When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship I doubt that he realized that he would actually live out what he wrote. He had profound insight and foresight into what true discipleship actually meant. He was personally and theologically ready to pay the price for obedience to Christ and that was required of him. Perhaps no theologian has so faithfully lived out the premises of a theology of suffering, persecution, and martyrdom as did Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer’s clear and profound theological thinking not only allowed him to understand what true discipleship meant but also to assess what was going on in his culture (the rise of Nazi religion), and to appropriately respond to it. This is theology at its finest.
His theological thinking begins with what he feels is the most important spiritual principle—one that guided his life. Love and obedience defined his relationship to God and love is expressed in obedience. Obedience meant being loyal to God and rebuking idolatry, which meant, for him, rebuking Nazi religion. So, love expressed through obedience was his first theological premise.
Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:12 that anyone who wants to live a godly life will be persecuted. Living a holy life is both a life principle and a foundation theological premise (the second premise) of his theology of suffering, persecution, and martyrdom. There will come a time, he says, when the confession of the living God will not only cause hatred against us but will result in ostracism from society. The world, he observes, cannot live side-by-side with us because what we say and do, whether we intend it to or not, is perceived by the world as condemnation on them.
The third theological premise is that of costly grace. The grace that we receive at salvation will cost us our lives, if we truly seek to be Christ’s disciple. Obedience to Christ is the definitive sign of true discipleship.
The fourth theological premise is that the followers of Christ give up all personal rights, especially in the face of injustice that comes about because of our faith in Christ. Christians intentionally choose to love their enemies and do not seek revenge for evil done to them but are ready even to die for Christ.
The fifth theological premise is that love is defined as loving one’s enemies. This is how evil is defeated. We endure the evil person, we do not inflict suffering on others, and we refuse to retaliate.
The life of obedience is not without rewards, the greatest of which we will receive in heaven, if we remain true and steadfast to the end.
There is no question that this is more than good theological thinking; it is a very practical guide to what it means to be a true disciple.
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.