A Crisis of Discipleship

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published a book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1] At the very beginning, Bonhoeffer stated his thesis in a way that was prophetic as to his own life and as the the course of 20th Century discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he says, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] dbprisonBonhoeffer went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace which Christ speaks of when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Bonhoeffer took up his own cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the war.

Bonhoeffer’s book has become famous. Like many famous books, it often spoken of, a few of its most famous quotes find their way into sermons and religious books, but Cost of Discipleship is seldom read and even more seldom followed. Part of the problem is that the book was written in German, and German is a hard language to translate into English, especially for the modern reader that prefers short sentences and simple words. The book is not easy to read or digest. Part of the problem is its message and the message of Bonhoeffer’s life. imgres-1In a culture addicted to “Cheap Grace” easy religion, Cost of Discipleship is very hard to read. An honest reader stands condemned in almost every word. This summer, I read the entire book again and found it as difficult and challenging as when I first read it in college more years ago than I like to admit.

If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and “cheap grace” was a problem for the church, the problem is exponentially greater today in the Post-Modern, Western world. Today, the church faces a crisis of discipleship which would have been unimaginable to Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer lived at the end of an era. In Europe, Christendom was fading, but not dead. Today, we live in a truly post-Christian world. Both Europe and America are deeply troubled. We call the culture “Postmodern” because we know what scholars call “Enlightenment Modernity” is over. However, what we experience in the West today is the dying remnants of an age that has come to a the end of its capacity to give meaning and purpose to life.

This is not the first time the West has been at such a point. When St. Augustine wrote “City of God” the ancient world had come to the end of its capacity to give meaning and purpose to life. Rome was decaying. In fact, as the old Augustine wrote City of God, the barbarians were sacking Rome. Augustine did not save Rome. He laid the foundations of the renewal of Western Culture. Men and women built on those foundations a society of great wisdom, beauty, and power.

The radical individualism of Western Culture has created a culture in which everyone and anyone decides for him or herself what they will believe and not believe. [3] In such a culture, it is not surprising that a good many people deny by word or deed those parts of the Gospel which they find difficult to obey or hard to understand. The tremendous growth of media ministries has not helped the problem. When there is a lot of money to be made watering down the Gospel, it is not surprising that some people do. Further, it is in the nature of discipleship that it cannot be accomplished sitting on a couch listening to a televangelist. One must get up and follow Jesus.

Jesus gave the Church a commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, emphasis added). Making disciples is God’s supreme goal Christ has set for his believers and for his church. Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, going to where people are, helping them enter the fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them live a life pleasing to God. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers. It is for every Christian. We are all called to be disciples and go and make disciples.

Every so often something happens that reenforces the point that we live in a dark time. imgresThis week began with my being confronted with the darkness that infects and harms so many lives. We live in a time in which our nation is experiencing a kind of moral, intellectual, and practical darkness unlike anything we have ever experienced. I began this blog a while ago to celebrate the belief that in following the God of Light and Love we find wisdom for living and a community of love and grace within which to grow in the likeness of God. However, what may be said in a blog touches only a few. The darkness will lift if and when innumerable unnamed and unheralded Christians live lives of simple wisdom and love, shining like a light into the gathering darkness.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

[2] Id, at 45.

[3] See, Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979).

One thought on “A Crisis of Discipleship”

  1. Our current Bible Study mirrors what you say. Currently we are in the first Chapter of Romans. We are getting the unadulterated Paul sermon about the sin and evil purposes of humankind. He lets us have it in his first pages. Then ch.2 further expounds on it as well. Then We are introduced to how God feels about that too. We are reminded of Zephaniah 1: 6 those who turn back from following the LORD and neither seek the LORD nor inquire of him.” 7 Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near. The LORD has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated those he has invited.
    15 That day will be a day of wrath– a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness–16 a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. 17 “I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the LORD. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung. 18 Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath.” In the fire of his jealousy the whole earth will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.
    We are headed in that direction as fast as time permits. I believe it is our leadership that is failing. Starting with the family unit which is breaking down, because there is no Godly leadership there. Then in our school systems which are failing to teach Godly principles and even banning the study of Christianity. Then for the past 50 years or so our colleges and universities have encouraged radical liberalism and anti christian principled learning, by supporting subversive professors who now incidentally have tenure, a lifetime job of it. Then it spreads into the leadership of individual communities, cities and towns, then into the political structure of the whole country. And it is now at the very top. Anti Christian leadership. And those who do believe are considered naive and ignorant, a backward minority who need a crutch of some sort. And who cannot function in a progressive liberal society. And I finish with a quote taken from your blog. The darkness will lift if and when innumerable unnamed and unheralded Christians live lives of simple wisdom and love, shining like a light into the gathering darkness. My prayer is that what you say will take place as fast as God will permit it.

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