“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
The great paradox of Christian faith is that salvation comes from God alone through what Jesus does for us with nothing we can do to deserve, earn or gain it; while at the same time discipleship (or following Jesus) is incomplete without a commitment that “costs us” everything else.
What tends to happen among individuals, churches, denominations, and theological approaches is an over-emphasis on either a cheapened version of grace that doesn’t ask anything of us or such demanding expectations that that they either crush us or turn us against one another by a falsely held feeling of superiority.
Too often we think of grace and discipleship as an either/or choice. The consequences of choosing one over the other can be disastrous.
Grace is good. We cannot earn God’s mercy and love. But cheapened grace can create a smugness by sitting idle and ignoring the pain and struggle of others, or make our connection to Christ or a community something that does not matter to us all that much by becoming just one more choice among many things that vie for our attention in a busy world.
Expectations are good. But when they are unreachable they can break our spirit by serving only to remind us of all the things we have left to do or they can consume us by judging others’ commitment compared to our own.
Both single approaches miss the fullness of life that Jesus offers. Grace and discipleship belong in tension. The great paradox of holding these seemingly opposed trajectories together (there is nothing we can do vs. it is up to us to do it) is the contagious and life-giving joy the Spirit can bring to us; even when things seem dire.
In this passage (Luke 14:25-33), Jesus asks us to consider the “cost” of following him. A builder considers the “cost” before building a tower; a ruler considers the “cost” before going to war; a disciple considers the “cost” of the cross to Jesus before following him. If the cross “costs us” nothing it is seemingly worthless. If the cross is up to us to carry alone we cannot bear the weight of it. Held in tension we see, hear and live a promise from Christ that calls us out of death and into a new life he gives us freely to give away.
Faithfulness to that promise calls us into a “costly” response to God’s outpouring abundant mercy and love. It may sound counter-intuitive at first, but as Jesus says elsewhere, “one cannot serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). The crux of what Jesus is asking, prodding and inviting us into here is this – when push comes to shove, where is the fullness of life to be found? Family, wealth, status, comfort or following him? When we move beyond ourselves to follow Jesus…will the “cost” be worth it?
Only a costly discipleship can answer that question.
Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died in a Nazi prison camp in April, 1945 called followers of Jesus into what he called “Costly grace.”
He first articulated “Cheap grace” as “preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living incarnate Jesus Christ.”
In contrast, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door which one has to knock. It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. it is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace costly, because it was costly to God, because it cost God the life of God’s son ‘you were bought with a price’ (1 Corinthians 6:20) – and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s son was not too costly for God to give him up in order to make us live. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God.
Costly grace is grace as God’s holy treasure and which must be protected from the world and which must not be thrown to the dogs (Matthew 7:6). Thus it is grace as living word, word of God, which speaks as it pleases. It comes to us as a gracious call to follow Jesus; it comes as a forgiving word to the fearful spirit and broken heart (Psalm 51:17). Grace is costly, because it forces people under the yoke of following Jesus Christ; it is grace when Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30.)”
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4. ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. trans. Martin Kuske and Isle Todt. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996]. 44, 45.)