The Cost of Discipleship
In 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was troubled by what he saw in churches around him. Bonhoeffer thought that churches naturally wanted to bring as many into the fold as possible, but that it was possible to go too far. He felt that churches were placing too much emphasis on welcoming all, and erring too much on the side of grace. Rather than presenting a realistic picture of the difficulties and challenges of the Christian life, he thought that churches were promising new converts all the rewards with none of the cost. Bonhoeffer termed this “cheap grace.”
In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer responded with a concept that he called “costly grace.” Grace—the unmerited favor of God, which we cannot earn—was real. But Bonhoeffer denied that, because it was undeserved, grace had no cost. Cloaking his idea in biblical allusions, Bonhoeffer wrote these words:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will gladly pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “you were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.
At the end of his life, Bonhoeffer wrote that he recognized some dangers in his approach—but that he still stood by his core idea. Through the years his words have proven compelling for many within the church.
Last Sunday we kicked off our worship emphasis on discipleship, and we talked about counting the cost before choosing to live a life modeled on Jesus. This week, Bonhoeffer’s words may be worth pondering. What most characterizes your faith? Are you closer to concept of “cheap grace,” in which God showers you with blessings while you continue on as before? Or are you closer to the concept of “costly grace,” in which God’s love and grace for us can never be earned, but such radical grace from God motivates you to respond in radical ways?
And lastly—and most importantly—where in your life might you live with more awareness of the infinite value of God’s grace, and respond with a lifestyle of costly discipleship?