonhoeffer’s writings. However, there is no known record of any correspondence between Lewis and Bonhoeffer, so it is also possible that Lewis and Bonhoeffer reached similar conclusions about humility independently from one another.

Bonhoeffer arrived at this doctrine by contrasting Matthew 5:16 with Matthew 6:1-4. In the former passage, Christ tells His disciples to do good works publicly so that people who see them will praise God. In the second passage, Christ tells His disciples not to do good works for the purpose of being seen, but rather to do them secretly. Bonhoeffer reconciles this paradox of doing good works publicly and yet secretly by saying 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.

Contrasting Perspectives on Humility

Bonhoeffer may have originated the metaphor of keeping your good works secret from yourself, but the underlying concept that he was illustrating (namely, that to remain humble, you should avoid taking credit for your works) is common to most Protestant theologians.

Jewish scholars tend to hold a similar perspective. Like Bonhoeffer, they emphasize the hypocrisy of taking pride in humility.

The Catholic view of humility is similar, but not identical. Specifically, Catholics define the virtue of humility as a modest and realistic sense of self-worth. This kind of humility is produced when you understand God’s holiness and recognize your own sinful nature, and it makes you more prone to be submissive toward God and others.

The key difference between the Catholic and Protestant views is that the Catholic view emphasizes self-knowledge (having a modest, realistic view of yourself), while the Protestant view emphasizes self-forgetfulness (abstaining from comparing yourself to others).

Some Hindu and Buddhist teachers view humility itself primarily as a lack of excessive desire to be praised by others. However, their ancient religious texts also discuss a mental state of selflessness or complete absence of ego that closely resembles the Protestant concept of humility. Mahatma Gandhi is credited with re-popularizing this idea of humility in Hindu and Buddhist circles.


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.


Bonhoeffer asserts that severe self-discipline is an indispensable part of discipleship. This is because experiences are an internal conflict between the Holy Spirit, which desires to do the will of Christ, and your own sinful nature, which desires pleasure and comfort, even at the expense of others. It takes enormous self-discipline to overpower your selfish human nature so that you can yield to the Spirit and do the will of Christ. According to Bonhoeffer, the only way to develop this level of self-discipline is through voluntary forms of suffering, such as fasting.

Furthermore, Bonhoeffer notes that when Christ tells his disciples not to draw attention to themselves when they are fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, he implicitly assumes that his disciples will practice fasting. However, based on these verses, Bonhoeffer also cautions that fasting and asceticism in general should only be used as a tool to cultivate strong self-discipline. If it becomes an end in itself, or a point of pride for you, then it becomes self-defeating, just like taking pride in your humility.

Contrasting Views on Fasting

As we’ve seen, Bonhoeffer defines fasting as voluntary abstinence from food to the point of suffering for the purpose of building self-discipline. Other people and religious groups offer a variety of views on fasting:

The Catholic Church defines fasting as a reduction in food intake by about one-third (at most you’re allowed to eat one full meal per day, plus two half-size meals). For Catholics, the purpose of fasting is simply obedience: Christ and the church fathers practiced and taught fasting, so Christ’s disciples should continue in the practice. This view could be compatible with Bonhoeffer’s, if reducing your daily food intake causes you to suffer.

A common Protestant view is that the purpose of fasting is to increase your desire for God by temporarily abstaining from something you normally desire, such as food, soda, intimacy, or video games. This perspective doesn’t necessarily conflict with Bonhoeffer’s view, since temporarily giving up something you desire might cause you to suffer, in a sense, and might strengthen your self-discipline, but these would be side effects of fasting, not the primary objective.

In Islam, fasting is defined as abstinence from all food and drink during the hours of daylight, for the purpose of building self-control and increasing spiritual awareness. In the Muslim view, you must be able to rein in your natural desires in order to obtain salvation. Fasting is required during the month of Ramadan and on certain other days of the Muslim calendar. The Muslim emphasis on the necessity of self-control for salvation and the use of fasting to build self-control seems remarkably similar to Bonhoeffer’s view. However, as far as we know, Bonhoeffer was never directly influenced by Islamic teachings.

Traditions of fasting in Buddhism vary, but many monks abstain from eating in the afternoon, so that eating will not interrupt their afternoon meditation. Generally, Buddhist practices like this are viewed not as temporary periods of abstinence for a specific purpose, but simply as a way of structuring your daily routine for a healthy lifestyle. However, some sects, such as Tendai are known to practice various forms of asceticism, including total abstinence from food for set periods of time, for the purpose of increasing their spiritual strength. In particular, this type of fasting is an important part of students’ program of study to become religious teachers. Thus, in the literal sense of the word, the Tendai Buddhists employed fasting as part of discipleship much the way Bonhoeffer did. The difference, of course, is that they were disciples of the Tendai masters, not of Jesus Christ.


According to Bonhoeffer, disciples seek to accumulate wealth in heaven, not on earth. The first disciples left all their possessions behind to follow Christ. Moreover, in Matthew 6:19-24, Christ told his disciples, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth...but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven...for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also...” In Bonhoeffer’s view, if you are obedient to Christ in this life, Christ will reward you with tangible wealth when you arrive in heaven. Bonhoeffer insists that “treasure in heaven” is literal wealth in the afterlife, and not merely a figure of speech, but he does not elaborate on exactly what these treasures are composed of.

(Shortform note: Other theologians have argued that the Bible does not describe heavenly treasures in detail because they are beyond our ability to imagine. They point out that the streets of Heaven are paved with gold (Revelation 21:21). Gold is one of the most valuable materials on earth, while paving materials are relatively cheap: A few gold coins would buy a truckload of asphalt and hire someone to pave your driveway with it. So what would they use as currency in a society where they use gold like we use asphalt? It’s hard to say, because that degree of wealth is completely beyond our experience.)

Bonhoeffer also proposes that a life unencumbered by earthly wealth frees you from worry. Human life is full of uncertainties: History bears record of all kinds of disasters (natural and man-made) that can disrupt the economy, cause shortages of food, or bring about other hardships. Bonhoeffer observes that accumulating reserves of food, money, and perhaps other supplies seems like a natural way to protect ourselves from the uncertainties of life. However, the more wealth we accumulate, the more we could lose in the event of a disaster. So the more wealth we have, the more we have to worry about. As such, Bonhoeffer argues that it’s better to have nothing—then you have nothing to lose and nothing to worry about.

Contrasting Views on Poverty

Some people disagree with Bonhoeffer’s assertion that having more wealth makes you more prone to worry.

For example, secular research indicates that people living in poverty are statistically more likely to be worried than wealthy people are.

Meanwhile, Christian theologians hold a variety of views, ranging from Bonhoeffer’s view on the one extreme to prosperity theology on the other extreme. Prosperity theology teaches that Christ rewards His disciples for their obedience with blessings of physical health and wealth in this life, as well as spiritual blessings in the afterlife.

Islamic views on wealth and poverty are also varied. Some of Islam’s early leaders believed, like Bonhoeffer, that earthly wealth is a source of worry and temptation, and they were known for practicing voluntary poverty. The Sufi Muslim sect continues to teach this. However, the majority view among Muslim scholars is that voluntary poverty amounts to shunning God’s blessings, which is forbidden by the Quran.

Very few Jews endorse the idea of voluntary poverty, because, contrary to Bonhoeffer, they believe that poverty leaves you more vulnerable to hardship, which, in turn, makes you more likely to need assistance from others. They assert that you have a moral obligation to be industrious, so that you’re not a burden to your community. Wealthy Jews are encouraged to help the poor, especially if they can help a poor Jew attain financial self-sufficiency through a gift or loan.

In Buddhism and Hinduism, monks often renounce earthly wealth and possessions beyond those necessary for their monastic lifestyle. However, where Bonhoeffer argues that forfeiting your possessions frees you from worrying about them, these monks tend to reverse his logic: If you first give up your desire for material things, then losing them or giving them up won’t bother you.


According to Bonhoeffer, suffering is the hallmark of discipleship. Christ came to earth to suffer in our place so that our sins could be forgiven. By following and obeying Christ, we gradually become more like him. 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 declares that to suffer like Christ is the most glorious honor that a disciple can receive on earth. As such, you can triumph over suffering by accepting it and rejoicing in the fact that it allows you to relate more closely to Christ.

Bonhoeffer clarifies that when he speaks of “suffering” he is not referring to the “natural suffering” that is common to everyone, like catching a cold, getting a toothache, or developing aches and pains as you get older. Instead, he insists that disciples will suffer gratuitous persecution because of their allegiance to Christ. He asserts that humbly and peacefully seeking to follow Christ invariably provokes people who reject Christ to slander you and seek your harm, just as Jewish leaders who rejected Jesus' teachings persecuted him.

Reasons to Expect Persecution

Bonhoeffer does not elaborate much on why he thinks disciples’ humility and good works will provoke others to persecute them. However, we can infer two possible reasons:

First, there is a historical precedent. Christians were persecuted severely in the first three centuries AD, before it became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. (For that matter, history records that minority religions throughout the world have often faced persecution to some extent.) Throughout the book, Bonhoeffer seems to assume his readers are familiar with church history, so perhaps he considered this historical evidence too obvious to mention.

Second, Bonhoeffer had personal experience with persecution, which we can imagine he was drawing from. If you believe that obeying Christ is more important than obeying the laws of your country or the traditions of the society in which you live, then political leaders may view you as a threat simply because they cannot control you. And if they see you as a threat to their political ambitions, they may try to suppress your influence or even destroy you. Bonhoeffer himself certainly experienced this kind of hostility from the Nazis.

Whether for these reasons or others, many modern Christians agree with Bonhoeffer’s expectation of persecution. A recent survey indicates that over 75% of evangelical Protestants in the United States expect to be persecuted, even though they represent the religious majority (about 70% of Americans identify as Christian, of which evangelical Protestants make up the largest sub-group).


Bonhoeffer asserts that disciples of Christ should practice strict pacifism. After all, as his disciples, we should model our behavior after his example: Christ loved us enough to die for us, even when we were hostile toward him. Thus, we should love others and treat them with kindness, even when they treat us with hostility.

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.

Contrasting Views on Pacifism

Perspectives on pacifism vary widely, both among Christians and people of other religious persuasions:

  • Christian groups that, like Bonhoeffer, advocate strict pacifism include the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish.

  • Contrastingly, the Catholic church and many Protestant churches endorse the view of St. Augustine, who, in the 5th century, argued that use of force in war, self-defense, or law enforcement was justifiable and even obligatory in certain cases. Specifically, Augustine asserted that it is a sin for you to allow a grievous act of evil to be perpetrated, if you have the opportunity to prevent it. This contrasts sharply with Bonhoeffer’s teaching that evil can only multiply through retaliation. In Augustine’s view, there are situations where resistance or retaliation allows evil to multiply by escalating a conflict, but there are also situations where non-resistance allows evil to grow and multiply.

  • In Islam, use of force in self-defense and military defense of the Muslim community are generally considered not only permissible but mandatory. This is based on the concept of “jihad,” which refers to a Muslim’s duty to strive against evil, both on an internal, spiritual level, and also externally against people who perpetrate acts of evil. This resembles Augustine’s view and contradicts Bonhoeffer's.

  • In Buddhism, pacifism is widely endorsed, because Buddha is said to have taught that all creatures share the same life force, and so violence against another creature (human or animal) was never justifiable. However, some Buddhists take exception to this teaching. For example, Buddhist monks of the Shaolin monastery practice martial arts and use force for self-defense or defense of others.

Bonhoeffer’s Call to Withdraw From Government

Finally, Bonhoeffer asserts that discipleship will cost you your civil rights and any political power or governmental office that you hold. As we noted earlier, obeying Christ takes precedence over your job, family, and country. While Bonhoeffer generally advises you to keep your job and continue to support your family when you become a disciple, he says you must withdraw from any position you hold with your government. He gives three reasons for this:

1. You cannot serve your country in a law-enforcement or military role because soldiers and police must employ violent force in the line of duty, while you, as a disciple, are obliged to love your enemies and renounce all violence against them. Even government officials who don’t personally engage in fighting are involved to some extent in directing law enforcement and military actions, so you cannot hold a government office as a disciple of Christ.

(Shortform note: Interestingly, Bonhoeffer himself served in Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, beginning about two years after The Cost of Discipleship was published. Thus, it seems probable that he reconsidered this idea and assumed a less restrictive opinion shortly after publishing it. This would not be surprising, considering that, as we’ll see below, the Bible arguably refutes some of his reasoning.)

2. As a disciple, you profess to trust in Christ alone for protection and providence. As such, you waive all your civil rights when you become a disciple, because you don’t need the government’s protection.

(Shortform note: Despite Bonhoeffer’s claim, the idea that Christ expects his followers to renounce their civil rights is not entirely supported by scripture. For example, Acts 25:11 recounts how St. Paul exercised his right to appeal to Caesar as a Roman citizen. This arguably provides a counterexample that refutes Bonhoeffer’s claim.)

3. According to Bonhoeffer, there is a historical precedent for not working for a government as a follower of Christ: In the early church, soldiers, policemen, and judges were not permitted to be baptized unless they renounced their respective positions. He insinuates that this prohibition was lifted when church leaders became less devout and allowed the church to become more secularized.

(Shortform note: Although Bonhoeffer points to early Church laws that support his theory, he ignores some Biblical passages that counter it, which itself runs counter to his claim that his theories are supported by scripture. Acts 10 records the conversion and baptism of Cornelius, a centurion (captain) in the Roman military. If resignation from the military was a significant step toward discipleship, or a prerequisite for baptism, we would expect the Bible to mention it. Yet, on the contrary, the Bible says nothing about Cornelius resigning from the military, either before or after his baptism. This arguably provides a counterexample to refute Bonhoeffer’s position.)

Contrasting Views on Participation in Government

Bonhoeffer’s assertion that, as a disciple of Christ, you may not hold any position in secular government stands out as one of his more unique teachings. Throughout history, most Christians (and non-Christians, for that matter) have seen no inherent conflict between holding government office and being faithful to God. However, there are a few religious groups that have taken positions similar to Bonhoeffer’s.

  • The Amish abstain from serving in government, due to their belief in pacifism. This is directly in line with Bonhoeffer’s first reason for withdrawing from government (namely, that involvement in government requires at least indirect involvement in the use of force).

  • Members of the Jehovah's Witness church also abstain from serving in government. They see themselves as representatives of God’s kingdom on the earth and believe that in order to be representatives of God’s kingdom, they must not be associated with any earthly “kingdom,” or secular government. Bonhoeffer would likely have agreed with this idea, since it builds on his second line of reasoning (namely, that the disciple should look to Christ instead of to the secular government for protection and providence), and he elsewhere describes the disciples as Christ’s representatives on earth.

The “Weakness” of the Gospel

In several places, Bonhoeffer mentions in passing that the gospel of Christ is “weak” in the sense that it is not forceful: Christ did not force anyone to follow him, and Christians should not force anyone to convert to Christianity. Instead, we should invite people to follow Christ without coercing or compelling them, and leave them free to refuse if they so choose. According to Bonhoeffer, this spirit of “weakness” is what differentiates the gospel from “an ideology” whose proponents impose their views on others.

(Shortform note: Bonhoeffer never mentions the Nazi Party by name in The Cost of Discipleship, but given the political backdrop against which he was writing, it is probably safe to assume that Nazism was one “ideology” that he wanted to differentiate Christianity from. Nazism was an ideology that did not tolerate dissenters. And as a dissenter, Bonhoeffer doubtless understood first-hand not only the evil of Nazism itself, but the evil of coercing anyone to accept a system of beliefs against his or her will.)

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