The Cost of Discipleship is perhaps most well known for its distinction between cheap and costly grace. “Cheap grace,” for Bonhoeffer, is accepting the principle of grace as free forgiveness of sins without also following the person of Jesus.
“Cheap grace is a grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Costly grace, on the other hand, is centered on the person of Jesus Christ and it calls us to follow him in the way of the cross:
“ 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. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Bonhoeffer was worried that the Luther Church of his day had taught so thoroughly a doctrine of cheap grace – only concerning itself with hold a particular doctrine of atonement – that all calls to costly grace had been lost. He saw this as a problem not with Luther’s teachings, but with the perversion of them:
“Everywhere Luther’s formula has been repeated, but its truth perverted into self-deception… We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship.”
It is this idea of “true discipleship” and “costly grace” that Luther tries to recover in The Cost of Discipleship. Specifically, he aims to “recover a true understanding of the mutual relationship between grace and discipleship.”
So how can grace and discipleship be reconciled? Bonhoeffer seems to be arguing against a doctrine that pitted the two against each other. Discipleship, following Christ, was seen as legalism, as antithetical to grace. Bonhoeffer argues, on the other hand, that the two can and must be reconciled.
“Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship.”
In fact, the call to discipleship destroys legalism:
“When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. It transcends the difference between law and gospel. Christ calls, and the disciple follows: the grace and the commandment [to follow] are one.”
Later, Bonhoeffer connects all this to Sermon on the Mount. Much like Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God), he takes his cue for the life of discipleship from this famous passage. Disciples are those that attach themselves completely to the person of Christ. The call is costly, but it is also gracious.
“The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the toke is easy and the burden is light.”
I see the same challenges in our culture as Bonhoeffer did in his, though thankfully without the Nazi threat. We live in a country that is ready to accept grace in principle but not in the person of Christ. We are ready to accept the “justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.” We want forgiveness, but aren’t so ready for discipleship. I am learning from Bonhoeffer that these two are not exclusive ideas. Discipleship springs from grace.