The Crisis of Discipleship 1

 

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1]The thesis of the book was prophetic for his life and for the course of 20thCentury discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he said, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] He went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace 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). Cheap grace is the offer of forgiveness of sins in a way that costs a believer nothing and requires no faithful response. During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Bonhoeffer took up his cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the Second World War. [3]

After the war, Bonhoeffer’s book became famous. Like many famous books, Cost of Discipleshipis often mentioned, a few quotes find their way into blogs, sermons and religious books (like this one), but Cost of Discipleshipis seldom read outside of college and seminary classes, and even more seldom internalized. Part of the problem is that the book was originally written in German, and German is a difficult language to translate into English, especially for readers who prefer short sentences and simple language.  Part of the problems is that Bonhoeffer was not a popular writer even in his own day. He was an academic, and his writing shows the influence of an academic mind. The book is simply not easy for modern people to read, fully understand, or digest.

The problem of Cheap Grace and its consequences for a church that dispenses it, is the message of The Cost of Discipleshipand of Bonhoeffer’s life. Here is how he describes “Cheap Grace”:

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. [4]

When a church, denomination, or other Christian group dispenses Cheap Grace, it dispenses God’s promise of forgiveness and new life like soda from a fountain at a child’s birthday party or beer from a keg at a fraternity party. Discipleship characterized by cheap grace makes a mockery of what God was doing in Israel’s history, what Christ did on the cross, and how committed disciples live out the Christian life all over the world, sometimes in danger and persecution. Unfortunately, in one form or another, the gospel of Cheap Grace is too frequently the gospel of Western religious groups. [5]

Real grace is “Costly Grace.” Bonhoeffer characterized costly grace as like the Pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in one of his parables (Matthew 13:44-46):

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell 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. [6]

As the saying goes, “Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.” The one who confesses his or her sins to God, who repents (turns away from sin in the heart), who turns to God with everything he or she is and possesses, who takes up his or her cross in obedience to Christ and his teachings, and who lives a holy life in response to what God has done, is a person who has experienced true grace. True grace does not leave us as we are. True grace changes everything. The response of a human encounter with real, true grace, is a transformed life.

If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and cheap grace was a problem for Christianity, the problem is exponentially greater today in the increasingly “postmodern,” Western church. Western churches, and especially American churches, are addicted to cheap grace. In church after church, in sermon after sermon, in Bible study after Bible study, God’s love, forgiveness of sins, and redemption in Christ is preached without preaching God’s judgement on sin and the new life into which disciples are called by Christ. Building strong disciples is impossible if difficult passages and problems in Scripture are ignored or explained away. [7]The result is a weak, declining, and impotent Christianity.

I have been a disciple of Christ for over forty years. There is no question but what the condition of American Christianity is worse today than at any time during my lifetime. Tremendous cultural changes have deeply impacted American Christianity for the worse. Even unhealthier is the American propensity to value size and external and economic success, which has accelerated the development of a shallow form of Christian faith. The result is a crisis of discipleship.

The Command to Make Disciples

Jesus’ last act was to commission his disciples, saying: “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). The Great Commission was his last word and directive to his disciples then and now to carry out God’s program of salvation and new life that Jesus began during his earthly pilgrimage Making disciples is the supreme goal Christ set for believers and for the church. It is the reason for the existence of the Church.

Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, having a heart for people, going to where people are, helping them enter the life-transforming fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them respond to God’s grace by live a God pleasing life. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers to do while everyone else watches and applauds. True discipleship is for every Christian.

The Greek word we translate “disciple” refers to one who learns from another person. As Christians, we learn about God and wise living from the Bible, from our personal relationship with God in Christ, from teachers and mentors, and by observing our fellow Christians day-by-day. Christian discipleship is not just about learning information. Jesus Christ is the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In other words, the key to abundant living is not an idea, but a person and relationship with that person in which we become transformed into the likeness of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In order to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Christ, we must become imitators and obedient children of Christ. As the New Testament so often puts it, we Christ must dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16).

Because being a disciple involves a relationship with a person, we must believe in that person and spend time in fellowship with that person. Being a disciple is like being a professional athlete or a physicist. A person who admires professional athletes or physicists, but who never enters into a relationship of learning and emulation with one, is not a disciple. At most, such a person is a fan or an interested onlooker. Disciples observe, emulate and become like the one they are learning from and into whose image they are being conformed (Romans 8:29).

Christians do our best, and live wisely, when we emulate the Lord Jesus Christ, allowing his divine life to permeate our entire personality. It is not enough to proclaim that we believe in Christ or to bring people to declare their intellectual belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and died for their sins. To be a disciple is to follow Christ, become more like Christ daily, and help others become more like Christ. Christians today must be willing and able to help other people live with the same integrity and self-giving love that characterized Jesus when he ministered to his disciples and the people of Israel. This means we incorporate into our lives the same divine wisdom and steadfast love that characterized Jesus of Nazareth. It even means that we are willing to suffer for the gospel as Christ suffered for the human race. This is the result of costly grace.

The modern world, from which we are now emerging, was characterized by an abstract understanding of knowledge. The world and God were objects to be studied and mastered not things and persons to be loved and cherished. In such a world, knowledge is measured by tests and one’s ability to answer questions, write essays, and regurgitate information. The object of such knowledge is mastery of a subject and increasing control over reality. To the modern mind-set, any kind of knowledge that was not “scientific” or “objective” was not really knowledge at all.

Wisdom is different. To be wise, one must know some information. More importantly, one must apply and embody that information in everyday life. The earliest name for Christians was “people of the Way” (Acts 19:23, 24:22) To be a way is to be a path, road, highway, or boulevard that must be traveled on. Christian faith is a way of life. Discipleship is a life-style, a way of life, a path of wisdom, a road that leads to life, a highway to a better relationship with God, a boulevard to holiness, an embodied knowledge of God. [8]The test of whether we are good or bad disciples is found in how we live and what kind of people we are in the depths of our being.

The Community of Jesus

Jesus did not just preach, teach, and do signs and wonders. Jesus brought people to himself and spent his earthly ministry in a small group of people he was actively discipling.Other religious figures have written books. Jesus did not. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.” [9]Christ chose twelve ordinary people and lived in relationship with them for his entire earthly ministry. He also lived in close fellowship with a larger group of men and women with whom he shared his life and teachings (Luke 8:1-3; 10:1; 14:25). Their memories of him are contained in our Gospels. It was their memories of Jesus, and their time together in a discipling relationship, that propelled them to carry the Good News of his life, death and resurrection on a continuing journey to the ends of the earth as they understood it.

Jesus promised that, “where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20). If people are to meet Jesus, a group of people (disciples) must introduce potential disciples to him in a community in which Christ is present by the Holy Spirit.  If new Christians are to understand what it is like to be a Christian, they need to be mentored by people who are further along on the path of discipleship. People need to see what it means to be a Christian lived out in the day-to-day lives of other disciples. This involves being part of a fellowship that spends time in fellowship with one another and with God in Christ. It is so important for new believers to become part of a group of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Those who try to follow Christ alone, without belonging to his fellowship, and without accountability for their life of discipleship, almost inevitably fall short or fail. Those who belong to a fellowship of believers have a better chance of succeeding in the Christian life.

The way the early church grew was by reproducing in community and in individual lives who Jesus was and what Jesus had done while he was with his disciples. The book of Acts is the story of how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples lived as Jesus lived, did the kinds of things Jesus had done, and faced the same opposition and suffering Jesus faced. [10]

This is important. The best and most authentic way for the Kingdom of God to grow in is by ordinary men and women bringing people to Christ, calling people into authentic community, growing in discipleship together, training new believers “to obey all Christ commanded,” and continually reproducing this process through generations of people. The reason for the crisis of discipleship we face is that most believers either never know or have largely forgotten how to do the task of making disciples.

The Commission to Make Disciples

According to Matthew, when Jesus ascended into heaven he left his disciples with a job to do and marching orders to do that job. Matthew ends his gospel with an important commission for his disciples (and for us):

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 28:18-20).

Jesus did not say, “Go have huge worship services with big organs or praise bands.” Jesus did not say, “Go build large buildings in which many people can come for one hour a week.” Jesus did not say, “Go build impressive institutions to continue your way of thinking about God.” Jesus did not say, “Have wonderful programs for children and youth.” Jesus did not say, “Have a program for every sort of person in your community. Jesus did not say, “Support that party or social agenda that you believe most compatible with Christian faith.” He said, “Go make disciples.”

If there is a crisis in the church today, it is a crisis of discipleship. The church has been too concerned with worship services, programming, numbers, money, institutional maintenance, sustaining the American way of life, creating a moral majority, reforming government, and the like. Christians have not been concerned enough at what sits at the center of what we have been asked to do: Make Disciples. If the Christian community is to exit its current decline, it will not be because of large worship experiences, crossless sanctuaries, focus on technique, programs, consultants, fund-raising, or new and greater institutional capacity. It will be because ordinary Christians have rediscovered what it means to make disciples.

I do not watch much football. However, I have noticed that, when a team gets in trouble, the coach often tells reporters, “We are going to concentrate on the basics.” The church in the West is in trouble. If the church is to survive into the emerging postmodern world, Christians must, like a football team, turn our attention back to the fundamentals. We must concentrate on the ‘blocking and tackling” of the Christian faith, and the blocking and tackling of Christian faith is disciple-making. To recover from the current crisis, we must be about being and making disciples.

The slow process of one-by-one disciple-making will not immediately seem the most successful or swift solution to the problems our churches and society face. However, in the end, it will be shown to have been the best and only solution to the current decline of faith and practice in the West. As with all real change, it will begin slowly and silently, but in the end will be shown to be fruitful, not primarily for the institutions of Christianity, but for the changed lives and vibrant faith of Christians.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of DiscipleshipRev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963). The book was originally published in 1937. Bonhoeffer wrote the book while a pastor in Spain after graduating from graduate school. In German, interestingly for the theme of this book, the title is literally, “The Act of Fallowing.” The theme of this book is that true Christian discipleship is following Jesus Christ, and the Great Commission of the church is to create followers of Jesus.

[2]Id, at 45.

[3]Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945 by order of Adolph Hitler, one of his last acts before his own suicide and death on April 30, 1945. By the time of his death, Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned since April 5, 1943, or just over two years.

[4]Id, at 47.

[5]Western popular Christianity, liberal and conservative, is addicted to just the kind of cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer warned.  Modern evangelicalism, in particular, has fallen victim to a popularization of Christian faith that focus on grace to the detriment of emphasis on the response to grace in faithful living.  Cheap Grace is everywhere the forerunner of a watered-down form of Christianity in which Christians, like the Corinthians of old, cannot tolerate the meat of the gospel, being addicted to the milk of salvation by grace alone (1 Cor. 3:2). One reason for this book is to encourage local fellowships of Christians in America and the West to begin to seriously build small groups of committed discipleships within their fellowships.

[6]Cost of Discipleship, at 47.

[7]A recent comment by a well-known mega-Church pastor is but an example. Since the time of the early heretic Marcion (85-160 A.D.), the church as always recognized the continuity and validity of the Old and New Testaments for Christian faith and practice. The difficulties are not new; they are as old as the Christian faith. It is easier to unhitch ourselves from the old testament than to learn to understand the way in which Christian faith emerged from First Century Judaism, incorporated the Torah into its emerging Scriptures, and to understand the depth of the inheritance Christianity has from the Jewish Scriptures. This is not said to enter into a debate with this or any other pastor, but to give a concrete example of the temptation to avoid the hard work of discipleship. See, Steve Warren, “Christians need to Unhitch the Old Testament from their Faith: Andy Stanley’s Sermon Draws a Backlash” CBS News.Com May 11, 2018, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2018/may/christians-need-to-unhitch-the-old-testament-from-their-faith-andy-stanleys-sermon-draws-social-media-backlash( Downloaded July 23, 2019)

[8]This embodied knowledge of God is what the Orthodox Church refers to as “theosis,” or becoming like God. If Christ is the image of God (Colossians 1:5), then in the process of discipleship disciples become like God by becoming like Christ.

[9]Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans, 1989), 95, 227.

[10]The Book of Acts consciously or unconsciously shows the apostles recapitulating in their lives the same mighty deeds, messages of power, and persecution and rejection that Jesus experienced in his life.

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