Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), author of The Cost of Discipleship and one of the remarkable figures of twentieth-century Christianity, served as a Lutheran pastor and theologian in Tübingen, Berlin, and New York, in a dark period of human history. He vehemently opposed the Nazi Party’s attempt to subjugate the church to the political and ideological approach of the time. He felt the political and religious rhythm of his time, thus leaving a valuable and timeless theological legacy.
His book is a true manifesto against the church’s tendencies to reject the call of Christ and to accept “Caesar’s” offer of collaboration for the common good of the people. Bonhoeffer begins the piece with a direct, incisive, and blinding statement: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church” because it is “the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.”
It is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” The book’s content, dominated by the Sermon on the Mount commentary, is an undisguised reproach to the German Church for the fact that it is moving away from authentic Christianity and choosing the path of secularisation.
The opposite of cheap grace is “costly grace.” The volume outlines the idea that grace is free, but never cheap, because forgiveness cost God everything He had most dear and costly: His Son. To use this concept to justify your immoral deeds means to shatter and rob the gospel of its own power of salvation and transformation of the sinner. Without this “dogma,” the church becomes irrelevant. Consequently, the community, implicitly the sinner, has only one option and chance: he or she must die in order to live.
The call to discipleship is built on the indissoluble statement of the Saviour: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Following Christ remains that sine qua non of the Christian religion, even in the twentieth century. Divine grace automatically generates discipleship in the school of selflessness and suffering by taking up the cross.
The author may have justified his active involvement in the anti-Hitler resistance movement in ways that replicate the beliefs stated in this book, but cannot be shared by everyone. Because even Bonhoeffer had to understand that “the hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation” (C.S. Lewis).
In the conscience of the modern reader, the book can trigger two possible reactions: a passive one, astonishment, and an active one, assumption. Astonishment, because “the crowds were astonished” after listening to the sermon, with no practical consequences. Assumption, because the disciples left the nets and took up the cross.
Mihai Miron is a pastor and the director of the Department of Religious Freedom of the Adventist Church in Southern Transylvania.