by Grace to Follow Jesus.
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
In times of church renewal Holy Scripture
naturally becomes richer in content for us.
Behind the daily catchwords and battle cries
needed in the Church Struggle, a more intense,
questioning search arises for the one who is our
sole concern, for Jesus himself. What did Jesus
want to say to us? What does he want from us
today? How does he help us to be faithful
Christians today? It is not ultimately important
to us what this or that church leader wants.
Rather, we want to know what Jesus wants. When
we go to hear a sermon, his own word is what we
want to hear. This matters to us not only for
our own sakes, but also for all those who have
become estranged from the church and its
We desire to speak of the call to follow Jesus.
In doing so, are we burdening people with a new,
heavier yoke? … In following Jesus, people are
released from the hard yoke of their own laws to
be under the gentle yoke of Jesus Christ. Does
this disparage the seriousness of Jesus’
commandments? No. Instead, only where Jesus’
entire commandment and the call to unlimited
discipleship remain intact are persons fully
free to enter into Jesus’ community.
Those who follow Jesus’ commandment entirely,
who let Jesus’ yoke rest on them without
resistance, will find the burdens they must bear
to be light. In the gentle pressure of this yoke
they will receive the strength to walk the right
path without becoming weary. Jesus’ commandment
is harsh, inhumanly harsh for someone who
resists it. Jesus’ commandment is gentle and not
difficult for someone who willingly accepts it.
“His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John
5:3). Jesus’ commandment has nothing to do with
forced spiritual cures. Jesus demands nothing
from us without giving us the strength to
comply. Jesus’ commandment never wishes to
destroy life, but rather to preserve,
strengthen, and heal life...
Jesus died on the cross alone, abandoned by his
disciples. It was not two of his faithful
followers who hung beside him, but two
murderers. But they all stood beneath the cross:
enemies and the faithful, doubters and the
fearful, the scornful and the converted, and all
of them and their sin were included in this hour
in Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness. God’s merciful
love lives in the midst of its foes [Psalm 110].
It is the same Jesus Christ who by grace calls
us to follow him and whose grace saves the thief
on the cross in his last hour [Luke 23:32ff].
Where will the call to discipleship lead those
who follow it? What decisions and painful
separations will it entail? We must take this
question to him who alone knows the answer. Only
Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows
where the path will lead. But we know that it
will be a path full of mercy beyond measure.
Discipleship is joy.
Today it seems so difficult to walk with
certainty the narrow path… and yet to remain
wide open to Christ’s love for all people, and
in God’s patience, mercy, and loving-kindness
(Titus 3:4) for the weak and godless. Still,
both must remain together, or else we will
follow merely human paths. May God grant us joy
in all seriousness of discipleship, affirmation
of the sinners in all rejection of sin, and the
overpowering and winning word of the gospel in
all defense against our enemies.
See related articles:
Excerpt from the Introduction to
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, originally published in
German by Christian Kaiser Verlag in 1937.
Original, abridged English-language edition
of Nachfolge (Discipleship)
published in 1949 as The Cost of
Discipleship by SCM Press Ltd.,
London, and the Macmillan Company, New York.
Revised, unabridged edition of The Cost
of Discipleship published in 1959 by
SCM Press Ltd., London, and the Macmillan
Company, New York. New English-language
translation of Nachfolge (Discipleship)
with new supplementary
material first published in 2001 by Fortress
Press, Minneapolis, as part of Dietrich
Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4. English
translation by Barbara Green and Reinhard
(1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and
a founding member of the Confessing Church.
He was the first of the German theologians
to speak out clearly against the persecution
of the Jews and the evils of the Nazi
ideology. In spring of 1935 Dietrich
Bonhoeffer was called by the Confessing
Church in Germany to take charge of an
“illegal,” underground seminary at
Finkenwalde, Germany (now Poland). He served
as pastor, administrator, and teacher there
until the seminary was closed down by
Hitler's Gestapo in September,1937.
In the seminary at
Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer taught the importance
of shared life together as disciples of
Christ. He was convinced that the renewal of
the church would depend upon recovering the
biblical understanding of the communal
practices of Christian obedience and shared
life. This is where true formation of
discipleship could best flourish and mature.
Bonhoeffer’s teaching led
to the formation of a community house for
the seminarians to help them enter into and
learn the practical disciplines of the
Christian faith in community. In 1937
Bonhoeffer completed two books, Life
Together and The Cost of
Discipleship. They were first
published in German in 1939. Both books
encompass Bonhoeffer’s theological
understanding of what it means to live as a
Christian community in the Body of Christ.
He was arrested and
imprisoned by the Gestapo in April 1943. On
April 8, 1945 he was hanged as a traitor in
the Flossenburg concentration camp. As he
left his cell on his way to execution he
said to his companion, "This is the end –
but for me, the beginning of life."
photo of Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of
Tegel prison, summer 1944; source:
Christian Kaiser Verlag