Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Following Jesus into the World (and Why Martin Luther Left the Monastery)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his 1937 classic, The Cost of Discipleship, as a call to return to the original vision of the Protestant Reformation. According to Bonhoeffer, “When the Reformation came, the providence of God raised Martin Luther to restore the gospel of pure, costly grace.”

This understanding of the gospel was quickly corrupted, however: “Yet the outcome of the Reformation was the victory, not of Luther’s perception of grace in all its purity and costliness, but of the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price.”

With this corruption came a misunderstanding of why Luther gave up monastic life. Bonhoeffer pointed out that Luther never renounced the habits of discipline and dedication that he developed in the monastery, he just applied them in a new setting, and doing so required a greater sacrifice than monasticism did.

According to Bonhoeffer, Luther’s life as a monk was not something that he was relieved of, but something that he had to die to. It had provided a way for him to follow Jesus apart from the daily pressures of life in the world. Giving it up meant “hand-to-hand conflict” with the world for the rest of his life.

Bonhoeffer may have overstated the historical significance of Luther’s decision, but he explained well the rationale for it:

“The grace which gave itself to him was a costly grace, and it shattered his whole existence. Once more he must leave his nets and follow. The first time was when he entered the monastery, when he had left everything behind except his pious self. This time even that was taken from him…

“Luther had to leave the cloister and go back to the world, not because the world in itself was good and holy, but because even the cloister was only a part of the world.

“Luther’s return from the cloister to the world was the worst blow the world had suffered since the days of early Christianity. The renunciation he made when he became a monk was child’s play compared with that which he had to make when he returned to the world. Now came the frontal assault. The only way to follow Jesus was by living in the world. Hitherto the Christian life had been the achievement of a few choice spirits under the exceptionally favourable conditions of monasticism; now it is a duty laid on every Christian living in the world. The commandment of Jesus must be accorded perfect obedience in one’s daily vocation of life. The conflict between the life of the Christian and the life of the world was thus thrown into the sharpest possible relief. It was a hand-to-hand conflict between the Christian and the world.”