Discipleship for Today

Discipleship for Today

Guest Post by Peter Goodwin Heltzel

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic Discipleship continues to inspire my own walk of Christian discipleship. I am struck by Bonhoeffer’s total surrender to God and commitment to the Confessing Church movement, keeping the flames of prophetic Christianity alive in Nazi Germany. The Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin forged a theology of grace in critique of a works-based soteriology in late Medieval Catholicism. However, shortly after the Magisterial Reformation the Protestant movement degenerated into a theology of what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

Bonhoeffer writes: “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is a grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus.” (Discipleship, Vol. 4, BW, 44).

So cheap grace, for Bonhoeffer, is grace without a living and faithful walk with Jesus.  To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow Jesus, even unto death on a cross.  We need to live for something worth dying for–the Kingdom of God, God’s righteous reign of love and justice. Grace has got to cost us something, ultimately our life.

Bonhoeffer illustrates the reception of costly grace through the life of Peter the Disciple, who is always a great inspiration to me because I am his namesake. Bonhoeffer writes:

Twice the call went out to Peter: Follow me! It was Jesus’ first and last word to his disciple (Mark 1:17; John 21:22). His whole life lies between these two calls. The first time in response to Jesus’ call, Peter left his nets, his vocation, at the Sea of Galilee and followed him on his word. The last time, the Resurrected One finds him at his old vocation, again at the Sea of Galilee and again he calls: Follow me! Between the two lies a whole life of discipleship following Christ. At its center stands Peter’s confession three times: at the beginning, at the end, and in Caesarea Philippi, which summons him–Follow me! This same grace also reveals itself to him in his confessing the Son of God.

Grace visited Peter three times along his life’s path. It was the one grace, but proclaimed three different times. Thus, it was Christ’s own grace, and surely not grace which the disciple conferred on himself. It was the same grace of Christ which won Peter over to leave everything to follow him, which brought about Peter’s confession which had to seem like blasphemy to the world, and which called the unfaithful Peter into the ultimate community of martyrdom and, in doing so, forgave him all his sins. In Peter’s life, grace and discipleship belong inseparably together. He received costly grace.

(Discipleship, Vol. 4, BW, 46)

What we see illustrated in Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Peter’s life as a disciple is that “grace and discipleship belong inseparably together.” The two had been severed in late Medieval Catholicism, while Martin Luther recovered their inextricable link; however, even Lutheranism was not able to overcome this tendency to think of salvation as a human achievement. Frustrated with the Danish church of the 19th century Kierkegaard wrote: “If the established order wants to have a direct attack, well, here it is—…Luther rescued ‘discipleship, the imitation of Christ’ from a fantastic misunderstanding…” (Journals and Papers, 3:87). In the spirit of Luther and Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer called for an integrated walk of faith that brought grace and discipleship back together. Thus, he created the conditions in the early 20th century for the proclamation and embodiment of a costly grace and radical discipleship that we saw manifest in the Confessing Church Movement in Germany and the Civil Rights Movement in America, both are what Karl Barth called “Parables of the Kingdom of God.”

In our early 21st century moment, we are coming to terms with the massive economic inequalities that plague our world. Building on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, the faith-rooted movement for economic justice is growing globally. As we work together in this movement for a just, equitable and sustainable world, we need to heed the words of Bonhoeffer.

The walk of discipleship is a walk unto death. We follow in the footsteps of a Jewish prophet who was crucified on a Roman cross for his denunciation of the unjust powers and principalities of his day. As we continue this struggle to end injustice in our day, we need to remember that our prophetic actions are possible because of the grace of God.

The Epistle of John says “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). We love because Jesus loves us. We fight for justice because Jesus fought for justice. Our life is a miracle because God created us and continues to sustain us. Let’s make the most of the days that God has given us. Let’s walk in God’s grace, as we seek to be radical disciples of Jesus!

Reference: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).




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