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The Cost of Discipleship

October 10, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 14:27 (NRSV)

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Focus

Jesus said that “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). These are not easy words to read, and they certainly aren’t easy to put into practice. Yet, if we desire to follow Jesus truly and fully, we will seek his guidance about our own cross-carrying. We will, by grace, be able to deny ourselves and follow Jesus even when it is costly.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

In 1937, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published a book called Nachfolge, the German word for “following.” Basing his writing on the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer explained what it means to follow Jesus as his disciple. He was especially concerned to counter the tendency among Christians to offer what he called “cheap grace,” that is, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (p. 45, Touchstone edition). When his book was translated into English and published eleven years later, it was called The Cost of Discipleship.

Bonhoeffer took seriously the hard sayings of Jesus, sayings that made clear the high cost of following him. In an oft-quoted passage from The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (p. 89).

Of course, when we think of the cross, we associate it with the saving death of Jesus, with the sacrifice that brings abundant and eternal life. But when the first disciples of Jesus heard him speak of carrying the cross, they would not have envisioned its ironic and grace-filled dimensions. For them, carrying the cross was something criminals sentenced by Rome had to do on the way to their painful death. It conveyed in a powerful way the complete giving up of one’s life.

When I first read The Cost of Discipleship in college, I found it quite unnerving. I wanted to be a faithful disciple of Jesus, but the “come and die” part distressed me. What did this really mean for me as a college student with big hopes for my life? Did I have to give them up? Should I quit college? Should I head off to a faraway part of the world and become a missionary? Of course, my unsettledness when reading The Cost of Discipleship was really not about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. It was about what Jesus said. It was about sentences like “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” in Luke 14:27 and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” in Luke 9:23.

I would confess that I’m still unnerved by the “cost of discipleship,” not the book so much as the reality. What does it mean for me to carry my cross today? What might I be clinging to that keeps me from fully following Jesus? Forty-five years ago, when I first read The Cost of Discipleship, those questions burned in my soul. And when I reflect on Luke 14:27 and similar passages from the gospels, such questions still do.

I don’t have all the answers, that’s for sure. But I do know this. As one who truly wants to be a disciple of Jesus, I need to take seriously his call to costly discipleship. I can’t let the appeal of cheap grace keep me from wrestling with the call of Christ upon my life. And so, once again, I talk to my Lord, asking: “What does it mean for me to carry my cross today? How can I follow you more fully? What do I need to lay down so that I might take up your yoke?” Perhaps you’ll want to join me in this conversation with our Lord.

Reflect

When you hear Jesus saying things like “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” how do you react? What do you think? How do you feel?

Has there been a time in your life when you experienced the cost of discipleship? If so, what was that like for you? If not, why not?

Do you sense that the Lord is asking you to give up something so that you might follow him more completely? If so, are you willing to do it? If not, are you willing to be open to whatever the Lord might ask of you?

Act

First, pray about how you might carry your cross today. As the Lord for wisdom and guidance. Then, do what he puts on your heart.

Pray

Lord Jesus, I want to be your faithful disciple, I really do. But I must admit I’m not always clear about what that means. And sometimes, even when I’m clear, I’m reticent to pay the price. I confess there’s part of me that doesn’t want to carry my cross. I pull back from the sacrifice, the humility, the pain. Forgive me for my reticence and fear.

Help me, Lord, to know what you are asking of me. Help me to want to follow you more than anything else in life. Help me to be willing to deny myself and carry my cross. May I follow you truly and faithfully each day, in every part of life. To you be all the glory. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Cost of Discipleship


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