When Jesus Calls a Man

cost of discipleship coverIn preparation for Sunday's sermon, "I am Called to Die," I am re-reading sections of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's famous book The Cost of Discipleship or more recently rereleased as Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor during Hitler's rise to power, and though he had every opportunity to take asylum in the United States, Bonhoeffer returned to his home country to lead a small group of Christians, "The Confessing Church," in their resistance to the Fuhrer. After being blacklisted by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was conscripted into the Army, and took part in an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life, which failed. Following the failed attempt to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer was arrested, tried, and hanged just before the end of WWII.

His writings, due to his faith and his context, are some of the most insightful and inciteful. They cut like a knife. Here is a section from the Chapter, “The Disciple and The Cross.”


“To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering. The Psalmist was lamenting that he was despised and rejected of men, and that is an essential quality of the suffering of the cross. But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life of commitment to Christ. The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. Only a man thus totally committed to discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. The cross is there, right from the beginning, he has only got to pick it up: there is no need for him to go out and look for a cross for himself, no need for him deliberately to run after suffering. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that which they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case.

            The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of the world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of the encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like [Martin] Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time–death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts.” (Emphasis added)

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 88-89.


The cross is not a tragedy but a necessity, it is the summation of every command Jesus gives. He doesn't call us to "our best life now" but to "take up your cross." It is a call to die to turn our wills and our lives over to Jesus. To subjugate our desires and affections to his Lordship. It is a call to embrace rejection and suffering for the sake of Christ. 

Bonhoeffer says this is impossible for a Christianity that has ceased to see a functional difference between the specifically Christian life and the ordinary human life. So what is the difference between the two?

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