DISCIPLINE: The Cost Of Discipleship, Introduction, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
From The Cost of Discipleship
Revival of church life always brings in its train a richer understanding of the scriptures. Behind all the slogans and catchwords of ecclesiastical controversy, necessary though they are, there arises a more determined quest for him who is the sole object of it all, for Jesus Christ himself. What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today? How can he help us to be good Christians in the modern world? In the last resort, what we want to know is not, what would this or that man, or this or that church, have of us, but what Jesus Christ himself wants of us. When we go to church and listen to the sermon, what we want to hear is his Word – and that not merely for selfish reasons, but for the sake of the many for whom the church and her message are foreign. We have a strange feeling that if Jesus himself – Jesus alone with his Word – could come into our midst at sermon time, we should find quite a different set of men hearing the Word, and quite a different set rejecting it. That is not to deny that the Word of God is to be heard in the preaching which goes on in our church. The real trouble is that the pure Word of Jesus has been overlaid with so much human ballast – burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations – that it has become extremely difficult to make a genuine decision for Christ. Of course it is our aim to preach Christ and Christ alone, but, when all is said and done, it is not the fault of our critics that they find our preaching so hard to understand, so overburdened with ideas and expressions which are hopelessly out of touch with the mental climate in which they live. It is just not true that every word of criticism directed against contemporary preaching is a deliberate rejection of Christ and proceeds from the spirit of Antichrist. So many people come to church with a genuine desire to hear what we have to say, yet they are always going back home with the uncomfortable feeling that we are making it too difficult for them to come to Jesus. Are we determined to have nothing to do with all these people? They are convinced that it is not the Word of Jesus himself that puts them off, but the superstructure of human, institutional, and doctrinal elements in our preaching. Of course we know all the answers to these objections, and those answers certainly make it easy for us to slide out of our responsibilities. But perhaps it would be just as well to ask ourselves whether we do not in fact often act as obstacles to Jesus and his Word. Is it not possible that we cling too closely to our own favorite presentation of the gospel, and to a type of preaching which was all very well in its own time and place and for the social setup for which it was originally intended? Is there not after all an element of truth in the contention that our preaching is too dogmatic, and hopelessly irrelevant to life? Are we not constantly harping on certain ideas at the expense of others which are just as important? Does not our preaching contain too much of our own opinions and convictions, and too little of Jesus Christ? Jesus invites all those that labor and are heavy laden, and nothing could be so contrary to our best intentions, and so fatal to our proclamation, as to drive men away from him by forcing upon them man-made dogmas. If we did so, we should make the love of Jesus Christ a laughingstock to Christians and pagans alike. It is no use taking refuge in abstract discussion, or trying to make excuses, so let us get back to the scriptures, to the Word and call of Jesus Christ himself. Let us try to get away from the poverty and pettiness of our own little convictions and problems, and seek the wealth and splendor which are vouchsafed to us in Jesus Christ.
We propose to tell how Jesus calls us to be his disciples. But is not this to lay another and still heavier burden on men’s shoulders? Is this all we can do when the souls and bodies of men are groaning beneath the weight of so many man-made dogmas? If we recall men to the following of Jesus, shall we not be driving a still sharper goad into their already troubled and wounded consciences? Are we to follow the practice which has been all too common in the history of the church, and impose on men demands too grievous to bear, demands which have little to do with the centralities of the Christian faith, demands which may be a pious luxury for the few, but which the toiling masses, with their anxiety for their daily bread, their jobs, and their families, can only reject as utter blasphemy and a tempting of God? Is it the church’s concern to erect a spiritual tyranny over men, by dictating to them what must be believed and performed in order to be saved, and by presuming to enforce that belief and behavior with the sanctions of temporal and eternal punishment? Shall the word of the church bring new tyranny and oppression over the souls of men? It may well be that this is what many people want. But could the church consent to meet such a demand?
When the Bible speaks of following Jesus, it is proclaiming a discipleship which will liberate mankind from all man-made dogmas, from every burden and oppression, from every anxiety and torture which afflicts the conscience. If they follow Jesus, men escape from the hard yoke of their own laws, and submit to the kindly yoke of Jesus Christ. But does this mean that we ignore the seriousness of his commands? Far from it. We can only achieve perfect liberty and enjoy fellowship with Jesus when his command, his call to absolute discipleship, is appreciated in its entirety. Only the man who follows the command of Jesus single-mindedly, and unresistingly lets his yoke rest upon him, finds his burden easy, and under its gentle pressure receives the power to persevere in the right way. The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the yoke is easy, and the burden is light. “His commandments are not grievous,” (1John 5:3). The commandment of Jesus is not a sort of spiritual shock treatment. Jesus asks nothing of us without giving us the strength to perform it. His commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen, and heal it.
But one question still troubles us. What can the call to discipleship mean today for the worker, the businessman, the squire, and the soldier? Does it not lead to an intolerable dichotomy between our lives as workers in the world and our lives as Christians? If Christianity means following Christ, is it not a religion for a small minority, a spiritual elite? Does it not mean the repudiation of the great mass of society, and a hearty contempt for the weak and the poor? Yet surely such an attitude is the exact opposite of the gracious mercy of Jesus Christ, who came to the publicans and sinners, the weak and the poor, the erring and the hopeless. Are those who belong to Jesus only a few, or are they many? He died on the cross alone, abandoned by his disciples. With him were crucified, not two of his followers, but two murderers. But they all stood beneath the cross, enemies and believers, doubters and cowards, revilers and devoted followers. His prayer, in that hour, and his forgiveness, was meant for them all, and for all their sins. The mercy and love of God are at work even in the midst of his enemies. It is the same Jesus Christ, who of his grace calls us to follow him, and whose grace saves the murderer who mocks him on the cross in his last hour.
And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer this question we shall have to go to him, for only he knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy.
In the modern world it seems so difficult to walk with absolute certainty in the narrow way of ecclesiastical decision and yet remain in the broad open spaces of the universal love of Christ, of the patience, mercy and “philanthropy” of God, (Titus 3:4), for the weak and the ungodly. Yet somehow or other we must combine the two, or else we shall follow the paths of men. May God grant us joy as we strive earnestly to follow the way of discipleship. May we be enabled to say, “No,” to sin and, “Yes,” to the sinner. May we withstand our foes, and yet hold out to them the Word of the gospel which woos and wins the souls of men. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28 ff)
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