“To Be Saved Is to Be Gathered”: Bonhoeffer on Discipleship, the Extraordinary Christian Life, and Fighting Racial Injustice
Shayla A. Jordan
Southern Methodist University
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and writer during the period of World War II, redefines true discipleship in the context of apathetic Christianity. Bonhoeffer explains how his unique take on discipleship stems from the Sermon on the Mount and is rooted in his context of the particular racism of Nazism. After making his significant distinction between cheap and costly grace, he properly connects the commands of Jesus with the claim that faith requires action. My claim in this essay is that the community Bonhoeffer describes can be used as a blueprint for modern-day Christians to fight against systemic racism.
Bonhoeffer’s call to the Christian community began with his disappointment in the lackadaisical faith that characterized the Christianity of his time. Additionally, his writings show his deep desire to fight the racial injustices of Nazism: “in hard rhetoric, he described what he sensed was a lethal battle between the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ and the diabolical realm of Nazism.” Throughout WWII, Bonhoeffer sought to demonstrate how Jesus’ message translated into his own culture and time. The society in Bonhoeffer’s time was saturated in racism, and the Gospels are possibly the best prescription to these injustices. Jesus courageously called out injustices and held those who were responsible to account, as demonstrated not only in his interactions with authorities but also his teachings to the disciples. In his notations on the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer draws attention to Jesus’ way of combining action with faith. Bonhoeffer’s earlier writings are saturated with his call to action against what he identifies as cheap versus costly grace. Bonhoeffer reads the Sermon on the Mount through this lens, and he believes the Sermon outlines the true meaning of discipleship perfectly.
Bonhoeffer summarizes his ideas on the two types of graces in his book, Discipleship. Influenced heavily by WWII, in his judgment, people of his time were living in the false belief in salvation achieved by cheap grace. Those affirming Nazi culture were living lives of cheap grace. Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace as a grace “without a price, without costs…grace without doctrine” and “as a principle, a system” that holds “forgiveness of sins as a general truth” and “God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God.” This cut-rate grace simply covers-up the infirmities of people. Cheap grace thus weighs down the church, creates a battle the church fights every day, and inhibits true discipleship. When people exhibit this grace, they show a “denial of God’s living world, denial of the incarnation of the word of God.” True recognition of Jesus and his work goes unacknowledged and his message does not resonate. Those who rely on cheap grace proclaim salvation through God alone but live in accordance with the world around them. Those who rely on cheap grace proclaim the people obtain the image of God, but they continue to oppress persons of color. Unaffected by the transformation brought about by the teachings of Jesus—like the Sermon on the Mount—these people go along living as they did before they had the assurance of salvation. In practice, Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace as
preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.
Cheap grace provides Christians with the feeling that they are saved without going through the trenches of the teachings. Cheap grace is evident in people who have a dual allegiance to both God and state. Cheap grace allows room for one to place the state above the calling from God. Bonhoeffer believes this grace is the trap into which the Christians of his day had fallen. But what is an alternative path?
According to Bonhoeffer, the only grace that truly saves humanity is costly grace. When received, costly grace dwells within humans and cultivates a true conversion. As Bonhoeffer explains, “It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.” The price of the sacrificial lamb is costly and, in that dying, creates a life called in accordance with Jesus. In this model, Jesus’ followers leave behind their previous lives, lives according to this world, and move into conforming their lives to the teachings of Jesus. This grace not only provides humanity salvation and justification for their sins but also genuine freedom. Bonhoeffer compares this grace to the life of a monastic. In living as a monastic, one fights against secularization and “the cheapening of grace.” Those who live this way move away from the society which contradicts scripture and into a community of faith. They sell all of their goods, dedicate themselves to the Lord, and leave their families and previous lifestyles behind them. Monastics apply their beliefs to their lifestyle, which thus resembles discipleship.
The monastic lifestyle defines costly grace. When Christians journey toward costly grace, they are then led down the path of discipleship. This is not a call for Christians to rack up their achievements in the church, but rather an invitation into a life of following Jesus authentically. Discipleship requires the daily task of applying the teachings found in scripture, combining faith with action and works with belief. Grace only becomes costly when paired with discipleship. This relationship between grace and discipleship becomes the foundation for all of Bonhoeffer’s insights on the Sermon on the Mount.
The Gospels portray the disciples living in a community in which they have been prepared to hear the good, and possibly provocative, message from Jesus. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, they separate themselves from the rest of their culture because of their calling to live vastly different lives. The disciples have purged themselves of pleasures the rest of the society feeds on. Furthermore, this separation enables them to understand and interpret the commands within the Sermon on the Mount. According to Stanley Hauerwas, Bonhoeffer’s approach can be described in these terms: “The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is unintelligible if it is isolated from its context within Matthew’s gospel.” Additionally, Bonhoeffer claims that, just as the message cannot be separated from the context of the disciples, so the message must not also be separated from the giver. Bonhoeffer considers salvation to be achieved through the Son of God who gives the message, guiding us towards true transformation. Whereas those who live according to the understanding of salvation through “cheap grace” only state the doctrines and laws of scripture, true Christians must also apply the commands Jesus proclaims. Christians must not read without application, for Jesus calls his followers to accept his radical teachings and live them out, although they may be in direct contradiction to the ways of the world in which they live. This is the basis of the community Bonhoeffer outlines in his commentary and interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, which is foundational for the rest of his analysis. Everything Jesus taught the disciples relates back to the importance of this community.
Bonhoeffer begins his interpretation of Matthew 5 by giving a description of the reality of the time in which Jesus preached this sermon. The select group of individuals who listened to Jesus in this place were set apart from the rest of the crowd. Jesus traveled beyond the low ground to the top of the mountain and left behind the crowd. Yet, “not so long before,” those sitting or standing around him were “themselves fully part of the crowd…they were just like all the others.” However, their journey with the Son of God set them apart as he transformed their lives. This small community is thus a visual representation of what is to come: “So far, he has found only a small community, but it is a great community he is looking for when he looks at the people.” In his ministry, Jesus models what is to truly come. He desires a community that follows him, literally and figuratively. He had already prepared his disciples for the message, which is a blueprint of the fuller image. Jesus preached to this crowd because they had made the sacrifice to stand out, which has left them “poor, tempted, and hungry.” It is because of this small community that they would be able to understand and interpret the true meaning of Jesus’ words. This community of disciples with Jesus is significant for Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the rest of the sermon.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus begins each of the Beatitudes by calling his disciples “blessed.” This blessing is upon them because they are “the community called by God” to live into the fulfillment of the law. Jesus calls out to the disciples, proclaiming, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their’s is the kingdom of heaven” (Mathew 5:3). Bonhoeffer notes the meaning of this statement: “the disciples are needy in every way…they have no security, no property to call their own, no place on earth they could call their home, no earthly community to which they might fully belong.”The disciples here truly resonate with what Jesus proclaims. For the sake of Jesus and his mission, they have left behind everything that once provided them with comfort in order to learn from him. Because of this, they have no hope but the hope Jesus has to offer them. They “leave their treasure well hidden, they have it at the cross.” Consequently, they are truly poor in the eyes of the world. Their poverty is embraced and comforted by the cross, and it is here Jesus gives them the hope of one day residing in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, for They Will be Comforted
As the gap between the disciples and the outside world broadens, they remain comforted. Bonhoeffer states, “those who mourn are those who are prepared to renounce and live without everything the world calls happiness and peace.” Once again, it is the disciples who deeply understand mourning, as they have left everything behind and mourn for the reality of the world they have left. They refuse to conform, condone, and live in the ways of the world. Moreover, when they realize how backward their society is, they experience a further cause for mourning. Mourning over a lifetime becomes heavy, tiring, and straining, but Bonhoeffer declares that the “alien community is comforted by the cross” and will find their “true home with the crucified Lord.” Although Jesus calls them to live in this mourning and even encourages it, he likewise promises them comfort.
Blessed Are the Meek, for They Will Inherit the Earth
Over time, the disciples have become meek through their actions. They refuse to fight back, inflict evil, and cause harm. They only look to God to be the ultimate resolution for injustices. In Jesus’ death, he embodies meekness, and therefore the disciples must also go down the same path. The earth they will inherit is the community of God: “the powerless are given a piece of the earth; they have the church, their community, their property, their brothers and sisters—in the midst of persecution even unto the cross.” Jesus calls his disciples to go down the path of meekness and then promises them the ultimate reward—the church, a community of other followers.
Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness, for They Will be Filled
The disciples enter into a state of emptiness in order that they might follow Jesus completely. This process causes them to give up their own righteousness and only allows room for them to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness. They yearn, but they will not receive comfort on earth. Therefore, Jesus gives them this promise of one day receiving righteousness because they have been faithful to the point of giving up everything. As Bonhoeffer states, “they are blessed in doing so, for they have been promised that they will be filled.” Once the disciples had left their previous lifestyle, they have been promised fulfillment: “they will eat the bread of true life at the future heavenly Supper with their Lord because of their sacrifice.” They will no longer thirst and hunger for the righteousness they once gave up; rather, they will be filled abundantly.
Blessed are The Merciful, for They Will Receive Mercy
The disciples show mercy as it has been modeled for them in Jesus. Collectively, they “share in other people’s need, debasement, and guilt.” This task that they have taken upon themselves has led them to give up their possessions and their right to hold a grudge. Consequently, they live a life of forgiveness and mercy. Left without any honor or dignity, they know that Jesus, who bears this shame and takes it upon himself, is he who supplies mercy. As the disciples become more merciful throughout their time on earth, they are assured that one day they will receive absolute mercy from their savior.
Blessed Are the Pure in Heart, for They Will See God
Bonhoeffer comments on the state of the disciples’ hearts: “[the disciples] have completely given their hearts to Jesus so that he alone rules in them…[they] do not stain their hearts with their own evil, but also not with their own good.” The purity they exhibit contradicts the world around them, but they choose not to follow in the world’s footsteps. They have seen a pure heart in Jesus and desire the same. Since they have been transformed to possess such a treasure, “their hearts are fully absorbed in seeing God,” and thus “they will see God whose hearts mirror the image of Jesus Christ.” Because the disciples have chosen to live in this way, they not only receive God’s promises but also bear witness as small depictions of who God is, with the hope that this will be fulfilled once they die and are resurrected themselves.
Blessed Are the Peacemakers, for They Will be Called Children of God
The disciples discover complete peace in the person of Christ. When following his teachings, they find a peace that they had never known before. Furthermore, this peace requires them to “renounce violence and strife.” Violence and strife are not in the prescription Jesus hands over to them, and they “never help the cause of Christ.” Although the disciples may have found it difficult to remain peaceful, this was another way they suffered for the sake of Christ on earth. Not only were they called to give up everything on earth and follow him, but they were also called to give up their desire to cause harm. According to Bonhoeffer, “they are drawn into Christ’s work of peace and called to the work of the Son of God, [and therefore] they themselves will be called children of God.” In creating peace, they witness a greater picture of the character of God.
Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake, for Theirs Is the Kingdom of Heaven
As the disciples choose to live in contrast to the world, they will surely be persecuted: “They will be offensive to the world. That is why the disciples will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Jesus warns his followers of the hate to follow after his death, telling them that they will be hated just as he was hated. However, he provides them with the hope that one day the kingdom of heaven will be theirs. He moves on to proclaim “Blessed are you when people revile and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely”on Jesus’ account. This blessing, according to Bonhoeffer, is directed toward all the disciples as they have been trained to hear what he has to say. Jesus modifies his form of speech from “blessed are those” to “blessed are you.” Jesus acknowledges discrimination toward his followers as a reality they will face, yet in the middle of this proclamation, Jesus likewise gives them a vision of hope. They truly will inherit the kingdom of God and be blessed because of their persecution for his sake. The path of discipleship will not be easy. They will be hated, looked down upon, and even killed. However, Jesus stresses the importance of endurance because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand for them. As Jesus calls out the different qualities and gifts of his disciples, he is pouring hope into their lives.
You Are the Salt of the Earth
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:13). Jesus describes the disciples in the most simplistic terms, salt and light. As salt preserves the earth, so the disciples will preserve the earth. As the world cannot live without salt, so the world cannot live without the disciples and their witness. In doing this, “the disciples are focused not only on heaven but are reminded of their mission on earth.” They are placed on earth to preserve the earth with their testimony about Jesus. On the other hand, if the salt loses its saltiness, it no longer serves a purpose. Likewise, if the disciple’s lose sight of their mission, they are no longer serving their purpose: “The earth is supposed to be saved by the community. But the community that has stopped being what it is will be hopelessly lost.” Additionally, Jesus speaks to the disciples about another element that is essential to life on this earth—light. As the world needs light to see, so the world also needs the disciples in order to be able to truly see what God has laid before them. The decision to be both salt and light has already been made for the disciples: “The disciples are given no choice whether they want to be salt or not” and because the call innately “has made them light.” The “followers of Jesus are no longer faced with a decision” because “the only decision possible for them has already been made.” Jesus has chosen and trained them. Therefore, the responsibility to be a witness to the world is in their hands, for, “now they have to be what they are, or they are not following Jesus. The followers are the visible community of faith; their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world—or it is not discipleship.” For Bonhoeffer, the church must be visible, not for the sake of being the center of attention, but for the sake of standing out. The community lives by the standards to which Jesus is calling them, which are contrary to the norm, and they will stand out in doing so. For example, if they choose to forgive and do not become violent, their actions will be noticed and potentially not liked. In contrast, “any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him.” When their actions are public, Jesus says that his disciples may be hated and thrown out, just as he eventually was, but such public actions are essential in order to live out the life of a follower of Jesus.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill…For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17). Through exegesis, Bonhoeffer uncovers the confusion that lies within this particular command. After highlighting the fact that Jesus is not abolishing the law but truly fulfilling it, he comes to his conclusion: “Jesus says two things to his disciples: allegiance to the law by itself is not yet discipleship; nor may allegiance to this person of Jesus Christ without the law be called discipleship.” He claims both that the law needs Jesus’ teachings, and that Jesus’ teachings need the law. Jesus’ teachings become “a new commandment only because Christ binds his disciples to the law,” andJesus’ teachings and the law are on in the same. The disciples must bind themselves to this new law, what Bonhoeffer refers to as the better righteousness, in order that they may enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Bonhoeffer points out that this is the first time in the Sermon that Jesus refers to himself: “He himself stands between better righteousness and the disciples, from whom he demands that better righteousness.” Bonhoeffer, realizing that one reading of this scripture would separate Jesus and the law, argues that that is not the case. Bonhoeffer is convinced that Jesus came to fulfill the law entirely, and “Jesus shows his complete unity with God’s will in the Old Testament, in the law and prophets.” Left in the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Covenant was incomplete—it was missing the aspect that covered infirmities. In living and dying, Jesus fulfills this missing aspect “because he alone lives in perfect communion with God.” Without Jesus, the disciples could neither reach salvation nor enter into the Kingdom of Heaven because of the void in the law. Bonhoeffer affirms that because Jesus is perfect in the image of God, he is the only one able who is able to complete the law. Tying the disciples to the law allows them to live into this better righteousness Jesus speaks of: “The disciples’ righteousness is ‘better’ than that of the Pharisees in that it rests solely on the call into the community of Jesus, who alone has fulfilled the law.” As in the Beatitudes, Jesus is calling his disciples to continue to live in the community to which he has called them. Through this community, they will not only know the law but understand the fulfillment of it.
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council…first, be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift…Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:22-25). With this command, Jesus is not abandoning the law previously preached but is expanding upon it, elevating his expectations for his disciples who are not to show even the slightest anger. Again, Bonhoeffer asserts that “only those who perceive the law to be the word of Christ can fulfill it,” and, therefore, those outside of the community of disciples will not truly understand the meaning of Jesus’ words. What Jesus proclaims may come across as provocative. Bonhoeffer suggests, however, that Jesus was intentional about his teachings. The disciples must neither kill nor have anger, for “the life of one’s brothers and sister was granted by God and are in God’s hand. Only God has power over life and death.” Misinterpretation is not acceptable, according to Bonhoeffer, as Jesus does not waiver. In fact, he even instructs the disciples not to worship God until they have reconciled with their neighbors. This is a strict “boundary for Jesus’ follower which may not be crossed.” Those who cross this boundary possess no reverence and believe that they themselves have the right to judge their neighbor. The life of another is so precious to Jesus that he insists that anger should not even exist, allowing no discrepancy between just and unjust anger.
If disciples travel down the path of anger, they truly will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Bonhoeffer describes holding anger in one’s heart while wishing to praise God as “playing hearts with an idol.” The offer of such a disciple will be rejected by God. In conclusion, Jesus warns them of such a mistake and calls them to put aside their pride. In order to do this, the community of faith must examine themselves and view salvation not strictly as vertical, but also horizontal. This practice creates the only solution—reconciliation.
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell…But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of infidelity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:28-32). Jesus calls his disciples out of their sinful patterns because these simply distract them from their path of true discipleship. When they lust after another person, there is no love involved, and anything not done out of love ought not to be done at all. Bonhoeffer describes discipleship as “self-denial and a complete bond with Jesus” and maintains that “at no point may the disciple’s own desire-driven will take over.” Giving in to their desires separates the disciples from their teacher. Therefore, they should exterminate whatever distracts them from Jesus. Bonhoeffer suggests that this is another commandment put forth by Jesus which must be taken seriously. Questioning the seriousness and applicability of Jesus’ teaching here circumvents the intent of the whole message. On the topic of marriage, Jesus liberates it “from selfish evil desire and intends for it to be conducted as a service of love,” which is only be done purely when following him. Although difficult, Bonhoeffer refuses to back down from this belief. Jesus does not shame the body but actually honors it by condemning the choice not to live in the self-denial that practicing discipleship demands. For Bonhoeffer, this commandment can best be obeyed when in the context of a community because “this purity, that is, chastity, is preserved in community with Jesus, in disciples.” Jesus not only calls his disciples to avoid lust and refrain from entering into serial marriages but also calls them to live into the true meaning of love in community with others.
Lying, Speech, and Truth
“But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth, for it is God’s footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King…Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:34-37). Bonhoeffer notes that Jesus attacks the habit of lying through this instruction. Jesus condemns even the act of making a small oath, as this alone is proof of untruthfulness. Although through scripture oaths are used to reject, in the fulfillment of the law, Jesus calls his disciples to live above this standard. Jesus desires “all their words” to be “nothing but the truth so that nothing requires verification by oath.” At this point in the sermon, Jesus eradicates the need for an oath ever to be spoken.
Bonhoeffer then moves his interpretation to the heart of the commandment: “if the oath is thus prohibited, then it is also clear that the only goal is that of truthfulness.” Jesus calls his disciples to a standard above society and invites them into a walk of discipleship that has no room for anything but the truth. Although rejecting any oath that leaves room for lies, Bonhoeffer creates room for oaths, so long as it “is completely clear and transparent what content is included in the oath” and “when the distinction has been made between oaths which refer to past or present circumstances which are known to us, and those which have the character of a vow.” Verifying references to the past or present are the only circumstances in which a disciple may make an oath, as the future is unpredictable. Thus, when disciples refrain from making oaths, they are “expressing the total claim of disciples.” Bonhoeffer connects this command directly to the journey of discipleship, in that disciples must commit their lives to absolute obedience. This commitment to unconditional truthfulness in one’s life can only be achieved faithfully in a community that also values this practice.
But I Say to You, Do Not Resist an Evildoer
“But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:39-42). Right off the bat, Bonhoeffer connects this commandment to the beatitude of meekness. As Jesus instructs his disciples not to inflict evil, so he also tells them not to fight back. The disciples have already been prepared to give up their earthly possessions, so it should come as no surprise that Jesus would once again ask them to give up whatever they might still own. Although the disciples may be tempted to fight back when facing injustices or evildoers, Jesus proclaims, “such just retribution takes place on in not resisting it.” The disciples must not cling to their rights as if they were a possession, but rather, they are called to give up all their rights and submit to God. Indeed, in bearing “witness to their sole allegiance to Jesus, they create the only solid foundation for community and place sinners into the hands of Jesus.” Although an outsider to this community may interpret this as Jesus calling them to abandon everything, leaving them desolate and lonely, it is quite the opposite. On the contrary, Jesus teaches them to give up everything so that they may create a community of others with a heart for God. When the disciples follow this commandment, they are not condoning the acts of the evil one, but they remain peaceful and leave the judgment to God. This requires “undivided obedience” to Jesus that in turn fulfills “the promise of community with the cross of Jesus and of community with his victory.” Jesus fulfills the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye” with the commandment to “resist the evildoer,” consequently, binding his disciples to his teachings and forming them into an obedient community.
Love Your Enemies
“But I say to you, love your enemies; bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who abuse and persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:44-48). According to Matthew, Jesus reaches the main idea of his whole ministry—love. Love is known to be at the heart of Jesus’ entire ministry, and here he creates a command out of love. Not only does Jesus demand that his disciples love one another, but he stresses that they must also love those whom it is hardest to love. The disciples bind themselves to the law through this love and must choose this path in order that they might be true disciples of Jesus. The community of disciples clearly understood who their enemies were, as they were faced with them daily in the streets. As they chose to live their lives radically differently, they consequently became enemies with the world. Moreover, the disciples were being called to love these groups of people regardless. The victory would only be won one way—through love.
Bonhoeffer believes love is the ultimate goal of the entire sermon. Love throughout scripture holds a consistent message: to overcome one’s enemies is not to rise against them in violence, but to love them fully. This love comes without reservations and without any regard to who the enemy might be. In order to achieve this kind of love, Jesus instructs his disciples to bless their enemies and do good to them. This entails having compassion for their enemies, bearing their pain, providing for them, standing by their side in prayer, and looking for the image of God in them. Although radical, Bonhoeffer believes the command to love should not be taken lightly or figuratively. As the disciples were once “enemies of Jesus who have been conquered by his love,” they shall treat their enemies just the same way. Bonhoeffer notes that the disciples are only truly living because their savior has given them love and that they are therefore called to show the same love they once received. No matter the response they receive, the disciples must love: “In loving those who love us…we are no different than the Gentiles and the tax collectors.” Thus, the disciples are to love those who do not already love them back. When the disciples make this choice to love in this manner, they are thereby contributing to the community of faith while also truly living out their faith in their actions.
In his conclusion, Bonhoeffer connects Matthew 5 with the extraordinary Christian life. The Beatitudes and the commands that follow define what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Bonhoeffer describes this discipleship as “the shining light, the city on a hill. It is the way of self-denial, perfect love, perfect purity, perfect truthfulness, perfect nonviolence. Here is undivided love for one’s enemies, loving those who love no one and whom no one loves. It is love for one’s religious, political, or personal enemy.”
Jesus created a community that was ready to hear and willing to commit their whole lives to his teachings. They gave up their belongings, endured persecution, abandoned their families, and transformed their lives. This call to faith through action is what Bonhoeffer proclaims in his writings as he presses Christians to convert from cheap to costly grace. Just as costly grace requires action after belief, so Jesus asks the same of his followers; as costly grace implies visibility, so Jesus calls his church to be visible; as costly grace requires dedication, so Jesus requires complete dedication to a walk of discipleship with him. The extraordinary Christian, to Bonhoeffer, hears the words of Jesus in his sermon and lives into the calling of costly grace through action. This extraordinary life fulfills the law and keeps the commandments Jesus has laid out. Living into this life “are those who are perfect, perfect in undivided love, just as their Father in heaven is.” The application becomes significant and foundational for people desiring to walk the deep spiritual life with Jesus. When one allows his or her heart to be formed by the Sermon on the Mount and its implications, he or she has truly reached discipleship.
Bonhoeffer’s reinterpretation of the Sermon on the Mount provides the modern day Christian with a resource on how to fight systemic racism. In the face of sin disguised as racism, cheap grace must be transformed. Passive support, silence, and advancing one’s privilege only causes further oppression and is not proof of salvation. In response, it is essential for Christians to form communities who mourn the ways in which racism has penetrated every aspect of society. They must refuse to fight injustices in ways that cause more harm. Costly grace requiresChristians to look to the church community to find strength in the midst of oppression as they live in opposition to the world. They know that even strides towards racial equality will not satisfy their hunger and thirst for righteousness, but they find comfort in the peace of Jesus. They await the full revelation of the Kingdom of God. Allies join in giving up their honor and dignity for the sake of the oppressed. They themselves must be like the oppressed and use their privilege for the betterment of the oppressed. Although fighting racial injustice may never bring complete equality, Christians who live according to the principle of costly grace find peace in the promises of Jesus and the kingdom to come.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer looked at the church around him, he realized many Christians were not living into a life of discipleship outlined by Jesus. Convinced that there was more to the faith, Bonhoeffer wrote on the difference between cheap and costly grace, arguing that the necessary transition from cheap to costly grace requires dedication and a desire to be transformed. Bonhoeffer maintains that this transition is perfectly outlined in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus calls his disciples to a deeper level of discipleship. Furthermore, the blueprint he outlines attacks the racial injustices of World War II and can be used for modern day Christians. Modern-day Christians must respond to the call of discipleship by living in opposition to the rest of society by attacking the structures that perpetuate racism. When Christians dedicate their lives to the teachings of Jesus, as explicated in the Sermon on the Mount, they find an extraordinary life of discipleship with God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 6.
Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity of America (Nashville: Abington Press, 1993), 59.