There is no point in sugar coating any statement made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He has not given mankind that luxury. What we must realize is that we are dealing with a man who has an incredible view of the God of the universe and how small he, and every other being is. Bonhoeffer is a rare man. Many people seek to find faults in mankind and with any system, but Bonhoeffer strove to find remedies to the faults. This could be seen in the way he preached and the way he stressed the sovereignty of God in all facets of life. Perhaps the greatest of these areas was the realm of discipleship.
What was obedience to Bonhoeffer? Obedience was something that one did because Christ had done a work in that person’s life. Obedience, for Bonhoeffer, could cover salvation in response to Christ’s call (irresistible call of grace), or it could cover the sanctifying process. For Bonhoeffer, obedience was and always will be tied directly to faith. The faith of man is never better on display than when it is demonstrated through the obedience to Christ.
“Again, when Peter was called to walk on the rolling sea, he had to get up and risk his life. Only one thing was required in each case⎯to rely on Christ’s Word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities of the world.”
For Bonhoeffer, the word of God is something far more than a plea to live for righteousness. It is a command from the incarnate God-Man. Scripture never makes a request of the unrepentant. Scripture never seems to reason with the lost so as to negotiate a peaceful surrender. These are not the actions of the God of all creation. The Apostle Paul states in Acts 17:30, 31 a command from God that all men are to repent. The question must then be asked, what is this repentance?
For Bonhoeffer, repentance was nothing less than radical obedience. “But no, he went away sorrowful. Because he would not obey, he could not believe.” Let that sink in. He could not.
This is a sobering truth for all Christians. John 3:18 says that those who do not believe in Christ have already received their judgment. Obedience to Christ’s calling is never in control of the decisions of man. Christ never asked mankind to obey Him legalistically. Christ has not asked of Christians to sell all their possessions because material wealth is of the devil. He has not asked for obedience because he’ll damn you to hell if you don’t. He has asked for radical obedience, obedience that does not require material wealth, obedience that does not require potential followers to cross items off of their bucket list before taking up the cross for the first time, obedience that is so dedicated to the incarnate God-Man that it radiates a love that is so bright that the evil hate it and the righteous flock to it, obedient love that is so devoted to Christ that it almost comes across as hate since a Christian’s love must pale in comparison to the radical obedience to Christ. Radical obedience spurred on by love, “because He first loved us.”
Christians are called to be like Christ. That is a truth that cannot be argued. Though it is true that Christians cannot be like Christ in His perfections, Christians must be like Christ in how they live and act. This is most beautifully expressed in how the incarnate God-Man suffered and was rejected.
“Had He only suffered, Jesus might still have been applauded as the Messiah. All the sympathy and admiration of the world might have been focused on His passion.”
What Christians must understand is that Christ did not just suffer pain physically during His passion week. The people rejected Christ as an outworking of their father, the devil, whom Christ accused accurately the Pharisees of being just a short time ago. This was ultimately what Satan had done to God. He rejected Christ, and the sovereignty of God, and was used by God to cause Christ to suffer and be rejected at the hands of His creation. This is the relationship that Bonhoeffer tried to stress with dying to Christ. Dying on the cross necessitates being despised and rejected by men. If suffering and rejection is what makes Christ the Christ, then suffering and rejection is what makes a disciple a disciple since we are to be crucified with Christ. The suffering and death of Christ is so integral to the theology of the Church. Christians need the death and resurrection of Christ for salvation as empirical proof against a world gone mad as it drowns in a quasi wave of “reason.” The fact that so many churches were trying to disprove the resurrection of Christ proves that the Suffering Servant at its very nature, is a scandal to most churches. But it is this very suffering and rejection that is a source of joy for the believer.
“Only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.”
Every command of Christ is a desire to put to death the desires of the flesh and to put on the actions of the regenerated man. Christ demands radical obedience because the Father answered Christ’s prayer to have the “cup” taken from Him by having Him pass through the ordeal. So also, Christians will have the “cup” of tribulation taken from them as they live through it.
When Christ described Himself as the Good Shepherd, He stated that if one were wandering astray, he would leave the others and go out looking for that one lost sheep. This begs the question, how does discipleship occur on a personal level?
“Through the call of Jesus men become individuals. Willy-nilly, they are made to decide, and that decision can only be made by themselves. It is no choice of their own that makes them individuals: it is Christ who makes them individuals by calling them.”
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that he determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. This is what Bonhoeffer was trying to get at, at its core. Man is at a state of hostility with all of creation, whether God or man. Man needs an mediator who can restore relationship to the King of Glory. Only a fait accompli (something that’s already happened that you have no choice but to accept) action of Christ can separate man, as a disciple, from a world of material and relational chaos. This is what happens when the words of Christ are no longer an ideal or an ethical system, but rather, as the words of Mediator who restores relationship to the hearers of the call to discipleship. It is this Gospel call, that severs ties to the world and places Christians into relationship with the God-Man. To love an exterior relationship more than the relationship to Christ, is to hate Christ, according to Bonhoeffer.
Some may say that since Christ has paid the penalty of the sin of Christians that they need not worry since Christ has established relationship with them, they can go back to the relationships they just left. What many Christians forget is that this is the same world that crucified the King of Glory. When Christians embrace this, they embrace merely a justification of sin, and not the sinner.
As we can see in The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer was stressing how the outward change meets the inward change in the life of the believer. This is such an important concept to understand for the Christian community today. We live in an era where most accusations of legalism are, in actuality, someone just trying to encourage someone to abide to a standard of holiness. This is the point that Bonhoeffer tried to stress. Faith is so much more than a mere mental assent, as most in the church see it today. Faith is obedience, and obedience is faith.
This is why the church must study church history, and why the church believes what it does today, and who brought these things to attention. We should study this because we live in an age of Christianity where discipleship is in most circles, vague. Most people view discipleship solely as a man-to-man relationship. This is what Bonhoeffer was trying to get away from. As always, he got back to the root of the issue. Discipleship is a vertical relationship first, and a horizontal relationship second.
The church must realize that we are facing an epidemic of believers who do not understand that they are clinging to ties that separate them from a firm relationship with Christ. This could be the form of anything that supplants the King of Glory in the life of a believer. Christ does not desire acquaintance. He desires intimate, personal relationship.
“…the same Mediator who makes us individuals is also the founder of a new fellowship. He stands in the centre between my neighbor and myself. He divides, but He also unites. Thus although the direct way to our neighbor is barred, we now find the only real way to him⎯the way which passes through the Mediator.”