Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Cost of Discipleship

An analysis by Todd Kappelman

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The Cost of Discipleship

Bonhoeffer's most famous work is The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1939.

This book is a rigorous exposition and interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew 9:35-10:42.

Bonhoeffer's major concern is cheap grace. This is grace that has become so watered down that it no longer resembles the grace of the New Testament, the costly grace of the Gospels. By the phrase cheap grace, Bonhoeffer means the grace which has brought chaos and destruction; it is the intellectual assent to a doctrine without a real transformation in the sinner's life. It is the justification of the sinner without the works that should accompany the new birth. Bonhoeffer says of cheap grace:

[It] 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.{1}

Real grace, in Bonhoeffer's estimation, is a grace that will cost a man his life. It is the grace made dear by the life of Christ that was sacrificed to purchase man's redemption. Cheap grace arose out of man's desire to be saved, but to do so without becoming a disciple. The doctrinal system of the church with its lists of behavioral codes becomes a substitute for the Living Christ, and this cheapens the meaning of discipleship. The true believer must resist cheap grace and enter the life of active discipleship. Faith can no longer mean sitting still and waiting; the Christian must rise and follow Christ.{2}

It is here that Bonhoeffer makes one of his most enduring claims on the life of the true Christian. He writes that "only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes."{3}

Men have become soft and complacent in cheap grace and are thus cut off from the discovery of the more costly grace of self-sacrifice and personal debasement. Bonhoeffer believed that the teaching of cheap grace was the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works.{4}

Discipleship, for Bonhoeffer, means strict adherence to Christ and His commandments. It is also a strict adherence to Christ as the object of our faith. Bonhoeffer discusses this single-minded obedience in chapter three of The Cost of Discipleship. In this chapter, the call of Levi and Peter are used to illustrate the believer's proper response to the call of Christ and the Gospel.{5}

The only requirement these men understood was that in each case the call was to rely on Christ's word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities in the world.{6}

In the nineteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel we have the story of the rich young man who is inquiring about salvation and is told by Christ that he must sell all of his possessions, take up his cross, and follow. Bonhoeffer emphasizes the bewilderment of the disciples who ask the question, "Who then can be saved?"{7}

The answer they are given is that it is extremely hard to be saved, but with God all things are possible.

Bonhoeffer and the Sermon on the Mount

The exposition of the Sermon on the Mount is another important element of The Cost of Discipleship. In it, Bonhoeffer places special emphasis on the beatitudes for understanding the incarnate and crucified Christ. It is here that the disciples are called "blessed" for an extraordinary list of qualities.

The poor in spirit have accepted the loss of all things, most importantly the loss of self, so that they may follow Christ.

Those who mourn are the people who do without the peace and prosperity of this world.{8} Mourning is the conscious rejection of rejoicing in what the world rejoices in, and finding one's happiness and fulfillment only in the person of Christ.

The meek, says Bonhoeffer, are those who do not speak up for their own rights. They continually subordinate their rights and themselves to the will of Christ first, and in consequence to the service of others.

Likewise, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness also renounce the expectation that man can eventually make the world into paradise. Their hope is in the righteousness that only the reign of Christ can bring.

The merciful have given up their own dignity and become devoted to others, helping the needy, the infirm, and the outcasts.

The pure in heart are no longer troubled by the call of this world, they have resigned themselves to the call of Christ and His desires for their lives.

The peacemakers abhor the violence that is so often used to solve problems. This point would be of special significance for Bonhoeffer, who was writing on the eve of World War II. The peacemakers maintain fellowship where others would find a reason to break off a relationship. These individuals always see another option.{9}

Those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake are willing to suffer for the cause of Christ. Any and every just cause becomes their cause because it is part of the overall work of Christ. Suffering becomes the way to communion with God.{10}

To this list is added the final blessing pronounced on those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. These will receive a great reward in heaven and be likened to the prophets who also suffered.

Bonhoeffer's emphasis on suffering is directly connected to the suffering of Christ. The church is called to bear the whole burden of Christ, especially as it pertains to suffering, or it must collapse under the weight of the burden.{11} Christ has suffered, says Bonhoeffer, but His suffering is efficacious for the remission of sins. We may also suffer, but our suffering is not for redemptive purposes. We suffer, says Bonhoeffer, not only because it is the church's lot, but so that the world may see us suffering and understand that there is a way that men can bear the burdens of life, and that way is through Christ alone.

Discipleship for Bonhoeffer was not limited to what we can comprehend--it must transcend all comprehension. The believer must plunge into the deep waters beyond the comprehension and everyday teaching of the church, and this must be done individually and collectively.


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R.H. Fuller, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 30.

2. Ibid., 53.

3. Ibid., 54.

4. Ibid., 59.

5. Ibid., 87.

6. Ibid., 87.

7. Ibid., 94.

8. Ibid., 98.

9. Ibid., 102.

10. Ibid., 102.

11. Ibid., 102.

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