This is the twelfth part of a series I’m calling Blogmatics. It’s an attempt on my part to lay out as best I can in as brief a manner as I can all the theological assumptions behind my blog posts.
As is true for so many others, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has had a profound influence on my understanding of the Christian faith.
However, it was not his attempt to take the life of Hitler that I find so inspiring, but rather his decision to give his life to others by embodying a defiant counterwitness of self-sacrifice in opposition to the oppressive and explotative self-centered dogma of the Nazis that has shaped my faith
As Germany teetered on the brink of war, it became clear that Bonhoeffer and anyone else in Germany who opposed the Nazi regime was in great danger. So, at the urging of his fellow pastors, Bonhoeffer fled to the safety of the United States just months before Hitler invaded Poland and sparked the second World War. However, not long after arriving on American shores he realized he had made a grave mistake in abandoning his homeland and leaving his people behind in Germany.
Writing to his friend Reinhold Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer confessed,
“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
I have to imagine that Bonhoeffer’s conviction came not only from his Christian faith, but from words he himself had written just two years earlier, words that inform my faith more than anything outside the Bible. In a passage that will haunt my soul for the rest of my life, Bonhoeffer eloquently summed up The Cost of Discipleship,
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing…
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood more than most that God’s grace is freely given, but once it has been given it demands a response.
Like Bonhoeffer, I am not interested in a Christian faith that makes no demands on my life, that leaves me the same way I was when I came to the foot of the cross, that does nothing more than put a stamp of approval on my imperfection and ordain my self-centered way of life.
I’m not interested in a bastardized almost Christianity that is nothing more than moralistic therapeutic deism. I’m not interested in a God who never convicts or holds me accountable or a Jesus who’s nothing more than a buddy to exploit at my leisure or a faith full of participation trophies for half-hearted trying, constant talk about me, warm fuzzy feelings, and never-ending pats on the back to tell me how special I am.
I believe that sort of faith is inherently self-centered and utterly incapable of transforming a broken world, let alone a broken me.
I want a cross centered faith, a faith that makes demands of me each and every day to die to self in increasingly more radical ways. I want a faith that is fundamentally not about me, a faith that drags me kicking and screaming out of my comfort zone and to the feet of a stranger in need. I want a faith that tells me how to live, a faith that takes who I am and transforms me into who I need to be.
I want a faith that looks like Christ is still living and incarnate and walking the earth again through me.
I want to be a slave to Christ.
Not his equal.
As Bonhoeffer said, when Christ calls us he bides us come and die. If the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus does not demand a change in those of us who claim to be his followers, then baptism is nothing more than meaningless dip in the pool, the eucharist just a cheap snack, and the cross itself a tragic joke.
To live lives that are indistinguishable from those around us and yet still claim the name Christian is to make a mockery of the one who’s life was so radically other that it forever changed the course of human history.
Christianity is an incarnational faith.
If we are not embodying the life of Christ to and for the world – a life of love, grace, self-denial, self-sacrifice, healing, and restoration – then we have no right to claim the name Christian.
To be sure, this sort of life is not easy and to pursue it with the reckless abandon it demands will cost us everything. But in giving up everything we have, we will find everything we need.
God’s grace is free, but it is not cheap. And what has cost God much, cannot be cheap for us. So then, if we are going to call ourselves followers of Christ, we must pay the cost of discipleship.
We must live disciplined, cruciformed lives of obedient self-denial, humbling self-sacrifice, and radical love for others.
Otherwise, we need to stop calling ourselves his disciples.
Grace and peace,