The only thing that matters is Jesus and His call. The entirety of discipleship is found in Jesus’ call and our response. It does not matter what our process of decision is, what matters is Christ’s authority and our obedience. It doesn’t matter what the disciple is called to do, and there is no intrinsic merit in it, whatever it is, because the only thing that matters is the one who calls.
Works without faith are only self-justification.
If we knew that we were called to something “worthwhile” we might follow our own morality rather than Jesus, we might put ourselves in judgment on him. If we follow for any other reason besides Jesus, it is legalism... we are saying, “this is what we have to do in order to get to heaven.” We cannot follow Jesus for the sake of a cause, or in order to do a good thing. We follow for his sake and his sake alone. Discipleship is the opposite of legalism because we are not called to follow any law, we are called to follow a person.
Acceptance of grace as a doctrine excludes the idea of discipleship
If we say that we accept grace as a doctrine but don’t follow Jesus, we are not disciples at all because discipleship means adherence to Christ, and Christ is alive and active and moving. If we have an abstract Christology and don’t follow Him, we do not acknowledge that He is alive at all. If we believe in God but don’t follow Christ, we are fooling ourselves because Christ is the mediator and we can’t obey God except through Christ. Personal obedience always involves knowing Christ, and knowing Christ always involves following Him. If we try and be disciples without knowing and following Christ, it is no good at all.
We cannot choose to follow Christ—Christ chooses us
The life of a disciple is full of suffering and uncertainty, and it’s impossible for someone to choose for himself—he doesn’t know what he is getting into. Bonhoeffer uses the example of the man who offers to follow Jesus, and Jesus responds, warning him that the even foxes and birds have homes but he and his disciples don’t. And when we offer to follow ourselves we often want to stipulate our own terms... “I will follow you, if...” This also excludes discipleship, because we have to be totally committed to Him.
The first step you need to take when Christ calls you is to cut yourself off from your previous existence, and so go into a situation where faith is possible
Jesus comes not to help and support, but to take over your whole life. This means that once you are called you cannot stay where you are, having nice religious experiences on your own ground and terms. Because he is alive, because following him is not a doctrine but a complete recreation of your whole life, you have to leave all and go with him, whatever that means. This step brings the disciple into “a situation where faith is possible.” That is, it calls him beyond everything he knows and can handle into a place where he has to depend entirely on Jesus. Matthew leaves his tax booth and Peter walks on water, and they learn to believe. Otherwise they would not have a reason to. There’s nothing intrinsically good about leaving the tax booth or walking on water; the only benefit of the actions is that they made Matthew and Peter depend on Jesus. Matthew couldn’t have made himself a disciple by leaving his tax booth, he could only be made a disciple by responding to Christ’s call.
Paradoxically, the situation in which faith is possible is only possible through faith. As Bonhoeffer says, only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes. Obviously, we can’t be obedient to Christ’s very terrifying commands unless we believe in Him. And yet, says Bonhoeffer, only the obedient are able to believe. This is problematic if you are keeping a chronological distinction between faith and obedience.
Obedience and belief cannot be separated. We have to take an external step of faith in order to believe, but we can’t take this step unless we are called. If not, this step just becomes another work by which we attempt to accomplish our own salvation. The way to avoid this is to be like Peter stepping out of the boat, to have your mind not fixed on the work at hand but on Jesus. So he doesn’t step out on his own; rather, he knows that in order to believe he must move and so he asks Jesus to call him. He wants to believe, so he asks Jesus to let him be obedient. It seems like we just need a little faith to help us take that first impossible step, which builds our faith for the greater works of obedience which will follow. This first small faith, I think, is probably fostered by first small obediences, that is, trying to obey the will of God as written presented in the Law and the Prophets.
If we feel we don’t have faith, it is probably because we are not obedient. We cannot use lack of faith as an excuse for disobedience, because this is self-administered cheap grace. When he forgives his own sins, he loses the ability to have faith in true forgiveness and then in sin. Only if we are following Christ can we really believe in him. Saying that we can’t obey as long as we don’t believe just makes it harder and harder for us to believe.
We cannot ask for faith on our own terms, without being willing to commit to absolute obedience. This is what the rich young ruler did; he was willing to talk to a “good teacher” who would give him advice that would make him more satisfied with himself, but not to a God who would demand his whole life. Jesus doesn’t care about our particular problems and moral dilemmas, he cares about us. He won’t give neat little solutions to the problems that we feel like we have and leave it at that. But he is merciful to us as he is to the young man; even though the rich young man asks from the wrong reasons Jesus loves him, and in response to his question Jesus gives him the call that he really needs. And because he loves him, the opportunity that he gives him is to break irrevocably with all the other things that he is depending on. He refuses to let the young man continue on his own terms, because he loves him and wants him to live in something real and find true obedience.
We want some answer to our problems: what should I do in order to….X. Good rabbi, says the young man, what must I do to be saved? But the answer is Jesus, and Jesus is alive and working and has specific, worldly tasks he wants us to do. We can’t look for an academic answer, or an answer that we can use, because we can’t make our own difficulties the main point.