Bonhoeffer: Follow After Christ

Dietrick Bonhoeffer, The Cost of DiscipleshipDietrich Bonhoeffer. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937).  Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth.  New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Who do you follow after?

Belief follows obedience (57).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship was the first book of theology (other than the Bible) that I remember reading as a young person [2].  It was a tough read in eleventh grade, but I remember one thing:  grace is not cheap.


Bonhoeffer wrote:

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 (44-45).

The Apostle Paul put it this way:  we were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The title in German is Nachfolge which means follow after.  It is often translated simply as disciple.

Historical Context

Americans are mostly unaware that Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933 (Metaxas 2012, 138).  It was later that he seized the title of Führer, which means leader in German.  Bonhoeffer distinguished himself as an early opponent to National Socialism and spoke in a radio broadcast about the limits of leadership only two days after Hitler’s election.  Bonhoeffer said:  A good leader serves others and leads others to maturity (Metaxas 2012, 142).

Nachfolge was written in the years that followed (1933-1937) as a rebuttal to the false leadership embodied in the idea of führer.  The disciple stands under God’s authority which the Führer denies.  Still, Bonhoeffer was a leader in the Confessing Church.  Nachfolge is quietly addressed to the Confessing Church (e.g. 53), which stood apart from Hitler’s Reichkirche (official German Church) [3], and is not addressed to society more generally.  In standing in opposition to the führer principle, Bonhoeffer needed to define Christian leadership.  He wrote:  Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer (91).  Bonhoeffer was very aware that Jesus also lived during trying times and was also persecuted by corrupt religious leaders.


Although Nachfolge is often interpreted through the lens of cheap grace and discipleship, these topics consume less than a third of the book (5 of 32 chapters).  Nachfolge reads like a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.  It divides into 4 parts:

  1. Grace and Discipleship;
  2. The Sermon on the Mount;
  3. The Messengers; and
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ and the Life of Discipleship (9-10).

The Touchstone edition includes a forward by Bishop G.K.A. Bell who knew Bonhoeffer personally and worked with him (in England) to coordinate the opposition to Adolf Hitler during the Second World War.  It also includes a memoir by Gerhard Leibholz, a Jewish attorney who was also Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law.  Let me turn to summarize these 4 parts briefly.

Grace and Discipleship (35-101)

The problem posed by cheap grace arises because God offers grace to the sinner, not the sin.  Cheap grace whitewashes sin and insults God’s mercy.  Bonhoeffer wrote:  Costly grace was turned in cheap grace without discipleship (50).  This is to confess Christ as savior, but not as Lord.  Worse, it inoculates the aspiring Christian against true faith (54).  By contrast, the disciple is called by Christ (63) and adheres to Christ (59).

Bonhoeffer wrote that only those who obey can believe (70).  In other words, for Bonhoeffer there is no such thing as a seeker Christian—we are called or not—and suffering is the badge of a true disciple (91).  Suffering and rejection mark Christ as the true Messiah; the disciple shares in his master’s fate (87).  Bonhoeffer famously wrote:  When Christ calls a man, bids him come and die (89).  We gain our identity as individuals through Christ’s call (94).

The Sermon on the Mount (103-197) [4]

If Bonhoeffer had been an individual opposed to Adolf Hitler, then he could have ended his book with Part 1–Grace and Discipleship and escaped from Hitler’s Germany to spend the war working as a professor in the United States. In fact, in 1939 his escape was arranged for him in the United States where he spent 26 days mulling this alternative over.  But Bonhoeffer was not an individualist; he could not cut and run.  Instead, he returned to Germany to face his true calling (Metaxas 2012, 321-346).  The remainder of the Nachfolge addresses the role of the disciple at work and in the community [5].

Bonhoeffer begins his analysis of the Beatitudes by laying out the participants:  Jesus, the multitudes, and the disciples.  Bonhoeffer wrote:

Yet there will be enmity between them right to the bitter end.  All the wrath of God’s people against him [Jesus] and his Word will fall on his disciples; his rejection will be theirs (106).

Therefore, Jesus blesses his disciples (106) calling them salt and light.  The problem of the church, our church, is the failure to be salt and light (118).  The touchstone of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s words:  simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it (197).

The Messengers (199-221) [6]

Jesus’ disciples function as under-shepherds to Jesus, in part, because bad shepherds lord generally over the flock (202).  In Matthew 9:36, Jesus cites:

So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. (Ezekiel 34:5 ESV)

The remainder of this chapter in Ezekiel focuses on the attributes of bad shepherds.  In this context, the disciples function as evangelists who are charged to proclaim the kingdom of heaven and confirm their message by performing signs—miracles, exorcisms, and raising the dead (Matthew 10:7-8; 207).  They are to depend on hospitality being accredited as disciples by their poverty (209) and by their suffering (215).  As under-shepherds, they are also to expect opposition from the bad shepherds.

The Church of Jesus Christ and the Life of Discipleship (223-304).

As the called out ones of Christ (271), how do we understand our call?  Bonhoeffer writes:  There was no other way for them [the disciples] to know Christ, but by his plain word (226).  Consequently, Bonhoeffer sees child baptism as an abuse of the sacrament because baptism cannot be repeated and no faith is present (235).  More generally, the church becomes visible through the preaching of the Word, baptism, and communion (251).  Radical transformation of the church takes place as we all stand equally before the radical call of Christ (256-258).  Restoration of the divine image is impossible for us but becomes possible when God becomes like the image of man as He does in Jesus Christ (299).


Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge poses a challenging question to the church.  How does the church be the church in the midst of obvious persecution?  Before the Gestapo began hauling dissenting pastors off to concentration camps and drafted others into the Machtwehr (army), the Nazi worked to co-opt the church into a vision of the church cast by Nazi dogma and political needs. The Theological Declaration of Barmen 1934 (Die Barmer Theologische Erklärung) helped articulate the framework of the Confessing Church and met the most egregious Nazi efforts in forming the Reichskirche, but more was needed.  In some sense, Nachfolge was Bonhoeffer’s efforts to explain to himself what God required of him.

Who do we follow after?  We are to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1; 304).



[2] When I entered seminary, I read it again; now having graduated from seminary this is my third reading.  This is the only book, other than the Bible, that I have ever read three times.


[4] The Sermon the Mount is found in both the Gospel of Luke (Luke 6:20-49) and the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 5-7).

[5] The remainder of Nachfolge is in some sense the beginning of a journey on the road to another book, Life Together, which chronicles Bonhoeffer’s work with an underground seminary in Hitler’s Germany. Life Together was completed in Göttingen, Germany (a university town where I also studied) in 1938 (Metaxas 2012, 312).

[6] This chapter focuses on Matthew 9:35-10:42 (199).


Metaxas, Eric. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Bonhoeffer: Follow After Christ

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