Part 1: Cheap Grace

cost-of-discipleshipI have really enjoyed learning from and reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and if you have been following my blog any length of time, I apologize for all of the recent posts from his works.  And…I know what I am about to do runs directly contrary to what I wrote in Retweets, Reposts, and Links: Gimme Something Original, but I gotta do it.  Today’s post is the first of two parts taken from the beginning of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  I believe that this book ought to be required reading for anyone studying the book of Matthew…well, really for anyone in general.  Bonhoeffer confronts head on the issue of cheap grace with the following words:

“The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.  Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite.  What would grace be if it were not cheap?

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system.  It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God.  An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.  The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace.  In such a Church the world finds a cheap covers for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.  Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.  Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.  ‘All for sin could not atone.’  The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners ‘even in the best life’ as Luther said.  Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin.  That was the heresy of the enthusiasts, the Anabaptists and their kind.  Let the Christian beware of rebelling against the free and boundless grace of God and desecrating it.  Let him not attempt to erect a new religion of the letter by endeavouring to live a life of obedience to the commandments of Jesus Christ!  The world has been justified by grace.  The Christian knows that, and takes it seriously.  He knows he must not strive against this indispensable grace.  Therefore–let him live like the rest of the world!  Of course he would like to go and do something extraordinary, and it does demand a good deal of self-restraint to refrain from the attempt and content himself with living as the world lives.  Yet it is imperative for the Christian to achieve renunciation, to practise self-effacement, to distinguish his life from the life of the world.  He must let grace be grace indeed, otherwise he will destroy the world’s faith in the free gift of grace.  Let the Christian rest content with his worldiness and with this renunciation of any higher standard than the world.  He is doing it for the sake of the world rather than for the sake of grace.  Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace–for grace alone does everything.  Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace!  That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs.  Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin.  Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 43-45.

Check back for part 2, where Bonhoeffer explains why grace is costly, why we cannot settle for this kind of cheap grace, and what kind of impact grace is supposed to have on the lives of those who call themselves disciples of Jesus.

(photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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