Discipleship is not a math problem

I have been reading through The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was given to me about a year and a half ago by my best friend, as a gift after joining him in youth ministry. He swears by the book, and I have heard much about it. Thus, I accepted the gift with excitement and anticipation.

I dove in almost immediately, pouring through the first two chapters in a single night. I had never seen this kind of message. Costly grace? Those two words redefined my theology. I had asked that question for a long time, but Bonhoeffer really clarified it for me. While we celebrate the free gift of grace, do we remember how costly it was? While we know that we can never repay the cost, do we voluntarily attempt to share in that cost as disciples?

I read those first two chapters, and my life was changed. And, then, I put the book down, and didn’t pick it up again until about a week ago.

It wasn’t any conscious decision. Like with so many other books, I just got absorbed in something else, and never came back to it. But, I felt like I had the essence of the book down: costly grace. Grace that was freely given, but still had a price. Armed with my first two chapters, I went out and formulated my own theology. So many messages that I preached and wrote were based off that little bit of Bonhoeffer: The Dangerous Gospel of Good Friday was probably the sermon most closely related to my experience with Bonhoeffer.

But, after reading a little more over the past week, I realized that I have only skimmed the surface. The more I dug in, the more I realized that there was so much more to this theology of discipleship than I had initially realized. The acceptance of costly grace is only the beginning. You have to dig deeper, into what Bonhoeffer has to say about the everyday path of following Jesus, in order to really appreciate the impact this man has had on so many different people.

There were times when I felt encouraged while reading, because I thought, I’m already on this path. But, there were also times when my spirit was sorely convicted, because I realize how far off the path I am in some areas. And, the more I read, the more I thought, Nobody can do this. This is too heavy a burden.

It really hit me yesterday. I had an opportunity to put a conviction into action, and I sat there arguing myself. What was the most Christian thing to do? How far did I have to go in order to prove myself worthy of the mantle of true discipleship?

That’s when it hit me. I was reading Bonhoeffer the wrong way. I was reading Jesus the wrong way. I was looking at discipleship like a math problem.

We have this problem in progressive Christianity, where we tend to reduce our faith down to a kinder, gentler legalism.  We don’t want to put rules on people when it comes to sex, or drinking, or any of the other traditional legalist rules. But, when it comes to social morality, public justice, we definitely have some rules for each other.

You can only consider yourself a progressive Christian in some circles if you believe and do x, y, and z. God help you if you consider yourself any kind of Christian without following the formula.

I’m not criticizing the deeds of progressive Christians (or Christians who do good works, regardless of what kind of Christian they consider themselves.) It’s the spirit of the thing that gets me, because it’s a spirit that I’ve found myself infected by. We’ve reduced discipleship to the sum of its parts, into something that we can measure up to, something that we can rate on a sliding scale of moral goodness. And, ultimately, we’ll never get there, and so we’ll have to fall back on the cheap grace that allows us to be “imperfect, but forgiven.”

When I help the poor, I can’t do it in order to be a disciple. I do it because I am already a disciple. When I stand up for racial justice, or for gender equality, or for religious tolerance, I can’t do it so that Jesus will save me. I do it because Jesus has saved me. When I claim to love and forgive my enemies, I can’t do it because it’s what Jesus told me to do (and thus, the “right thing”). I must do it because I was His enemy, and He forgave me.

The difference might seem minute, or a matter of semantics, but I swear that it’s the difference between the easy yoke and light burden of discipleship, and the unbearable mantle of legalism.

I love and forgive my enemies, because He has loved and forgiven me.

I feed the hungry, because He feeds me.

I clothe the naked, because He has clothed me.

I serve, because He has served me.

I kneel down and wash my neighbors feet, because He has washed me clean.

In the end, discipleship isn’t about action, but reaction. I can only do the things that I do, because He has shown me how. He has enabled me. I can pantomime on my own. I can do things that look like good works and righteousness, but at the end of the day, I’m doing them to add to my own moral scorecard. I’m only doing x+y=z.

Thank God that we have so many people in the world who are willing to do these things, regardless of their reasons. This is a work that needs to be done, and I believe that people do the work of Christ in the name of Allah, of enlightenment, of simple compassion, and they should be praised for, and encouraged in, that work. But, for the disciple, for the follower of Jesus, we do these things because we know Him, because He has done these things for us.

To do them for other reasons is good and proper. But, it’s not discipleship.

I could still be reading it wrong. I could have come to the entirely wrong conclusion. But, let us pause, calmly, and think on this.

Grace and peace to you.

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