This week in my sermon on discipleship (specifically Jesus’ call to Levi to follow him) I made reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his remarkable book, The Cost of Discipleship. In this post I want to say more about Bonhoeffer and this book.

As I said Sunday, it is no small thing that this book appeared in 1937, when Hitler’s power was at its height in Germany. His dominance of Europe was still to come, but by 1937 the German people were almost fully cowed by the Nazi regime, including the great majority of the German Lutheran Church. It was particularly with that church in mind (of which he was a pastor) that Bonhoeffer spoke of “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer writes:

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners “even in the best life” as Luther said. Well then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. (p. 43)

As you read more of Bonhoeffer’s argument it is clear that he is not adding a “works” element to salvation as much as making it clear that discipleship is part of the essence of salvation by grace. He continues, 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 is 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: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. (p. 45)

It was important to Bonhoeffer that he speak about the misuse of the great doctrine of justification as taught by Martin Luther. Luther was the great hero of the Reformation and the founder of the German Lutheran Church, in which Bonhoeffer was a leader and teacher. Bonhoeffer insisted that Luther never taught that forgiveness through the work of Christ could be separated from the call to follow him (discipleship). He wrote, All that was needed was a subtle and almost imperceptible change of emphasis, and the damage was done. Luther had taught that man cannot stand before God, however religious his works and ways may be, because at bottom he is always seeking his own interests. In the depth of his misery, Luther had grasped by faith the free and unconditional forgiveness of all his sins. That experience taught him that this grace had cost him his very life, and must continue to cost him the same price day by day. So far from dispensing him from discipleship, this grace only made him a more earnest disciple. … Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship. … Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship. (p. 49, 50)

Bonhoeffer’s strong words to the complacent Christians of his day still ring true and need to be heard by any of us who are passionate about the wonderful truths of justification by grace through faith. May the Lord deliver us from embracing “cheap grace.” May God help us to stand on that unshakable foundation of justification through the work of Christ to then follow him into the great mission of serving him in a needy world.

The quotations are from the 1995 Touchstone edition of The Cost of Discipleship. If you want to learn more about Bonhoeffer there is an excellent biography entitled: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy published in 2010 by Eric Metaxas (forward by Tim Keller).