27 March 2012

Free Is Not Cheap

The ovens of Buchenwald | © Chris Donato
WHEN JESUS PREDICTED his death to the disciples (Matt 16:21), it surprised them. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to die—especially at the hands of the pagan Roman empire. In another sense, however, it wasn’t all that surprising.

Prophets like Jesus, Jeremiah, or John the Baptist often met with less than happy endings. In this case, it’s equally surprising that he pushed on toward Jerusalem. But such was the cost of discipleship.

Jesus understood well that his messianic work of establishing God’s kingdom entailed more than preaching and eating with unclean sinners. It included suffering and death, and, of course, vindication through resurrection. Upon these final acts, the whole battle hinged. If the creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would have the effects of his kingdom bear on earth as they do in heaven, then his Messiah would have to shoulder the battle that would eventually end all battles.

Jesus therefore easily makes the connection from his suffering to ours, not because ours redeems anyone but because he was fulfilling God’s plans through the cross, which began in the garden; thus we too must go his way. That is, if we want to belong to the new covenant community in this time when the Evil One continues to wage war, then we also must say no to our selfish desires, pick up our crosses, and follow him.

This call so captured a young Lutheran pastor during the rise of the Nazi regime that he wrote in 1937 what is now the classic Cost of Discipleship. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like so many with a prophetic voice before and after him, paid the ultimate price for refusing to consider his Christianity, his following of Christ, as nothing less (but certainly more) than active protest against injustices—an undeniable facet of bringing God’s will to bear on earth. Jesus knew such sacrifice all too well (and his disciples would also learn this soon). He didn’t doubt for a second that the likes of Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate, and Caesar would cut him down the first chance they got. His message challenged their little kingdoms by undermining their pathetic attempts to grasp for the kind of power that sets itself up against the throne of God.

Hitler’s Germany posed a threat to the world and a challenge to the Christian church. History sadly records how badly the established church in Germany did in facing that challenge. After the Reformation, Bonhoeffer argued, the church again cheapened the preaching of the forgiveness of sins, and this has seriously weakened her witness: “The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the Word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. . . . But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.” Thus the collective consciousness of the country went on with business as usual, baking their bread, selling their goods, with a prison camp like Flossenbürg just a few miles outside of town.

It was in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, incidentally, that Bonhoeffer met his untimely death in April 1945, just as the American forces were approaching. The account is gruesome. Suffice to say it was slow and painful. Thus Bonhoeffer understood well the difference between what he called costly grace and cheap grace: “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.” Or, to put it even more clearly, it is to hear the gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” If the gospel made no such demands for discipleship, then Bonhoeffer could and should have happily joined the ranks of the organized church in Germany. And we too can happily join the church in America at those precise points where it baptizes the injustices of its culture.

Nazi Germany, however, is an easy target. Wading through the subtleties of idolatry and calling them out in America is another matter. Where do we begin? How do we avoid both extremes of baptizing anti-Christian culture or withdrawing to the point of quiet inaction? The cost of discipleship in these United States doesn’t seem all that costly. Or have we missed what it means to be a disciple? Consider again Jesus’ warning to us: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Matt 16:25). What good will it do for us to accumulate bigger, better, and more things and yet lose our lives?

{Part of this originally appeared in Tabletalk 32.7 (July 2008): 28–29}


Anonymous said...

Thank you for these reflections. As I prepare to preach on Palm Sunday I have been thinking about Bonhoeffer as well. And you so rightly convict us of our tendency to praise Bonhoeffer and condemn Nazi Germany while ignoring the idolatry and evil of America. Where is the relationship of disciple and discipline and what are the details of faithfulness here and today. I fear that the individualized proclamation of faith rather than an understanding of living a life of faithfulness in the world on earth (on earth as it is heaven) is a religious trap we must find our way out of.

Chris Donato said...


Thanks much for taking the time to read and for your kind feedback.

I simultaneously envy and do not envy the responsibility of the regular preacher. What a burden! Yet what a joy!

I trust (and pray) the Spirit will proclaim the Word through you in the exact manner God's people need.

Dawne said...


Just found your blog in a roundabout way through Frank Viola's blog!

I'm enjoying engaging with your thoughts and think your question here is so important:

"The cost of discipleship in these United States doesn’t seem all that costly. Or have we missed what it means to be a disciple?"

I've been asking myself the same thing for awhile and think a big piece of it has to do with the American idolatry of individualism. God mission is to create a people for Himself, not save a bunch of individuals. But, boy, it is hard to think about giving up autonomy in order to live into God's Kingdom with one another! I would really have to lose my way of life. Not only that, it may only confirm to my family (including my husband) that I have truly jumped off the deep end!

It takes courage to live counter-culturally, especially when it involves living counter to much of church culture, as well. Thanks for giving me encouragement and more food for thought.


Chris Donato said...

Dawne—thanks again for stopping by and for your encouraging words.

I think you've put your finger on the biggest challenge every generation of Christians faces: ". . . it is hard to think about giving up autonomy in order to live into God's Kingdom with one another . . .."

We're good at the telling part of that equation; it's the showing part that appears so painfully elusive.

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha