“Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” These words eloquently summarise the central message of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s influential book, The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1937.
This book began life as a series of lectures about the Sermon on the Mount, delivered by Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde, a seminary that trained ministers for the “Confessing Church” during the Nazi period. Bonhoeffer later joined the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, a crime for which he was arrested and executed at the age of 39.
In this book, Bonhoeffer tried to disabuse his readers of the idea that they could take God’s grace for granted just because they have received it freely and unconditionally. Hence, in the pages of The Cost of Discipleship we find the oft-repeated refrain that although grace is free, it is never cheap.
By “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer is referring to a religion that makes no demands on its adherents, a religiosity that gives a polite nod at commitment but refuses to pay the price it exacts.
“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,” he writes.
The free grace of God is costly because it is made available through the sacrificial death of Christ on Calvary’s cross. But this grace is also costly for Christians because it “calls us to follow Jesus Christ”.
The obedience demanded of the believer is also not something open to negotiation or bargain, but absolute, without reservation or hesitation. For if you are only partially obedient – which means that you occasionally acquiesce to sin – “you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control”.
True obedience therefore requires self-denial, the resolve to remove the self with its ambitions, passions and wants from the centre of one’s life so that Christ may take His rightful place there. To obey is to smash the idol of the “sovereign self” and to bring the self into humble submission to the true Sovereign.
Only when we are determined to deny our selves can we embrace the suffering that comes with discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes movingly: “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”
In this book, Bonhoeffer also explores the profound relationship between discipleship and the moral law of God by drawing creatively from the Lutheran tradition that shaped his theology.
To be obedient is to live our lives according to the purposes for which God created us; it is to bend our wills to God’s. And since God’s will is revealed in His moral law, the disciple must order his life according to it.
But the divine law points to the holy God who, in giving it, invites His people to commune with Him. This means that the divine law, which is purposed to usher us into an intimate covenant relationship with God, can never be reduced to rules – the dos and don’ts – that govern external behaviour.
The Christian can never be an antinomian (who regards the moral law of God as unimportant) or a legalist (who thinks that the Christian life is only about rule-keeping). In other words, discipleship is not just about doing what is required by the law; but if one ignores God’s law one ceases to be a disciple.
Discipleship therefore has to do with obedient love.
“If you love me,” Jesus said to His disciples, “you will keep my commandments … Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.” (John 14:15, 21)
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.