Mentored by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship

When I was a freshman in college, I was accosted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not in person, of course, but by his challenging and convicting book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who conspired against Hitler during World War II and was executed for treason—paying the ultimate price of the cost of discipleship.

As I read page after page of the book, I was struck by his poignant words again and again. Going over my old copy, which I still have, I rediscovered I had underlined a half page there, a quarter page here, three-quarters page there. So much was standing out to me. Here are just a few of the words that spoke so strongly to my heart:

  • “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.”
  • “When Christ calls a man He bids him to come and die.”
  • “Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for His sake.”
  • “Only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.”
  • “The call of Jesus teaches us that our relationship to the world is built on an illusion.”

Not a popular message today with the “ME” generation. But they were transforming to me, infusing into me the passion to be a serious life-long disciple of Jesus Christ, not content just to be a believer with “cheap grace” as Bonhoeffer put it, but to be a disciple, a real disciple—and the passion to be a real disciple-maker. 

Bonhoeffer’s book also brought me to the point of realizing I could not live that life of discipleship in my own efforts; I needed the power of the Holy Spirit. I experienced what in holiness terms is called “the crisis of the deeper life.” Out of the overflow of the Asbury College revival of 1970, I experienced the sanctifying baptism in the Spirit, the power to be a witness (Acts 1:5, 8).

After my sophomore year, I dropped out of college to join the staff of Young Life, taking a step in the cost of discipleship to live by faith. For me, sometimes that meant eating only bologna between two pieces of bread without ketchup, or not eating at all. I learned to fast anywhere from one day to a week, not always for lack of food, but to engage the discipline of fasting, as I discovered that you can be disciplined without being a disciple, but you cannot be a disciple without discipline

Then also the cost of my discipleship meant for me that if Jesus could be born in a stable, I could live in a stable—I actually lived in the tack room of a stable for a year (I did have running water, a shower, and deodorizers). 

When on the staff of Young Life, I was engaged in youth evangelism. We saw dozens of teens profess faith in Christ, but I watched half of them drop out in their faith. Then I realized I needed to focus, not on merely on conversion or decisions for Christ, but on discipleship. I read John 8:31 with new eyes: 

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly My disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I saw in this passage that not all who believe are disciples, only those who continue to abide in The Word are real disciples—costly grace, not cheap grace. And only those who continue to abide in the Word of God know the truth and the truth sets us free. We may be a believer but not know the truth and therefore not be free.  So I turned the direction of my ministry to discipleship—getting people into the Word and getting the Word into people—and that has been my focus ever since.

Getting people into the Word is hard enough; getting the Word into people is much tougher. The call to come and die to ourselves in order to experience Christ’s resurrection life is not a popular one. Self-help books don’t say much about that. After all, self-help books are meant to help self, not die to self. But Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship has endured the test of time. Enough people have had the courage to read the book to keep it in print. Enough people have realized that the cost of discipleship is worth it.

I guess Bonhoeffer has rubbed off on my son Chris as well. He researched his Ph.D. dissertation on an aspect of Bonhoeffer’s theology. He has become somewhat of a Bonhoeffer scholar, invited to participate in Bonhoeffer scholar conferences in Basel, Switzerland; Berlin, Germany (and visited Bonhoeffer’s home and office); and Capetown, South Africa. But he too has been mentored in the cost of discipleship—a story for another day.

We both want to carry to the next generations the message that the cost of discipleship is worth it—come and die so you can experience the resurrection life of Jesus Christ.


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