Chapter 5: Discipleship and the Individual

Genesis 22:1-19

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’ So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.


While this chapter is a bit heavier to read through than some of the others, the ideas Bonhoeffer explores here build logically off the preceding chapter. In chapter four, Bonhoeffer speaks of suffering as distance between us and God. In this chapter, he starts with the assumption that this distance is fundamental to the human experience. There is distance between us and God as well as between us and every other person, think, and reality of creation. He refers to this distance as the “break.”

Though we may try to overcome this break in many different and varied ways, there is only one who can bridge that distance, Jesus. He is the mediator that stands between us and God, the mediator that stands between us and all creation. Jesus is the only conduit by which we can have real connection. Nor does Bonhoeffer believe that this is a goal to which we aspire; it is the very nature of reality. Christ is always and has always been the one who stands between us and everything else, whether we realize it or not. The path of discipleship involves us coming to recognize this reality. The path of discipleship means seeing that every relationship we have—whether it be with our children, our spouses, our friends, or complete strangers, is a relationship that flows through Christ. Every interaction we have, every moment of admiration for another, for our country, or for creation itself flows through Christ. If it is not mediated through Christ, then it is not real; it is an illusion, for nothing else can overcome the gap that exists between each of us and creation itself.

This is the loneliness of which Bonhoeffer speaks. And through our immediacy with Christ alone, we become a part of a greater community—the community of the faithful. In discipleship, we lose the illusion of immediacy we thought we had with others as we come to see that there is only Christ. And through Christ, we gain something far more wonderful—relationships and connections that are real.

Crash Course

  • Mediator: Bonhoeffer makes frequent use of the term “mediator” in this chapter. Though we tend to use this in common language to denote someone who helps two parties resolve conflict, when used theologically, it indicates something much broader (though it still retains the some of the same sense of the common usage). A mediator is someone who intervenes– someone who conveys and conciliates ( Christ is the true mediator, who steps in to bridge the gap that exists between ourselves and God, as well as ourselves and every other person, even the gap that exists between ourselves and reality.
  • Immediacy: Bonhoeffer uses immediacy frequently in this chapter. When we use this word, we typically associate it with a temporal sense—we want something done later, or we want something done immediately. This is not how Bonhoeffer is using the word. Immediacy also has a sense of directness, as in direct involvement. A relationship marked by immediacy is a relationship without mediation. Therefore, Bonhoeffer is using the term, “immediacy,” as the opposite of a mediated relationship.  He argues that we have only one relationship with immediacy, which is our relationship to Christ. All other relationships are mediated through that immediate one.

Contextual Clues

In the second paragraph of this chapter, Bonhoeffer makes the very powerful claim that our call into discipleship transforms us into a single individual, broken off from all other relationships and responsibilities: “Christ intends to make the human being lonely.” This is a powerful, and potentially troubling, concept to those of us who read it, and it is written in direct opposition to practices of the National Socialist Party, who made conscious efforts to tap into “group think” and mass hysteria as they came into power. In this scenario, the individual was subsumed by the collective and the opposition of the individual was overwhelmed by the social pressures of family and responsibility to conform. Responsibility of the individual was ceded to the momentum of the whole. The call to discipleship, by contrast, gives us no ability to hide in relationships or responsibilities that would otherwise shelter us from the demand to obedience. We face Christ alone, as individuals.


Reflection Questions

When have you had the experience of “retreating to the cover of relationships and responsibilities,” when you have been asked to make an important decision? When have you experienced your own objections being silenced by the pressures of relationship and responsibilities?

How do you think and act differently towards your relationships and your responsibilities with the knowledge that they exist only through Christ?