This past Wednesday, Feb. 4, would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 103rd birthday. Bonhoeffer’s story is familiar to many: a story about his resistance to a Hitler-controlled Germany and his participation in the plot to assassinate the Nazi leader. It was this public resistance and criticism that eventually led to Bonhoeffer’s execution on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer's image was placed on a German stamp in 1995. (Wikipedia Commons)
Yet, even though his story is familiar to many, it is his writings that still serve to penetrate our hearts and minds concerning what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Perhaps his most popular book is The Cost of Discipleship, a deep and challenging assessment of what it truly means to be a disciple of Christ.
It is in this book that we find the author state very powerfully that grace cannot be cheap. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.” Instead, Bonhoeffer coins an almost paradoxical phrase to describe the experience of salvation and discipleship: costly grace. In his words, costly grace is “costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
In the Gospels, we find Jesus calling those who would become his followers. In the first chapter of Mark’s story, Jesus calls two sets of brothers, all of whom are fishermen. He calls them to leave their nets, to leave their families, and to follow him. In this story, and other call stories, we discover the tension that Bonhoeffer points out as that which epitomizes the gospel: Discipleship is both costly and liberating.
When Jesus comes upon these fishermen they are doing what they normally do on any given day; they are fishing. Indeed, this was their life; this was their existence. Fishing was what was routine and comfortable for them. While their occupation as fishermen was hard work that brought many challenges, it was what they knew and who they were.
Yet, when Jesus calls them, he calls them to leave their lives as they know them. He calls them to turn away from their normal existence and to let go of what they know best. How costly is such a decision?
While leaving fishing may not seem big to us, let’s take into account what Jesus demands from another. A rich man approached Jesus wanting to know how he might gain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the greatest commandments: to love God and to love others. Jesus then told the man, “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor.” At this demand, the man turned away, refusing to accept the cost.
We must be careful not to distance ourselves too much from this story. In calling us to follow him, Jesus always demands that we relinquish our claims; our claims of independence, our claims to security and freedom, our claims to what we own, and our claims to live our lives as we see fit. To answer the call of discipleship is always costly. If it is not, it is not discipleship.
Yet, even as we speak of discipleship as costly, we must also view it as liberating. The call to the two sets of brothers to leave what they know, what gave them comfort and security, is at the same time a call to find liberation and hope in something that is transformative. While their lives of fishing certainly gave them a sense of normality, they were unknowingly missing what authentic life with God was like. Jesus’ call for them to leave their nets and follow him was a call to embrace a new liberating existence.
When Jesus calls us to follow, and when we respond to his call, we are responding to and accepting a way of life that is both costly and liberating. And only when we understand, accept and welcome this tension, can we truly live out authentic discipleship that is, in the words of Bonhoeffer, “exclusive to his person.”
But to accept the call of Jesus to follow him, we must relinquish what holds us back from the true gospel and what prevents us from becoming authentic disciples of Jesus. We must count the cost of discipleship, and we must be willing to move from our status quo existence of comfort, security and that which we know as normal, to embrace the life-changing, world-transforming and liberating power of the gospel. This is authentic discipleship that is both costly and liberating.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.