The Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the church’s prophetic voice
Seventy years ago, on April 9, 1945, during the last weeks of World War II, renowned Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany. His name may not be a household name in 21st century North America—yet his legacy still challenges us today.
Born February 4, 1906, in Breslau, Germany, to a well-to-do family, Bonhoeffer was not only a star student, completing his doctoral dissertation and habilitation, a second doctoral-level degree required to teach at a university in Germany, by the age of 25, but was also one of the leading voices in the Confessing Church that opposed Hitler’s Nazi-Germany.
In his preaching and writing he consistently challenged the status quo of the official German Christian churches (including his Lutheran Church) that were closely cooperating with Nazi leadership and ideology. In August of 1933, he was one of the leading voices authoring the Bethel Confession, a new statement of faith set in opposition to the official, Nazi-controlled German Christian Church.
Indeed, on a personal level, he often wondered about his own convictions in the face of constant harassment and increasing persecution. His promising academic career was cut short after Hitler’s ascension to power and his authorization to teach at Berlin University was revoked in 1936. He continued to train Lutheran pastors in a number of underground seminaries that opened following the split of the Confessing Church from the German Christian Church. His association with leaders of the German resistance to Hitler in the military led to his imprisonment in 1943 and, ultimately, to his death sentence.
Why wonder about a long-dead theologian from Germany, some may wonder. What’s his significance for people living in a world that is very different from that of Nazi-Germany?
We are grateful for the freedoms we enjoy in 2015 in the U.S.A. or other parts of the western world—and yet we know we do not live in a perfect world. Remember the images from hotspots all around the world where profound corruption, relentless persecution, systematic oppression, and tangible threats to life and health are part of daily life.
Even in our comfortable homes in the suburbs of North America we realize that privacy seems to be a concept of the past. We live in glass houses, surrounded by entities who can hear what we hear, read what we write, and know what’s happening in our bank accounts. Following 9/11 we’ve gotten used to lesser personal freedoms for the sake of a sense (or illusion?) of increased security.
Bonhoeffer’s voice that spoke so passionately and audibly in a time and period where most other voices fell silent is still heard today—70 years after his execution. His significant theological writings have shaped generations of pastors and theologians. His interest in ecumenical relations prepared the way for increased inter-religious dialogue following World War II. His theology was by no means Adventist or traditionally Lutheran—and yet—his example of a life lived consequentially challenges us to live authentically and serve uncompromisingly a Savior who humbled Himself carrying the water and the towel.
Bonhoeffer uniquely responded to the immense challenges of his time. In the midst of a world that had opted to look away, he looked more carefully. When we read Bonhoeffer we are reminded of the clear prophetic voice we can hear in the likes of biblical Isaiah, Micah, Amos, or Haggai.
Like Amos and Isaiah, he thought globally and echoed God’s voice to the nations (cf. Isa. 13-21; Amos 1:3-2:16). His call to oppose mindless obedience and convenient overlooking of a reality we may not like but choose to ignore echoes the biblical call to protect the weak, the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger (Isa. 1:23; 10:2; Jer. 7:6; 22:3; Eze. 22:7; Zech. 7:10). Somehow God takes the side of the underdog in history—those who struggle to fight for themselves.
One of Bonhoeffer’s most famous works is The Cost of Discipleship, first published in English in 1948. In its opening page Bonhoeffer wrote: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.” When we realize the costliness of the cross and the radical nature of being a disciple of the Carpenter from Nazareth as He ministered to the downtrodden, had compassion with the sick, and spoke against those who claimed to have God and tradition on their side, we suddenly “get” this costly grace.
We can see the cost of discipleship in Christ’s own example of serving humanity and His willingness to pay the ultimate price. We can hear the cost of discipleship in the myriad of stories of Christian martyrs, both ancient and modern, carrying the gospel forward in times and places that were never convenient. We can feel the cost of discipleship when we step out of our own comfort zone into a world that hurts and suffers and reels in agony—and when we feel it we need to speak up. Seventh-day Adventists are not only called to preach the everlasting gospel and make disciples for the Master; they are called to live out this gospel valiantly and radically in everyday life—even in the face of despotic regimes, abusive market forces, unrelenting capitalism, all-powerful public opinion, and political correctness.