Discipleship: Shallow Lake or Deep Waters? A Nordic Look at ChurchBy Knud Jørgensen
June / July 2011
One of the most worn books on my bookshelf is Costly Grace by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1937). Next to it stands an English variant on the same theme, David Watson’s Discipleship (1981). Both books have been foundational for my life and faith. As a young theologian I was particularly impacted by Bonhoeffer’s challenge to obedience, a simple obedience that realizes there is no other way to faith than obedience to the call of Jesus.
The Impossible Call to Obedience
To follow this call means to leave behind a life of safety and certainty and to enter a life of uncertainty, but a life with Christ. A life without discipleship will always be a life without Jesus—an idea, a myth, a folk religion, without Christ as the center.
Such a life with Jesus starts with Jesus calling us to take definite steps out of the situation where we find ourselves, in bondage, mending our nets, and sitting at the custom house like the first disciples were challenged to do. These steps will bring us out of a situation where faith is not possible and into a situation where faith becomes possible.
As long as Peter is mending his nets, he may do a good and honest job within his old religious world, but if he wants to believe in the living God, he must get up and walk the dusty roads with Jesus. So the way to faith goes through obedience to the call of Christ: “Follow me!” Only the obedient may believe, and only the believer shall obey, says Bonhoeffer.
This obedience—this discipleship—brings us into a life of grace, costly grace. The primary enemy of the church is “cheap grace,” a grace on sale, forgiveness and comfort at a discount, grace without any price. It is forgiveness of sins as a general truth because God loves the sinner and never gets angry with the sinner. It is justification of sin instead of the sinner.
Since everything is by grace, nothing really needs to be changed. Cheap grace is forgiveness without repentance, baptism without discipleship, communion without confession of sin. It is grace without discipleship, grace without cross, and without the living Christ.
Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, the costly pearl for which I am willing to sell everything. It is the call of Christ that makes me leave the nets and follow him. Costly because it calls to discipleship, grace because it calls to discipleship with Jesus; costly because it will cost my life; grace because it by the same token gives me my life. Costly because it cost God his only Son, and what has been costly for God cannot be cheap for us. Grace because the price has been paid and I can go free.
Without costly grace and obedient discipleship, the Church is like the lake, says English bishop David Watson, a mile wide but only a few inches deep. It will only take a small change in the spiritual temperature for that lake to shrink, and to do so very rapidly.
Western Europe is an illustration of such a lake. The continued decline of the established churches in Europe may be viewed as a consequence of our preaching of cheap grace. Everything is on sale. We baptize without really demanding discipleship; we invite everybody indiscriminately to Holy Communion; we offer absolution without asking for personal confession. We preach love, but seldom the love that hangs on the cross and died for our sins.
This preaching of cheap grace is lethal because it may close the way to Christ, instead of opening it up. It allows me to continue in a life of disobedience; it condones my sinful life with its leniency; it makes me stay with the fishing nets and at the custom house while Christ has moved on.
Dr. Knud Jørgensen is dean of Tao Fong Shan in Hong Kong and associate professor at the Norwegian School of Theology.