Obedience to the Call

From The Cost of Discipleship (1937)

The call of Jesus goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus. But how could the call immediately evoke obedience?

The story of the call of the first disciples is a stumbling-block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events. By hook or by crook a bride must be found between them. Something must have happened in between, some psychological or historical event. Thus we get the stupid question: Surely they must have known Jesus before, and that previous acquaintance explains their readiness to hear the Master’s call. Unfortunately, Scripture is ruthlessly silent on this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a person’s spiritual decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, they follow him at once.

This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries, and no other consequence but obedience to the call. Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons us to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. In this short episode Jesus Christ and his claim are proclaimed to the world. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for his decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. There is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road — only obedience to the call of Jesus.

And what does Scripture inform us about the content of discipleship? Follow me, run along behind me! That is all. To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, not goal or ideal to strive after. It is not a cause which human calculation might deem worthy of devotion, even the devotion of ourselves. At the call the disciples leave everything that they have — but not because they think that they might be doing something worthwhile, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise they cannot follow in the steps of Jesus. The disciples burn their boats and go ahead. They are dragged out of their relative security into a life of absolute insecurity.

When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. Christ calls; we are to follow.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian. After the takeover of Germany’s state church by the Nazi Party, Bonhoeffer became a leader in the Confessing Church, which resisted fascist ideology. He led a confessing church seminary and was executed by the state for his subversive activities. The Cost of Discipleship, his most famous work, was written during the Nazi rise to power.

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