Existence Anew: Bonhoeffer and Discipleship

“But because Jesus is the Christ, it has to be made clear from the beginning that his word is not a doctrine. Instead, it creates existence anew.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story is well known. He was writing theology from the perspective of the challenge of living under Nazi Germany prior to World War II. His summary in The Cost of Discipleship of what it means to follow Christ is one of his most famous works, and is an inspiring and challenging insight into how we are called to live out our faith today.

Bonhoeffer writes in this work about the importance of the call to discipleship as a call to an entirely new way of life. He references the call of the first disciples – these people didn’t simply take on some new values or beliefs and carry on life as normal. Peter left his fishing nets, Levi left his tax booth. These men could have carried on their quiet lives being obedient to the laws of their faith, but this experience of encounter with Jesus the Messiah was completely transformative. They leave everything they know behind and take an active leap of faith into a new kind of existence. This is an insecure life, a dangerous life, but a life that they choose in response to the call of their Lord.

This is something Bonhoeffer sees as essential to discipleship; it is not from our own eagerness, or goodness, or obedience that we follow. Discipleship can only exist in response to Jesus; it doesn’t work as something taken on in our own power, but only as a response to God’s call on our lives.

So what will this call look like? And how are we to respond? Well, I have a feeling that it will look different for everyone. Often these first steps are things which may seem small or insignificant to others, but which make a huge impact on our own lives. The decision to change the direction of your work, to take up a new project, to set aside more time for reflection, to start putting your faith into action in some way, or simply to practice intentional gratitude in your day-to-day life are all steps that could be the start of a new journey with Jesus. The most important thing is to be open to the call, wherever it might come from – and when we hear it, to take whatever leap of faith we’re called to respond with to put our discipleship into action. We’re not promised that it will be easy; but we are promised that it will create existence anew.

For more on this see Bonhoeffer’s ‘The Cost of Discipleship’, Chapter II – ‘The Call to Discipleship’