A Costly Discipleship

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life…. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1

Every age seems to produce its own version of “decaffeinated” Christianity. Through various stratagems we find ways to evade Jesus’s challenging words. We domesticate his demands, seeking to make them more palatable and reduce their cost. In pre-World War II Germany, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified what he called the doctrine of “cheap grace.” Here is his account: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace…. The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.”2 Bonhoeffer vigorously resisted this version of “cheap grace,” recognizing in it a profound weakness that would cause the churches to fail in the hard times that were coming upon them. He raised his voice to remind Christians that although the grace of God in Christ is entirely a free gift, yet paradoxically it costs us our whole lives. The gift is free and the response costs everything. In place of “cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer urged a return to a costly discipleship:

Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more or less than the end of discipleship.3

These were not mere words for Bonhoeffer. Counselled to remain in the United States for his own safety, Bonhoeffer put himself in danger by returning to Nazi Germany because he was convinced that he was called to stand with his people under trial. In a few short years, he was arrested and imprisoned for his resistance to the regime. Just days before the war ended, he was executed. He paid the ultimate price in his commitment to follow Christ on the road of costly discipleship.


Jesus made use of the image of walking the road of crucifixion to reveal what it means for all disciples of all times to follow him. To explore what this might mean for us today, I will break down the road to discipleship into three steps or stages. These stages of discipleship appear in the biblical stories and they continue to be typical stages for disciples today. First, there is a personal encounter with Jesus; second, there must be a clear decision to follow Jesus with determination; third, there will be one or more crossroads where the temptation to turn back must be rejected if we are to continue as Jesus’s disciples.

Personal Encounter. In the Gospels, all who become true followers of Jesus have a personal encounter with him that is at the root of their decision to follow him. Think of Peter and Andrew, James and John, Matthew and Mary Magdalene: they listened to his teaching, they saw him heal the sick, and they heard him call them by name: “Come, follow me.” The same is true for the saints down the ages. The same is true for us today. This encounter can be dramatic and powerful; it can also occur quietly through a still, small voice. In whatever manner this encounter happens, the conviction of meeting the person of Christ and hearing his call opens up the path of discipleship. To say this differently, we don’t disciple ourselves; we don’t take the initiative and seek to follow Christ. We respond to a call that comes through a personal encounter with the living Christ through the Spirit. Even when we are seeking him (like the rich young man in the Gospel), we come to see that it is already his grace that is at work, prompting us and drawing us to himself.

Decision to Follow Jesus with Determination. The second stage of discipleship is a clear decision to follow Jesus, and to do so with determination. The counter-example of the rich young man in the Gospel demonstrates this. This wealthy young man assures Jesus that he has kept the commandments all his life. He then asks Jesus what he still lacks. “Jesus said to him, ‘If you desire to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Upon hearing this word, the young man went away sad, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:21–22).

 Jesus placed a high bar before this young would-be disciple. The man needed not just to live a good life, but to set out and follow Jesus with determination and at great personal cost. He counted the cost and 

found himself unable or unwilling to make the sacrifice. At least he had the honesty to recognize that he could not (at that time) become a disciple of Jesus. He was not willing to pay the cost. Jesus himself draws our attention to counting the cost of following him:

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.”

Luke 14:28–30, NRSVCE

Today we are calling this decision to follow Jesus with determination “intentional discipleship.” In the Evangelical Protestant world, Dallas Willard raised this banner, calling Christians to recover the path of intentional discipleship by embracing what he calls “apprenticeship to Jesus”: 

But in the last analysis we fail to be disciples only because we do not decide to be. We do not intend to be disciples. It is the power of the decision and the intention over our life that is missing. We should apprentice ourselves to Jesus in a solemn moment, and we should let those around us know that we have done so.4

Facing a Crossroads and Continuing. There is a third stage in the life of costly discipleship that all will face in one way or another. At some point, having set out on the road of discipleship with determination, we will face a crossroads. We will be tempted to turn back, to find another way, to wonder whether this really is the right path. Facing and conquering this temptation is a crucial step and is part of the cost of discipleship. Even in Jesus’s own life we can see this crossroads. At the start of his ministry, right after his baptism, Jesus is led into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He is faced with three discrete temptations and he refuses them all. From there he sets out with determination to follow the path that the Father has set for him – and he walks this path down to the final week of his earthly life. But then, right near the end as the climax of his life’s work approaches, he is faced with the temptation (again) to seek another way, to dodge the costly path of discipleship laid out before him. Jesus said: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you; take this cup away from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). This was a severe temptation, yet Jesus faced it and continued on the path of faithful obedience that won the salvation of the world.

 We see the same pattern in the lives of Jesus’s disciples. In John chapter six, Jesus speaks in provocative language about the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Not surprisingly, some of his disciples had a hard time with this language: “Hearing this, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard word. Who can accept it?’” (John 6:60). As a result, they drew back and no longer followed him as disciples. They reached a crossroads and decided not to continue. At this point we might have expected Jesus to plead with his other disciples to remain with him, but instead he puts the question right in their faces, asking whether they too want to leave him. Peter, responding for himself and the twelve, does not hesitate: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68). They pass the test. They decide to continue even though they don’t understand the full meaning of Jesus’s words and don’t really grasp what is in store for Jesus or themselves.


Each of us can ask, “Where am I on the path of discipleship?” and “What is the next step for me to take?” Perhaps you are like one of the people in the crowds that gathered to see and hear Jesus. You are “nearby,” checking things out and interested, but you have not personally encountered Jesus. The next step is to seek to know the Lord Jesus personally and to take the steps that will encourage this encounter. Or maybe you have experienced the presence of Jesus and the work of the Spirit in your life, but you haven’t found a way to follow-up on this. Either you have never been shown the path of discipleship or you have some obstacle that is preventing you from stepping onto that path with determination. Or perhaps you have been following the path of discipleship for some time but have encountered some trial or grief that has put you at a crossroads. Like Peter and the twelve, your next step is to seek and act upon the grace to continue and so enter into the deeper path of discipleship that lies ahead.

Whatever stage we may be in, the critical response for us to make at every stage is an offering of our lives to the Lord. We could also call this a full consecration of our lives to the Lord. We don’t need to be perfect to do this (not one of us is). We don’t need to have our lives in excellent order or have complete emotional stability. With the help of God – by his grace – we can take our lives as they are and hand them fully over to the Lord for his disposal. This is the response at every stage that enables us genuinely to be his disciples. The story of the sinful woman anointing Jesus’s feet illustrates this act of complete abandonment:

And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Luke 7:37–38, NRSVCE

This woman was not living a holy life – Jesus says a few verses later that her sins were many (Luke 7:47). But in full-hearted repentance she pours out the precious oil upon the Lord, a sign of her full consecration and her offering of love. Jesus gladly receives this offering, forgives her sins, and praises her action.

Many obstacles can stand in the way of making this full and “costly” offering of our lives to Christ. For some of us, we lack the maturity to take hold of our lives and offer them to the Lord. We can’t give away what we don’t have. Some of us are bound up with various fears and anxieties. We are worried about our lives, what living for God might demand of us, and so we hold back. We may need prayer for deliverance from these binding fears, but we also need that adventurous faith that steps out and makes the full offering of our lives.

Some of us are captive to habits and addictions that bind us with cords; they oppress us, condemn us, and so keep us from giving our lives to Christ fully. As it says in 2 Peter, “whatever it is that overcomes someone, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). Whether it be to alcohol, drugs, pornography, or something else, these ingrained habits can prevent us from offering our lives fully to the Lord God. The good news is that Jesus came to deliver us all from the power of sinful habits; he has the power to break through these and help us gain steady victory over them. The good news is that Christ Jesus has “overcome the world” and all its powers (John 16:33). If we are willing to pay the cost, we can gain greater freedom, step-by-step, from habits and addictions.

The road to full and complete freedom in Christ will occupy all our lives and we will only reach this goal in eternal life. But the path begins now. By his help and grace, we can count the cost and respond to his call with adventurous faith. What the Lord has in store for you, only he knows. What a marvelous adventure lies ahead in finding out! But Jesus only asks for what we can – by his grace – offer to him. He doesn’t ask the impossible from us, but gives us steps that we can actually take. Let’s take the step the Lord presents to us: to set out on the path of discipleship; to continue on it with zeal; to take the hard road at the crossroads and stay on the path. And most of all, let’s count the cost and decide to pay it. Let’s offer our lives as fully and completely to the Lord as we can, using the freedom he has given us to hand ourselves over to him, and to know the deep joy of the Lord in this offering of our lives.


1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed. (New York: MacMillan, 1979), 47.

2 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 45.

3 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 63–64.

4 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 298.

This article is adapted from The Adventure of Discipleship, Chapter 3, ©2018 by Daniel A. Keating and published by Emmaus Road Publishing, Steubenville, Ohio, USA. Used with permission.

Top image credit: Young man walking the road to the cross, illustration © by Kevin Carden, from ChristianPhotoshops.com. Used with permission.

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