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The Cost of Discipleship

LPP, But along came Hitler. Bonhoeffer lost his license to teach, and he traded in Berlin for Finkenwalde. Yes, Finkenwalde was an estate, but better to think run-down monastery than paneled walls and luxurious rooms. And then he was sent to prison. While in prison he once wrote of his longing to hear birds and see color. He knew all too well what it meant to be in want.

Or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage.

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And, like Paul, these experiences of plenty and want led Bonhoeffer to contentment. He expressed this in a poem marking the occasion of the New Year in Bonhoeffer had spent the whole of in Nazi prisons. It was Christ who gave us the ultimate paradox of life: in the keeping of our life we lose it, but in the giving of our life we find it Matt. Christ spoke these words immediately on the heels of telling his disciples to take up their cross From the very beginning that has been the call to discipleship, the call to live the Christian life. July , LPP, He understood what it meant to be unreservedly dedicated to Christ, to live by faith.

Consequently, Bonhoeffer deserves a place among theologians of the past who can serve as guides for us in the present for living the Christian life. He literally wrote the book on discipleship, but he also, as mentioned above, has more to offer than his classic text The Cost of Discipleship. He lived discipleship. And the stakes regarding authenticity could not be higher than when it comes to discipleship. This lyric from the Carter song also means you can spot a fake. And Bonhoeffer was no imposter. He was a disciple, so he could well sing—and preach and write—of discipleship.

In our current day we have more material on living the Christian life— in the form of books, seminars, conferences, and DVDs—than at any other time in the history of the church. Much of that material focuses on the individual, on our personal prayer life and our private devotional time. Much of that material also focuses on duty—the roll-up-your-sleeves, get-it-doneby-grit-and-determination approach.

Further still, much of this talk of spirituality also sounds rather otherworldly, disconnected from the twists and turns of daily life. Rodney Clapp writes of this otherworldly emphasis as resulting in a spirituality for angels, not for flesh-and-blood humans.

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More often than not, following these kinds of approaches to discipleship leaves us defeated and discouraged. Humans have a hard time performing on the level of angels. While Bonhoeffer does speak of duty, he also heralds grace. He is, after all, a Lutheran, so he knows a thing or two about grace.


We owe it to ourselves to meet him and to listen to what he has to say—both in word and in deed. We will begin our explorations of all that Bonhoeffer has to offer fellow disciples by looking at the foundations of the Christian life. He commends to us the cross-centered life. Bonhoeffer takes a page from his favorite theologian, Martin Luther.

Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World by Stephen J. Nichols

For Luther, too, Christ is at the center. And at the center of the center is Christ on the cross. Early on and then throughout his life Luther spoke of a theology of the cross, as does Bonhoeffer. We will explore three of them: reading and obeying Scripture, prayer, and the practice of theology. I have chosen these three because Bonhoeffer, speaking in the context of the underground seminary he led in the late s, saw this trilogy of disciplines as the essential ingredients for a ministerial education.

He desired only that his students knew how to read and did read the Bible, that they knew how to and did pray, and that they both thought and lived theologically. For him seminary was about imparting knowledge referred to as scientia by the ancients and about spiritual formation and life referred to as formation by the ancients. These three are the essential practices of the Christian life, and all of them constitute worship. Next comes prayer chap. Finally, we look at the role of thinking theologically and then living theologically chap.

Theology sometimes gets pitted against Christian life. One is theory, the other practice. Bonhoeffer will help us see the unity of the two and not fall prey to a deadly divide. This life from the cross not only leads to these three disciplines of Scripture, prayer, and theology but also leads us out into the world. We would better say that it leads us to live for the world.

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The classic text on living the Christian life, Romans —2, calls us to be living sacrifices. But his death should not have the final word. All of this—the service, the sacrifices, the worldliness, the Scripture reading, prayer, and practice of theology, that is, the life in community and the life from the cross—all of it is accentuated by love. Jesus laid down this characteristic as the hallmark of discipleship and of the church John — He was, however, a quick study. Some of that had to do with circumstance, the utterly harsh and despicable experiences he endured.

Think of the remarkable insight of the so young Anne Frank. Challenging circumstances can lead people into profound depths of understanding, no matter what their age. Bonhoeffer so well understood how to live because he so well understood the cross on which Christ died.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer also grasped the all-encompassing implications of the cross for human existence. He lived from the cross for the world. It is the love of Jesus Christ himself, who goes to the cross in suffering and obedience. It is the cross. What is unique in Christianity is the cross. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential.

Hoc est Christum cognoscere, beneficia eius cognoscere.

To know Christ is to know his benefits. There is a certain inclination in human nature to keep off from all problems that might make us feel uncomfortable in our own situation. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.

As Hitler came to power and the Nazi Party gained momentum, pressure increased on the German church to acquiesce. A young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wise well beyond his years, could see the problems acutely. Bonhoeffer championed the cause to stand against the Nazi infiltration in the church. Lists were drawn up. This was not All of this was already happening in The outside world, meaning essentially every nation besides Germany, would not be fully awakened to the problem for years to come.

By then the world would realize what was happening. But Bonhoeffer, and a tight circle of colleagues, knew all too well where things were headed back in A churchman by trade, Bonhoeffer looked to the church to take a stand, to lead the people to the truth and justice. But the national church in Germany balked. And then it caved. This would lead to the forming of a reform group within the church, a group of committed and genuine Christians. There is no doubt in my mind that the victory will go the German Christians.

Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World

Or recall that Charles Lindbergh could only speak of how impressed he was with the German Luftwaffe right on up to the eve of the war. Minneapolis: Fortress, , — Splinter fits better, as the vast majority stood by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer, and those of a like mind who formed this splinter group, called it the Confessing Church. These ministers and their parishes would swear allegiance to Christ—who was not Aryan—and not surrender the church to be captive to the political ideology of the Nazi Party.