The first chapter of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is titled Costly Grace. As I reread this chapter it occurs to me that the terms costly grace and cheap grace have died the deaths of the familiar – that is, among those who are familiar with the terms the terms have lost their meaning, and among those who are not familiar with Bonhoeffer’s writing and who, upon hearing the terms, “think” they know what they mean…well they probably don’t, at least in the depth that Bonhoeffer used them. I confess that pondering this chapter causes me to wonder if, at times, I’ve peddled cheap grace – I can only leave that question to God and trust Him to redeem any such instances.
The chapter begins with, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares.
“In such a Church [one that dispenses cheap grace] the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.
“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.”
The Gospel begins with repentance; John the Baptist preached it, Jesus preached it, the Apostolic Church preached it. We live life moving away from grace, running from it, denying our need for it – it is only as we repent, only as we turn around and head in the opposite direction, that we find ourselves moving toward God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Matthew writes concerning Jesus (Matthew 4:17), “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Mark writes (Mark 1:14 – 15), “…Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.”
Luke records these words of Jesus shortly before He ascends to the Father (Luke 24:46 – 47), “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations…” On the day of the Church’s birth (Acts 2:38) Peter proclaims, “Repent, and each of you be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins…”
Cheap grace requires no repentance, no change, nothing – the sinner is not justified. Costly grace is only accessed through repentance, through seeking forgiveness, through a desire for God in Christ to change a heart, a life, to mend a soul. I’m not sure that people know they need to repent; I seldom hear it, I seldom read it – it is as if preachers think people will catch repentance by osmosis – are we ashamed to proclaim “repentance for forgiveness of sins”?
Cheap grace justifies sin. That is, it gives us license to entertain and invite sin into our lives, we need not show it the door, we need not abhor it, we need not flee from it – after all, we have grace…but this grace is akin to fool’s gold…it may glitter but it is worthless.
Costly grace changes lives; costly grace results in new creations; costly grace is Cross-centered grace.
Bonhoeffer writes, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son...”
Jeremiah speaks of false prophets who say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” This is the call of cheap grace – giving people a false assurance that without repentance they may experience the true grace of God, this is ambiguity, it is cruelty, it does not distinguish between the holy and the profane, between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is near, repent.” Why repent? So we can enter God’s kingdom, so we can receive God’s forgiveness, so we can become new creations in Jesus Christ.
Cheap grace allows us to keep our lives, oh how we qualify Jesus’ words that “he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” Jesus doesn’t really mean that we should deny ourselves, so we’ll qualify it lest anyone should be offended by the Gospel, we’ll bring the Gospel down to the practical, to the reasonable…we’ll make it merchandisable – why we’ll even present it with a number of personalized options and designer colors – cheap grace does not embody the image of Jesus, it reflects our image of ourselves – how could we not love it, it looks just like us!
Costly grace is other than ourselves to the point of us seeing nothing of ourselves in it; it is all of Jesus and not of us – we see Jesus again and again and again – ever and always we see Jesus. Yes, costly grace will cost us our lives, but we have Jesus’ promise, “He who loses his life for My sake and the Gospels, the same will save it.”
Which grace is it that clothes us today? Which grace do we hunger after? Which grace to we breathe? Which grace is our heart’s delight? Is it costly or is it cheap?