Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed for his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler, is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of modern time.
But theologians are often lengthy, esoteric, and complex … not always the easiest to understand. What follows are eight quotes from Bonhoeffer’s “Introduction” to his 1937 classic The Cost of Discipleship.
Is the Christian church misrepresenting Christ? Are we keeping people from being able to understand God’s truth?
- Bonhoeffer on Christian buzzwords and church language:
“Behind all the slogans and catchwords [of the church], there arises a more determined quest for him who is the sold object of it all: Jesus Christ himself. What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today?”
2. Our human interpretation often clouds the true word of Christ…
“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.”
3. … and our opinions and ideas get in the way.
“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 … Does not our preaching contain too much of our own opinions and convictions, and too little of Jesus Christ?”
Christianity is not blameless. Throughout history, Christians have used religion as a way to assert control and have caused great harm.
4. In the history of Christianity, the church has required extreme things of Christians: actions which Bonhoeffer saw as not actually the central actions required for a life devoted to God.
“Are we to … impose on men demands too grievous to bear, demands which have little to do with the centralities of the Christian faith? … 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?”
Bonhoeffer calls for freedom from human misunderstanding of Christianity, but it’s not a freedom to live our lives selfishly. We still must live for Christ, not for what we want.
5. Following God isn’t about what we think is best for us, individually. It’s about follow what God says is best for our world as a whole.
“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 … If they follow Jesus, men escape the hard yoke of their own laws, and submit to the kindly yoke of Jesus.”
6. In giving up our desires to follow Christ’s, we’re given tools and encouragement along the way.
“Only the person 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.”
7. When we follow Jesus, we don’t know where we’re headed.
“If we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions will it demand? To answer the question, we have to go to [Jesus], 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.”
8. Follow God’s direction and still deeply love the people of our world.
“In the modern world, it seems so difficult to walk with absolute certainty in the narrow way of [church] decision and yet remain in the broad open spaces of the universal love of Christ, of the patience, mercy and “philanthropy” of God … yet somehow or other we must combine the two, or else we shall follow the paths of men. May God grand us joy and we strive earnestly to follow the way of discipleship.
May we be enabled to say “no” to the sin and “yes” to the sinner. May we withstand our foes, yet hold out to them the Word of the gospel which woos and wins the souls of men.
‘Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly in heart. You will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ Matthew 11:28,”
In short: Our church culture, and our perception of God, isn’t fully in line with how God really is … or what a life devoted to Jesus actually entails.
So how do we tell what is Jesus, and what is human misunderstanding? This is what Bonhoeffer will unpack in the rest of The Cost of Discipleship.