Bonhoeffer’s Cheap Grace
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace (The Cost of Discipleship, 43).
The opening chapter of The Cost of Discipleship features Dietrich Bonhoeffer in some of his best form as a writer. His use of paradox, irony, hyperbole, exaggeration, and sarcasm makes this one of the wittiest criticisms of popular Christian theology ever written. It also can make it hard to understand and follow for the uninitiated reader. In general, Bonhoeffer is addressing the two major flaws of the Protestant (especially Lutheran) mindset.
- The rich and complex biblical portrait of faith is reduced to simple belief in creeds, doctrines, or statements of faith.
- In trying to correct the Catholic over-emphasis on the necessity of good works for salvation, Protestants have gone to the extreme of making good works almost entirely optional (sola fides). As Bonhoeffer explains, Protestants have turned orthodox Christianity into Christianity without discipleship or obedience or sacrifice. In short, this is what he calls “cheap grace.”
In addition to addressing these two major mindsets, Bonhoeffer seems to be addressing two other major flaws in popular Christian thought:
- You can be forgiven by God without being transformed by God. In other words, you can continue in your old lifestyle (what the Bible calls “the flesh”) and be pleasing to God, no need to walk in the Spirit or live a holy life.
- There are two levels of commitment. One is for the really devoted Christian (i.e. monks, missionaries, pastors, etc.), and the other is for the average Christian. In other words, a spiritual caste lives a devoted and sacrificial life while the regular class of Christians lives a worldly and ordinary life.
Bonhoeffer’s main point in all this is that God’s grace cost the life of God’s son. Although God’s grace is freely given to all who are willing to receive, it still costs something from the one who receives. What does it cost? Simply put, it costs a man his life. In return for the free gift of God’s grace, a man offers his life in total obedience to God’s will. This is what Paul says in Romans 12:1-2. In light of God’s mercy, there can only be one response: the offering of oneself completely to God.
On this basis faith is clearly more than just belief. It involves trust, obedience, sacrifice, loyalty, and commitment. The Latin term, fides, conveys the multiplicity of faith. Imagine substituting the English word “fidelity” for the word “faith” throughout the biblical text. The reader would walk away with the sense that faith was a lifetime commitment of enduring loyalty. With this in mind, faith and works cannot be so easily separated into different compartments. As Paul says in Romans 1:5, he is trying to spread “the obedience of faith.” The two are linked in a beautiful dance.
Furthermore, the biblical notion of faith implies a change and transformation. Receiving the mercy of God does not leave a person unaffected. Grace is the power to live a new and abundant life. Finally, we can see that there is only one Christian life– the one of total surrender to the will of God. This, as Bonhoeffer explains, is costly grace.
Featured image from Flickr user lincolnblues. A bust of Deitrich Bonhoeffer outside St. Michael’s Church in the German town of Schwäbisch Hall. Used under creative commons license.