This is the first post in a nine-part series for Spectrum’s 2014 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
Can belief in the gospel get in the way of taking Jesus seriously and, worse, a blatant disregard for what he teaches? This evidently was the case in Germany in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s day, where a nation of Christians uncritically embraced both nationalism and racism. How was this possible? According to Bonhoeffer, the problem was rooted in the misunderstanding of a fundamental concept, “grace,” which led to its cheapening — “Like ravens we have gathered around the carcass of cheap grace. From it we have imbibed the poison that has killed the following of Jesus.”1
Those familiar with the soteriological debates of the 70s and 80s in Adventism will understand and appreciate the issues that Bonhoeffer addresses in the opening sections of his book — the relationship between “faith” and “works,” or put more technically, “justification” and “sanctification.” I remember being confronted with the issue quite vividly for the first time in college. I had started reading my Bible seriously for the first time, and by studying the letters of Paul, I learned that salvation was by grace. There was nothing I could do to earn it. Jesus had died on the cross to forgive and save me. All I had to do was have faith, i.e. believe, in what Jesus had done. Thinking otherwise (attempting to earn salvation by keeping the Sabbath or being a vegetarian) was legalism, or salvation by works — something dangerous to the true gospel.
It was with a developing appreciation of these insights I had a rather jolting encounter. I found myself studying the Bible with several guys from another church. I had visited their worship service the week before and they were eager to sit down with me early one morning at a local bagel shop and share some Biblical insights.
I still remember the study quite vividly. They began by asking me if I was a “disciple” of Jesus. I had grown up in church, but had never been asked this question before and didn’t really know how to respond.
“Sure. I go to church and help out a lot with the youth group,” I mumbled.
They then proceeded to explain to me that all true Christians were disciples and that disciples made other disciples.
“Have you ever made a disciple?” they wanted to know.
My bewildered look indicated to them that I hadn’t; so they explained to me that I must not be a disciple and therefore, not really a Christian, and thus, not really saved.
The only true disciples today, it turned out, belonged to their church. (They claimed their church was the “true” church.) So salvation entailed me joining their church (becoming a disciple) and committing to get others to join, too (making disciples). Offended, and at the same time thoroughly confused, I remember responding to them by quoting a text from Ephesians (2:8, 9) and calling them legalists; they were trying to earn their salvation through works.
This week’s reading makes me think that Bonhoeffer would have been horrified by the implications of my answer. (I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer either and to this day am trying to understand the relationship between the gospel of Jesus and Paul.) According to Bonhoeffer, “The word of cheap grace has ruined more Christians than any commandment about works” (55). However, I don’t think he would have sided with the well-meaning gentlemen that studied the Bible with me either. He would have called the entire underlying premise of our discussion into question — that Jesus is a means to some other end.
This makes Jesus instrumentally valuable to the goal that is be pursued, which then de facto becomes the higher good. We love Jesus because he gets us something else — health, wealth, and victory over our enemies, or more “spiritually” put, fulfillment, forgiveness, “salvation,” heaven, etc. Jesus becomes a stepping stone to the idol of our true worship.
This is why Bonhoeffer refuses to enter into a debate about how little or much of Jesus’ teachings one must obey to get some third thing. Jesus is not a tool to be used to achieve something else. Jesus is an/the end in himself. Thus, the call to be with Jesus, to be his disciple, is grace.2 Grace is not something we receive through Jesus, but the opportunity to be his student.
This gets us to another assumption Bonhoeffer undermines: the view that Jesus is a doctrine to be understood and that Christianity is mainly about thinking correctly about abstract propositions. “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer explains, “means grace as a doctrine, as principles, as system” (43). The problem with this is that an “idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness does not require discipleship. In truth, even excludes discipleship; it is inimical to it” (59). Costly grace, on the other hand, “calls to discipleship; it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ” (45).
This leads to the third assumption that Bonhoeffer overturns, regarding the relationship between faith and works. The way it is commonly explained, one first comes to faith, i.e. a proper response based on understanding of what God has accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross, which should lead to works, i.e. obedience to what God commands. While Bonhoeffer acknowledges that this is true — “only the believers obey” — he emphasizes the paradoxical inverse — “only the obedient believe” (63).
The way he see it, actions, i.e. “works,” can and must precede faith; obedience is what makes genuine faith possible — “Faith is possible only in this new state of existence created by obedience” (64); Jesus, as a person, calls us to a decision, rather than more understanding — “[W]e must venture to state that the step of obedience must be done first, before there can be faith” (66). Thinking can get in the way of acting, of following. Thinking becomes the excuse to doing, just leading to more and more debate. Bonhoeffer offers some pastoral advice to those struggling to have faith.
“You should not ask; you should act” (76).
Certain truths, it turns out, can only be grasped by obeying first (76).
This will strike many readers as being overly fideistic and rife to all kinds of abuse, and rightfully so. One thing I’ve learned from following the footnotes in this edition of the book is the significant influence Kierkegaard had on Bonhoeffer’s thinking. Kierkegaard is often misunderstood as advocating a thoroughgoing irrationalism when it comes to faith and certain statements taken alone from his books certainly lend themselves to this reading. But they need to be understood in the context of Kierkegaard’s grasp of some general truths about human nature — what potential becomes reality through action (a decision) and the truth of some things can only be known from certain vantage points. This is especially true when it comes to faith.
What does obedience to Christ’s call look like today? Kierkegaard’s influence is evident here as well. Commenting on a question posed to Jesus — “Who is my neighbor?” — Bonhoeffer paraphrases Jesus’ response: “You yourself are the neighbor. Go and be obedient in acts of love” (76).3
Zane Yi, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, where he teaches courses in philosophy and theology. He currently serves as the president of the Society of Adventist Philosophers.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4: Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2001), 53.
2. “They [followers of Jesus] recognize the call of discipleship itself as grace and grace as that call” (Ibid., 51).
3. See Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.