Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy are both commentaries of sorts on Jesus’s most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. Though written decades and continents apart, these two books join with one voice to convey a markedly different emphasis as to what is really ailing our spiritual lives today.
For Bonhoeffer, writing in the 1930s, the great illness of the church is not our lack of familiarity with grace but rather our overfamiliarity with it. He writes:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. Cheap grace means … the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance … grace without discipleship, grace without the cross … Those who try to use grace as a dispensation from following Christ are simply deceiving themselves … We confess that, although our Church is orthodox as far as her doctrine of grace is concerned, we are no longer sure that we are members of a church which follows its Lord.
That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing—using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. I wasn’t doing it consciously, but I was so adamant to emphasize grace that I had begun to use it to diminish the call to discipleship. I found in Bonhoeffer an answer as to why I felt uneasy: “The only man who has a right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ.” This was a very different message from Manning’s “[Grace] works without asking anything from us.” 10
As a Lutheran pastor, working in the tradition of the preacher of grace par-excellence Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer had asked, “What happened to all those warnings of Luther’s against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living?” That question cut me because I feared my preaching was having precisely this unintended consequence. In an effort to relieve overly tender consciences that still felt condemned (because they didn’t fully trust in the finished work of Christ), was I making the too comfortable rest secure in their apathy when what they most needed was to be jolted awake just as Bonhoeffer had jolted me?
Against the refrain that what we need to be most wary of are moralizing tendencies in our churches that ask people to “do more” or “try harder,” Bonhoeffer perceived a more insidious danger. He said, shockingly, “The word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works.” This was a very different tune than the one I’d been singing or hearing.
In calling the church back to discipleship, Bonhoeffer found a successor in philosopher and author Dallas Willard. Willard calls discipleship “The Great Omission” in the church today. He denounces American evangelicalism in particular for using grace to excuse discipleship and thereby eviscerating the gospel of its living content, the important call of “learning from [Jesus] how to live my life in the Kingdom of God now.”
Willard accuses the church of truncating the gospel, turning it into what he calls “a gospel of sin management.” He claims that we have reduced life with God to a “bar-code faith,” 15 wherein simply by our verbal confession, we exchange our sins for Christ’s righteousness and thereby acquire our ticket for heaven when this life is over. For Willard, such a gross distortion allows us to miss Jesus entirely. “It is now understood to be part of the good news,” he laments, “that one does not have to be a life student of Jesus in order to be a Christian.”
Rankin Wilbourne and John Ortberg, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2016).
We have just released a new Bible Study based on the book: Union with Christ, by Rankin Wilbourne
These lessons are available on Amazon, as we as a part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
Union with Christ, Lesson #1
Living in the Gap
Union with Christ, Lesson #2
Union with Christ. What Is It?
Union with Christ, Lesson #3
Why We Need Two Songs Playing in Our Head
Union with Christ, Lesson #4
Chapters 4 – 6:
Union with Christ in the Bible
Union with Christ, Lesson #5
Chapters 7 – 8:
Who Am I? / Where Am I Headed?
Union with Christ, Lesson #6
Chapters 9 – 10
What Am I Hear For? / What Can I Hope For?
Union with Christ, Lesson #7
Chapters 11 – 15
Abiding in Christ
Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking. Answers are provided in the form of quotes from respected authors such as John Piper, Max Lucado and Beth Moore.
These lessons will save you time as well as provide deep insights from some of the great writers and thinkers from today and generations past. I also include quotes from the same commentaries that your pastor uses in sermon preparation.
Ultimately, the goal is to create conversations that change lives.