Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 February 1906–9 April 1945)

The first thing that strikes you about the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the last thing that remains with you is probably this line: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Here is the part of the passage where this line can be found:

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death — we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship [New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995],89.)

It is a statement that sounds harsh and morbid, but it is no more than an exposition of passages like Mark 8:31–38. It is Jesus who tells us:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34–35 NIV)

I must have first read The Cost of Discipleship in my late teens. I grew up in a Christian home and I had a personal encounter with Christ when I was 14. I knew about the benefits of the faith: forgiveness of sins, a place in heaven, the presence of God in my life; and the responsibilities of the faith: supporting the life of the church, sharing the gospel with those who do not know Jesus and trying to obey God in all areas of life. But no one ever told me about the cost of discipleship. Until I encountered the writings of Bonhoeffer.

And while the call to die is disturbing it opens the way to true life. In his exposition on costly grace Bonhoeffer writes:

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. (The Cost of Discipleship, 45.)

We note that Jesus doesn’t call us to deny things but to deny self. We are to surrender the hubris of being boss of our own lives and to follow Jesus as our rightful Lord in the path of eternal and abundant life. It is to live a life where daily we say: “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36b) We know that it is all of grace from beginning to end but that mustn’t distract us from what it means to follow Jesus.

The best teachers are models of their own teaching. In 1939, Nazism had taken hold in Germany. As a leader in the Confessing Church, opposed to Nazism, his life would have been in great danger if he remained in Germany. He had offers to teach in prestigious seminaries in America. But he chose to return to Germany, a decision that would lean to his capture and execution. He said:

I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. (Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010], 321)

I am particularly impressed that he did not see his decision as a template for all. He said: “Such a decision each man must make for himself.”(Bonhoeffer, 321) After all, we are called to follow Christ not Bonhoeffer. Those of us who have made costly decisions to follow Christ must not sit in judgement of those who may not have, but we can and should continue to point them to Jesus and the Cross.

I am very grateful that I have mentors who have modelled for me this way of living, friends who at key moments of their lives have not done what they wanted but have sought the Lord as to what He wanted for their lives. They are clearly on the road with Jesus. And they show me the way.

What does it mean to carry the cross in your life today? What does it mean for me? What do we have to say no to so that we can say yes to Christ?