Friday, September 24, 2010

Costly discipleship revisited

I remember well my first encounter with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was late 2000 or early 2001 and I was newly plugged in to a large Southern Baptist congregation after many years of no church involvement. I don't remember why I picked up a copy of The Cost of Discipleship, but I was immediately struck by the powerful directness of the message -- here was someone trying to seriously reckon with the hard teachings of Jesus. The book had a quality I hadn't run into before. The fact that Bonhoeffer wrote it when he was the same age I was at the time only added to its appeal. There was a clarity and conviction to the writing that made a profound impression. Of course, that influence continues. Bonhoeffer is one of my personal heroes.

What does a young German Lutheran pastor of the early twentieth century have to say to us today? More specifically what does he have to say to modern-day evangelical Christians? A lot, says Jon Walker. If you haven't heard of Pastor Walker I'm sure you've heard of his former boss -- a fellow named Rick Warren. Thanks to the good folks at Abilene Christian University Press I've had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Walker's just published book Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship.

Much ink has been spilled in recent years lamenting the "mile wide and inch deep" nature of commitment among evangelicals in America. Despite the impressive numbers some observers see the same warning signs in ostensibly Bible-believing churches as were seen decades ago when the mainline churches began their slide into theological liberalism and irrelevance. Several years ago Willow Creek -- one of evangelicalism's flagship churches -- published its Reveal study which showed a surprising lack of correlation between participation in church programs and spiritual growth. From his vantage point as a pastor at Saddleback, Walker has seen similar signs of a dearth of genuine discipleship -- and to put it in Bonhoefferian terms -- cheap grace.

A simple glance across the evangelical landscape reveals that we've overwhelmingly embraced the lesser grace. We're barely willing to adjust our schedules let alone our lifestyles.

We're glad to follow Jesus. His yoke does seem easy: a few hours each week in worship, a Bible study, a small group, a bit of service at the church and perhaps a mission trip each year. We try to be good people, to help others, and to thank God for our blessings. . . . But a peculiar people? A royal priesthood set apart? What? Does Jesus really mean I'm supposed to abandon my __________ (fill in the blank)?

Walker concludes his hard-hitting critique by concluding that "we've settled for cheap grace for so long that we've allowed it to become the norm for Christian living." I think he's right, and I plead guilty. Too often we've chosen cheap grace and lukewarm discipleship, which is no discipleship at all. And as Walker quoting Bonhoeffer reminds us: "Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ." The result is what another writer, Michael Horton, has dubbed "Christless Christianity."

Costly Grace is written in such a way that it can stand alone or as a companion to Bonhoeffer's book. The author quotes liberally from The Cost of Discipleship and does a good job of summarizing Bonhoeffer's arguments and applying them to contemporary situations. Each chapter concludes with examples of what Walker calls "Fallen Thinking" or "Kingdom Thinking". These could easily be used as discussion starters for a small-group book study. I can also see how this book would lend itself well to a private, contemplative approach -- perhaps as part of one's daily prayer and study.

I would hope (and I'm sure Walker does too) that readers wouldn't stop with Costly Grace, but would read the book that inspired it, as well as Bonhoeffer's other writings to get a fuller picture of his theology and ecclesiology. In addition to rampant "easy-believism" I think American evangelicals have often had too low a view of the visible church, the communion of the saints, and the centrality of the sacraments to the Christian life, all things which Bonhoeffer wrote eloquently and passionately about. Most of all I hope this book leads readers to a renewed obedience to the one who bids us come and die that we may have true life.

Quotes from Jon Walker, Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2010) pp. 29-30

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