Discipleship (2): The Cost

The previous posting highlighted the sovereignty of Jesus’ Jesus’ call to discipleship, but no less remarkable is that he was absolutely up-front about the cost, even to the extent that it sometimes sounds as if he wants to discourage people from following him.  He doesn’t offer self-fulfilment and prosperity.  Instead, he calls us to self-denial, world renunciation, and harassment, all the way to the grave.


Self denial

First, disciples are called to deny themselves: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ (Mark 8:34) This is not a matter of merely giving up things at the edges of our lives, like a nominal worshipper giving up chocolate for Lent.  It cuts much deeper.  It means, as Barth points out, dissolving the covenant we made with ourselves: a covenant in which we said to self, ‘I will look after you.’[1] That covenant we now have to break, and instead we have to say to self, ‘No, you are not the supremely important thing.   You are not what matters.’  The strait gate (Mathew 7:13, 14) is far too narrow to allow the Old Man and the New Man through together.  We have to leave the Old Man at the gate (Colossians 3:9, 10).  This is where we part.  This is where we practise kenosis, emptying ourselves of self, and affirming, in the moving language of the First Answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, ‘I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.’

We have been bought at a price, and our priority can no longer be to look after ourselves, but to live for the one who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20).  In the last analysis what we are faced with is a stark choice between denying Self and denying Him.  Yet in that very same breath we also recognise Christ’s commitment to us as the One ‘who redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation.’ (Heidelberg Catechism,Answer 1).     



Linked to this call to self-denial is the call to forsake all possessions for Christ’s sake.  This is clearly underlined in the seminal calling-stories in the gospels.  Simon and Andrew left their nets immediately and followed Jesus (Mark 1:18); James and John left their father and their fellow crew-men; Matthew instantly left his tax-booth; Saul of Tarsus turned his back on a religious heritage to which he had been fanatically committed, choosing to lose everything in order to gain Christ (Philippians 3:8).  Jesus even went so far as to lay down that even our very lives must be sacrificed if need be:  ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ (Mark 8:34) 

As a counterpoint to all this, we have the story of the Rich Young Man who found the cost of discipleship altogether too great: ‘Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’  He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’ (Matthew 19:21-22).  The advice was categorical and unambiguous, but poverty was a higher price than the man was prepared to pay.   ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,’ said Jesus, ‘than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’  (Mark 10:25)  He struck the same note in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You cannot serve God and wealth.’ (Matthew 6:24), and he struck the same note again in Luke 6:20, ‘Blessed are you who are poor’.

Any evangelical preacher dealing with this last text is instantly uncomfortable, and hastens to invoke the Matthaean form, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’.  However, the Lucan form, whether a different version of the same pronouncement or not, is equally canonical, and must be taken with the utmost seriousness, especially in the light of Jesus’ comment on the behaviour of the rich young man; and in the light, too, of Matthew’s great judgement scene (Matthew 25:35-36), where Jesus’ ‘brothers’ are precisely the poor: the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned.

It was to Christians that Paul wrote, ‘The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Timothy 6:10); and it was to Christian pastors that the New Testament delivered its triple warning against the love of lucre ((1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7 and 1 Peter 5:2).  In an age as materialistic as ours it is perilously easy to evade the force of such words by refusing to interpret them literally and imposing upon them, instead, our own hermeneutic, so that we end up saying, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, ‘‘Never mind what Jesus says, I can still hold on to my riches, but in a spirit of inner detachment.  Despite my inadequacy I can take comfort in the thought that God has forgiven me my sins I and can have fellowship with Christ in faith.’’[2]  

Such a hermeneutic masks, even from ourselves, the fact that whole-hearted service to the kingdom of God too often takes second place to making money.  It also mutes potential Christian criticism of corrupt financial systems.  We have a vested interest in them because they make our money grow, and on that money, rather than on the providence of God, we rest our future security.   

Even tithing can become a means of deflecting Jesus’ teaching: ‘One-tenth is the Lord’s, the other nine-tenths are my own.’  In reality, all our resources belong to him, to be used or surrendered according to his will.  We have no more right to make an idle purchase than we have to speak an idle word.  Nor have we any right to say that everything is alright so long as we have faith.  As Bonhoeffer again pointed out, ‘only he who is obedient believes’;[3] and in any case Jesus’ command to the young man is precisely a test of his faith.  Does he trust Jesus enough to venture into the future without his wealth? 



Equally clearly, Jesus calls upon us not to idolise our relationships.  As James and John had to leave their father, and Abraham to turn his back on his homeland, so we have to hear these terrible words, ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37).  This doesn’t mean that we are not to love them.  It means something infinitely more demanding: loving them, and still being willing to renounce them, as the early missionaries did, when they set sail for India or Africa knowing that they would probably never see again the loved ones they were leaving behind. 

Viewed in this light, we can never subscribe to the principle that we must put family before all else, or to the principle that we must never put our family at risk.  Every relationship must be subordinated to the needs of the kingdom; and some relationships will inevitably be jeopardised by having to compete with the demands of the kingdom.  The Bible brooks no idolatry of the family.  On the contrary, the family, along with every other relationship, is under the sign of the cross.  In the well-known words of Cowper,


The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.



Linked to this renunciation of relationships and possessions is the sacrificing of our reputations: one of the points that Jesus made so clearly in his Sermon on the Mount. The blessed are those whom people revile and persecute and falsely accuse of all kinds of evil on account of their relationship with him (Mt. 5:10-12).   Conversely, ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.’ (Luke 6:26)

Of course, it’s all too possible to be reviled for the wrong reasons: for bigotry, intolerance, divisiveness, self-righteousness and much else.  This is why the words ‘on my account’ (Matthew 5:11) are so important.  We will be reviled, not because of what we do, but because of who we are: followers of Jesus.

What is in view here is the loss of our reputations because of our close adherence to Christ and because we are walking his Way.   We cannot expect to be treated better than our Master (Matthew 10:24).  If they called him ‘Beelzebub,’ and crucified him to a chorus of derision (Mark 15:29-32), it is hardly surprising if they accuse us of obscurantism, philistinism, homophobia, religious hatred and resistance to progress. 

Nor is it surprising that creative fiction has long since air-brushed the church out of its snapshots of the modern world, or that every clergyman portrayed on TV dramas is either a fool or a wimp or in league with the Devil. 

In the 17th century, Dr. Thomas Browne, one of the early masters of English prose, could proudly declare, ‘I dare without usurpation assume the honourable Stile of a Christian.’[4]  It is not so honourable today.  We are now a ‘little flock’, marginalised, emasculated and viewed with a mixture of apathy, bemusement and hostility.  No wonder we yield to the temptation of declaring religion a ‘private matter;’ and no wonder that we would much prefer to project ourselves as reasonable, cool, and even ‘woke,’ than hear ourselves accused of being ‘godly’. 


Renouncing violence

It is perhaps less obvious that Christian discipleship also involves the renunciation of force and violence, even in defence of the truth.  ‘Put your sword back in its scabbard,’ said Jesus (Matthew 26:52).  This is not to say that the use of force is always wrong.  God has given the state the power of the sword, and appointed its officials the avengers of his wrath, divinely commissioned to punish wrongdoing.  They are his ministers, and precisely for that reason the laws they enact (and the penal sanctions they impose) must be in accordance with God’s justice. 

But what Jesus makes clear here is that we as individuals may never use force or violence in self-defence.  There is no one whom we are allowed to hate, not even in the heat of a moment.  Instead, when attacked or provoked, we are to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39).  This is our default position, and any exception (for example, using force to protect others or to resist tyranny) must be seen as such, and reviewed with care.  Turning the other cheek has to be the norm: the line of conduct we pursue instinctively. 

This is not a meek acquiescence in violence.  It is a resolute adherence to the word of Jesus in all its categorical authority, and it stems not from indifference to justice but from faith in God’s justice.  When we suffer, we neither threaten nor retaliate.  Instead, we commit ourselves to God, who will one day summon us all to his throne of judgement (1 Peter 2:23).  At the same time we are authorised as members of a democracy to do all in our power to ensure that the sword of the magistrate is indeed the sword of justice, and that it is used not to defend the powerful, but to defend the weak.

It follows from this that the disciples of Jesus can never invoke the power of the sword either to establish or to defend his kingdom.  That temptation is strong, and the church has too often yielded to it.  From the Bull, Unam sanctam, published by Pope Boniface VIII in 1302 to John Calvin and John Knox in the 16th century, men have argued that the temporal sword is to be wielded on behalf of the church, and that it is the duty of the state to ‘cherish and protect the outward worship of God’ and ‘to defend sound doctrine’.[5]

Even the later Reformed Confessions pursued this same line.  The Westminster Confession (23:3), for example, lays down that it is the duty of government ‘to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed.’  

Almost all Presbyterian churches distanced themselves from a literal understanding of these words in the 19th century, and the plain truth is that any suggestion of a statutory political enforcement of ‘pure doctrine’ accords ill with Jesus’ imperious command, ‘Put your sword back in its scabbard.’  The state is indeed a form of organised violence, but while it is clearly the divine will that it should use its power to punish criminal behaviour, it is equally clear that Christ wants his kingdom to advance not by carnal but by spiritual means.  Our only weapon is persuasion, our only sword, the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. 

We have no right, then, to advocate intolerance, to call for the criminalisation of blasphemy or to press for the suppression of other religions, even though from a human point of view, this carries enormous risks.  We have to tolerate what would not tolerate us, knowing full well, for example, that Muslims in power would not grant us the freedom of worship which we are feel bound, in obedience to Christ, to extend to them. 

But here, once again, it is a matter of faith.  The kingdom of God must grow by means which at first sight appear foolish and contemptible.  We have to trust that he knows best, and that by the deployment of the means that he has sanctioned, the great promise of Psalm 86:9 will one day be fulfilled, ‘All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O LORD.’


Cheap grace

It is easy, especially for Protestants, to neutralise the force of Jesus’ commands by invoking a doctrine of what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’:[6]  a grace which allows us to keep our  possessions, our relationships and our reputations, and even to punch someone on the jaw. 

Cheap grace invokes the love of God, reduced to such levels that it serves as a comfortable pillow when we ignore or violate or reinterpret divine commands. 

Cheap grace allows us to appeal  to Luther’s ‘justifications by faith’ in such a way that it comes to mean justifying the sin, not the sinner. 

Cheap grace means believing in forgiveness as a universal human right, without any need to repent or to face the truth about ourselves. 

Cheap grace means Baptism without church discipline, fellowship without accountability, Communion without self-examination, all the glories of the kingdom without the hard road of discipleship.


Over against this stands the word of costly grace, where the sin is condemned, where we face the truth about ourselves, where there is no justification without sanctification, where there is no discipleship without obedience, and no obedience without self-denial; and where self-denial is not a  matter of individual choice and preferences, but of willing compliance with the word of the Master, who tells us that following him involves not the selective renunciation of what we think we can do without, but that universal renunciation which lets go of everything because of the surpassing value of ‘knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8).  The only place where we can find salvation is ‘in Christ’; and there we meet, inextricably linked together, the glory of a three-fold grace: justification, sanctification and discipleship. 


Taking up the cross

But there is more to be faced than mere renunciation, however demanding.  We have to take up our cross.  We should never utter these words lightly.  They are terrible words, and they involve a pledge which none of us by ourselves could ever keep.  They are to be uttered with trembling, with the image of the gallows and the firing-squad always before our eyes.

The first thing to be noted here is that Jesus is not speaking of the common sufferings of this life.  ‘Human beings,’ said Job, ‘are born to trouble’ (Job 5:7).  Simply by being human we are liable to illness, bereavement, the break-down of precious relationships and every other species of human pain and tragedy.  These things may fill us with self-pity, but they don’t add up to what Jesus means by the cross.[7]  He is laying down something much more radical and much more terrifying: the world that hated him will hate us, and the law of his suffering will become the law of our discipleship. 

For the original disciples, following Jesus meant, literally, signing their own death-warrant, and for thousands of our fellow-believers in the world today that is still the reality.  There is a God-ordained enmity between the Seed of the Woman and the Seed of the Serpent (Genesis 3:15), and though the Serpent is already bound with a great chain (Revelation 20:1-2) his followers still hold the reins of earthly power. 

Crucifixion, as Martin Hengel puts it, ‘was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein.’[8]  In the same way Christ’s disciples are exposed to the worst that unprincipled and unrestrained hatred can inflict. That is a reality before which each one of us should tremble. What is abnormal is not persecution, but peace (Acts 9:31).

But if there are parallels between his cross and ours there must also be parallels between the way he faced his cross and the way we face ours.  Where there is a cross there will always be a Gethsemane: dreadful moments when we are dejected, bewildered and terrified; moments when we cannot cope and when we pray that the cup would pass from us; moments when we tell God he cannot be serious, and plead with him that there must be some other way.

Again we, like him, have to face the fact that there can be no anesthetic: no ‘wine mingled with myrrh’ (Mark 15:23) to dull the senses and make the pain bearable.  He had to taste the dying, and sometimes we have to live and work and love through pain, supported (Romans 8:26) by the Spirit, yet conscious that he carries the burden with us, not instead of us.  His work is not like Christ’s, vicarious.  No one, not even the Holy Spirit, carries us, semi-comatose, through the darkness in which there is no light.  We have to walk (Isaiah 50:10).

And at the end we can say only, ‘Abba, into your hands I commit my spirit,’ and this is an act of faith, involving the same risk as Abraham took in surrendering Isaac, trusting that God would raise him from the dead.  He knew that God could.  But would he? Jesus took a similar risk, surrendering his spirit.  What if he never got it back? 

We have surrendered all, haven’t we?  We have laid down our lives. We have staked everything on the fact that God is, that he has the safest pair of hands in the world, that he will give us back the life we have surrendered.  Otherwise, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).

This is where Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood in the moments before his execution at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp in April 1945. There could be no more dreams, no earthly vindication, no marriage to his beloved Maria.  There could be only faith and prayer. 

Ten years later the SS doctor present at the execution recalled the scene: ‘On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners … were taken from their cells.  Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God.  I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued in a few seconds.’[9] 

Bonhoeffer’s last recorded words were for Bishop Bell of Chichester: ‘This is the end, for me the beginning of life.’

Yet, as Barth reminds us, ours is but a little cross.[10]  It is not his; it is my little cross sheltering under his.  What he does, he does alone, and once for all.  I am not bearing the sin of the world or paying the price for humankind’s redemption.  I am not cursed (Galatians 3:13) or left, as he was, desolate and forsaken, devoid of any sense of Abba’s love.  Christ didn’t merely die with me.  He died for me, so that in the sense in which he died I shall never die.  I shall not go through hell before I die, or die in the fear of hell. In my cross-bearing he never leaves or forsakes me.  It’s still a cross, but it’s not his.  It’s only a little one.

Let’s remember, too, that it’s not our cross that gives significance to his. Granted, our cross is an imitatio: a response to his.  But the expiatory and redemptive power does not lie in the imitatio or in the love to which the cross of Christ constrains us.  The redemptive power of Calvary lies wholly in that event itself.  Our imitatio  is a response to a complete redemption.  No way is it a contribution to it.

Finally, as Barth again reminds us, we are not to seek the cross:  ‘Self-sought suffering has nothing whatever to do with participation in the passion of Jesus Christ, and therefore with man’s sanctification. The cross which we have to bear in following Jesus comes of itself, quite apart from any wish or action of our own.’[11]  Persecution and martyrdom will come our way if such is God’s will, but only ignorance, or an irreverent contempt for our present life in the land of the living (Psalm 116:9), can pray for them.  It is not the cross we covet, but Jesus, and the cross is incidental: a by-product, however inevitable, of being close to the Master.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV, Part 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958),  p.543.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM Press, 1959), p. 70.

[3]The Cost of Discipleship, p. 54.

[4] Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (London: Dent [Everyman’s Library], 1906), p. 3.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Vol. 2, p. 1487 (IV:xx, 2)

 [6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 35-36.

[7] Cf. the words of James Denney: ‘The habit of generalising the idea of the cross and applying it to any difficulty or pain that comes in the way of duty, blinds many to the extraordinary force of these words.  The cross was the instrument of execution, and the condemned criminal, as we see from the case of Jesus Himself, had to carry it to the place of punishment.  The English equivalent of the words in Matt. 10:38 is that no one is worthy of Jesus who does not follow him, as it were, with the rope round his neck – ready to die the most ignominious death rather than prove untrue.’  (Jesus and the Gospel [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908], p.234).

[8] Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 25. Cf. his later comment that ‘crucifixion satisfied the primitive lust for revenge and sadistic cruelty of individual rulers and the masses … At relatively small expense and to great public effect the criminal could be tortured to death for days in an unspeakable way … It is a manifestation of trans-subjective evil, a form of execution which manifests the demonic character of human cruelty and bestiality.’ (Ibid, p. 87).

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures, ed. Eberhard Bethge, Renate Bethge and Christian Gremmels; trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1986), p. 233. 

[10] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV, Part 2, p. 264.

[11] Karl barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV, Part 2, p. 613.